Start Hill, Essex is not unlike any of the countless other hamlets peppered throughout the English countryside. It sits just outside of the market town of Bishop’s Stortford, where most of the 40,000 residents make the hour-long commute into London each day. There’s not much here: a couple of car rental places that service the nearby Stansted Airport; bed and breakfasts; and nondescript houses nestled among towering trees. And it was in a bedroom of one of these nondescript homes that 14-year-old Charlotte Aitchison, who the world now knows as Charli XCX, found herself dreaming of more.
“I was 14, staring at MySpace and wishing I had a cooler life,” she says over the phone from her home in Los Angeles the day before her 27th birthday. “I was listening to some artists on Ed Banger Records [Justice, Cassius] and I thought, ‘Shit, I want a crew like that to create with!’” She started songwriting and posting her demos to MySpace, and it didn’t take long before she was getting booked to perform at warehouse raves around East London. Because she was so young, Aitchison used to bring her parents along to her gigs. “I was very much alone in my musical journey when I was younger. All my friends were at school while I was going to raves—with my parents, which wasn’t very cool but whatever,” she laughs.
Fast forward to present day and Charli XCX is firmly positioned as a multidisciplinary artist on the cutting edge of pop music, regularly creating some of the most exciting, danceable music today. She’s penned hits for Iggy Azalea, will.i.am, Shawn Mendes and Camilla Cabello. She’s made The F Word and Me, a documentary about women in the music industry; has released two experimental pop mixtapes; and has launched her own label, Vroom Vroom Recordings, to support the sound she’s become known for. Despite her extensive—and ever-evolving—résumé, Aitchison is refreshingly modest when it comes to her achievements, and has never lost the quiet determination that has taken her from Start Hill all the way to the top of the pops.
“I love proving people wrong. It’s one of my favourite hobbies,” she says. “I think I’ve always been considered an underdog in music and I think that’s probably been emphasized more because I’m a woman. But I think the way that I make music, and how it sounds, has cast me as different.”
After she began to carve out her place in the music industry in the early 2010s, signing to Asylum Records and clocking credits with such established acts at Icona Pop, Aitchison eventually found the kind of artistic community she always sought—her own Ed Banger-esque crew to create with. Even as she matured into a solo musician, her forward-thinking sound has been fueled by her relationships with other artists who shared her vision. “Collaboration is exciting for me,” she says. “I have an ego—of course, as artists, we all do—but I also don’t need to be front and centre in every single thing I do.”
A staunch feminist, Aitchison says she loves being able to support and learn from other women, and her musical output is proof of that. Her album, Charli, boasts an impressive roster of female powerhouses: Lizzo, Sky Ferreira, and HAIM are just some of the guest contributors.
Her most memorable working experience, however, was creating the song “Gone” with Héloïse Letissier of Christine and the Queens. “It was an amazing process from start to finish,” she remembers. “Working with Chris was so fluid and easy. She makes me feel so good about myself, not only as an artist but also as a person.”
In the video for the track, Aitchison is a self-determined, leather-clad siren dancing on top of a car. She’s an image of power, control, and an unmistakable cool—a swagger she says was inspired by her collaborator. “People think I’m extremely confident—and I am, in some ways—but I’m also insecure,” she says. “I generally hate doing photo shoots and music videos, but I had so much fun shooting the ‘Gone’ video with Chris. She’s so uniquely her and confident in what she does that it kind of rubs off on you.”
While she’s at the top of her game delivering dance floor-ready beats and pushing the envelope of pop, experience and maturity has also allowed Aitchison to get in touch with a more vulnerable side. Like everyone else, she battles against imposter syndrome. “The life and the world I live in is such a roller coaster, and my emotional state is constantly up and down,” she describes. “Sometimes I feel like I’m on top of the world and I absolutely love myself, and other times I wake up in the morning and I hate myself—I feel alone and isolated and not good enough.”
The delicate dance between these two extremes of emotion might just be Aitchison’s special sauce, and she’s laying it on thick as she moves to the next stage of her already-accomplished career. While many artists choose to self-title their first album, naming her third album after herself is an intentional choice: Charli is both a coming-out party and a rebirth; the product of a settled and seasoned artist, who is reframing what it means to be a pop star.
“I’m aware that every artist in the history of artists has said that one album in their career is the most personal they’ve ever made. But I sincerely feel that this is the case for me,” she finishes. “I’m not afraid to talk about my emotions anymore. It’s incredibly liberating.”