When Charli XCX was working on her debut album, she wanted it to sound pink, gold and black. Now, two months after True Romance was released, the 20-year-old singer-songwriter thinks her synth-pop/new wave album is far more blue and purple. As a person with the neurological condition known as synesthesia, Charli XCX not only hears music, but sees sounds as colors, too.
"When I'm writing songs, I see them in colors, but they can change," she says with a thick British accent. "It helps me when I'm writing — I picture the songs and know if they're right for me. When I'm in the studio, I'll tell someone to 'make it sound more purple,' and they'll have no idea what I mean, but it works for me when I can talk about it like that."
These days, Charli XCX, born Charlotte Aitchison, has also been seeing platinum and gold. She wrote and is the featured singer on Icona Pop's single, the chart-topping hit, "I Love It." It's helped to put her name in the minds of thousands of music fans, but that song's not necessarily her style. After all, the singer, who will appear at the Visulite Theatre on June 10, didn't record it for her own album.
It's one of a number of collaborations Charli XCX has done in recent years. Unlike many pop stars, whose collaborations are a source of income or the result of a record label's desire, Charli XCX picks her own collaborations based on who she wants to work with. In addition to Icona Pop, she's recorded with Marina and the Diamonds and DJs Starkey and Alex Metric, among others.
"The Icona Pop thing, for me, was less about the collaboration and more about me being a writer," she says. "The other collaborations were ones I wanted to do because I'm a fan of their work or I wanted to experiment."
Her own music is a combination of the electronic music she grew up on while attending raves, electronic beats and synths familiar with 1980s new wave and dark and angst-filled lyrics focused on heartache and heartbreaks. Her dark edge and smart songwriting is what helps separate her from the Spice Girls, Katy Perry and Britney Spears and puts her alongside artists like Metric, Grimes, Robyn and Santigold.
She first got attention from record labels at age 14 after performing in the East London club scene, but things didn't pan out until recently. It's probably better that way — Charli XCX (The XCX stands for "Kiss Charli Kiss") didn't get thrown into a basket of child stars and was given time to discover her true sonic personality.
"When I was 14, I was doing raves and it was cool and I got signed, but there was no 'me' in the music," she says. "I took a few years to explore and find out who I wanted to be. I'm comfortable with the music that I make now, where at 14 I didn't know what I was doing and I'd probably be in a horrible place right now."
With True Romance, the majority of songs were written over the last few years and Charli XCX views the entire album like a diary — a series of entries made over time. Though she's already itching to work on new material, she knows she'll have to focus on the new release for a while.
"One song on the record has changed for me — I think it's one of the most universal songs on the record and it's written in a delicate way," Charli says. "'Set Me Free' — I wrote it when I was 15, and a lot of people who are 18 and 19 say it's their favorite song and they relate to it. It's kind of funny, but it shows it's a good song and still relevant and means something. I think those are the best songs when they make someone else feel something."