As Charli XCX and I check into our Couple’s Rejuvenation Package at a neon-lit spa in Midtown Manhattan, it seems like the staff is quietly trying to make sense of our relationship, given the palpable sense that we are not actually a couple. Between sugar scrubs and a hot stone massage, the package promises to “recharge, refresh, and revive,” and Charli is in the market for all three.
“I need a day off,” the 27-year-old admits early in our conversation, wrapped in a spa-mandated robe. She has spent the past few days traveling between continents, toiling toward her forthcoming album, Charli. Two days ago she was in her native UK shooting a video with Christine and the Queens’ Héloïse Letissier for their synthy new tag-team track “Gone” that required both of them to be chained to a car for three hours. The visual was Charli’s idea, Letissier tells me a few days later, adding that it’s a metaphor for “being trapped in the male gaze.”
After breaking free, she flew across the ocean to play a high-octane show for the PBS series Live From the Artists Den, during which she dominated every inch of the stage while performing for a crowd of loyalists who’d waited hours in the sticky, midsummer heat to get in. (Her fans are called Angels, by the way, which will make sense after about 10 seconds of thinking.)
Then she went to a raucous party at a bar in the East Village with a handful of friends—something that might seem like leisure time to many but, when you’re Charli XCX, it’s impossible to attain blissful off-the-clock anonymity at a drag show in the middle of Pride Week. The gays know her face, even when it’s obscured by sunglasses. They, or shall I say we, are a big part of Charli’s fiery and devout fan base, and love to support an inventive pop underdog whose music rarely scales the charts but is ubiquitous in all their safe spaces.
Even as she sinks into a jacuzzi while holding a freshly poured flute of champagne, I remind myself that she’s at work, talking to a writer with a recorder about her dreams, ambitions, regrets. Still, she seems to be savoring this rare moment of calm. As we sip from our glasses and munch on a bizarre assortment of dried fruit and chocolate, Charli finally gets to put her feet up.
“My toenail is coming off,” she says with bored nonchalance, raising her foot out of the water. After taking a quick look at the asymmetrical shard dangling off her big toe—it’s not the whole nail, but it’s definitely enough—I cover my eyes and turn away. “I got it,” she says, presumably after peeling it off and placing it somewhere out of sight. “Are you gonna put that in the piece?” she asks, laughing.
Sitting cross-legged at a table in the spa’s Korean cafe, Charli reveals a part of herself that complicates her reputation as an enigmatic pop star whose life consists of only two things: partying and making music about partying. “I’m really a workaholic,” she tells me. “To a level that’s not cool.” She appears genuinely troubled by her compulsion towards the many jobs that comprise her career in the music industry—singer, songwriter, performer, producer, video director—and says that she has thought of joining a 12-step program like Workaholics Anonymous to help manage it.
That steadfast commitment to being a font of exuberant pop joyrides is as much a product of her own talent as it is a paradoxical act of self-care. When she’s working, she says, her mind isn’t spiraling. The sheer act of releasing and performing music prevents her from worrying about whether or not she’s doing it right. And by constantly moving ahead for nearly a decade, Charli has fine-tuned her sensibilities and settled into what has become an instantly recognizable sound: a sentient circuit board’s interpretation of dance-pop.
Though she hasn’t released an LP in the last five years, Charli never stopped putting out music. Her disregard for traditional release structures, often consisting of years-long droughts between huge projects, means becoming an Angel yields a plentiful return on investment. She’s got non-album singles like the endearingly playful “Boys,” EPs filled with bionic tracks that have become her trademarks, like “No Angel” and “Vroom Vroom” (which found new life this summer in the form of a TikTok meme), and mixtapes on which she’s dropped some of her best and most outré material, like “Lucky” and “Track 10.” Only a few of those songs have made much of an impact on the charts, but all of them are unmistakably Charli: gleefully hedonistic songs produced by and for people with an android-like aversion to sleep. And to the Angels who see her as the savior of pop music and goddess of dope shit, that’s all that matters.
Increasingly, Charli has come to realize that those same diehards might be all that matter to her. This became especially clear when she played more than 50 stadiums around the world with Taylor Swift last year. Those truncated opening sets starting at 6 p.m. were a far cry from the late-night shows in cramped, crowded venues where the Angels have grown accustomed to seeing her. “I’m really grateful that [Taylor] asked me on that tour,” Charli says. “But as an artist, it kind of felt like I was getting up on stage and waving to 5-year-olds.”
The performances served a purpose, though: It made Charli decide to never open for anyone again. “I’ve done so much of it, and it really cemented my status as this underdog character, which I like now,” she says. “But I need to just own my own fucking shit finally.”