May 8 2013 03:59 PM

U.K. electronic-music songwriter proves pop can be interesting

Photo by Jessie Jenkins

English electro-pop singer-songwriter Charli XCX is still a few months shy of her 21st birthday, but she’s already built up one hell of a musical résumé.

Charli, born Charlotte Aitchison, recorded her first album, 14, when she was 14 years old. It was never officially released, a fact that she’s perfectly OK with (in an NME interview, she referred to her early songs as “fucking terrible MySpace music”). However, in the six years since that album’s creation, Charli has made some impressive headway as an artist.

In 2011, she released a pair of critically acclaimed singles, “Stay Away” and “Nuclear Seasons,” which blended vibrant electronic textures with gothic moodiness. A year later she co-penned Icona Pop’s club banger, “I Love It,” which marked the first single with her songwriting credit to chart on the Billboard Hot 100.

On April 16, Charli XCX released her proper debut, True Romance, via IAMSOUND Records. Speaking with CityBeat over the phone between U.S. tour stops, Aitchison says that while she was writing the album, she felt that she was still discovering what kind of artist she was.

“The writing process for me is always a total mess,” Aitchison says. “This was no different. I’ve written this record as I’ve been growing up. Some of it was written when I was 18 or 19.

“I was figuring out who I was as a person,” she adds. “And I didn’t really know until I wrote ‘Stay Away.’ Before that, I felt totally lost—like any young person.”

Much of Aitchison’s own musical development happened through self-discovery. She notes that she “didn’t grow up in a house where we were always listening to The Beatles.” Instead, she listened to a lot of Spice Girls and Britney Spears as a child. In her teenage years, she began to dig deeper into electronic and underground music, which gave her an initial push toward creating music of her own.

“When I was around 14, I discovered the Ed Banger label, and I kinda fell in love with French electro, like Justice,” she says. “And I kinda wanted to start making music like that. And I failed miserably.

“After that, I became massively in love with Robert Smith, and Björk and Kate Bush,” she adds.

Shades of The Cure, Björk, Kate Bush and Justice all crop up throughout the 13 tracks on True Romance. Steeped in booming synthesizers and well-placed samples, the album sounds dense and modern, reminiscent of contemporary acts like Goldfrapp and The Knife while giving a nod to ’80s new-wave and goth. “Nuclear Seasons” melds the danceheavy art-pop of Robyn with the dark theatrics of Siouxsie and the Banshees, while “You’re the One” creeps with sleazy, syrupy bass sounds toward a blissfully anthemic chorus. And the upbeat, major-key twinkle of “Lock You Up” sounds like a modern update of an early Depeche Mode or Thompson Twins single.

Stylistically, Charli XCX covers a lot of diverse ground under an electro-pop umbrella. But all of it is marked by big, immersive production, a sound that Aitchison intended to tie in with the album’s lyrical themes.

“When I wrote this album, I wanted it to sound very romantic,” she says. “I always wanted to make it luscious and rich, to sound like the color purple.”

True to its title, True Romance touches upon various facets of relationships. One of its highlights, early single “Stay Away,” is sung from a post-breakup perspective, with a chorus that goes, “Now that you’re gone / Why don’t you stay away.” Elsewhere, she touches upon sex (“What I Like”), incompatibility (“You [Ha Ha Ha]”) and, on the soaring closer, “Lock You Up,” absolute infatuation.

True Romance isn’t merely about romance itself, but the trials and tribulations that come with relationships. To Charli, what makes romance “true” is its darker side.

“There are all different kinds of relationships: Your first relationship. The first time you think you’re in love. Your first breakup,” she says. “And I’m talking about it from the perspective of being in love. So, I chose the title True Romance because [romance is] meant to be beautiful, but it’s only really true when there’s a darker side to it, when you’re depressed or isolated or schizophrenic.”

Charli XCX has progressed quite a bit since her early days of playing warehouse raves in London or releasing songs like “Dinosaur Sex” and “Neon Fashion and Glowstix.” But while her aesthetic has changed and her music has grown much more sophisticated, what hasn’t changed is Charli’s investment in pop music. And with True Romance, she intends to show that pop can still be challenging and interesting.

“To be honest, I feel like audiences are tired of being treated like idiots,” she says. “People are bored of pop music—top-40 pop music. And some people still think ‘pop’ is a bad word. And sometimes it is terrible.

“I just want to make pop music that’s real and emotional.”

Charli XCX plays with Marina and the Diamonds at House of Blues on Friday, May 10. The show is sold out.