Published On: Wed, Mar 23rd, 2022

How Charli XCX, Caroline Polachek and Christine and the Queens Navigate Pop

As she was preparing to release “Crash,” the glossiest album of her career as a solo pop artist, Charli XCX was in the doldrums. In December, the British singer and songwriter landed a high-stakes “Saturday Night Live” performance that would feature two of her friends and collaborators, Caroline Polachek and Christine and the Queens.

After a labyrinth of planning, rehearsal and boomerang travel, the whole thing was scrapped hours before air because of the Omicron surge. Navigating this disruption and other big questions about what might come next, Charli XCX spun out. “I actually felt really, really low in January,” she said, “and really sad, and was crying a lot and questioning a lot of things.”

Eventually, the fog lifted; her public bravado kicked in. “My album is so good,” she tweeted last week. “It’s just true, I can’t help it.” “Crash,” which arrived on Friday, is the fifth and final LP released under the major label contract that Charli XCX, 29, signed as a 16-year-old. After she broke through in 2014 with the single “Boom Clap,” and earned a reputation as a hooky, hit-making writer for other artists, she grew more experimental, veering into hyperpop with Sophie and A.G. Cook, like her 2017 mixtape “Pop 2.” But she never lost her taste for collaborating.

“She’s the queen of features,” said Polachek, a longtime friend. She and Christine and the Queens, the French artist Hélöise Letissier, who goes by Chris, are, indeed, featured on “New Shapes,” a synthy single from “Crash,” in which each wrote a verse about relationships — a subject they have long discussed in DMs and on podcasts. “I think we all fall in love quite differently,” Charli said.

The relationship songs on “Crash” could double as a narrative about Charli XCX’s up-and-down time in the music industry, she added. She wanted the album to be her last, most packaged push for pop stardom — just to see if she could do it. “For me, there’s always been this eternal question of, like, could I be the biggest artist in the world,” she said, “or am I not made for it? Am I too weird, too left, too opinionated, too unlikable, too different looking, whatever, whatever, whatever?”

Charli XCX got a rescheduled shot on “S.N.L.” this month, albeit without her pals. Now she’s wondering what the next phase of her career could be. “Who will I become? What will I look like? What will I wear? What will it sound like?” she said.

Transformation and evolution were recurring topics when Charli XCX, Polachek and Chris got together in December, to discuss recording and performing together across continents. They each approach music from different lanes, as Polachek, formerly of the Brooklyn indie band Chairlift, put it: Charli on the social media-fueled pop front (she started on Myspace); Chris, who has lately been holed up in Los Angeles at work on a new Christine and the Queens album, arriving with a headier theatrical and performance background. “I love making music on my own, but I really find I come alive more when I share a space with them,” Charli said.

In joint interviews and separately, they spoke about their careers and friendships, and why they work well as collaborators. “We’re feelers, you know,” Polachek said. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

POLACHEK Charli and I met 12 years ago in Australia. I was playing double-decker synths, singing from behind the band — I wasn’t even really the lead singer of that band. And Charli was wearing platform sneakers that were like a foot high, with rainbow stripes, and she was just singing over an iPod and stomping onstage. The paradigms were so different. She was like, Caroline, I want you to produce music for me. At the time I’d never produced music for anyone, let alone myself.

CHARLI XCX I remember watching Chairlift perform and Caroline’s vocals being incredible, and I think I was just really in awe of her. And I still am. I felt intimidated by her coolness, not that she was an intimidating person. She was really kind. I was maybe 18, and still traveling back and forth on trips from my parents’ house.

POLACHEK I did a mega-story Instagram post when Chris put out the “Girlfriend” video, I was just blown away by it, and I think you responded to that story and said, “I’m a fan” and I was like, “I’m a fan.” We had a pen pal relationship for about a year and a half, and quite a deep one, before we actually met. Just on Instagram DM. We were talking about love and pain.

CHRIS I can go deep with you in conversation, and I appreciate that in our friendship.

CHARLI XCX Now, and for the past however many years, I’ve loved co-writing. I see it as a real skill to be able to hone multiple people’s ideas into one sensical thing. But what I did experience [from outsiders] was a sense of disbelief that I could possibly write a song. Maybe that’s a lack of education in the minutiae of the music industry and the different roles — the songwriter; the producer; the artist who sometimes doubles as both. I think there’s still a narrative of people being like, oh, did Olivia Rodrigo really write that song? Or did Taylor Swift?

Like, it seems that there needs to be this question around women’s validity and whether they’re worth their space, whereas it just doesn’t really seem to be a question for men.

POLACHEK I roll my eyes when people point to female pop vocalists as an example of change in music. No. Women’s faces and women’s voices have been prominent since the beginning of pop music. It’s who has their hand on the dial. That’s what’s changing.

CHARLI XCX There are more ways to be an artist because there are more platforms — there’s TikTok, there’s SoundCloud. There’s being that girl in your bedroom, releasing songs and organically building a fan base via your own memes. Those things are all true, but unfortunately, and maybe call me a pessimist, I do feel like there are still boxes that women are supposed to fit in.

And there are definitely moments that break that mold — Billie Eilish becoming the biggest artist in the world. A great artist creates an amazing world for people to access. I feel like people sometimes are not willing to accept that women artists evolve. Billie did a performance using Auto-Tune, and the world imploded. And it’s like, that’s an artistic choice.

I’m the weird girl on the fringes who made “Pop 2” and people loved me for that, and I’m eternally grateful for that support. That helped me sustain a career that, post-2014 to 2015, wasn’t very commercially successful. I found a new lease on life playing closer to the underground, more avant-garde sounds. Maybe this is just the Twitter discourse, which I probably need to get my head out of, but sometimes it feels like I’m being told, no, you’re not allowed to be anyone other than that. And really, the truth is, I’m allowed to be whoever I want, because the reason I’m an interesting artist is because I evolve and change.

CHRIS I’m off social, stopped in July. My mental health is better. My connection to the present is better. I think social sometimes — when it’s hyper-filtered and it needs to be punchy, catchy, immediately digestible — it’s encouraging something that I’m not always understanding myself, as an artist. Sometimes I want to take more time to express an idea.

My journey with gender has always been tumultuous. It’s raging right now, as I’m just exploring what is beyond this. A way to express it could be switching between they and she. I kind of want to tear down that system that made us label genders in such a strict way. I remember talking about being pansexual in France in 2014 — it was a conversation that few opened up, and I was advised in, like, offices to maybe tone it down. I’m really trying to address it the right way now, and I’ve been sometimes pressured to give an answer. But I think the answer is to be flickery, fluid, escaping.

I don’t want to rush that conversation, and I might never answer again. But in my work I’m finding ways to make that journey joyful. I believe the real gestures are artistic, because the real discussion on queerness is also a discussion about the society we live in, about capitalism, about social justice. It’s not just about me every morning wondering, am I masculine or feminine? It’s all-encompassing.

POLACHEK Chris has a sense of velocity and total commitment. Most people when they’re in rehearsal mode, they do things at 50 percent energy because you don’t want to wear yourself out, you’re just doing it for your brain. Chris is at like 100 percent, 150 percent, every single time, and just raises the level of commitment and energy flow for everyone around.

CHRIS I’ve been a fan of Caroline forever. I like how artistic everything is, how intentional everything is. There is an elegance, it’s demanding, but also super melodic.

CHARLI XCX I think Caroline sees the potential for pop music to be anything that she can mold. She can create and make it sound or look or do anything that she wants, because she has all the skill set to do that.

With Caroline and Chris sometimes, honestly, I’m just envious of their music. When I heard “Girlfriend,” I was like, God, I want to work with [Christine’s collaborator] Dâm-Funk. And I did and I was like, I don’t have this magical connection with this person, even though he’s amazing. Like, I wish Chris was here to figure this out for me.

CHRIS Charli, I relate very deeply to you writing the song. I can tell that you’re making music with what you experienced and the feeling you go through. There is something very earnest about your writing.

CHARLI XCX Well, you were sort of my therapist for a while. You give good advice.

Especially over the past couple of years, I’ve been able to turn to both of them for a lot of personal things outside of music, and also, personal things that connect to music. Sometimes I think it’s hard, being an artist, to vocalize that you’re having a hard time, because obviously, we’re so lucky to be able sustain ourselves from the things that we create. But also, everyone has struggles. It’s nice to speak with others who are in the same kind of situation as you, to confide in them about things that they get. I’m really, really grateful for that.

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