How Charli XCX, Caroline Polachek and Christine and the Queens Navigate Pop
As she prepared to release “Crash”, the most brilliant album of her career as a solo pop artist, Charlie 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 maze of planning, rehearsals and boomerang trips, it was all scrapped hours before airing due to Omicron’s surge. Navigating through this disruption and other big questions about what might happen next, Charli XCX went their separate ways. “I actually felt really, really bad in January,” she said, “and really sad, and I was crying a lot and questioning a lot of things.”
Eventually the fog lifted; his public bravado began. “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 deal Charli XCX, 29, signed when she was 16. After breaking through in 2014 with the single “boom clap“, and gained a reputation as a catchy and successful writer for other artists, she became more experimental, veering into hyperpop with Sophie and AG Cook, like her 2017 mixtape “Pop 2.” But she never lost her taste for collaboration.
“She’s the queen of feature films,” Polachek, a longtime friend, said. She and Christine and the Queens, French artist Hélöise Letissier, who goes by the name Chris, are indeed featured on “New Shapes,” a synth 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 differently,” Charli said.
The relationship songs on “Crash” could also serve as a narrative of Charli XCX’s ups and downs in the music industry, she added. She wanted the album to be her most hyped final push for pop stardom — just to see if she could pull it off. “For me, there’s always been this eternal question of whether I could be the greatest artist in the world,” she said, “or am I not cut out for this? Am I too weird, too leftist, too opinionated, too unsympathetic, too different, whatever, whatever, whatever?”
Charli XCX got a postponement shot on “SNL.” this month, but without his friends. Now she wonders what the next step in her career might be. “Who will I become? What will I look like? What am I going to wear? What will it look like? ” she says.
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 avenues, as Polachek, formerly of Brooklyn indie band Chairlift, put it: Charli on the social media-fueled pop front (she started on Myspace); Chris, who was recently cooped up in Los Angeles working on a new Christine and the Queens album, arrives with a more intoxicating theatrical and performance experience. “I love making music on my own, but I really find that I come alive when I share a space with them,” Charli said.
In joint interviews and separately, they talked about their careers and friendships, and why they work well as collaborators. “We are feelers, you know,” Polachek said. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.
how they met
POLACHEK Charli and I met 12 years ago in Australia. I was playing two-stage synths, singing behind the band – I wasn’t even really the lead singer of that band. And Charli wore platform sneakers that were about a foot tall, with rainbow stripes, and she was just singing to an iPod and stomping on stage. The paradigms were so different. She was like, Caroline, I want you to produce music for me. At the time, I had never produced music for anyone, let alone myself.
CHARLI XCX I remember watching Chairlift perform and Caroline’s voice was amazing, and I think I was really in awe of her. And I still am. I felt intimidated by her composure, not that she was an intimidating person. She was really nice. I was maybe 18 and still going back and forth from my parents’ house.
POLACHEK I made a mega-story Instagram post when Chris released the video “Girlfriend”, I was just blown away by that, and I think you responded to this 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 relationship, before we met. Just on Instagram DM. We were talking about love and pain.
Chris I can deepen the conversation with you, and I appreciate that in our friendship.
On gender in the music industry
CHARLI XCX Now, and for many years, I love to co-write. I consider it a real skill to be able to refine multiple people’s ideas into one meaningful thing. But what I’ve been through [from outsiders] was a feeling of disbelief that I could possibly write a song. Maybe it’s a lack of education in the details 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 going, oh, did Olivia Rodrigo really write that song? Or Taylor Swift?
Like, it seems like there has to be this question around the validity of women and whether they’re worth their place, whereas it just doesn’t really seem to be a question for men.
POLACHEK I roll my eyes when people point to female pop singers as an example of change in music. No. The faces and voices of women have been prominent since the beginning of pop music. It’s who has the hand on the dial. This is what changes.
CHARLI XCX There are more ways to be an artist because there are more platforms — there’s TikTok, there’s SoundCloud. There’s that girl in your bedroom, dropping songs and organically building a fanbase through your own memes. These things are all true, but unfortunately, and maybe call me a pessimist, I feel like there are still boxes that women are meant to fit into.
And there are definitely moments that break that mold — Billie Eilish becomes the world’s greatest entertainer. A great artist creates an amazing world that people can access. I have the impression that people are sometimes not ready to accept that women artists evolve. Billie did performance with Auto-Tune, and the world imploded. And it’s like, it’s an artistic choice.
I’m the freaky girl on the fringe who made “Pop 2” and people loved me for it, and I’m forever grateful for that support. It helped me sustain a career that after 2014 to 2015 wasn’t commercially very successful. I found a new breath by playing closer to the underground sounds, more avant-garde. Maybe it’s just Twitter talk, which I probably need to get my head out of, but sometimes I feel like I’m being told, no, you’re not allowed to be somebody another than that. And really, the truth is, I have the right to be whoever I want, because the reason I’m an interesting artist is because I evolve and change.
Chris I’m off social, arrested in July. My mental health is better. My connection to the present is better. I think the social sometimes – when it’s hyper-filtered and it has to be punchy, catchy, immediately digestible – it encourages something that I don’t always understand myself, as an artist. Sometimes I want to take more time to express an idea.
My journey with the genre has always been tumultuous. It’s raging right now, as I just explore what’s beyond. One way to express it might be to switch between them and her. I kind of want to tear down this system that has made us label genres so strictly. I remember talking about being pansexual in France in 2014 – it was a conversation that few opened up, and I was advised in, for example, offices to maybe tone it down. I’m really trying to approach the question in the right way now, and I’ve sometimes been pressured to give an answer. But I think the response has to be scintillating, fluid, fleeting.
I don’t want to rush this conversation, and I may never answer again. But in my work, I find ways to make that journey joyful. I believe that the real gestures are artistic, because the real discussion on homosexuality is also a discussion on the society in which we live, on capitalism, on social justice. It’s not just me who asks myself every morning, am I masculine or feminine? It’s global.
On what they value each other as artists
POLACHEK Chris has a sense of speed and total commitment. Most people, when in snooze mode, do things at 50% energy because you don’t want to burn out, you’re just doing it for your brain. Chris is 100%, 150%, every time, and just increases the level of engagement and the flow of energy for everyone.
Chris I’ve always been a Caroline fan. I love how artistic everything is, how intentional everything is. There is an elegance, it is demanding, but also super melodic.
CHARLI XCX I think Caroline sees the potential of pop music as anything she can shape. She can create and sound or watch or do whatever she wants because she has all the skills to do it.
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] Dam Funk. And I did and I was like, I don’t have this magical connection to this person, even though he’s amazing. Like, I wish Chris was there to figure that out for me.
Chris Charli, I identify very deeply with you write the song. I can say that you make music with what you’ve been through and the feeling you’re going through. There is something very serious in your writing.
CHARLI XCX Well, you were sort of my therapist for a while. You give good advice.
Especially in the last two years, I’ve been able to turn to them for a lot of personal things outside of music, and also, personal things related to music. Sometimes I think it’s hard, as an artist, to express that you’re struggling, because obviously we’re so lucky to be able to feed off of the things that we create. But also, everyone has difficulties. It’s nice to talk with other people who are in the same kind of situation as you, to confide in them things that they get. I’m really, really grateful for that.