At the end of 2014, Charli XCX was on top of the pop world. She’d enjoyed a global smash with “Boom Clap,” she’d co-written and sang on both Iggy Azalea’s chart-topping “Fancy” and Icona Pop’s global hit “I Love It.” She was 22 years old, had just released her sophomore album “Sucker” to rave reviews, and the pop world was her oyster.
So she turned it all upside-down.
Attracted by the music from British producer-songwriter A.G. Cook’s burgeoning PC Music label — which, broadly speaking, combines sweet pop melodies with treated vocals and jarring industrial noises — she released the “Vroom Vroom” EP in collaboration with PC artist Sophie and began a working relationship with Cook. Her label and management were mortified, as were some critics, that she’d essentially overturned a winning formula.
Now, it’s a different story. “Hyperpop” — a genre that, whether they admit it or not, the British-born Charli and Cook helped to spawn — has taken off with surprising speed, especially in quarantine. The name comes from a Spotify playlist that features multiple artists who show a strong influence from Charli, PC and/or the American duo 100 Gecs, PC devotees who are one of the primary purveyors of the sound (and who collaborated with Charli and Cook earlier this year). A writer who slammed “Vroom Vroom” even Tweeted three years after doing so, “I publicly disavow the nonsense I wrote” about the EP.
And together and separately, the monumentally prolific duo have continued to refine and reinvent their sound, collaborating with dozens of other musicians and producers on two groundbreaking mixtapes (“Number One Angel” and “Pop 2”) and two full-length albums, 2019’s “Charli” — which is arguably their most refined fusion of pop bliss and in-your-face noise — and last spring’s “How I’m Feeling Now,” which was written, recorded and released in a self-imposed five-week timeline that also saw Charli, whose mastery of social media rivals her formidable musicianship, livestreaming much of the process to her three and a half million-odd followers on Instagram and Twitter.
Amid many other projects over the past 12-18 months — they set aside a partially finished album when quarantine struck, because it felt out of step with the times — Cook collaborated on an album with Sigur Ros singer Jonssi and released not one but two solo albums (including the excellent “Apple”), and Charli’s more conventional pop game remains fierce: She’s a cowriter of Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s summer 2019 chart-topper “Senorita.”
It is for all this work and more that the duo are Variety’s Hitmakers Innovators of the Year.
Despite the drama around her musical change of direction several years ago, Charli (born Charlotte Aitchison) sees it as more of a natural progression. “When I started my music career at 14, playing at raves in London, I was very interested in electronic music — the Ed Banger label, Uffie and Sebastien and artists like that who were making very progressive and hard music,” she says. “I had tried to replicate that style but I was never able to, because my skills as a producer just weren’t there, and I found it really difficult to communicate my vision to a lot of people I worked with for many years. It was only when I met Sophie and then A.G. that I finally found what I was searching for. We just immediately spoke the same language — we didn’t even have to talk, they immediately understood the kinds of sounds I was trying to achieve. So it was very easy for me to leave everything behind in that moment, because I’d found what I’d been searching for, for so long.
“And,” she adds, “in hindsight I didn’t really leave behind anything, because I think the pop sensibilities [from her early releases] remain in a lot of my music, even though perhaps the structure or production or even the melodies are a bit more avant-garde. It was kind of always leading to that point.”
Cook was at a similar turning point in his own career. “We started working together at a pivotal time for both of us,” he says. “She had just made ‘Vroom Vroom,’ and her label just couldn’t understand how something like that fit beside ‘Fancy’ — which in retrospect isn’t that much of a leap,” he adds. “But it freaked them out and there was this strange push and pull. I’d been doing PC for a few years and was starting to work with people outside my bubble, so we helped each other be more confident in the pop-experimental hybrid we were making, and that’s something that’s probably still growing.”
They also have similar ideas about why their relationship, which began “five or six years ago” when Charli DM’ed Cook on Twitter about a Hannah Diamond song he’d produced, has been so longstanding and productive. “We really trust each other, and challenge and push each other in the right ways,” Charli says. “And we’re also very smart and equally dumb,” she laughs, “and I think that’s really important in pop music. A.G. will make a beat in a few minutes and I’ll yell over it, and even if it sounds crazy, we’re not afraid of sounding stupid because we know we can get it there eventually. And we enjoy twisting formats and breaking rules but we also kind of like some rules; we’re a bit winky but we’re also very serious; we’re both fans of pop music but equally fans of wanting to disrupt things; and we like to dance around what people think we should be doing. So there’s enough tension and push and pull to make really interesting music.”
That relationship was tested not only by the horrors of the pandemic and the crushing deadlines Charli had set for “How I’m Feeling Now,” but by distance: Cook had retreated from Los Angeles to Montana, where his girlfriend grew up, and the pair faced numerous challenges, not all of which were musical in nature.
“It made us work in a brutally honest way,” Cook says. “The deadline for that album was sort of ridiculous, and at the beginning, the Internet we had in Montana was really bad. So all that was really stressful — I would have to set and leave my laptop for a few hours at the beginning of every day to download gigabytes of files from all these different coproducers. About halfway through we got a different Wifi and sorted it out, but those funny technical limitations made us work at a brutal and fast and fun sort of way, even though it was stressful.
“I think she wanted it to be a really true snapshot of a very short amount of time, so she was filming herself while writing the lyrics while recording vocals while livestreaming,” he continues, laughing. “But it feels in keeping with the whole ethos of it, and there’s a sort of element of method-acting with her, and when she’s in the zone it all comes together in one impressive piece, in one go. It’s pretty amazing to watch, which I think people got a sense of from the livestream.”
Such pressure-cooker experiences can cast a pall over the end result, but not in this case. Asked how she feels now about “How I’m Feeling Now,” Charli says, “I’m really proud of it — it was fun and exciting, as stressful and destroying as it was. Everything around it was intense: the way it was created, the subjects of the songs, the way the album and the artwork was shot, the communication with the fans, the fact I was collaborating on visuals with my boyfriend. It was a truly unique experience and I’m really happy I decided to make it.”
And true to form, she concludes, “But I’m excited to do something completely opposite now.”
Watch the Full Hitmakers Award Show Below: