how the xx learned to write happy songs
On their new album, the band realised there was more to life than longing and heartbreak.
Sitting across from Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim in their hotel room, you can't ignore the tremor of revitalisation between them. While their band the XX have been cracking hearts for over a decade, finding global success and gathering followers like saints, something shifted in 2016. The limitations between them have finally lifted.
Despite their swelling collection of accolades and acclaim, approaching work and life hasn't been easy for the trio (outside of this room they're joined by Jamie Smith). They've experienced growing pains recently, creaking under the weight and fame of Jamie's solo work as Jamie XX and the constraints of their minimalist traditions. While the world couldn't get enough of the familiar sounds they met on Coexist and xx, the band was finding them increasingly tiresome. They had lessons to unlearn.
Their stiffening creative limbs were eased with their third record I See You; it marks a new era for the London trio both sonically and emotionally. The change has been good for them, and seen them shuffle closer together. We wanted to hear more about this new honeymoon period.
Your past work has been so embraced for the minimalist sound. But was it thrilling to move out of your comfort zones?
Romy: It was something we were all craving but nobody pushed us. It was a lot of fun and scary at times, doing things we'd never done before. Recording outside of London was beyond our comfort zone and even writing together, face-to-face, rather than over emails. I think we've all grown by doing these things differently.
Oliver: Yeah, especially in songwriting. In the past it's always been a case of collaging—Romy would write from home and I'd write from mine—but now, making this album, for a lot of it it's been sitting in a room together just discussing what's going on in life. It's made the songs much more conversational, kind of like two parts to the same story as supposed to two stories parallel.
You can feel that intimacy, was it a way to open up to fans more?
Romy: You can hear our pop and dance influences a bit clearer on this album. We've always loved big pop songs and big dance songs. I think now we have more confidence to show our hearts on our sleeve—it wasn't a conscious effort, we were just having more fun—and I think it shows.
Oliver: Pop is not a bad word to us. We love pop. It's not a guilty pleasure, it's just a pleasure.
Would you say self-reflection was a theme of the album?
Romy: I think so. Facing things as well is something I've definitely realised from stepping away from the album. We made an effort to write a little bit more of "I think this" or "I feel this" rather than "you've done this and I feel this." Before it was a lot more about longing and heartbreak; we really made an effort to try and talk about how we felt instead this time. It was also the challenge in itself of just writing something that was happy rather than heartbroken. I felt like I wasn't heartbroken and for the first time, I wanted to write happy songs.
You guys grew up together, was it easier to make those changes with old friends to push you across that line?
Romy: Totally, but I think you have to be ready to let someone push you. It took a while for us to be vulnerable with each other like that… it's just interesting being teenagers and being put on stage—you sort of freeze up a bit. I think it's just taken us a while to let go of that person inside of us… to be able to sit and pick apart each others songs is like taking a deep breath, it was a good thing for us.
The band is unique in the sense that across your life with it, Jamie has also found this phenomenal side success. Does that ever cause tension?
Oliver: Seeing Jamie's success for Romy and I, we felt a little bit envious. Going to his shows and seeing him back on stage… it lit a fire under us and made us work on the songs we had, trying to make them the best they could be.
Romy: Yeah, it's also about us for the last four years as well. The general feeling and takeaway is that it has more joy, more warmth and more openness which is a reflection of us as people. I feel really happy that people have come across that in music—it wasn't setup.
'I See You' will be released on January 13th in 2017 via Young Turks.
Text Monique Myintoo