Elio is Charli XCX’s new peachy keen pop protégé
Writing songs about staying connected for kids stuck in their bedrooms? This Welsh Timothée Chalamet stan might just be bedroom pop’s next big thing.
“I’ll just be here, making songs,” pop star Elio says, fiddling with her fingers as she sits on her bed in Los Angeles. Quarantine seems to be catalysing the creativity in musicians right now, particularly the introverts. For the past few days, artists around the world have been launching album press campaigns from their bed and leaking music as a way to quell boredom. Elio -- whose new single “My Friends Online” dropped amidst the California lockdown -- is one such musician. She’s been in her room for days now and the lack of distractions, furious news cycle aside, is working well for her.
The artist known as Elio -- real name Charlotte Lee -- comes bearing a collection of songs that are set to turn her into the next big thing in bedroom pop. Think of references like Clairo and The 1975 mixed together by a girl in her early 20s with unwaveringly good taste and you’ll have a strong idea of what music Elio makes.
It’s a sound that comes naturally to a musician who’s spent much of her adolescence crossing the globe. She grew up in Swansea with her family, until the age of nine, when her family upped sticks to Toronto. Her voice is soft and North American. On the surface, barely a glimmer of her childhood pokes through. It was in Toronto where she rubbed shoulders with her artistic friends, starting bands and writing songs... before she got sick of it. "After that, I went to the UK for a month and started this whole music business journey. That's a whole other world to just writing… then I caught the bug.” She’s been going back and forth to LA in the meantime.
But all of that shifting from one spot to the next has a knock-on effect on her social life. With regards to making friends, she's "getting there". It makes sense, then, that “My Friends Online” felt like the first song that she wanted to get out into world. It opens with solitary piano keys then adds layers of angelic vocal samples, blinkering synths and gentle percussion before Elio’s voice comes in, telling the kind of story everyone stuck behind closed doors can relate to. "My social life is blinding, feels like I never get the call / I'm socially exhausted, but haven't looked up from my phone,’ she sings on its verses -- which sound like choruses, while its choruses sound like verses. It’s a stark song structure: more of a melodic stream of consciousness than straight-laced pop song.
“I was on this trip and all my friends were here,” Elio says of how the song’s lyrical content came to be. Living between the outskirts of Toronto and Los Angeles means that more often than not, her friends end up being out of reach. The only way she can keep in touch with them is through her phone. “Literally all I was doing was going home and just FaceTiming my family, or Instagram DMing my friends and Snapchatting and stuff like that… It felt very weird to only be existing online.”
As a new face in the industry who’s spent much of her formative years on the internet, Elio’s favourite musicians veer towards the tasteful Tumblr side rather than traditional pop stuff. “I’m kind of an all over the place listener,” she says, before listing The 1975 (“massive for me”) and Taylor Swift (“the songwriter of the century”) as her most prominent inspirations. “The 1975 have a hand in everything they make -- it’s all the band,” she says. “Even if the genre changes, you still know a 1975 song when you hear it. Their songwriting is sort of the opposite of Taylor Swift’s in a way, and the whole world they have around them, the live shows…” She gushes. “That’s something I want to do as well, with my artwork and videos.”
It’s certainly true of the forthcoming EP, set to drop sometime later in 2020 and teeming with tracks tied to anxious, Gen Z existence. Like “My Friends Online”, they all mix a piercing insight into what it’s like to be young and confused with production that feels spectral, thoughtful and distant, as if watching a computer dissect your mind and transform it into song. “LA in Two”, a track about Elio “hauling her ass to LA”, sounds like every blushing pink emoji in your phone’s keyboard. It tracks her internal monologue on the journey here, as she calls out over gentle, plucked strings: "Part of me wants to stop / Cause what if I fuck it up?"
“Body Language”, the EP’s widescreen banger, is about the days she spends apart from her boyfriend (also a musician) when both of them are on the road. “We rarely get to see each other because he’s away for two months, then I’m away for two months. It never lines up,” she says. “We’d talk and text all the time but always ended up having weird misunderstandings, throwing jokes we’d throw in person, but because it’s over text and you can’t see how someone meant it, it would be like, ‘Wait, why did you say that?!” She sings: "Read 12:05, in a hotel five hours behind… don’t wanna talk through satellite" before the skittish, gigantic chorus drops. It feels accomplished yet fun enough for some kids to craft some TikTok choreo to it.
Charli XCX digs it too. In fact, the futuristic pop visionary has joined Elio’s team as a manager-slash-creative consultant, always on call should she want to run a lyric or concept by her. It all started when one of her managers Twiggy (who also manages Charli) suggested they all hang out. “She was super cool,” Elio says, admitting she tried super hard to dial down the standom at first. “We started talking about my project and the music, and so we’ve been working together since October! She’s been really great in terms of me being a new songwriter and helping me get into sessions. Being able to show her songs and talk about them, what’s working and what’s not… she’s one of the greatest songwriters of our generation, and to have her to go to for advice? I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Before we part ways, we discuss the moniker. “I was in university before all of this, and spent a moth and a half in Siena [in Tuscany]. It was the most magical experience I’ve had in my life,” she says, glowing as she recalls the memory. I got back and watched Call Me by Your Name, just as I decided I was gonna do this solo project, and was, like, dead on the floor. Everything about it was so beautiful.” The name stuck. “If there's a day where Timmy and I are ever in the same room, I'll just be absolutely horrified to have to be like, ‘Hi, yes, I named my entire life after a character you played!” she laughs.