an exclusive look behind the scenes of 'gone' with charli xcx and chris
It's your two fave queens -- in conversation, exclusively for i-D.
Photography Angela Stephenson
In a London warehouse on a sunny day in June, Charli XCX is tied to the bonnet of a white Mercedes. Chris (formerly Christine and the Queens), her rescuer, is strapped to the boot. After Chris frees them both, the two clamber to the roof and writhe along to the lyrics Chris penned for their new collaboration, Gone, which debuted at Primavera back in June and hasn't been heard since... until now. Although Charli wrote the chorus line: “I feel so unstable fucking hate these people” is version 2.0. Her original version was “I feel so unstable fucking hate my label”. (“I wasn’t going through hate with them at the time or anything. I just thought it would be funny,” she clarifies).
The dim industrial space of the Colin Solal Cardo-directed video shoot evokes the same warehouse rave backdrop of other Charli videos like 5 in the Morning. It’s the aesthetic of the afterparty; the brand Charli has spent the last four years and two mixtapes cultivating carefully. As the yell of “lunch!” reverberates to the cavernous ceiling, the pair dismount and totter carefully off to eat salads from styrofoam bowls. Charli’s aspirational image-crafting of eternal partying has been so effective, it’s startling to see her doing anything so mundane.
Afterwards in a back room, the duo don towelly white bathrobes over their silver chains and black lace. (Charli’s corset and harness were designed by Fleet Ilya, her dress by Matilda Aberg). Settling side-by-side into a leather sofa in the corner, they’re still talking about Mark Ronson’s Club Heartbreak afterparty they attended together last night. Chris sensibly wanted to stay in given this morning’s early call time. Charli coaxed her out.
Last night’s frivolities belie the laser sharp focus she’s training on her upcoming album, Charli, announced last month. “I’m in work zone,” she says. “I’m never in the moment, I’m always like ‘What’s next? How can I make it better?’” She’s not exaggerating her workaholism; as well as recent album material like Gone and Blame It On Your Love ft. Lizzo, Charli has put out standalone singles like Spicy ft. Diplo & Herve Pagez, and the song she co-wrote for Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello just hit number one.
“You know we text every other day? I feel like I’m in a relationship!” - Charli XCX
As for Chris and Charli’s collaboration, it’s been a long time coming. Ever since they met a few years ago, the pair had spoken about working together. Then last year, Charli went to Sweden to do album sessions and found a beat she liked with collaborators Noonie Bao and Lotus IV. After Charli sent the fledgling piece to Chris, she fired back fully fleshed-out lyrics in twenty minutes. “I went to a museum, and by the time I got out you’d sent it back to me. I had to run back to my hotel to get headphones,” Charli laughs.
Chris’ enthusiasm about the collaboration is evident, but still kind of surprising. Musically, Chris has always been a lone wolf. “I’ve been writing songs on my own in my basement in Paris for the longest time. It’s all I know,” she says. “I’d tried to collaborate previously and I felt so fucking uncomfortable, I was like ‘what am I doing here?’”
Chris’ impact on pop in recent years has been monumental, but she’s an independent auteur. Her second album, where she reinvented herself as the androgynous Chris character and emerged from the chrysalis of ‘and the Queens’, was acclaimed for its exploration of her own queerness. Bringing her fiercely self-directed art to meet someone else’s was a challenge for her, and one she insists could only have been accomplished with IRL friend Charli. “You know we text every other day?” Charli blurts out. “I feel like I’m in a relationship!”
“It was the first time collaborating and feeling comfortable for me,” Chris confesses. “I’d never do it just for the sake of doing it. Sometimes my record label are like ‘can you try to collaborate more?’ but I can’t force it.” So what was different about working on Gone? “The fact that she let me write her lyrics was proof of trust. I was on a Charli track but being myself”.
Charli is a master of making people feel welcome in her sonic galaxy; in 2015, she abandoned conventional pop and has since spent four years honing the craft of collaboration. After her big US hits like Fancy with Iggy Azalea and Boom Clap, she got sick of waiting on a superstardom that never came. The anticlimax of mainstream charts drove her pivot to the weird PC pop team-ups that have become her trademark, and in the intervening four years she’s created a critically acclaimed body of work over two ten-track, non-charting mixtapes, Number 1 Angel and Pop 2. Her work in this period has been almost exclusively collaborative, and she has ongoing relationships with a who’s who of up-and-coming (largely queer) underground artists like SOPHIE, AG Cook, Dorian Electra, Kim Petras, and many others.
Charli’s reinvention has resulted in a dual identity. The mainstream recognise Charli as a peripheral songwriter of top 40 hits, while a growing base of queer and subcultural fans know her as a messianic cult figure with an alchemical knack for bringing unique artists together on insane, experimental bangers. The contrast between these two personalities couldn’t have been more pronounced than last summer, when she supported Taylor Swift on her tour the very same week that she performed her sweat-slicked, pulse-pounding Pop 2 show in London’s Village Underground. It felt like watching two completely different artists.
Charli is much more comfortable in the latter role; she sees herself and her collaborators as the future of pop music, and regularly updates her playlist on Spotify, unashamedly titled “the motherfucking future!”
“For me, Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, that was me really throwing all my cares about commercial success out the window. And not being hooked on stats anymore, like ‘oh, I need to be the Boom Clap girl forever!’”, Charli says steadily. “Fuck that girl. That girl’s not me. I think that’s when I really garnered an actual fanbase who would really care about an album. AG Cook and I originally wanted to do a third mixtape, but then we said ‘fuck it, now feels like the right time for an album’.”
Charli didn’t just reject commercial success after 2015, she rejected conventional release cycles too, declaring she would never release another album proper and having to initially record her Number 1 Angel mixtape without her label’s permission (which is why that altered “fucking hate my label” lyric piques interest). Her revision of that policy has left some wondering if the album signals another turning point for her. Is she boomeranging back at radio pop again, given that her recent collabs Boys and 1999 broke the UK top 40?
Charli insists that’s not the case; she’s trying to simply evolve the legacy she’s already created, not turn away from it. “There are elements of Pop 2 on this album,” she says. “There’s no real theme lyrically other than it’s my most personal body of work. It has more emotional moments, even though I’m not someone who particularly cares about having everything drenched in feeling”. (No kidding -- Charli’s 2017 track Drugs ft. ABRA declared her dealer was the love of her life). “Parties are emotional places where weird things happen; you fall in love, you break up. But there are other sides of parties that aren’t so emotional -- like, I write about cars a lot,” she says bluntly. “For me, this album is just like a train of thought. It feels quite conversational.”
Charli also reveals that Gone is her favourite song from the album (“Mine too,” jokes Chris) and that it’s the most representative of the whole body of work. “You kinda get everything that’s happening on the album from this one song,” she explains.
It feels so incredibly right that Chris and Charli should finally come together. They both know what it is to reinvent themselves, they both know what it means to push boundaries, and they deeply appreciate each other’s sounds and aesthetics. “When I was working on my second album, I was listening with my sound engineer a lot to your mixtapes,” Chris tells Charli. “What you were doing was really challenging for other artists. You know how to write a banger but you challenge what a banger means. You’re questioning the form.”
Chris hints insightfully that this is perhaps the mysterious link between Charli’s music and the queer community. She has worked with so many queer collaborators and the majority of the niche fans garnered from her mixtapes are LGBT. “Even an aesthetic can be deeply queer,” Chris analyses. “It’s the hybridity. The sound and production you have -- you’re in pop music but you’re questioning it, you’re not digested by it. I think that is quite queer.”
Most queer fans probably don’t devote that much incisive thought to why we love Charli. (We just replace our daily spamming of “release Taxi!” to demand that Charli “drop Gone!” instead). And while it’s hard to imagine workaholic Charli ever taking a break -- she says that, without the LGBT community, she wouldn’t have the career that she has. “I might even have stopped,” she says seriously. “I owe so much to the queer community. I feel comfortable in my own skin standing on stage singing songs to people that really care and believe in me. That’s been a life-changing thing for me.” It’s easy to forget, with all the acerbic memes, that gay stan culture harbours much sentimentality. And you’d better believe that Charli ft. Chris is a queer stan fever dream; release day will surely become an international holiday on the same level of Power Bottom Appreciation Day.
If there’s any ‘why’ question over this collab, it’s perhaps; ‘why now?’ Charli’s accelerating toward her self-titled album after several years of subterranean experimentation. It’s the heart-pounding climax of an upward journey. Chris, on the other hand, is winding down and back out of the spotlight after the massive self-mining operation that was her second LP. It seems like they’re at opposite points in their life-cycles right now, like they should be ships passing in the pop night.
“It was a really intense year for me personally and artistically,” says Chris. “I’m still touring the second album and just having daydreams of how to follow it. I’m writing weird diaries every day. I have instincts and images -- it’s just a case of figuring out if it’s a good instinct, and then acting on it. I was telling Charli earlier, I feel like I’m a novelist and I have to write the third chapter.”
Maybe it makes perfect sense then, that Charli XCX ft. Chris is happening right now. Both women are writing their third chapters, in a sense. This is a pivotal moment in Charli’s career -- she’s carved out a niche identity for herself over the last few years, defining herself by being rebellious against industry structures and pop norms, and now she’s faced with the challenge of integrating that oppositional spirit into something as conventional as an album.
As if to remind her of that pressure, her team swoops back in. Chris is whisked away for make-up. “Tie me back to that car!” Charli yells. And suddenly, they’re both gone.
All photography Angela Stephenson