Interview

How She’s Feeling Now: Checking In With Charli XCX About Her Quarantine LP

The singer talks the new album, the other album she planned for 2020, & more

The coronavirus pandemic has forced all of us to put just about everything on hold: No matter what you thought your big plans for life in 2020 were, they’re not happening anytime soon. That’s been felt in the music world, too, with festival and tour cancellations and postponements, and with artists delaying their albums to what once seemed like a plausible post-quarantine summer date. But as we move further into this, and as it becomes clearer that normal life isn’t coming back anytime soon, some artists are changing their plans not to hold off but to make things happen in quarantine. Laura Marling and Fiona Apple both already moved their albums up earlier in the year, each feeling like a gift when we could all use new music to distract us from the news. And then there’s Charli XCX, who quickly announced her plans to record and release an album in just over a month.

As New York and LA first settled into the social-distancing/shelter-in-place guidelines, Charli began by sharing a quarantine diary. In the first entry, she admitted that this sort of scenario was daunting for a person like her — a self-professed workaholic accustomed to always being on the move, always having another project in the pipeline. It didn’t take long for her to turn this time into something positive — an opportunity to make an album quickly, at home, during the quarantine and at least partially cataloging her experience with it. She announced she’d release the album, tentatively titled How I’m Feeling Now, on 5/15.

The whole project is, by nature, unplanned and in-the-moment. Charli’s been sending material back and forth with her main producers, BJ Burton and A.G. Cook, as well as other potential collaborators. She’s been uploading snippets of unfinished songs and scattered lyrics from her phone, asking fans to weigh in on what they like and what they want to hear finished next. It’s meant to be an open process — an artist not only working on an album for this time, during this time, but also inviting her fans to take part in it. In a way, it gives everyone something to be involved in.

Charli’s plans and vision for it all are coming together in the moment, but she has other goals for quarantine too — she’s joining 100 Gecs for their Minecraft festival later this week, and her album rollout will aim to benefit causes like the World Health Organization and LA Alliance. So far, she’s already shared one song — “Forever” — and has promised another this week. In the meantime, we caught up with Charli via Zoom, the way we all speak with each other these days, to hear about her process making How I’m Feeling Now, her planned Janet Jackson-inspired LP she originally meant to release next, and more.

STEREOGUM: How’ve you been holding up?

CHARLI XCX: I’m doing surprisingly well during this time period. I’m in a very lucky position that I can create from home. I’m quarantined with my boyfriend and my two best friends, which I’m so thankful for because I have a lot of friends who are alone and I know they have good days and bad days. Overall, I’m feeling, at the moment, pretty positive. How are you?

STEREOGUM: Yeah, you know, like you were saying, I have work and my partner and I’m just trying to use the time for things I never made time for before. Are you spending all of quarantine working on the album all day, or are you doing fun stuff with your friends or binge-watching anything or something to give yourself a break?

CHARLI XCX: Well, what’s kind of crazy is I guess my neighbors decided they’re going to completely renovate their house during quarantine. So I can’t even record until the evening because there’s just drills all the time. It’s actually quite comical, the amount of noise that’s being made. In the day, I do less recording, that’s when I’m watching TV and I’ve been painting and hanging out. Then I record at night.

You know what, I work quite fast anyways so I’m not super nervous about the deadline, musically. But, I do also want to be in the position where I just don’t write 10 songs and put them all on the album. I want to write, you know, 20 songs and decide the best 10. But also, it’s the visual side of things that needs time. Obviously making videos from afar, like [the “Forever” video], we had to source clips from fans and they sent over like 5,000 clips and we had to go through all of them. When I say “we” it was actually Dan Streit who edited the video, he was amazing. That visual side of things is definitely something that takes more time.

I mean, honestly, I don’t know how long this quarantine is going to go on for, but it feels like it will go for longer than May 15. I didn’t just do the album to fill up my time. I did it because, for me to feel positive, I need to be creative. But also, I kind of wanted to document how I’m feeling and my emotions and experiences during this time. Obviously, it’s something the entire world is going through. I think everybody will have valid feelings and thoughts to contribute to this.

STEREOGUM: In the earlier days of all this, which now kind of feel like ancient history, you were releasing quarantine diaries. You talked about your original plans for albums this year in one of those, but how quickly did it shift to, “I need to make an album now”?

CHARLI XCX: Within the first week, I think. I think I announced it in the second week I was quarantined. In the first week, I was already talking to BJ Burton and A.G. Cook about whether they would feel like they could be involved, because I’m not a producer. I definitely needed some people to produce for me. So the second I found out they were down I was like, “OK, great, we can do it then.” It did happen pretty quickly. I feel like … as an artist, if you have something to say, you need to say it.

The songs on this album aren’t literally about being in quarantine and being isolated, but I think the overall emotion and ethos behind this project is to really like … all of the work I’m creating, whether it be the music and the production and the artwork, it is all indicative of the time we’re in because it’s all that I can do. I’m using the only tools I have around me, the people I can reach out to. It just felt like I kind of had to. It felt like — and don’t take this out of context — for me, and the kind of artist I am, and the kind of fanbase I have, it was kind of the perfect time for me to make something that could comment on this and get everybody involved.

STEREOGUM: You’ve mentioned that “Forever” had been gestating a bit already. But now as you’re writing in this context, do you feel it drawing you to ideas you wouldn’t have tried out before, or do you find yourself focusing on different sides of your personality?

CHARLI XCX: Yeah, definitely. As I mentioned in the beginning, I’m quarantined with my boyfriend, and I write what I experience. So my main subject matter is our relationship, which obviously I’ve written about before, but I guess this time period has allowed our relationship to evolve, actually for the better. It’s really brought us so close together, and it’s made me really realize the connection that I have with this person. I think that’s not really a subject I’ve explored too much in depth, because our relationship was drastically different before the quarantine.

Whilst it’s extremely devastating what’s going on in the world, in my own tiny little minuscule unimportant world, the one good thing this period of isolation has done has made our relationship blossom — in a way that I don’t know it would have had we not been in the same place, every single day, 24/7. That’s a new thing for me to write about. I think it’s also just a new way to work. I’ve always been spontaneous with the way I write, but being so spontaneous with the way I release things, and putting ideas and lyrics out and asking for feedback, that definitely feels like a new skill I’ve learned.

STEREOGUM: Obviously there’s been a lot of collaboration in your history, and your fans have been a big part of the Charli XCX story over the years. But this sort of crowd-sourcing cover art choices and the Zoom conferences, it’s a different level. Is it what you expected, having this open process in front of the fans?

CHARLI XCX: It’s honestly way more positive than I thought. Their ideas are really good, and there’s a lot of ideas to go through. They decided the next song should be this song called “Claws,” they decided the title, they give me feedback on lyrics I’ve posted. I haven’t actually got into that feedback just yet.

It is positive, and I think it’s kind of because of what you said — my fans have been such a big part of my story. They really know me and they understand my musical reference points and my collaborators’ musical reference points, so they’re really able to contribute quite detailed things. Like, they can be like, “Oh you should change the snare sound to something like this demo that leaked two years ago.” They really know that shit when it comes to my music and my music in progress as well, not just the final product.

STEREOGUM: So how far along are you at this point?

CHARLI XCX: So, obviously “Forever” is done, “Claws” is mastered. I want to shoot a video for “Claws” this week. There are two demos I really like which I need to do more in-depth vocals on, those are called “Enemy” and “Seven Years.” There’s another song called “Detonate,” which I quite like, I just need to get my head around it a bit more. Then there are a lot of beats I have, the other night I was writing an idea over this Palmistry beat, which I really like but I haven’t recorded that yet. So that’s something I might do today. There’s probably seven ideas floating around, maybe eight.

STEREOGUM: In the beginning when you kind of said this would be more DIY, using the tools in front of you etc., but as these demos are starting to come together and as these tones and themes are cohering, what’s the overall vibe of the album? Obviously it’s going to be a little different than the last one, which was quite big and had all these guest appearances. Do you think this is sonically or aesthetically a thing you might’ve been working on right now anyway, or it feels very specific to this experience?

CHARLI XCX: Before quarantine, around January or February, I was working on a completely different album which I wanted to put out in August or September. That album was probably my most polished, I’ll say, aesthetically and possibly musically, too. I was listening to a lot of Janet Jackson and was quite inspired and leaning into that. This sound was taking quite a different turn for me. But I paused the album when quarantine happened, even though I had written quite a bit for it, just because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to execute the visual side of that album.

At the beginning of the year I did say I wanted to release two albums this year, so I had actually already begun discussing the idea of doing an album in December, where we would maybe in September go somewhere and really hunker down, me and A.G. and possibly SOPHIE if she was around, and write something in two or three weeks. I already had that idea towards the end of last year, so when this global pandemic arose, I was thinking, “OK, maybe I can do that album now but we won’t be in the same place.” There was no discussion about what that should sound like. Generally I don’t really have a premeditated vision of what each album will sound like. It’s very much like, I make stuff and I feel it out and I see what feels right and run with it. That’s kind of what I’m doing with this one.

STEREOGUM: It’s a bit hard to plan for what comes after all this given we don’t really know when/how we’ll go back to normal life, but do you think you’ll return to these other ideas you had in progress, like the Janet LP and the True Romance anniversary shows?

CHARLI XCX: Honestly it’s kind of impossible to say. The album I was making… I would like to release that at some point. But it really just depends on what feels right. I think another reason why that album wouldn’t feel right for right now, it’s just not the right tone. Revisiting something like True Romance, I would love to do that at some point but it wouldn’t be the right time in the world. I think the reason that this particular album I’m making now, that I do feel comfortable making it, is because it’s so collaborative, because through the creation of the music and artwork I’m also able to support other creatives who are maybe struggling to find work right now, and I’ve always wanted to collaborate with them and now is the time.

There is so much to be done because there are no rules with this project. I can make three artworks for one song if I feel like. It’s about creating as much as possible. The time feels right, because I’m able to give my platform to people who maybe aren’t able to make their work as they usually would. And hopefully through this album we’ll be able to set up some charity initiative, hopefully with LA Alliance. Basically, auction off all the artwork that’s created as originals and rough prints and donate all of that money to charity. It feels like the right tone, whereas doing a big really glossy album within this time period or even planning for that coming later when I don’t know what’s going to be going on, I don’t know that it would feel right for me personally. Who knows.

STEREOGUM: I know it’s a little early to say yet, but from a working standpoint — now that you’re doing an album this way and emailing ideas back and forth with producers. Could you see yourself working this way again?

CHARLI XCX: I think so. The thing is, though, with a lot of my collaborations I have done things in the room with other artists, but I’ve also always sent things back and forth. For example with Christine & The Queens, we recorded separately, she was in France and I was in Stockholm. We were video messaging each other and Facetiming each other in the studio. In that sense, it’s kind of similar.

I do often like being in the same room as producers — A.G. and I, when we’re working on a project, we’ll either go to his place or we’ll rent somewhere and go there for three months and work solidly. So it’s different being apart from him, and he’s such a main part of my process that that definitely does feel different. I would like to be in a place where I can be back in the physical room with him at some point.

But having said that, I think this time period has taught me I need to be more present, and just generally need to be more fucking relaxed. I feel like I haven’t relaxed in like 10 years. I’m in my house and I’ve walked around every room and noticed things about my house which I’ve lived in for four years, but I really do feel like this is the first time I’ve lived in my home and made my house a home. I’m really grateful for that and hope that can continue on, maybe that includes recording at home.

Also, the nature of this album, the way listeners and fans are making decisions, makes it very fluid. Whilst like, of course, I’m very happy that my record label was supportive of me doing this in this time period… we were already in different countries, because I’m signed in the UK. But the way they have got into the process is something I hope will continue. It’s fluid, there are no rules, no one’s worrying about “Oh, we have to get this for this DSP,” that shit doesn’t fucking matter and to me it honestly never really has. I don’t make music to be on the fucking top playlist or radio or whatever it is. It’s not my main goal. It’s something that actually stresses me out.

And that energy seems to have gone a little bit, because everybody, even the labels and DSPs, everyone is just trying their best to make sure that, one, audiences feel supported and looked after and guided through this time, and also I think that everybody is just trying to support creative people and trying to make people feel like they can continue their lives in some kind of normality in all kinds of creative industries. I hope that that continues. I like that energy. The fluidity, do what you feel and do what you can.

STEREOGUM: Say you hit that 5/15 deadline and we still have a lot of quarantine left. Are you going to make another album? Or like, is it then time to watch movies you’ve never seen and paint some more?

CHARLI XCX: I’d have to see. There’s always movies to watch, there’s so many movies. I don’t know, I really can’t tell. I do feel like the quarantine should be going on longer than May 15th. I’d just have to see afterwards, but like most artists we’re in to use our platform to try and spread positivity, encourage people to give where they can, and keep morale up as much as possible. Which maybe sounds really fucking like, I don’t know, such a blanket statement. But I do think that, you know, it is important. Our mental health as a world is gonna take quite a severe battering with this time period, as well as our health in some people’s cases, and the economy — the world is going to change. I think wherever possible, to try and help people through that however you feel you can, even if it’s just doing a tiny, tiny, small thing, that’s the best thing you can do. I’ll see what that entails after the album, but I guess that will probably be my plan.

How I’m Feeling Now is out 5/15.