Charli XCX turns 21 this year, but already she has some battle scars on the way to becoming a pop star. In her early teens she somehow ended up performing at raves in London warehouses, occasionally with her parents in tow. She posted songs on her MySpace page, back when that was the protocol. She made an album called “14” when she was around that age, but it was never commercially released and she has an obvious distaste for it now.
When her career stalled after that, she struggled to find her footing before putting out some singles, mixtapes, and EPs. This year, however, the stars aligned. “True Romance,” her new album, which is technically her second but sounds like a debut, has generated a healthy dose of buzz. Like Solange’s “True,” it’s the unusual pop record that’s aimed at a mainstream audience while still appealing to indie fans. As a bonus, Charli, whose given name is Charlotte Aitchison, also co-wrote “I Love It,” the hit song by Icona Pop, the rising Swedish electro-pop duo.
“I feel like the whole time I was writing this record, I knew it was coming together, but I never really clicked with it until I wrote this song called ‘Stay Away,’” says Charli, who plays at Great Scott on Saturday. “That was about three years ago, but that’s when I really found myself and the style of music I wanted to make. I held the record back a couple of times, because I knew it had to be perfect. I knew I couldn’t release it until I was 100 percent happy and responsible for the whole thing.”
To that end, she spent close to five years making sure “True Romance” was an honest reflection of her ambitions. She’s someone who has mentioned she’s inspired by everyone from Kate Bush to the Spice Girls to photographer David LaChapelle, and her new album is equally vast in its reach. There are traces of electro-pop, but also hip-hop, Top 40 frivolity, and dark-hearted ruminations. She likes “dark pop” as a quick-and-easy handle for her music. She never wavered on what she wanted the album to sound like.
“At the beginning I definitely had people saying, ‘Oh, you should make a super pop record,’ but I didn’t really want that because that’s not me as a person,” she says. “I always think my ideas are better than my record label’s ideas, and they know that. Especially since I wrote ‘I Love It,’ my label knows that I can write hits now. Because of that song, even more so I can continue to do my own weird pop thing.”
She credits “Stay Away” as a turning point partly because it marked the first time she had worked and wrote with
Ariel Rechtshaid, the producer responsible for hits by Usher, Major Lazer, and Plain White T’s. Their collaboration coincided with Charli having enough time to develop and evolve on her own.
“I was signed when I was really young, when I was 15, and I didn’t understand anything about the music industry or who I was,” she says. “I found it difficult to get my head around things like when someone tells you something and you immediately take it as the truth. Whereas now I don’t believe anything until it actually happens. I’m kind of pessimistic in that way, I guess. It keeps me grounded.”
‘I’ve built my career this way so that I do have the freedom to do what I want. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t do it.’
She admits “True Romance” is a long way from her initial stab at stardom. Few have heard her first record, and Charli prefers it that way. “That was just me experimenting when I was a 14-year-old. I would hate people to hear it because that’s not who I am now.”
When she thinks back on the bumps in the road, and she realizes there are bound to be more, she sounds grateful for them.
“I feel like I could have had a much worse time,” she says. “I’ve built my career this way so that I do have the freedom to do what I want. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think there’s any enjoyment in being told what to do, especially with something so creative and personal. So that’s why this record is 100 percent me — my thoughts, my feelings, exactly what I wanted it to sound like — rich and luscious and dreamy.”James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJames Reed.