LONDON – “I’ve tried to immerse myself in Japanese culture,” says Charli XCX, international hit maker and Britain’s next big pop-star-in-waiting. Of course, that’s the sort of comment you might expect the 22-year-old to make on the eve of her first headline shows in the country this week, bringing her breakthrough third album, “Sucker,” to sold-out gigs in Toyko and Osaka.
But these are no insincere words: After all, there can’t be too many girls who idled away their teenage years in the comfortable, middle-class setting of Hertfordshire, England, gorging on J-pop and watching experimental Japanese cinema.
“I just loved how otherworldly Japan seemed,” Charli tells me as we squeeze onto a small leather sofa in the dressing room of Brighton’s Concorde 2 concert venue a couple of hours before her debut U.K. tour starts. “From all the movies and photographs that I’d seen, it looked so exotic. When I was younger I was really into Perfume, who I still love, and I watched a lot of Japanese films like “Akira” and “Ichi the Killer,” crazy movies like that. It was always my ambition to go there as soon as I could.”
True to her word, she didn’t even wait to be invited, shooting the video for “SuperLove” in Tokyo before she had even played a show in Japan. “It just felt really right, really cool. We were obsessed with bike gangs, so we said we had to go out there and shoot with the bōsōzoku bikers, which we did, it was amazing.”
That was 2013, when Charlotte Aitchison had already spent six years trying — and largely failing — to turn herself into a pop star. With funding from her parents, she released her first album, “14,” in 2007: A regular on the hip, debauched east London warehouse party scene thereafter, she’s been tipped for stardom ever since. Major label support and critical fawning has always been in place: Much to her chagrin, it has taken the public a lot longer to cotton on.
“I thought that you just signed a record deal, made an album and became Britney Spears,” she says. “I thought that’s how it worked. I gradually realized that was not the case.”
When debut album proper “True Romance” flopped commercially, it looked like the crossover moment she craved was out of reach. There is no doubting Charli’s big time credentials now. Having co-written two huge cross-Atlantic smashes — Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” — “Sucker,” Rolling Stone magazine’s pop album of 2014, contains genuine hits of her own. Bratty, restless and full of rebellious attitude, its sound mirrors its creator and is ridiculously raucous fun.
A little weary when we speak post-soundcheck, with her mass of hair, bright pink jumper and blood red lipstick, she nonetheless exudes an unfamiliar aura — a pop star with a genuine edge.
“I don’t f—- with them and they don’t f—- with me” is how she describes her relationship with Asylum Records, which perhaps explains why she has made bold plans to make the follow-up to “Sucker” a J-pop record, a genre that remains on the fringes in her native England.
“I love how sugary it all is,” she says of J-pop, “how hyperactive it all is. It makes me feel excited in a way that other music just doesn’t.” Singling out Kyary Pamyu Pamyu — “she’s incredible, I’m a massive fan” — it’s not merely the music that appeals.
“What I love about J-pop is that everything is so important. J-pop is the whole package and I love that. The videos are important, the artwork, the CD booklets, free stickers — it’s all so amazingly clever and of such high quality. It’s an art project. It’s not something that just want to quickly sell, which is what it’s like over here.” She adopts a mock record executive voice: “Put together the cheapest thing and sell it for the most expensive price! But with J-pop, it’s all so detailed. Everything is done for the fan.”
Charli has taken that ethos to heart. She looks out for her “angels”, the collective noun she coined for her growing band of followers, and before soundcheck this evening spends time posing for photographs with the hardy young souls who have been waiting in the rain outside the seafront venue for a glimpse of their hero, some for over seven hours. From afar, the Japanese “angels” have been given just as much consideration: Inspired by American synth-poppers Chairlift and, naturally, “just because I love J-pop,” Charli has re-recorded two of the best tracks on “Sucker,” “Boom Clap” and “Break the Rules,” in the Japanese language. What was lost in translation was made up for in emotion.
“Everything felt cuter, for sure. But it’s difficult when you’re doing everything phonetically because even though I know the lyrics to my song, technically I didn’t know what I was saying. So it definitely felt bizarre.”
A lot of things in Charli’s world seem like that lately. She says that days are “quite schizophrenic” at present. “I’m really bitchy one day and then other days I’m floaty and dreamy. But that’s fine. I’m not one of those that hides that s—-. I don’t like to fake it.”
Nobody could ever accuse her of that — her contrary, infectious personality is stamped over all she does, and it is the contradictions between what she is and how she achieves it that make her more subversive than your average pop star. She’s a mainstream artist with underground taste that covers obscure Swedish punk bands. Her songs have mass chart appeal, but are about taking drugs and masturbating. “Sucker” itself is packed with collaborations and co-writes — Swedish producer Patrik Berger, Weezer’s Rivers Coumo and Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend are among those who contribute — but sounds distinctly like Charli XCX. “I always have ultimate creative control. Always. I am the thread and I get final say on everything.”
And then there is her attitude to actually being a pop star, which is conflicted to say the least.
“That’s because being a pop star isn’t about music any more, it’s about being a celebrity. And I don’t want to be a celebrity. I want to make music and dance on stage and write songs. But I am also aware that I am in that world. So it’s a continuous weird, not struggle, but it’s something that I have to deal with. I still think I’m not good at being a pop star.”
In the identikit, Simon Cowell manner, perhaps not, but she has Concorde 2 in raptures just 90 minutes after we speak. It’ll be a similar story in Japan this week, where she returns for the first time since her “amazing, freaky” time at Summer Sonic in 2014. And if it all goes to plan, she’ll sing in Japanese — all she has to do is recall how.
“I don’t remember any of it! I did it phonetically line by line, which is definitely cheating. But when I go over there, I am going to try and sing it in Japanese, which is going to be difficult. But I’m going to try my best.”
“Sucker” is in record stores now. Charli XCX plays Umeda Akaso in Kita-ku, Osaka, on April 15 (7 p.m. start; 0570-200-888); and Liquidroom in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on April 16 (7 p.m. start; 03-3499-6669). For more information, visit www.charlixcxmusic.com.