Stevie Kaye talks to The xx’s Romy Madley Croft about soft-rock, songwriting camps, and the band’s progression on their new album.
Today, UK trio The xx are releasing their new album I See You into a very different world than that of their 2009 self-titled debut. And it’s a world they’ve helped change. The sparse, endlessly-reverbed intimacy and hushed R&B duets their music alchemised got under the skin of nearly everyone it touched – sampled by Rihanna, covered by Shakira, ripped off in advertisements from the likes of Hugo Boss and Nokia, influencing everyone from Drake to FKA Twigs.
Their sophomore album, 2012’s Coexist, largely coloured within the lines they’d sketched on their debut, but I See You is a delirious expansion of their sound – perhaps inevitably, given the success of member Jamie xx’s 2015 solo album In Colour – while still being unmistakably them.
“It makes sense to me that the first two albums get joined together,” says The xx’s guitarist and vocalist Romy Madley Croft, when we speak before Christmas. “They are incredibly linked in the sense that our first album was just us going on intuition and working within our limitations. We had a rule that everything that we recorded was always playable live. Back then we were just playing pubs and small clubs so things were quite simple, we didn’t record with loads of layers and some of the parts were simpler since we couldn’t play it very well. Then people celebrated the minimalism and the space in our music. Obviously, we love space within music, but we weren’t consciously trying to go for a minimalist aesthetic .
“But then when we worked on Coexist we were really looking at ourselves under a microscope thinking, ‘Oh, what do people like about us? What do people identify The xx as?’ and I think it was a very self-conscious and a difficult time for us. I love Coexist, but the process was very insular and self-conscious. With this album, I knew that we were all craving to do something else in the process and push ourselves out of our comfort zone, which was a good thing. I think it’s shown we’ve grown in confidence to want to try and do that, as nobody was forcing us to! So we went out of London to record, we shared music with friends and people we admire a lot earlier on for feedback, which we never did before, we opened windows and let some light in, which I think was really healthy for us and it’s meant this album feels very different to me, process-wise, to the other two.”
The first two singles from the album are striking in their use of vocal samples – ‘On Hold’ makes use of carved-into-pop’s-Mt-Rushmore ‘I Can’t Go For That’ by Hall & Oates, ‘Say Something Loving’ samples soft-rock duo the Alessi Brothers’ 1978 song ‘Do You Feel It?’, and ‘Lips’ makes startling use of contemporary composer David Lang’s ‘Just’, a piece revolving around the haunting voices of the Trio Mediaeval singing words inspired by the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon (y’know, the sexy part). “It’s very much a Jamie thing,” says Croft.
“He’s always been so into sampling. Normally he’s kept it to different drum sounds and different instrumental parts but I’ve really enjoyed that, in the spirit of being more open and trying new things, it’s felt natural for him to start incorporating [vocal samples] into our music. Whereas before he might have kept some things that he felt weren’t right for The xx for himself, now he feels it’s an open enough creative space for him to just bring anything he’s worked on to us as a band.”
Vocal samples aren’t the only thing that Jamie feels comfortable bringing to the band now. When I ask about the cacophony of voices that rise up towards the end of ‘Test Me’, Croft laughs. “That’s Jamie singing, actually! For a long time he said, ‘Oh, I’ve sung on ‘Test Me’’, and I was like wooooooow. It’s these ‘ooooooh’s that are slightly affected, and he’s sampled bits of Oliver and I singing and they all sort of swirl together so he’s not actually singing any words!”
The xx have always had wide-ranging tastes even if it didn’t surface in the sonics of their earlier music. I discovered them via a pre-debut brace of covers they’d recorded and uploaded to the internet – Womack & Womack’s sumptuous 1988 hit ‘Teardrops’, Aaliyah’s 1997 single ‘Hot Like Fire’, Kyla and Crazy Cousinz’ UK funky anthem ‘Do You Mind’ and, as O Lousy Tired Gal, Croft had covered Wayne Wonder’s Diwali riddim lovers rock anthem ‘No Letting Go’ – and they’ve started to let that aesthetic diversity colour their originals.
“We have very eclectic taste, there’s nothing off the table,” she declares when I ask about the late-‘70s Southern Californian yacht-rock vibes of album track ‘Replica’, “I’m not a big fan of genre as putting things in boxes. If I hear a song, I’m not like ‘Oh, I can’t listen to this sort of thing’, and we’ve always been like that. We definitely had a big soft rock moment, so I’m not surprised that ‘Replica’ has that feeling. We recorded that song in LA, so there must be something in the air!
“We’re all big fans of dance music in general, especially things that reminds us of growing up, being young teenagers and seeing music videos on TV like Modjo’s ‘Lady’ – we’ve always listened to that, and I like that moments of it are coming out a bit more in our music. As a guitar player, I’ve always been more inspired by Ibiza house riffs than any actual guitar player,” she laughs. This unorthodoxy has gifted her with a guitar sound instantly identifiable while being endlessly suggestive – the debut’s ‘Infinity’ echoing Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ and Coexist’s ‘Fiction’ hinting at Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’; the arid, spidery guitars of fellow suburban goths The Cure, but heard at half-speed from down the hall.
The band had mentioned Arthur Russell’s First Thought, Best Thought as listening during the recording process. It’s a telling choice – the enigmatic Russell’s marriage of his reverb-drenched solo cello recordings with music inspired by the ferment of downtown New York in the late-’70s/early-’80s to make iconic alt-disco records mirrors the metamorphosis The xx have undergone. But the ghosts of yacht-rock and Arthur Russell weren’t the only influence California had on the new album – Croft attended a few songwriting camps while in Los Angeles, including one with industry stalwart Ryan Tedder.
“It was a very new experience for me,” she says. “I definitely felt out of my comfort zone, but I asked for that, I asked to go to LA and I wanted to know how people wrote pop songs. It was a very big learning experience for me; I learned about classic pop structure and the method of singing melody first before lyrics, which is obviously the classic way, but it was new for me! I’ve always just written poems and sung them, so it was massively influential in terms what I bought back to Oliver and my process, and what I bought back just for myself.
“It did make me miss working with my two best friends, and writing songs about myself and my personal experiences, but I did have some great experiences working with the people I did. People were saying ‘Oh, wasn’t it soulless?’ about this sort of pop writing, but I was lucky in that the people I was working with, even though they were big pop producers, still have a lot of love for what they were doing and a big love for music, which was great, it wasn’t just paint-by-numbers. Working with Ryan Tedder and Benny Blanco for that OneRepublic song, it wasn’t defined what we were writing for, it wasn’t like, ‘Okay, let’s write a hit’ – that was very cool.”
The group also recorded in Iceland, a move precipitated by Croft. “I’d been there on holiday – I’d actually gone to see Björk, which seemed like the appropriate place to see her play – and I’d had a wonderful time exploring all the incredible black beaches and waterfalls and glaciers,” she says. “So when we were having a real open mind about where we would record, I suggested Iceland and everyone thought, ‘Why not?’ It was very surreal as we were there in summer, so it was only dark for one hour, two hours a night, and the slightly annoying thing was we went to Iceland but we were in a studio the whole time! We weren’t getting to see all the incredible stuff everyday.”
Now they’ve finished bunkering down in the studio, they’re having to reorient themselves the challenges of translating achingly intimate music to the hurly-burly of live performance. “We’ve done six shows this year and that was a very exciting but daunting prospect after not playing gigs for quite a long time,” she says. “We’ve worked out about half of the new album, playing about five or so of the new songs in these past few shows, but we were conscious not to play the whole album, otherwise, y’know, it’d already exist on YouTube clips. We did play some of the more upbeat songs like ‘On Hold’ and ‘I Dare You’, and it was a lot of fun to have that different energy within the set.
“Touring Coexist we leaned on more uplifting moments from the first album for singing along or release, and it was something that was on my mind when we were writing I See You to have more moments of warmth and natural rhythm, because with Coexist we did what we always do – which is we end up in our soundchecks extending the songs and sort of remixing them ourselves, and quite a few of the songs from Coexist got more of an upbeat remix. We’ve got a whole world of different slow songs with more internal emotions, so I’m excited to have a different height to reach for with the more upbeat celebratory songs!”
One catalyst for their increased enthusiasm for audience interaction is fellow black-clad Brits Savages, who could be seen as the Sturm und Drang Joy Division to The xx’s hushed Young Marble Giants. “What I love about playing festivals is that you get the chance to see so many great new things. A band that I really love, I don’t know if it’s directly inspired our performance, is a band called Savages. They’re friends of mine now, but I remember seeing them for the first time at Coachella at 3pm in a tent and felt like I was in a dark club – and I know how hard that is,” she laughs, “so I had a lot of respect for them after that. I just love the way that [Savages singer] Jehnny Beth gets right into the core of the audience and really commands human interaction and connection, which I think is happening less and less, so I really admire her bravery. I’m not characteristically jumping into the audience, but it encourages me to be more brave and have more eye contact with fans. I really try and connect with them now if I can.”
While I See You is undoubtedly a more upbeat album than its predecessors, the album’s centrepiece is their most intense torch song yet, the showstopping ‘Performance’. The song’s central conceit is pure Great American Songbook, Bacharach-and-David; the arena of everyday life as, well, performance – “You won’t see me hurting / When my heart it breaks / I’ll put on a performance / I’ll put on a brave face”. This idea echoes through other songs on the album – ‘A Violent Noise’’s guide to extroversion for introverts, ‘Brave For You’’s wrestling with the death of her parents.
“It wasn’t too much of a conscious thought,” she says. “I guess it’s sort of an awareness of the performance of putting on a mask in daily life, and that being an easier way of going about things. You know, the reality is our lives have been based around being on the stage then being off the stage since our late teens, but it’s definitely not something I’d consciously keep out. I always like to make the music quite universal, that no matter if you’ve never been on the stage you’d still hopefully connect with it. When I talk about standing on stage in ‘Brave For You’ I hope you can connect with the idea of that feeling, even if you’d never been on the stage.”
The metaphors of masks and putting on an act in everyday life have a deep resonance for queer songwriters, and while their private lives are not something the band talks about in interviews anymore, both Romy and Oliver Sim identify as gay. There’s not many precedents for duets sung between queer men and women in pop music – there’s the Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield’s ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’, and Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider in many B-52s songs. There’s something refreshing about how The xx can sing about vulnerability in friendships as well as romantic relationships, a more nuanced take on platonic intimacy than brassy #squad triumphalism.
“Oliver and I are definitely singing about each other on this album, which is a new thing for us,” she says. “We did have to be very vulnerable with each other, and I really enjoyed that, it definitely adds a different dynamic to our friendship. We sit in a room together and write music rather than relying on email, collaging songs and lyrics from afar. I think facing things, facing each other, facing yourself is definitely a theme from the album. It was part of the process.”
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