POPTOPIA: Asbjørn in conversation with Charlotte OC – “If I don’t make you cry when I’m playing live then it’s not a good show”
Yesterday marked the first interview of Asbjørn’s collaboration with KALTBLUT, called POPTOPIA. The danish singer interviewed the British pop singer Charlotte OC about Freddie Mercury, the music industry and gender representation. Read the full Q&A belowor watch the stream here.
Asbjørn: I’m just gonna quickly introduce you. So, you are basically the dark pop Queen of England.
Charlotte: Am I?
Asbjørn: I’d say so – you’ve been for me at least! You’re gonna release your sophomore album later this year called Here Comes Trouble. And you have also single-handedly proven that it takes three negronis to become a bad bitch. And also to quote one of your fans: “Every note you sing is a symphony of pain” And I don’t know about you, but I think it’s a compliment.
Charlotte: Honestly, if I don’t make you cry when I’m playing live then it’s not a good show.
Charlotte: Yeah, I get annoyed. Somebody came up to me once and said: “Oh, that was amazing, I almost cried.” And I was like, why didn’t you cry? Why the “almost”? And then I was like I need to go home.
Asbjørn: But how do you feel after a show if you feel like you’ve had a good show only by making people cry? I guess, you know, we as musicians have a tiny bit of narcissism to us.
Charlotte: I was having my therapy session today and I actually asked my therapist: Am I a narcissist? (laughs)
Asbjørn: Would you care to let us know what the answer was?
Charlotte: (laughs) She said we all are. We all have a tiny bit in us, but you don’t have it to the point where it’s an issue.
Asbjørn: Phew, what a relief. (laughs) I wanna say welcome again, I’m so happy you’re gonna be a part of this. Let me quickly introduce the series and what we’re gonna talk about just in broad terms. This series is called POPTOPIA and I actually wrote a little statement that I’m gonna read out loud.
Pop culture is a complex space, it has the power to make you feel seen and accepted, and to encourage individuality and freedom. It also can do the opposite, to uphold norms and stereotypes. In my own career and life, I’ve juggled between those two. And in this series, I want to explore how different people from in and outside of the music industry experience this space. Is pop culture a free or a restrictive space when finding your identity? So you know, no pressure, but that’s what we’re gonna try and find out today.
I want to start somewhere in a pop quiz area. Charlotte: Are you on the inside looking out? Or on the outside? Looking in?
Charlotte: Both, if I’m honest, sometimes I feel like either, and I think that’s kind of normal, right? Sometimes you feel like we’re observing stuff from up here, and sometimes we feel like we’re not seeing enough.
Asbjørn: And these days, where are you?
Asbjørn: Where, or when, or with whom do you feel the freest?
Charlotte: I feel the freest onstage. But there’s also this element of not feeling like that, you know? The problem with me is I’m a massive over-thinker, so I’m in my element when I’m on stage. However, I’m overthinking every single moment. As a person that isn’t for me, to my detriment. Over whoever I’m with, it’s just my loved ones, my family – and that is, again, a double-edged sword, because when you’re free, you bear all, and it can put you in a very vulnerable situation, again, like being on stage. This thing of being free is quite a daunting thing to be in if that makes sense?
Asbjørn: Very much. Would you say that you kind of see yourself from the outside most of the time?
Asbjørn: Okay. Can that still feel free? Somehow, that’s a contradiction for me.
Charlotte: Yeah, I feel like it is. With the person that I am, it’s not necessarily that way – but it should be.
Asbjørn: If you were to make a genetic analysis of your identity, which characters from pop culture would be in your DNA string?
Charlotte: The first person that I saw live was Alicia Keys. And I’ve got to be completely honest, now, I don’t necessarily love a lot of stuff that she’s done recently. However, being a 13-year-old kid going to Manchester Apollo to my first show and I got there and she turned up in a suit. And she had her hair in cornrows. She didn’t have a breast, she wasn’t being overly sexualized. And she was just sitting behind this piano singing these beautiful songs. And that for me, made me think Fuck, okay, this is where I could really do something, I was 13 and I was thinking about the world that I could create and how comfortable I would feel in this situation. No bloody dance routine or whatever. It was just about the music and everybody was just watching her and the piano. And I think that she as an artist really carved the way for me massively. She’s number one if I have to be honest.
As soon as I saw her I was like “oh my gosh she looks like me!”
Asbjørn: At that time, she wasn’t the “typical” idea of a pop singer. It was maybe at the end of the era of the made-up fight between Christina and Britney right?
Charlotte: Yeah and I think it kind of brought to attention what they were. And as much as they were great and they gave us some great pop hits; when something’s real, it’s real. I think that we were all craving that. When I was younger I was really fascinated by Britney or Christina, but as soon as Alicia Keys came through, there was just something about it. There was an elegance that I just loved and also felt a lot like I think there was something to do with us both being brown. As soon as I saw her I was like “oh my gosh she looks like me!” (laughs)
Asbjørn: This actually fits perfectly into the next section. The first thing I’d like to hear is who you mirrored yourself while growing up? So you say that this was at 13, you meet Alicia Keys and you get it and you see yourself as somebody. What about before? Who did you mirror yourself in?
Charlotte: Freddie Mercury. I watched Wayne’s World for the first time and I heard Bohemian Rhapsody for the first time, I was probably like, five or six, maybe. And we’re way too young to be watching Wayne’s World. And somehow it was left on and I watched it and I was like, What the hell is this song? But there was just an emotion to the melodies and everything. My Mum and Dad used to have these dinner parties and I used to mime the song, I never used to sing it. It used to make me want to perform, it brought out the performer in me, not necessarily the singer. Because there’s so much theatre in that song and theatre is a massive part of what I do when I’m on stage. And I think that really sculpted everything for me. He was the first male artist I guess that really moved me. Yeah, he was a big one.
Asbjørn: So he stayed with you pretty much your whole life?
Charlotte: Oh, God yeah, I still get amazed by him. And you know, as I got older, I watched interviews with him. What a guy! I used to say to my mum that’s the guy I’m gonna marry and she was like he’s dead. (laughs) But I didn’t care, there was absolutely no chance that I could be with him, but I just felt so connected with him.
The thought of me doing music would always push me through any horrible moment.
Asbjørn: What about ideals in general in your home? What kind of people are your parents? What kind of ideals did they kind of create for you as a kid?
Charlotte: I’ve been really blessed. I’ve struggled so much at school which was rubbish because my parents paid a lot of money for me to be at this school. And they really didn’t look after me in a way and my parents were obviously worried about that. But also, they could see when I turned to music that this is me and they helped no matter what. And the kind of support that I had was so unshakable. I don’t know, I just had this beautiful childhood. And I was allowed to be as weird as I wanted to be. My weirdness as a child was so pushed – they encouraged it. They were great. And you know, it’s funny because from where I’m from North Blackburn, being different is not really encouraged. But I think it’s because of my dad, who was an Irish man marrying a Malawian woman in 1975. I feel that we were going against the grain constantly there and that was just constantly pushed, whether it comes to our humour, the way that we dress, the way that we were, it was just everything wasn’t the norm. But we’re also very down to earth people and very normal, you know?
Asbjørn: So, you had a hard time in school, I assume. Freddie Mercury fan girl, looking different than the rest of the kids and coming from a completely different kind of household. What got you through, apart from Freddie and family?
Charlotte: From a young age, I don’t know if it was just because I was such a show-off, but whenever I had an argument with my sisters, or whatever, the thought of me doing music would always push me through any horrible moment. Knowing what I wanted to do and wanted to achieve was what got me up in the morning. That was the thing that forced me to go to school, even though I hadn’t done any of my homework. And that feeling kept me going, I don’t know what I would have done without it.
Asbjørn: You started writing songs at an early age about those things? Were you confronting them [in your songs]?
Charlotte: No, I didn’t. (laughs) I started writing songs about angels. What else did I write about? Because music then was such a driving force for me to feel positive, but it can really make you not feel that when you are actually in it. It can give you the complete opposite effect, but that’s music, isn’t it?
It was just one of those moments where I decided to be an actual bad bitch instead of not actually doing a thing about it. I needed to put this in something because I’ve done about a million of these meetings, and I’m so tired, I’m 29 and I’m fucking tired.
Asbjørn: You entered the kind of business side of things pretty early by signing to Columbia, right? How old were you?
Charlotte: I was 18.
Asbjørn: I’m really interested in how that plays out for a young girl who’s definitely not making music, which is considered mainstream at the time, getting into a room with probably a lot of older men and packaging something. What can you tell me about this experience?
Charlotte: I’ll tell you about the impact that it’s had now. I found that I was so young, that I was a little bit blinded, and didn’t quite know what was going on, that’s why you should enter this industry as an adult. Because going into this industry as a child is just so dangerous! No matter what support you’ve got, it is so dangerous. The effect that it’s had on me now has made me super aware of my parents. It’s made me really aware of my Identity about people saying you should be this, and you should be that, and that doesn’t look right and you should talk about this, people not knowing my ethnicity having something to do with it. And then, of course, being a certain age, being young – all of these factors where it made me realise music isn’t actually about music, is it? Loads of other pointless shit, when really, it should be about music? And it really fucks with me, it really fucks with my head. I really didn’t think the music industry was going to be like this, I thought I was just gonna be able to do what I want. And there’s a lot of men dictating how you should be in a really backward way. And it still fucks with me, and that’s the point when I have to have a word with myself.
Asbjørn: Which you basically did in “Bad Bitch“. Was that song built on a story from back then, or a newer experience?
Charlotte: It was recent, unfortunately, but you know what, it’s all good. It was just one of those moments where I’ve had enough; really had enough with these meetings and people saying you should be this, you should be that and I just don’t feel like you’ve found yourself. And in this meeting, I’ve just written “Forest”, and I thought I was onto something. And you’re sat here telling me that I don’t know who I am. And I feel like I’m trying to prove myself to you, which is driving me insane because I don’t want to play for you, I almost want you to just eat your words. It was just one of those moments where I decided to be an actual bad bitch instead of not actually doing a thing about it. I needed to put this in something because I’ve done about a million of these meetings, and I’m so tired, I’m 29 and I’m fucking tired.
Asbjørn: How did you get out of that situation? I don’t know if I can ask you this, but are you out of that situation?
Charlotte: Yeah, I am, it was literally just a meeting and my manager helped me massively. I was just stunned. It was just a poorly organised meeting, but no hard feelings, you know? I was just so riled up that I needed to use it in some form, and I needed it for inspiration. He just got me at the wrong time where I was like I’m gonna fucking write about this.
Asbjørn: I’m really interested in the label side of things, the major industry. For so many decades, women in pop music have fought for the right to be themselves and have succeeded in creating a really kind of broad ideal. There’s a lot of different women to look up to now that I’m personally missing myself on the male side of the industry. And something that I’ve kind of noticed and heard from other female friends who are in the industry and who are artists is that there’s almost like the commercialisation of feminism going on. This pressure to take a stand as a woman because female artists actually made it normal. They made it. They made it a thing. They made it mainstream and now the industry wants it. Have you felt that pressure to be a certain kind of female ideal? A strong one?
Charlotte: Yeah, definitely. People ask me can you not write an empowering song, can you not just write something that sounds like Lizzo? I’m like, no, my element comes from me being weak, or not even weak, but me being emotional and laying my heart out. That’s fucking brave as well. It’s brave to bear everything. For me, I try not to focus on what everybody else is doing, I really try not to be compared to other people. So, with this new stuff, I feel like it just comes in different forms.
Asbjørn: Do you consider what you want to stand for and what kind of ideal you are? Do you see yourself from the outside like that and conceptualise a female ideal?
Charlotte: By watching me onstage it’s not one of those experiences that looks all pretty. When you watch me, it’s like you’re watching a woman go through something about it being perfect. And that’s what I want to really put across like, none of us is fucking perfect. And when you watch me, it will look uncomfortable. And it is a shame that we’ve not been able to do any live shows because that’s where I think people understand me as an artist and start to realise that there’s bravery and independence in the way that I like to convey a song instead of it just looking perfect. I want to show young girls it’s okay to look angry and emotional and not always overthink everything, even though I do it myself.
My element comes from me being weak, or not even weak, but me being emotional and laying my heart out. That’s fucking brave as well. It’s brave to bear everything. For me, I try not to focus on what everybody else is doing, I really try not to be compared to other people.
Asbjørn: I think that’s a wonderful mission. I can’t wait to see you live.
Charlotte: I pull some serious faces, I look like I’m ill. I’m just so bored of looking like I know what angle is right. It’s about Janis Joplin and Britney from Alabama Shakes and stuff like that. Watch somebody go through something on stage instead of it being this perfect situation. I think that’s so important.
Asbjørn: How is your audience? Is it predominantly any gender? Or is it mainly queer? What does it look like when you look at your audience?
Charlotte: It’s mostly queer, I think. A big part of my following, which I’m so proud of, is queer. And I do think it’s because I’m not afraid of showing everything on stage? I don’t know, I’m not sure, but I’m really fucking glad.
Asbjørn: Honestly, I think your own gender identity from my perspective is so relaxed in itself. You are super masculine, and you’re super feminine. You’re something that I, as a man, as a queer man, can relate to it and I think that men love. You would be somebody that a normal guy from Blackburn could relate to actually, you know, I would hope so at least. But how do we get there, though? How do we get there, where your identity is considered mainstream? Do you consider yourself mainstream?
Charlotte: No. Left of centre, for sure.
Asbjørn: I thought so.
Charlotte: There’s a part of me that’s like fuck these people that don’t understand. Like that fucking guy down the pub, I don’t care and if I do, they will be enticed, and they will be whatever, but fucking let’s confuse everybody. Fuck it.
Asbjørn: Fuck it. I’m on your team. Let’s confuse them all. I think we’re getting close to a sort of finale that I would like to call FutureSexLoveSound, I’m quoting one of my big icons from childhood. I would like to know if you could change something in pop culture in 2021, what would that be?
Charlotte: A big one for me is about age. It really fucking pisses me off that age is a factor of music. Especially being a female. “Oh, she’s 3 so she’s passed it. She’s been around, so she’s passed. She’s just not it’s not new. It’s nice. She’s old. Fuck off! Are you kidding me? When you listen to music, you don’t hear an age? Why is that an issue? And also, what pisses me off is like, bear in mind I’ve gone through such an experience of music, but because I’ve gone through that there’s almost an element of people being like, Oh, well, this has worked then, so it won’t work again, you know? How about supporting people who still fucking going for it? And it still sounds good, if not better? Why can’t we just actually listen and know what’s good?
Asbjørn: I think that’s a brilliant note to end things on. A couple of last things though. Your next single called “Bad News” is coming out in a week. I had a sneak peek of a little something that’s coming out tomorrow. Do you want to tell people what it is?
Charlotte: It’s the video for “Bad Bitch”, where I asked my fans to send in videos where they were being that ultimate bad bitch self. And oh my god, it is so good. It is amazing. Unbelievable. I have the best fans. And speaking of gender identity, I mean, that is fucking freedom.