Very few bands arrive as perfectly formed as The XX. The trio (Oliver Sim, Romy Madley Croft and Jamie Smith aka Jamie XX; a fourth member, Baria Qureshi, departed early in the band’s life in 2009) were near-teenagers when their debut album The XX dropped in 2008, but they arrived with a fully-formed identity. Their music was beautifully soft and fragile, songs built from minimalistic guitars and beats and the tension and nerves in the vocal interplay between Madley Croft and Sim, a sound complemented by the intense shyness of their stage presence. Success arrived rapidly for the band: The XX won the Mercury Prize, one of Great Britain’s most credible critical awards, sold thousands upon thousands of copies, and even had their track Intro sampled by Rihanna for her track Drunk On Love. A second album Coexist, soon followed, before a pause. Jamie XX released a solo album (the wildly successful In Colour), and Madley Croft and Sim dabbled in various projects. Now they’ve back, with new record *I See You* set for release this January. We met Madley Croft at the start of XX-phase three to find out all about it.
To open up, when I was scanning through your social media to prep for this interview, and a lot of the comments are just your fans begging for the new album. Does it feel good to be able to give them it?
Yeah, it feels good. For me speaking now, it still feels a little way away, it being January. But I can’t wait. It has felt like a very long time. I guess in this day and age, everything happens very fast. People expect things very quickly. In some ways, I’m pleased that we took our time, so we don’t play into that cycle of getting it out quick, quick quick. But honestly, it couldn’t have happened any other way, it took the time that it took. Jamie’s been very busy with his album, Oliver and I are so proud of him and happy for his success, but it’s been lovely to be altogether again
The debut and Coexist followed on quite closely from each other, in that release, tour, record cycle. But there’s been a longer gap between those records and I See You, and you’ve all taken part in a number of different projects like Jamie’s solo album and your work with Emile Haynie and One Republic. So does it feel like a lot has changed for the XX since then?
I think we’ve just grown up, we’ve started growing up. I think this time between Coexist and I See You, for me has been a time to get to know myself offstage, and get to know who I am as a person, not just a singer. I’ve loved that, and I’ve loved having the time to explore other different avenues and work with different. A big theme for us for this album has been getting out of our comfort zone. I think our comfort zone is quite a small place, we were very shy when we were younger. We’ve grown more in confidence, but we’re still not the kind of people who are the centre of the room, commanding attention. I wanted challenges. I went to LA and said to one of our managers ‘I just want to feel challenged. I want to know how people write pop songs’. I got there, and it was really scary; to meet new people, and to write music with people I’ve never met. Going from writing with my few best friends to strangers was quite extreme. But I learnt a hell of a lot, so it was definitely worthwhile.
The XX’s shyness was a big part of their early image. On stage they were almost non-communicative, playing with their heads down and focused on their instruments, evidently uncomfortable with the attention their music had focused on them. I asked Romy if a few years had changed that.
In general, do you feel that having a couple of years’ experience doing this now has changed you as artists? A lot of your early coverage and interviews focused on your being uncomfortable with the attention that a band brings, especially on stage. Now that you’re more comfortable in the role and more liberated in what you do?
I’m still learning how to do this. Some people are just born for the stage, I’ve seen people like that. But I’m not one of those people, none of us are. So we’re constantly learning how to feel comfortable onstage. When I first started playing shows, I couldn’t look up, I just had to look down. And all of a sudden, a hundred shows went past, and I started to look up, and Oliver was moving and I started moving. It happened, but it took its time. We do really love it now, and we do really enjoy being onstage, and I love making music and being able to play it for people. But it’s not a natural thing. But we’re definitely happier here than we were.
And do you think that opens up more possibilities as artists and live performers, now that you’ve a greater degree of comfort with it?
Yeah, I think for instance, we did a festival, a few festivals, when we were promoting* Coexist. And that was a big challenge for us, inviting other artists that we loved to play, and then interacting with them. That was a new thing for us. At festivals, there are often bands that I love, but I would always be too shy to go up and speak to them. Now I feel very differently, I feel much more confident in being able to reach out to people and say that that I’m a fan. It’s exciting, I’ve really enjoyed having friendships with other musicians. Especially whilst making this album, getting their feedback and stuff like that. I’ve found it really helpful. So I’m happy for the new confidence in that sense. It does feel more freeing, just to be more open, and having more confidence just to play to our friends and our fears, because on Coexist we just shut ourselves away, and were very isolated on purpose. We thought that’s what we needed to do. But in the end, our opinions were just the three of us, and we went a little bit crazy. So this time we just threw open the doors, and it felt good.
When listening to I See You, you notice a significant change from The XX’s previous work. The minimalism of their music was a big part of their appeal to people, the low-key fashion in which they expressed romantic angst and hesitant tension an integral part of the musical DNA. But bands develop over time, and The XX are no different. Many of the new songs are much bolder, bigger and more assertive than the more subdued style they explored before.
I wanted to talk about the minimalism thing, because you’ve kind of been pegged with this reputation as the minimalism band, but tracks like Dangerous, Say Something Loving and On Hold, they’re definitely not minimalistic. Is that something you consciously worked towards, that bigger, louder sound.
We definitely didn’t sit down and go ‘Right, let’s go big’. It just happened. I think that’s part of the letting go of those constraints, and being thinking ‘What would it sound like if that bit was there as well? It sounds great, let’s keep it!’. Rather than ‘Oh no, there’s no way we could play that live, take it out’. I think we must have instinctually enjoyed that fuller, warmer sound, so we just embraced it. Also, I’m excited to play these songs live. I think it’s going to add a different dynamic to our set. Whereas on the last tour, we leant more on the first album for the slighter warmer and more rhythmic tracks, Coexist has the more sparse moments. I think this album is more upbeat. I’m excited to see people maybe even dance to it [laughs].
It does feel bolder and more upbeat in the rhythms on it, for example Dangerous has this really muscular groove. Did you feel like you wanted to make a dancier record?
Yeah, definitely. It’s interesting, something I only realised from doing interviews was that Oliver and I had been admiring Jamie’s album and going to a lot of his DJ sets, so we were interested in having more upbeat songs. So the demos that Oliver and I made, we made a conscious effort to get better at producing demos. So when we gave something to Jamie it was more fully formed: before I used to just give acoustic recordings. So it was a real challenge, to make more fully formed demos for Jamie. We were putting more rhythms on it that were more upbeat. I didn’t realise this at the time, but he was wanting to get away from that. He wanted more space and less upbeat tracks. But somewhere in those two conflicting energies the album became what it is.
There’s also been a change in the lyrical themes. A lot of your past music focussed on heartbreak and relationships in the past tense, these kinda ‘what went wrong’ things. The new record seems to focus more on relationships in the present, there’s more of a visceral sense of this being now. Dangerous is about the getting a thrill from risk, Brave For You is about been drawn out of your shell by another person. Was that something you really wanted to do, to explore different sides of relationships on this record?
Absolutely, yeah. We really wanted to push ourselves to explore different themes. For me personally, I wasn’t heartbroken. So when we started the writing process, I wanted to be honest, I wanted to be true to myself My default is heartbreak songs: I know how to write them. So it was a challenge for me to write a song like I Dare You, which encapsulates more of an in-love feeling, but for that not to be cheesy. And that was a real challenge. It’s such a fine line, you can get really into the emotion of heartbreak, but the emotion of joy and happiness. With a song like Brave For You, for me it’s a song about a loss, but coming out of that with a sense of hope. I don’t like to explain the lyrics too much, but that for me was a personal one that I tried to write with another theme in my mind, but it does sound like a love song anyway.
It feels like a more euphoric record, more upbeat in many senses.
I’m really happy that’s come across. I think we feel more like that as people and I’m happy that’s comes across in the music.
On the lyrical theme, you were on Jehnny Beth of Savages’ radio show a while back and you talked about your early writing, where you went deliberately ambiguous to hide what you were talking about from the friends and family who were your audience then. Several years later, do you still write in that way, do you still prefer that guarded approach? Or do you feel more able and inclined to write in a more direct lyrical style?
I think I have let go of that need to write a cryptic song. That was from when there were literally seven people in the room, five of them knew what was going on in my head at that time and the other one might have been the person the song was about. It was a funny time and it definitely leant to more cryptic writing. And as times gone on, especially on this album, I feel very happy just to be very transparent. I still want to write in a poetic way, I don’t want it to be just a story, but it’s not consciously trying to hide.
Hiding is something The XX certainly aren’t doing on I See You. The picture that emerges from listening to the record, and speaking to Madley Croft, is of a band more at ease with itself than before, and making music that reflects that. I See You isn’t a radical departure for their sound, but it is a step forward into something new. We look forward to following them there.
I See You is out on Jan 13. The XX play at Hovet on Feb 8.
Words: Austin Maloney