A year after the release of her quarantine album, Alone Together takes us back into the world of Charli XCX, for an intimate and introspective look into the creation of How I’m Feeling Now
An animated sequence of computer-generated bodies soar through an empty urban landscape: adrift, alone, and adorned with flashy, futuristic garb. They represent Angels (fans of Charli XCX, for the uninitiated) and act as something of a visual motif throughout Bradley & Pablo’s documentary piece ‘Alone Together’, which details the creative process behind the experimental pop-artist’s quarantine album how i’m feeling now. These avatars, in their resemblance to the glittery online personas of Y2K twitter, allude to the digital plane the ongoing pandemic has confined a large part of our existence to; and the interface that will allow Charli XCX to communicate and collaborate with fellow artist and fan alike to produce her gleaming new record.
Rewind to 2019 and to a period where Charli felt like she had control of every aspect of her career. Archival footage depicts her artistic trajectory to this point, from the release of ‘Vroom Vroom’ – which, in Charli’s eyes, attracted the queer audience that helped her find herself as an artist – to addressing a packed out Brixton academy dressed as a devil furbished with the LGBT flag. High camp, truly.
Now cut back to 2020 and to a period where this control would be snatched away. Whilst the early stages of lockdown were defined by a sense of novelty, it was not long before Charli, as she was soon to aptly phrase in ‘anthems’, would start feeling ‘existential and so strange.’
A sense of purposelessness in these stagnant times is something many of us can probably relate to, and for Charli, the lack of an artistic outlet was particularly damaging, as she asserts that her ‘positivity goes hand in hand with being creative.’ What better way to remedy this then, than to set herself the ambitious task of creating an album in just five weeks — an undertaking that usually takes a year to complete. No pressure!
From the jump, Charli decided to open up the creative process, not just to other collaborators (including producers such as A.G Cook, who seems to have spent almost an entire month on facetime to XCX) but to her fans as well. Documenting the entire process in real-time through periodic Instagram lives, she routinely requests feedback, initiating a two-way relationship that is rare of an artist of her popularity.
The process, in all its uncensored glory, seems incredibly demanding. We see wordless vocalisations over lo-fi beats which ultimately never make it onto the album, as well as throwaway lyrics adlibbed over a Palmistry beat that will within a profoundly short amount of time become the song ‘7 years’ — an ode to Charli’s relationship of the same amount of time to Huck Kwong, which though lengthy, up until lockdown, had been almost entirely long-distance.
There are also discussions of thematic concerns. How does one combine the brash and caustic sonic quality of a futuristic club sound with the tender subject matter of a longterm love? This concern manifests itself in bouts of writer’s block, though the collaborative nature of this project means this is quickly mended, with Angels suggesting adjustments to lyrics drafted to Dylan Brady and Danny L Harle produced track ‘anthems’. It’s interesting to see how even an artist as seemingly self-realised as Charli, occasionally needs external perspectives to re-evaluate and flesh out an idea.
This direct channel between fan and artist underpins the entire process. From the ‘forever’ music video compiled of hundreds of fanmade videos, to Charli debuting a demo of ‘c2.0’ to an unsuspecting Zoom audience, and eventually the digital album release at Club Quarantine, her followers are led every step of the way.
Well, almost every step. As the deadline looms, the pressure begins to get to Charli. Candid confessions about how she requires work, the pursuit of a creative high, to function are made to the camera. We see her frustration in several botched takes of recording vocals for ‘pink diamond’, which ultimately leads to her cancelling her collaborative Zoom meetings, and eventually shutting the camera off to focus on work, excluding the digital viewer for what seems like the first time. It begs questions of whether there is a limit to how much we should share of ourselves online — there’s great power in Charli surrendering herself to her audience, but also great vulnerability, especially when you are famed for your unerringly confident exterior.
Across this tumultuous experience we see Charli learning a great deal about herself, digitally therapising and documenting her journey towards self-love. This eventually culminates in the completion of her album. In the haze of having realising what initially seemed impossible, we see Charli standing in disbelief after listening through the final product, before uttering sheepishly: ‘I’m really proud of myself.’
All in all, the documentary exposes many of the artistic battles that we all face. Sure, we may not have the platform nor the resources that Charli has at her disposal, but at its core, the struggle to create – particularly in the current climate – is universal. Much like Charli, many of us have an, at times, unhealthy relationship with work; many of us often forget that creating is supposed to be somewhat enjoyable, which is particularly easy to do when it is your method of sustaining an existence. But it does inspire hope that if we trust the process and use the support networks available to us – much like Charli does with her Angels – everything will come together in the end.
In total, Alone Together is a glimpse beneath the sleek surface of the Charli XCX brand. Much like the album itself, underneath the saccharine, glossy production are flashes of introspection that are often profound and sometimes all too relatable.
Alone Together was premiered 2021’s SXSW Film Festival, and is currently available to stream via HULU