CXLOE, Shiny New Thing

Dark-Pop Queen CXLOE and Her ‘Shiny New Thing’

CXLOE’s Shiny New Thing is hook-forward pop music, an unrelenting collection of emoto-bangers, and an arch response to a clueless music executive.

Shiny New Thing
CXLOE
Independent
17 May 2024

CXLOE is the biggest pop artist you have never heard of. She has toured arenas across Australia alongside Maroon 5 and opened for Sugababes as part of WorldPride. Her music boasts over 200 million streams on digital platforms, with “Show You” being named an essential song in the history of Australian pop music. Rolling Stone recently crowned her an “alt-pop star” who is one of the country’s “most-watched music exports”. However, none of these achievements lessen CXLOE’s anxiety regarding her place in a competitive independent music market.

On her debut album, Shiny New Thing, the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter toys with the question of an expiry date for her ambitions. “Am I going to make it?” she asks on the pulsating title track, affecting the same cool detachment as fellow Antipodean Troye Sivan, “I’ve got nothing left to lose”. Her desperation plays out on the dancefloor, describing a Faustian bargain for commercial success in a nu-disco rush: “I’ll be your shiny new thing, I’ll do things I don’t mean,” she purrs with ironic abandon, caught somewhere between giving up and giving in.

The song is CXLOE’s arch response to an article in which a music executive claimed a dearth of new talent in the industry. His words were damning confirmation of the speed with which independent artists like CXLOE must prove themselves, minus the financial backing a major label provides. “I’ve had the privilege of working with so many amazing artists who are grinding away out here, but because you have been in it for so long, you’re just not shiny anymore,” she says. “And then you go on that continuous cycle of reinvention – am I doing this for me, or am I doing this for them? That article played a big part in how I shaped the album and the story I wanted to tell.”

Raised on a picturesque strip of Sydney’s coastline, seeing the Spice Girls on television as a young girl ignited CXLOE’s lifelong interest in pop. The heightened personas in the 1990s-era girlband gave the more reserved Chloe Papandrea permission to invent a performative character of her own. She flew to America and recorded a handful of demos at 15-years-old, before cutting her teeth as a featured vocalist on electronic collaborations. When her first single, “Tough Love” was released in 2017, CXLOE emerged fully formed, a dark-pop queen whose artistic persona of wigs, lip jewellery, and moody sonics is a natural continuation of the lyrics she writes.

“It’s very much one in the same, music just allows me to bring it to life,” she muses on the eve of her album release. “I’m a huge feeler and empath, and that doesn’t change in my music. That’s the throughline. I just lean in on the creative side.” 

The occasional creative diversion – 2021’s “Cry & Drive” veers more acoustic indie-pop than her other releases, whereas immersive album opener “Half of Me” and its nocturnal ambient club has not diluted her brand. CXLOE’s editorial-ready photographs have graced banners atop Spotify’s recommended playlists, indicating the global reach of her sound. She describes her music using the metalanguage of streaming algorithms, calling it “dance/cry pop, introspective stream of consciousness, can sometimes lean dirty warehouse vibe.” In a word? “Bleak, but dressed up bleak.”

Shiny New Thing offers 13 hook-forward songs, compiling a string of recent singles and supplementing these with unheard tracks. The album is a tight body of work, an unrelenting collection of two-minute-something emoto-bangers. This is pop music for a new generation, the trim runtime obliging the finite attention span of Gen Z, who made one song (“Till The Wheels Fall Off“) a viral hit on TikTok.

An immediate standout is “Shapeshifter“, produced by Frequency, the New York native behind the chart-topping Eminem and Rihanna duet “The Monster”. It is classic CXLOE, an uptempo excavation of her identity, specifically her experience as an introvert moving through extroverted spaces. The lyrics reframe the act of assimilating into a social environment as a power move, invoking the quiet defiance of past single “New Trick“. When I tell her “Shapeshifter” conjures up images of loungeroom dance parties and participants enthusiastically mounting the furniture, she is ecstatic.

“That’s exactly what I had in mind! I really wanted this to empower us, something we can put on and be like, I got this. I have a big place in my heart for making people feel safe and like they can be their true selves. I played it on [my UK and European] tour, and everyone seemed to like it. Now, one of my top cities on Spotify is Glasgow. It’s really cool when something connects.”

Other inclusions are not as sanguine. She is a “Flight Risk” and admits to instances of career sabotage, blaming her “Bad Taste” in people (“the f–k is wrong with me?” CXLOE sings in self-flagellating falsetto). Even Shiny New Thing’s most obvious love song, a gift to her fiancé, is coded in its title: “You Must Be Crazy Too”. Historically, pop music has demanded a far slower psychological reveal from female artists; the perky patina of radio-friendly cordiality must be established first before women are afforded the luxury of a record that turns inward. For an album seven years in the making, there was no time to waste: CXLOE sits in discomfort from the jump.

“It’s about breathing life into the darkness,” she asserts. “Instead of trying to trick myself and be, like, ‘I’m not going to give these feelings any attention, I’m just going to write about the things that I want to feel’, I hope to work my way through it. I just wouldn’t buy it if I tried to pretend the darkness wasn’t there.” 

CXLOE directly confronts her shadow self on the closing track, “Chloe Enough!“. Penned with Eric Leva, the songwriting partner credited on half the album, time freezes as she steps outside her corporeal form. Over a bed of dreamy 1980s synths, she administers advice in second person, drawing a line in the sand for the perfectionist tendencies that “rip me to shreds”. It is the only instance where she explicitly separates CXLOE – which she occasionally refers to as “the project” – from her real life, an unmasking tucked away in the album’s final minutes. “That’s why I used my actual name. Putting myself on blast and calling myself out was the only way to do that,” she says. “I love hiding behind an alter ego, but it’s been so debilitating at some points. I can’t hide for this one.”

Any weariness evident in “Chloe Enough!” is understandable. Just as she landed a support slot on a national stadium tour in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Her career momentum halted, leading to a scattershot spray of singles and the appropriately titled EP Heavy, Part I, performed to a room of masked faces at its socially distanced release launch. In the summer of 2023, during a high-profile Australian music festival, her set was usurped at the 11th hour by the surprise announcement of two Grammy Award-nominated dance acts. The scheduling oversight was a low blow.

“Gaslight”, a slice of reverb-slathered electronic pop written four years ago, takes on additional meaning in view of these disappointments. She references psychological thriller The Girl on the Train in its second verse but bristles at the suggestion the song’s title borrows a zeitgeist phrase from the woke vernacular. “I don’t want people throwing it around because it is such an awful, awful thing to do to someone. I wrote it through the lens of a lover, but it’s actually about someone I worked with, a male in the industry who was continually making me feel crazy. That was my first taste of working with these big dogs. Now, looking back, I was being taken for an absolute ride. But I’m really proud of the song because it still feels relevant – it doesn’t feel old.”

A similar undercurrent bubbles beneath “Wrong About You”, the album’s purest pop track. CXLOE’s trademark crunchy bassline unexpectedly switches into a bouncy, singalong chorus reminiscent of Carly Rae Jepsen. Melodically, it gives top-down, girls-in-the-back-seat energy, but lyrically details discovering she was about to be dropped by her label. “That song just fell out. I had been hearing things and I was like, I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am. I love the colours, mixing dark lyrical content with a brighter sound. I think the pairing is so fun.”

In 2022, CXLOE bravely moved to Los Angeles sans management and record deal. The weight of this decision informs the excellent “No Service“, a drum and bass throwback to Guy Sigsworth and Imogen Heap’s early noughties duo Frou Frou. CXLOE’s rapid-fire phrasing and pitched-down vocals produce a disorienting effect, an aural interpretation of her world spinning out of control. The accompanying gritty, lo-fi video, shot in downtown Los Angeles on a camcorder, further emphasises the feeling of isolation in an alien environment. 

The geographic relocation adds CXLOE’s name to the long list of Australian singer-songwriters that took on America, treading a path forged by Helen Reddy in the late 1960s, all the way through to Sia’s stateside ascent in the 2000s. Fortified by the support of a new team and independent ownership of her music, her relationship with Los Angeles has changed (“they really love pop here, they love the drama”) but, like the women who came before, she remains ineffably Australian.

“I owe my career and artistry to Australia,” she states patriotically. “I’m probably more universal when it comes to my actual sound, but so much of me screams where I’m from. In L.A., you have to change your language and back yourself, and I just don’t know if I’ll ever be that person. So, in that sense, I’m Aussie through and through!”

Back in her home country, CXLOE has paid her dues. She served as an ambassador for APRA AMCOS, the organisation overseeing the rights of Australian songwriters, composers, and publishers, and regularly attends writing camps to support other emerging artists. The Australian government subsidised the creation of three of her singles including “Cheating on Myself“, co-written by Eric Leva along with Steph Jones, who helped craft Sabrina Carpenter’s hits “Nonsense” and “Espresso”. The lush production by Jussi Karvinen (Bebe Rexha, Kesha) distils CXLOE’s mental health struggles into three minutes of pop perfection, and its reaction in her live sets more than justifies her place on the world stage.

“I remember going to that session and being s–t scared because you only really get these people in a room once. That’s one of my favourite songs I’ve ever been a part of. Also, it’s the first time I’ve ever recorded vocals tipsy! The first and only time, honestly. I have to be so in control, but we were having such a fun day and they had wine. I got in there, and I was like, oh my God, I can’t see.”

This contrast of control and vulnerability is accentuated in the sleeve photography for Shiny New Thing. A chainmail headdress presents CXLOE as a modern Joan of Arc, an androgynous pop warrior ensconced by darkness. Underneath, she conceals her naked chest, reiterating the album’s conceptual exploration of what it takes to make an impact in the industry. The goal, she insists, “wasn’t for it to be a sexy cover. It was baring all because, what else am I meant to do? Do I literally have to be naked to be seen? But the chainmail is getting ready for battle – I still have my strength, and I’m going to put up a fight.”

If there is any justice in the pop world, with a debut like this, she will not have to.

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