T.The problem with being introverted and writing dance music is that you end up having to dance in front of other people. “I am definitely a rather shy dancer,” Romy Madley Croft said during a video call from the house she shares with her friend, photographer Vic Lentaigne, in North London. In lockdown, with no prospect of live shows, this wasn’t a problem, but now she’s starting to think nervously about how to perform her cheerful, homely new music. “It took a long time to get to the place where I really enjoy being on the podium.”
Fifteen years in fact. Madley Croft’s famous image is as bassist and singer with the xx, the band she founded in 2005 with school friends from London: dressed in black, shielded by her guitar, with an expression between thoughtful and restless. Even when she performed a scintillating dance number onstage, like her fellow Wallflower and bandmate Jamie xx’s Loud Places (‘I’m going to noisy places to find someone to be quiet,’ she sings in the chorus), she mostly stayed rooted in the place. But on the cover of her debut solo single Lifetime, captured in an acid-colored image – like the ones accompanying this article – by Lentaigne, she is caught moving, her arms raised high, her hair twisted.
Rooted in the Euro-dance of the early 2000s, Lifetime is one of the most euphoric pop songs of the year. It has the signature intimacy that secured the xx’s two No 1 albums and a Mercury award, as well as the soaring songcraft that Madley-Croft has used in writing for stars like Dua Lipa and King Princess during the band’s hiatus. She wrote Lifetime alone in her bedroom in April, taking her back to the reasons why she started writing songs in the first place, as a teenager exchanging messages with xx bandmate Oliver Sim. “It really reminded me of that time when I was confused and had all these things that I just couldn’t control when I was a teenager, and I was trying to process them. When I can write about it, I feel like I have calmed myself down. “
At that first lockdown, “everything got so quiet and so simplified,” she says. “I was like, ‘What’s most important to me? The people I love. And when the world ends, I just want to be with those people. ‘I didn’t mean to write a very positive song about wanting to grab the moment and enjoy life. I was quite pleasantly surprised that was what came out. Lifetime is such a flow of ecstasy, in fact she almost chose not to release it in 2020, worried it was insensitive. But in the end, she decided joy is vital: her own pandemic therapy was to be with Lentaigne dance to the Lady Gaga album Chromatica in their kitchen, lit by a disco light she bought online.
Madley Croft’s club journey began at the gay club Ghetto in Soho, which she and Sim visited every Thursday night when they were 16 and 17. “It was great to have this life separated from school,” she says. ‘I would stand in the corner, stare and observe. But that was fun for me! “
One night, someone who worked at the club approached her and asked if she wanted to DJ because he’d seen her so many times at the edge of the dance floor. She returned with burnt CDs full of her favorite songs and discovered a new lifelong love: the joy of dropping a song like Ultra Naté’s Free or Corona’s Rhythm of the Night, and watching hands take to the air. Her upcoming solo album is a kind of love letter to those formative queer experiences, cast in the poignant context of 2020, when that experience was snatched from so many young LGBTQ people. “I really hope that younger queer people can have those connections [in clubs] and learn how beautiful it is, ”she says.
Madley Croft’s queer identity is clearly more central in her solo work than in the xx. She and Sim – who are both gay – never used gendered pronouns in the love songs they write and perform together. Standing in what Madley Croft calls the “shared space of a song,” this gave their music its poetic ambiguity: did they sing to each other? Or, according to the title of their second album, did they just “co-exist,” two strangers who had different experiences?
That mystery was also a kind of protection. “I came out when I was 15, and my dad was really cool about it, and I’m very grateful for that,” she says. “But I didn’t feel ready when we released that first xx album, when we were about 20, to be really open about my sexuality. Over time, as I grew up and also just noticed how the world is changing, I felt a lot more comfortable being more of an audience. One of her new songs is entitled Love Her. “To write about loving a woman and not being scared or ashamed … maybe it’s something that grows up, and it just doesn’t really care what people think.” She says the rise of intrepid younger queer artists like King Princess is inspiring. “She’s so young and so unafraid to be herself.”
She also wanted to make pop music for queer women that was cheerful and didn’t take herself too seriously. “When I was a teenager, and I was looking for explicitly lesbian love songs that I could bond with, I found absolutely no pop dance music. It was more like lesbian acoustic music. That’s the stereotype I guess. How does a lesbian love song sound? Someone with an acoustic guitar! “
The album currently consists of 17 new songs, floating around in different stages of production and heading for release in 2021. Like Chromatica and Dua Lipa’s Club Future Nostalgia, the vision for a pop record with the songs mixed to create a DJ set. There are ballads “in the context of club sounds” and songs that are “very fast and cheerful”. Like much of her work, she says the album will focus on romance. “I’ve talked a lot about this with Oliver – we say that’s my default theme,” she laughs. “I’ve always loved love songs, but many of the songs I’ve written [in the past] are about heartbreak. I enjoyed trying to write a few more songs about being in love – as well as not making them sound incredibly cheesy because there’s a fine line between saccharine and sincere. “
Working on it was a liberating experience, not least because Madley Croft consciously surrounded herself with female, non-binary and queer collaborators, inspired by Björk’s work on Utopia with a team of women and non-binary people. Engineer Marta Salogni brought in Francine Perry to work on analog synths, along with another engineer, Grace Banks. “I realized I’d never been in the studio with all the women,” said Madley-Croft. “It was something I longed for.” Upcoming Lifetime remixes are from female and non-binary producers including Planningtorock, Jayda G, HAAi and Anz.
All this album work, she says, will eventually start to affect the xx. “It’s like a marriage,” she laughs. “It’s nice to keep it fresh. To have some time [apart], get back together and have a conversation, such as, “What have you learned lately?” I’ve known Oliver since I was three years old. We’ve spent most of our lives together – kindergarten, elementary school, high school, on tour. It’s nice not to know what he’s doing. I think writing songs will help. “
Looking back at 2009, and catapulting the band into the public eye when they were just teens, Madley Croft has a lot of tenderness and sympathy for her shy younger self. As she struggled with their renewed visibility, she also struggled with immense grief – her father and cousin both died when she was 20. “That year was just a blur,” she says. “It felt like five years in one year. It was the most euphoric year I’ve ever had, and one of the most devastating. In this context, her guarded, controlled public image and all-black outfits are read as a kind of armor.
Now she says she wants to approach the next xx music “with a little more playfulness – which I think comes from being a little older and a little more confident,” she grins. “I loved wearing all black. I felt safe then and had more control. Now that I’ve gotten older, it’s nice to be a little more creative and explore. She imagines herself the headlines: “The next xx album is Technicolor, rainbows everywhere!”
However, outgrowing the darkness is more than passing a goth phase. Madley Croft says she wrote to Lifetime about seizing the moment because “sometimes you can worry about the moment gone. I’ve felt that a lot lately: that life is short. I think a lot of the time, with the losses I’ve had in my life, and especially with Covid, and all this is going on … to really celebrate life and live it at its best, like that I want to be. “