The xx’s Romy: ‘I can now write about loving a woman and not feel afraid’

Romy Madley Croft. Photograph: Vic Lentaigne

The problem with being an introvert writing dance music is that eventually you will have to dance in front of other people. “I’m definitely quite a shy dancer,” says Romy Madley Croft over a video call from the home she shares with her girlfriend, the 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 nervously ponder how she will perform her upbeat, house-indebted new music. “It’s taken a long time to get to the place where I really enjoy being on stage.”

Fifteen years, in fact. The familiar image of Madley Croft is as bassist and singer with the xx, the band she formed with London schoolfriends in 2005: dressed in black, shielded by her guitar, expression ranging between pensive and troubled. Even performing a sparkling dance track on stage, such as Loud Places by her fellow wallflower and bandmate Jamie xx (“I go to loud places to find someone to be quiet with,” she sings on the chorus), she stayed largely rooted to the spot. Yet on the cover of her debut solo single, Lifetime, in an acid-hued image captured by Lentaigne, she is caught in motion, arms raised high, hair swooshed.

Rooted in early-00s Euro-dance, Lifetime is one of the most euphoric pop songs of the year. It has the signature intimacy that secured the xx two No 1 albums and a Mercury prize, but also the soaring songcraft Madley-Croft has used when writing for stars such as Dua Lipa and King Princess during the band’s hiatus. She wrote Lifetime in April alone in her bedroom, taking her back to the reasons she began songwriting in the first place, as a teenager swapping messages with xx bandmate Oliver Sim. “It really reminded me of that time when I was confused, and had all these things that were just out of my control when I was a teenager, and I was trying to process them. If I can write about it, I feel like I’ve calmed myself down.”

In that first lockdown, “everything became so still, and so simplified,” she says. “I was like: ‘What’s the most important thing to me? The people I love. And if the world ends, I just want to be with those people.’ It wasn’t my intention to write a really positive song about wanting to just seize the moment and enjoy life. I was quite pleasantly surprised that that was what came out.” Lifetime is such a rush of ecstasy, in fact, she almost chose not to release it in 2020, worrying that it was insensitive. But ultimately, she decided that joy is vital: her own pandemic therapy has been to dance with Lentaigne to the Lady Gaga album Chromatica in their kitchen, lit by a disco light she bought online.

Her forthcoming solo album is something of a love letter to those formative queer experiences

Madley Croft’s clubbing journey began in the Soho gay club Ghetto, which she and Sim would visit every Thursday night when they were 16 and 17. “It was great to have this life separate from school,” she says. “I’d 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 would like to DJ because he had seen her on the fringes of the dancefloor so often. She returned with burned CDs full of her favourite tracks, and discovered a new lifelong love: the joy of dropping a track such as Ultra Naté’s Free, or Corona’s Rhythm of the Night, and watching hands lift into the air. Her forthcoming solo album is something of a love letter to those formative queer experiences, cast in the poignant context of 2020, when that experience has been 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 notably more front and centre in her solo work than it has been in the xx. She and Sim – who are both gay – have 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: were they singing to each other? Or per the title of their second album, did they merely “coexist”, two strangers having 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 put out that first xx album, when we were about 20, to be really, really open about my sexuality. Over time, growing up and also just noticing how the world is changing, I felt a lot more comfortable being more public.” One of her new songs is titled Love Her. “To write about loving a woman and not feel afraid or embarrassed … maybe it’s a growing up thing, and just not caring as much what people think.” She says the rise of fearless younger queer artists such as King Princess is inspiring. “She’s so young, and so unafraid to be herself.”

She also wanted to create pop music for queer women that was upbeat, and didn’t take itself too seriously. “When I was a teenager, and I was looking for explicitly lesbian love songs that I could connect to, I definitely wasn’t finding any pop-dance music. It was more like, lesbian acoustic music. That’s the stereotype, I think. What does a lesbian love song sound like? Someone with an acoustic guitar!”

Madley Croft has consciously surrounded herself with female, non-binary and queer collaborators

The album currently consists of 17 new songs, floating around in various stages of production, and heading towards a 2021 release. Like Chromatica and Dua Lipa’s Club Future Nostalgia, the vision is for a pop record with the songs blended to mimic a DJ set. There are ballads “within the context of club sounds”, and songs that are “very fast and upbeat”. Like much of her work, she says the album will focus on romance. “I’ve talked about this a lot with Oliver – we say that’s my default theme,” she laughs. “I’ve always loved love songs, but a lot of the songs I’ve written [in the past] have been about heartbreak. I have been enjoying trying to write a few more songs about being in love – but also, not making them sound incredibly cheesy, because there’s this fine line between saccharine and sincere.”

Working on it has been a liberating experience, not least because Madley Croft has 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 Francine Perry in to work on analogue synths, alongside another engineer, Grace Banks. “I realised I had never been in the studio with all women before, ever,” Madley-Croft says. “It was something that I had been craving.” Forthcoming Lifetime remixes are by female and non-binary producers including Planningtorock, Jayda G, HAAi and Anz.

In this context, her guarded, controlled public image and the all-black outfits read as a kind of armour

All of this album work, she says, will eventually come to influence the xx. “It’s like a marriage,” she laughs. “It’s nice to keep it fresh. To have a bit of time /[/ apart/]/, come back together and have a conversation, like: ‘What have you learned lately?’ I’ve known Oliver since I was three years old. We’ve pretty much spent our whole lives together – nursery school, primary school, secondary school, on tour. It’s quite nice to not know what he’s doing. I think that will help the songwriting.”

Looking back on 2009 now, and the band’s catapult into the public eye when they were still just teenagers, Madley Croft has a lot of tenderness and sympathy for her shy younger self. While battling with their newfound visibility, she was also struggling with immense grief – her dad 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 also one of the most devastating.” In this context, her guarded, controlled public image and the all-black outfits read as a kind of armour.

Now, she says she wants to approach the next xx music “with a bit more playfulness – which I think comes from being a bit older and a bit more confident,” she grins. “I loved wearing all black. It made me feel safe, and more in control back then. As I’ve gotten older, it’s nice to be a bit more creative, and explore.” She self-deprecatingly imagines the headlines: “The next xx album is Technicolor, rainbows everywhere!”

Outgrowing the darkness is about more than moving past a goth phase, though. Madley Croft says that she wrote Lifetime about seizing the moment, because “sometimes you can worry the moment away. I’ve been feeling that a lot lately: that life is short. I think that a lot of the time, with the losses I’ve had in my life, and especially with Covid, and all this going on … to really celebrate life and live it to the best, that’s how I like to be.” – Guardian