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Romy: Confessions of a Dancefloor Introvert

In crafting her long-awaited debut, the empathetic electronic artist turned to big pop, bigger stars, and the anthems of her youth.

by Daniel McIntosh

Photo by Brian Novak

The xx was always for the dancers. Within the British indie rock band’s atmospheric and minimalist approach to electronic-indie, their sound has always been oriented toward dancefloors. With dusky, hip-stirring grooves and a shadowy image hinting at an underlying affinity for trance, garage, and EDMowing to its founders’ own experience in London’s aughts club scenethe trio veered a little closer towards diaristic song structure and quiet, confessional groove.

“My first introduction to clubbing was when I was a teenager going to queer clubs, and feeling a real connection to the sort of joyful enjoyment of pop music,” says one of the trio’s lead vocalists, Romy Madley Croft. “I think it’s not been so evident in the music The xx has released, but that’s always been a big inspiration to me.”

On her debut solo album, Mid Air, the singer-songwriter amends the record. The album is loaded with her quintessentially personal songwriting, newly inflated by big trancey drops, courtesy of Fred Again.., and euphoric stadium bangers. On “Loveher,” she challenges a lover to keep her love sacred and personal. Later, “Did I” is a donk-driven autopsy of the decisions that led to a relationship going awry. For Romy, the heartbreak is right next to ecstasy. The ballad lies within the banger.

With the immediately intimate voice that made The xx a household name, Croft follows the lead of her bandmates Oliver Sim and Jamie xx, taking on the starring role. RANGE spoke to the underground  from New York, ahead of her Toronto tour stop on December 5, to discuss overcoming being shy at the club, her love of euphoric EDM, and nabbing big-name collaborations before they were cool.

But first, there was The xx: (L-R) Jamie xx, Romy Madley Croft, and Oliver Sim. 

When Mid Air came across my desk, I was shocked that it was your debut, because The xx have such a long, legendary output. I’m wondering why now felt like the right time to release solo music?

Sometimes now when I see ‘debut album’ written down, I can’t believe it. It feels exciting, it feels like an opportunity, it has felt like a reset. Which has been something I must have been craving. I think I’m quite a curious person, and I like learning and sort of challenging myself. So I definitely have done all those things. In this project, I went quite far out of my comfort zone, but it felt good after making music with The xx since I was about 15. It felt kind of cool to just shake it up and try something new.

When The xx seemingly came on the scene out of nowhere, no one knew what you all looked like beyond that iconic black coverit was a sort of shadowy band. Does this debut feel like sort of stepping into the limelight for you?

Totally. Even down to the fact that our album covers have never had our faces on it… the whole reason that we decided to have the X as the front cover is that we wanted it to be about the music, we wanted to not be the focal point of the band. I think over time I’ve gotten more comfortable and more confident on stage, but back then I was definitely very shy. Conceptually, with Mid Air, I was very inspired by big pop music and pop stars. I looked at a lot of solo pop albums that I love and admire. An aspect that I noticed on every single one was [that it was] portrayed with eye contact to the camera. Even though it’s quite a straightforward thing to have the singer on the front cover, I thought it’s kind of new [for me] to do that. I wanted to embrace that more poppy, direct approach, and so to have a front cover that was a homage to that sort of felt like the right thing to me. But it has been quite surreal because being in New York, the label put up a billboard right by a bridge. I went over it and it was crazy just to see my face on this billboard next to the Manhattan skyline. And I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ I’ve never had that before. So that was cool, but very different from how it has been with the anonymity of The xx. 

There are some pretty significant collaborations on Mid Air  as well, namely Fred Again.., who’s become a sort of superstar in the time that you’ve been working together. You collaborated on “Strong,” the lead single. Can you tell me how that partnership developed? 

I’m so proud of Fred, he’s on fire right now. And I am just so happy for him. When we met, though, he hadn’t released any solo music. He was producing and songwriting for other artists and was doing really well at that. I got introduced to him because I was also interested in getting into songwriting for other people. At that stage in my journey, I wasn’t thinking I was gonna make a solo project, I was just curious and I wanted to be songwriting, and keep being creative outside of the XX. But Fred and I had a real connection pretty instantly, I felt very comfortable with him. He’s very talented. And we just started writing all this music together. He played me some early things. Obviously, it was amazing. Of course the rest of the world thinks so too now, and it’s really cool to see. It was lovely to have that time together before any of that pressure or expectation. 

Turning to another collaboration on this album, Beverly Glenn-Copeland was for a long time one of Canada’s best kept secrets. I’m curious about how you came across his music and what made you want to sample his song on “Enjoy Your Life”?

One of my greatest joys in this process was discovering Glenn’s music. And I was introduced to his music by Robyn, who is an artist I am a huge fan of. I was in Stockholm, and Robyn invited me to a gig and I’m so glad and I’m grateful to Robyn for that invitation, because it was one of the most magical gigs I’ve ever been to. It was very intimate, and Glenn is such a spiritual and incredible performer. In that performance, he performed his song “La Vita,” which contains the lyric “my mother says to me enjoy your life.” I found it so inspiring, and I couldn’t stop thinking about those lyrics. I wrote my song “Enjoy Your Life,” inspired by that. I didn’t know if Glenn would be comfortable with me singing his lyrics or sampling his voice, but I asked and I’m so grateful that he said yes. One of the best outcomes is that a few weeks ago, he posted a video on Instagram with him dancing to the song, and that was so beautiful and sweet. For me to see him enjoying the song was a very lovely full circle moment.

I am curious about some of the scenes that informed Mid Air. I understand you were drawing from your experience as a junior clubgoer, going out to different parties around London. On a random night out were you at Fabric, or a random rave or a house party?

My first introduction to clubbing in London was going to queer clubs. And just feeling like a real connection to the sort of joyful enjoyment of pop music. I think I’ve always loved that. I think it’s not been so evident in the music The xx has released, but that has always been a big inspiration to me. But at the same time Jamie [xx] is one of my best friends. So I would go to see him DJ and I would go to a lot more underground, electronic shows. I’ve loved DJing since I was a teenager, and now I’ve kind of found my place where I like embracing the pop stuff, as well as kind of leaning into trance and just quite emotional, euphoric, high-energy dance music, and sort of finding the cross-section between them.

I’m so glad you addressed that! Taking these club songs out of context, I think most people would be very surprised if they read the lyrics to find that they’re very deep and emotional. That’s something that I found that runs through Mid Air, bringing the ballad out of the banger, if that makes sense. 

That’s kind of been my ambition, to try and combine the two because I love ballads, and I feel like it’s a go-to place for me to write a ballad on the guitar, but I knew that I wanted to push on from that and try something else and embrace my love of dance music and my love of when you find out it’s music that is emotional, and there’s a song in there. I always love that so much. So that was my kind of dream to create both in one.

Okay Romy, last question. Having come forth as a poptimist and former dancefloor wallflower, what advice do you have for other club-going introverts who want to put themselves out there?

I know how it feels! I have become more comfortable in the fact that I don’t have to be the life and soul of the party. I can just be feeling the music and enjoying myself and that’s okay. Not everyone has got to be jumping up and down and chatting to everyone. I just try to have a bit more empathy for myself, and I think you’d have the best time in your own way. Some people just like being there and listening to the music and that’s okay. I think that’s what I liked about being in a club. You can sort of be there, it’s dark, you can sort of be in your own vibe, you don’t have to be a certain way. I really love looking out and seeing that when I DJ and just seeing all the different people with their different energies. Some people are hands in the air, some people are really trying to engage with me, some people are lost in the moment with their eyes closed, some people are just talking to their friends, some people are making out,  it’s a really collective group of different vibes. The reason why I felt like I love DJing is because I find it, especially when I was younger, really hard to talk to people in that environment. A way to connect for me was to be playing the music and kind of connecting to the room in a way that I wouldn’t have the confidence to do to go and talk to everyone in that room. That’s why I’m grateful for being able to connect with music.