[MUSIC: Interview] The XX
“It always comes back to love, I don’t know why. Even though I am actually a happy person, writing a melancholic song has always come more naturally.”
As one third of UK minimalists The xx, Romy Madley Croft is as retiring as the music she writes. Blending into a dim corner of The World Bar, the 23-year-old singer-songwriter/guitarist is camouflaged under layers of black and grey fabric, and the wind outside bites appropriately – her band seem to have chosen a bracing winter day to complete their Sydney press cycle.
If she’s quiet, it’s probably because the group is staring down the end of an exhaustive two-month press junket. Madley Croft seems a little frazzled, but she’s in decent spirits. “It’s been a little like doing a back-to-back therapy session,” she says, with a rueful laugh. “Sometimes it’s interesting having your songs psychoanalysed… and sometimes it is offensive.”
Her band has barely spent a moment out of the spotlight since the release of their Mercury Prize-winning self-titled debut in 2009 – a record remarkable for its glassy, vapourous approach to the love song. Whereas another band might exaggerate emotional content with volume, Madley Croft and her lifelong friend Oliver Sim trade hushed vocals to each other, boiling the bones of the genre down into a pure, potent stock. Producer/drummer Jamie Smith dresses things simply too, reflecting the intensity of the subject matter and performances in the space surrounding the vocal. With their debut, songs like ‘Islands’, ‘Crystalised’, ‘Intro’ and ‘VCR’ utilised the MPC in new and raw ways, drawing a Balearic quality out of an instrument more generally associated with hip hop and dance production.
Fans were drawn in by the unrefined intimacy of Madley Croft and Sim’s vocal interplay, and their agonising way with a lyric. “It can be a challenge to write a convincingly happy song without being cheesy,” Madley Croft explains. “With ‘Angels’, I was quite happy to have written a song that was purely about being in love and it going well.” As optimistic as that sounds, the first single from their sophomore album Coexist still retains the insulating darkness and devotional melancholy of their earlier work. For some, this works to their advantage; for others, it is the album’s undoing: the band remain so fixated on their preferred subject matter, arrangement and tempo that they’ve forgone light, groove and a sense of fun.
There’s no doubt that The xx are masters of the love song, and Coexist is an appropriate comedown to their debut. It’s the break-up that had to happen, and throughout the record, The xx distil the grandeur and loss of a serious relationship into moments of incisive, emotionally articulate lyricism. “I’ve always been into lyrics that are very simple, and that work to summarise a complex issue,” she says, going some distance in explaining why their lyrics are potent enough to string Smith’s skeletal grooves around. “That’s where the minimal thing came from. We had to be able to play everything that we wrote live on one guitar, bass and MPC. I used to have an 8-track recorder, and we’d stop when that was full.”
Despite looking like a council-flat drug dealer, Sims exercises genuine emotional gravity. He is believably wounded, but rarely dips into the potentially suffocating drama of the lyrical content. Madley Croft works in an ethereal way around the loss at the core of the record, and it all ends up sounding honest and real, if maudlin. To wit, there’s believable heartbreak throughout, but who is it all about? Is it their relationship, or a construct? Madley Croft is predictably cautious answering direct questions. “Some of the songs… well, I am hesitant to go too close to what it is about, but it is all very personal,” she demurs. “Which is not to say we’ve had an awful time. Something I started to do on this album was to talk to people about what they are going through in their love lives… All the details are so specific and different, but a lot of people go through very similar things. I found that interesting to write about.”
So if the album is an amalgamation of many different experiences of love, how do the singers set up each song as a focused duet? “It normally starts from Oliver or me, usually lyrics like a poem with a little melody. I send it to Oliver as an email, and if he thinks he can write to it he will, mimicking my melodies. And then we can all get together in a room and write with Jamie.”
There are tracks here that, unlike ‘Angels’, veer toward deep house and dance in a way that would suit their UK pedigree, and Jamie Smith’s growing remix vocabulary. “I think it was something that we were taking a step into, but without a big plan,” says Madley Croft. “We have so many influences, and certainly the house thing comes into the live band from the last album. We would extend our song ‘Night Time’ into a long jam. Just seeing the audience move and stuff was really interesting, and I think it’s something we’d like to take a little further.”
Despite their exposure to dance music and the growing production skills within the group, in making Coexist the band stuck to the initial simplicity of their debut. “Jamie has really grown as a producer and we can layer everything a lot, but we decided to keep to that 8-track aesthetic and discipline.” Madley Croft doesn’t feel like this strict adherence to the form has limited the record. “We have a way of working where we fall into and out of our comfort zone, but we didn’t have any limits [or] thoughts like ‘We can’t go there’,” she says. “On a song like ‘Swept Away’, Jamie brought in a 909 drum machine, and though we tried to compress it down into a three-minute pop song, house music progresses as it goes ‘round – that’s sort of the fun of it – and in the end we had to let it be five minutes long.”
Though it might not be the most adventurous sophomore record, Coexist represents The xx’s continuing research into The Love Song – an almost academic pursuit that prompts contradictory outcomes. On one hand we get their brilliance in dissecting couples and their fallout – a subject they discuss with satisfying reach and depth. On the other, the monastic stricture with subject and the duet format seems a little safe and, well, no fun. More thrilling is Madley Croft’s deep and studied understanding of relationships. Given that I’ve been going through a break-up for a long time, it seems a perfect opportunity to get some advice from Love Yoda. So, after all that research, what is the nature of love? And what’s left in its wake? “I’ve always taken a lesson from each relationship. You feel more wary about things, but I think I am optimistic about love,” she says. “You’ll always have a special relationship with that person, even if there is anger or sadness there.”
What: Coexist is out now via Young Turks/Remote Control