“Probably on Ecstasy,” Charli XCX replies, very matter-of-factly, when asked about the best way to listen to her debut album, True Romance. “It’s a magical pop record that will make you dance and cry tears of diamonds—it sounds like purple angels.” Makes sense coming from a girl who arrived on the East London rave circuit at age 14, spouting saucy lyrics about Krispy Kreme doughnuts and dinosaur sex over throbbing electro beats of her own creation. 

But Charli wasn’t born decked out in Day-Glo. Before her partying days, she was just Charlotte Aitchison, a teenager living with her family in the English countryside, recording demo tracks and posting them online, until a promoter cold-called her to play a warehouse party. “At the time, I had no idea about that culture,” she admits. “I had never even heard of Michael Alig [the infamous Club Kids founder]. I went into the whole thing pretty blind.” She recalls her first gig with a laugh: “I got there at 9 p.m., and I had my parents drive me. Of course, no one else arrived until, like, midnight, and I wasn’t on until three in the morning.” But it didn’t take long for Charli’s provocative lyrics and sparkly sound to make her a party-scene fixture.

When it came time to start laying down tracks in the studio, however, Charli had already begun the transition from a neon-bright teen in a tutu to a smoky-eyed woman of mystery. Clad in girly, goth-grunge Empire Records-era garb and her signature pair of Baby Spice-approved Buffalo platform sneakers (which a brief survey of Google images suggests she has never taken off), Charli cultivated a bewitching synthpop sound, equal parts haunting and glitzy, new wave and heavy. Two singles she released in 2011, “Stay Away” and “Nuclear Seasons,” attracted positive attention from critics—the former a quasi-melancholic song with an industrial soundscape, the latter a dreamy and kaleidoscopic production that highlights Charli’s vocal versatility.

Yet, for the now 20-year-old artist, True Romance marks a move outside of her comfort zone. “I really experimented with my sound,” she explains. “I wanted to make the record luscious, beautiful, and more ethereal. It’s very real.” Indeed, in step with its title, the album is a collection of achingly lovelorn songs about relationships and heartbreak, written by a young woman who came into her own emotionally during the recording process. “This is a coming-of-age album,” she says. “When I first started the record, I was 17 and didn’t know who I was as a person. So, I wrote it as I grew up and changed my perspective on love and life. And I really drew a lot from personal experience, since I had fallen massively in love while making the album.” This depth of feeling is especially apparent in her brooding yet bright tracks like “Set Me Free.” “I have been dancing with shadows/ I have been calling your name/ I feel the skin dripping from my bones/ Your touch, it makes me insane,” Charli croons over a vibrant musical backdrop.

Charli also ventures into the world of spoken-word demi-rap, with a number of tracks featuring verses articulated in what she calls “a posh tone.” While a goth girl busting rhymes projects a rather awkward visual, the end result really works, and I tell her so. Suddenly, she’s as giddy as a 14-year-old dropped off at a warehouse party by her parents. “Oh, thank you!” she gushes. “You’re going to boost my ego too much.”