Romy: Confidence Woman

Romy’s debut album is about the big things – life and death. And the small things that become the big things – finding joy on the dancefloor and falling in love. It’s about friendships, acceptance and community. And it’s the shot of dance-pop adrenalin that we perhaps didn’t know we needed but are pleased to receive. The some-time The xx guitarist and vocalist confides in Tara Joshi how she’s “drawn to the excitement” of removing herself from her comfort zone…

On a night out recently, a stranger came up to Romy Madley-Croft in the club to thank her for her song, ‘Strong’. Though you might not pick it up from the exuberantly glossy, bouncy production, the track is actually about processing grief. The lyrics nudge the listener to open up, share their pain and be held, with a refrain of ‘you don’t have to be so strong’. 

“I’ve never really been that good at talking about how I feel,” the artist – who performs under her first name – says now. “Especially about that. But now, because I have songs about it, it’s creating conversations in a way that I’d avoided. Suddenly this person I don’t know is in the club telling me about their friend passing away. And although it’s not always easy, I must have subconsciously been needing it.”

In spite of it being the singular guaranteed universal experience, grief often has the potential to be an isolating thing that we don’t really talk about. In the UK especially, few people seem to have the language or ritual to appropriately deal with how the feelings might ebb and flow without warning, and how for some, grief can render them inert, bereft, hopeless. But bereavement can also guide us to somewhere more intentional and communal in our existence. Certainly, that feels like the place Romy is moving towards on her long-awaited debut album, ‘Mid Air’. 

Dressed all in black, bar the vibrant tequila sunrise-coloured Nikes on her feet, Romy sits on a sofa in a neat mezzanine room in the offices of her record label, Young. Grey light is pouring in from outside, illuminating the dark strands of her bob, while the rain is beating down viciously on the windows in a grim indictment of London this past summertime. Still, Romy seems pretty cheerful. She is visiting from her home in Brighton for the day, and is softly spoken throughout our time together, but even then she emanates a palpably relaxed but excited energy about life and the new record. ‘Mid Air’ is a blissed-out set of dance music which finds the artist making a pulsing, heady sonic canvas to move in the club and celebrate her love for her wife, photographer Vic Lentaigne, while simultaneously being a collection of songs that is undeniably influenced by Romy’s experiences of bereavement. 

“I know what it’s like to have people not want to talk about [the people you’ve lost] out of sadness and awkwardness, but I’m like: ‘Let’s talk about it!’” she explains. Both of Romy’s parents had passed away by the time she was 21, her mother back when she was 11 years old. She continues: “I wanted to learn about my mum, and with my aunties, they were like: ‘We don’t want to upset you’ – but I’m like: ‘Please tell me about her, I was a child, I don’t have that many memories.’ Even though I find it really hard to talk about sometimes, there’s also a part of me that’s really craving it.”

If this all feels raw and vulnerable, you get the sense that it’s something she’s quite okay with. “There isn’t a veil between what’s on the album and what’s in my personal life,” she shrugs. 

Of course, this has not always been the case. As one-third of The xx, teenage Romy rose to fame as part of the minimalist south-west London band whose unique musical alchemy of rueful, spacious, yearning sounds still holds a significant spot in the hearts of many, in spite of their most recent album being all the way back in 2017. (Incidentally, she mentions that the three of them are back in the studio, and she’s excited to see what they create following their diverging solo paths – Oliver Sim with his gorgeous album ‘Hideous Bastard’ last year, and Jamie xx being, well, Jamie xx). With The xx, the lyrics – while always poetic – were always purposefully vague, and Romy herself seemed a quiet presence, her vocals striking in their wispiness. Songs were directed to ‘you’ and ‘we’, so people assumed that she and Sim were singing to each other; but now, in their solo work, they are comfortable being fully themselves, and being open about their sexualities. 

In Romy’s case, that means she’s finally singing freely about loving a woman. The most obvious case in point is ‘Loveher’, the lead single which she used to announce the album; it’s a sparkly romantic ode to being proud and happy in love, with tender lyrics like: ‘Lover, you know when they ask me, I’ll tell them/Won’t be ashamed, no, I can’t wait to tell them/Lover, I love her’. So much Queer representation in media and culture – perhaps in film particularly – ends up being a story of trauma, so it’s particularly welcome to have a record that is largely about Romy’s open joy in being a lesbian (a word she recognises is falling out of fashion, so she wants to reframe it in a positive light). “So often, a classic Queer storyline is about the really painful coming out,” she says. “But what happens next? I wanna know about the journey. So, for me, I just wanted to share the experiences, thinking about myself as a teenager when I was looking for that kind of representation.”

She recalls being excited even if she spotted tiny bits of Queer joy or referencing back then, particularly in the mainstream, and wants to give other people that feeling. 

Though she does consider herself to be a political person, Romy did not intend the album to be some kind of political statement. It’s perhaps more a result of her personal life, where as well as her own story, she notes the beauty in seeing friends and loved ones around her feeling more comfortable embracing themselves, including their sexualities and gender identities. 

“I’m mindful of an imbalance in representation,” she says. “And I feel the desire for there to be progress and change and acceptance. So that has been the driver. I’m hoping that in sharing more and being open, people can enjoy that and get a bit more positivity. I don’t know what it will actually do,” she laughs, a little abashed. “But hopefully it can move things on a bit.” She points to her song ‘The Sea’, musically inspired by Ibiza house, but in terms of subject matter, extremely Queer. “So, putting those two things together, a story about a woman loving a woman can exist in a more mainstream space. And that’s another step towards normalising it.”

These solo songs were not entirely inevitable in Romy’s career, though. Actually, she was interested in writing pop songs for other people, something she was drawn to during the period between The xx’s second and third albums. “I’d only ever worked with Oliver and Jamie,” she explains, “So I was kind of curious to learn how mainstream pop music is made as a way to just keep being curious and bring those ideas back to the band.” She was not entirely comfortable with some of the more “sterile” experiences she had when writing for others, particularly when it entailed sitting in rooms with strangers, given the often-abstract task of being asked to write a song about anything in any genre that could be sung by anyone. But she says she learned a lot, too. “In doing this, I ended up drawing on my imagination and my experiences, and I started writing quite a lot of songs that were very personal to me. And people who were close to me said: ‘Oh, are you sure you wanna give this song away?’ But at that time, there was a sort of block there – I thought: ‘I can’t sing them.’”

The conversation keeps coming back to confidence. Romy was a shy child, and when The xx started out, playing live was not something she did for the love of it, but rather, out of acknowledgement of the scene at the time. She recalls how, in the 2000s and 2010s, putting your music on MySpace then playing gigs in pubs and tiny venues was still an essential part of bands building a following and garnering attention. “I was very happy to be in the background as a kid,” she says, mentioning how most of her favourite childhood activities were solitary things like reading and drawing. “I think the fact that I’ve ended up doing this is quite a surprise to my family. But I think getting more comfortable on stage and relaxing into performing – which is something I really love now and find really special – is just a result of doing it again and again.” It was a gradual growth, she says, that eventually meant she was more comfortable playing stages at the likes of Glastonbury and Coachella. “Sometimes it’s getting over the initial hurdle of getting on stage, and a few minutes in I’m losing myself in the flow of it – and that’s now my favourite feeling.”

Much like learning to love playing live, Romy’s desire to write songs for herself was a gradual process of repetition to let her confidence grow, seeing how well-received her tracks for other people were (notably, she was a co-writer on Dua Lipa and Silk City’s ‘Electricity’). Partly, her burgeoning desire to work on a solo project was rooted in the fact that she has always been intrigued by pushing herself. She notes how a lot of her favourite musicians are lyrical singer-songwriters like Amy Winehouse and Fiona Apple, but she felt that making her first foray into solo music with her guitar would have felt quite safe: “It didn’t feel challenging enough,” she says.
“I find it really scary to go out of my comfort zone, but I realise I’ve been drawn to the excitement of that too.” 

The other reason she felt compelled to pursue her solo project was to do with the people in her life. We talk about love, and how good relationships can often imbue us with new confidence and help us feel like fuller versions of ourselves; and how, in turn, these feelings might have nudged her to step up and write an album about the positives of love rather than heartache (a staple of much of The xx’s output). 

“I think being in the relationship I’m in now and feeling in a good place... I was inspired to write about that stage of a relationship,” she says, noting how difficult it is to tread the line of happiness and overly-saccharine. “It was exciting to have all these feelings and try and get them out and like, try to do the feelings justice with words. And it felt new, and it felt like a new energy to put into a project.” 

Her relationship with Lentaigne has also meant Romy is becoming more comfortable in front of the camera and enjoying the collaborative process of making ‘Mid Air’’s music videos. While she was always interested in graphic design when working with The xx, Romy says she has enjoyed the opportunity to get more playful and colourful in her solo output’s visual identity, and this has been bolstered by working with her wife on the creative direction of the project. Though the couple had never planned to work together, when the label asked for photographs to go out with first single ‘Lifetime’ during the lockdowns, it made sense for Lentaigne to be behind the camera. “We were talking about everything all the time anyway,” Romy notes, “so especially with the music videos, she understood the meaning behind the music and could help convey that in a very personal way.” It was Lentaigne who made the intimate video for ‘Enjoy Your Life’, which splices fly-on-the-wall imagery of Romy with old footage of her late mother. And with the video for ‘Strong’, when Romy described the song as being “a hug in the club”, it was Lentaigne who suggested she reach out to her cousin Luis, who also lost his mum as a kid. “We both kind of put on a brave face and said: ‘I’m fine, I don’t want to talk about it’,” Romy explains. “And so, when Vic suggested I should be hugging Luis in the video, I was like: ‘Wow, I hadn’t thought of that.’” Luis agreed, and so the video captures the beauty of Romy holding her younger cousin as she sings the lines to him. “I was grateful that Vic had that idea that was so personal, I don’t know if anyone else would have. It added to the very personal nature of the music.” 

As well as her romantic partnership, another new element for this album was working with her friend, Fred Gibson – known best as producer and DJ behemoth, Fred again.. The pair met through those aforementioned writing sessions and immediately hit it off, quickly beginning to write lots of songs together. And when she wrote ‘Loveher’ and he asked who it was for, Romy was finally able to reply: “I think this one is for me.” She explains now that she felt the song had sparked something. “I embraced that it was very personal, I was singing in the way I would talk about my relationship. I knew this was a song for me, outside of The xx, outside of songs for other people.” 

That was five years ago. But following the lockdowns – and with the help of producer Stuart Price – Romy and Fred again.. had put together a work of saturated, vivid tunes. It sounds rooted in club music – most specifically Eurodance and trance-pop – from the past 30 years; it’s bright and sticky like an alcopop on a humid dancefloor. For Romy, it’s a nod to her formative clubbing experiences at the Queer nights she and Sim would go to as teenagers, particularly one called Ghetto which she first went to when she was 16. “It was just so different to how I felt at school and looking around and seeing a really amazing group of different people in one space, just being themselves. I felt safe to explore my sexuality and myself,” she says, before starting to laugh. “Much as I was, like, a wallflower, I was still taking it all in, observing, feeling connected just by being there. I recognise that’s the power of that space, where you can go and just be yourself; there are all the difficult things people go through in a day to be themselves, but there’s power in this space where you can let your guard down a bit. It’s something I don’t underestimate at all.” 

The music in these spaces played a big part in the experience. “I remember just feeling a sensory overload of big bold pop music that was listened to with joy without irony,” she says. The “without irony” comment is pointed. Making an album of this bold, poppy music is also a push back to the reaction Romy sometimes got when she was DJing while playing with The xx. In a tone that’s somewhere between bemusement and annoyance, she recalls: “I had the experience where someone came up to me and asked: ‘Do you actually like this music? Are you taking the piss?’ They had come to see The xx, so they couldn’t understand why I was standing there playing Lady Gaga.” 

Now, though, there’s no question of Romy’s experiments in Queer pop joy not being taken seriously. A standout moment on the album comes in ‘Enjoy Your Life’, which samples pioneering Black Trans musician Beverly Glenn-Copeland, with the line ‘My mother says to me enjoy your life’. Romy talks about how the lyric can feel grounding when, even in good times, our minds might be filled with worry and anxiety about things that haven’t happened yet. “I think through experiencing loss, it really made me feel how life is short,” Romy explains. “It made me think about how I really wanted to try and make the most of things, in a positive way. I’m not ever trying to be like: ‘Cheer up, enjoy your life!’, it’s more nuanced than that – but it’s more acknowledging an intention to try to let yourself see the good things, and enjoy them.” 

Her debut album is an invitation to do the same. In going out alone and stripping away any veil between herself and the listener, Romy has made a record that disintegrates the lines between us, welcoming us all to her joyful dancefloor to shake off the grief and shyness, and in turn find communion with each other.

The rain has stopped outside, and it looks like the yellow-gold sun might start peeking through. As we get ready to part ways, Romy mentions that she can’t wait to start touring the album and making her solo shows like a club experience. It’s a stark contrast in confidence to the shy girl with her head turned to the floor at The xx’s early shows; but still, through this bold and bright new era, Romy retains the charming softness that drew listeners to her in the first place. “I’m really excited to have it be an opportunity to be in a room full of people…” She pauses, then smiles. “To just be there with the music and feel the community and connect.” 

This article first appeared in issue 4 of Disco Pogo magazine. Which you can buy here.

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