Romy: ‘If I’d had Heartstopper when I was a teenager, that would have been really comforting’

 (PR Handout/Vic Lentaigne)
(PR Handout/Vic Lentaigne)

Still smarting from the Lionesses missing out on seizing World Cup glory at their recent finals defeat, Romy is in a reflective mood. The singer and producer ‒ best known as one third of the moody and minimal synth-pop band The xx, and now striking out alone as a solo artist ‒ also moonlights as a defender for the East London grassroots squad Whippets FC, and sees certain parallels between stepping out on stage, and heading onto the pitch for a high-stakes rival clash.

“I definitely relate to that pressure,” she says.”It feels inspiring to see people do it, and it gives me courage when I feel nervous about going on stage or doing something that’s big, and outward facing.”

Ever since The xx rapidly broke through in 2009, with their stark and monochrome self-titled debut, Romy Madley-Croft has always emanated an introvert’s energy. Clad in their all-black outfits, the trio came across as intensely private and guarded in early interviews, and performed shrouded in plumes of dry ice.Though they often sung in a close unison that could be mistaken for intimacy, in reality Croft and her bandmate Oliver Sim sounded lonely and isolated, each singing to a different figure in the distance.

Romy Madley-Croft, Oliver Sim, and Jamie Smith perform as The xx (Getty Images)
Romy Madley-Croft, Oliver Sim, and Jamie Smith perform as The xx (Getty Images)

“Literally, yes,” she nods. Though Romy partly attributes this to both of them being queer, being vague about their subjects was also an intentional decision. “We wanted it to feel universal,” she says. The pair consciously opted to stick to ambiguous pronouns.

Though Romy is still as quiet as ever, talking in hushed tones and taking her time to make sure she’s articulating herself as clearly as possible, her art has undergone a transformation in recent years. Hammering a cavernous tent at London’s All Points East festival with a remix of Kylie Minogue’s Padam Padam last month, she cut a completely different shape as a solo artist. Though she largely let multicoloured lights and a troupe of dancers do the talking as she tinkered about with decks and analogue synths, Romy couldn’t stop grinning as she made her way down to the front to perform her track Enjoy Your Life.

Mid Air - her long awaited debut solo album - seems to bring this out in her. Heavily informed by the pulse of the dancefloor, it draws on punchy trance, French house, and even touches of eurodance. Ambiguity is now out the window, with many of these songs clearly addressed to Romy’s wife, and directly referencing moments and experiences from her own life.

Back when Romy was a teenager, going out to LGBTQ+ clubs in Soho was her escape from the isolation she felt; though she was able to confide in Sim growing up, she was mostly closeted at school. The other week, when she was unwell, she ended up bingeing Heartstopper and “I really found it moving. If I’d had that when I was a teenager, I think that would have been really comforting.”

Does she think things have got better for queer kids? “In terms of the media and visibility within TV shows and films, I think it has.” Though she cautions that “there’s obviously loads more to do,” Romy is encouraged by the idea that more representation can help people to feel less alone. “Obviously we can get into the horrible scary other side of it… with more visibility comes more hate crime... but I just can’t bear it. It is the reality, but I’m trying to hold onto those positive things.”

 (PR Handout/Vic Lentaigne)
(PR Handout/Vic Lentaigne)

Mid Air also holds both of these sides at once, and draws on the well-established trick of using joyous dance music to smuggle in darkness. Take a song like Enjoy Your Life, which sets the words of new age jazz singer Beverly Glenn-Copeland to strutting disco, and explores the bittersweet sensation of stumbling upon happiness again after navigating through a life-altering loss. The song is about the death of Romy’s mother when the singer was eleven, and her struggle to bury her grief.

“Somebody tell me why I’m scared for you to see me cry,” she sings, “yeah, I feel fine, how about you?” Strong ‒ a trancey banger she co-wrote with Fred Again.. ‒ pulls from similar sentiments, and looks back on the lasting impact of another painful time in Romy’s past. “You carry so much on your own,” she sings. Initially, she wrote the song for a family member, but the same words also apply to her.

“2010 was one of the craziest years of my life,” she explains. The year The xx properly broke through following the release of their wildly influential debut album, it turned Romy, Oliver and Jamie’s lives upside down. Overnight, they went from wheeling amps around on a shopping trolley and playing scrappy gigs in tiny London bars, to winning the Mercury Prize.

“It was a huge high and a huge adrenaline rush ‒ and it was daunting. We were very out of our comfort zone very fast,” she admits. That same year, Croft’s dad died unexpectedly when she was on tour with The xx in Paris. “It was a huge shock, and it’s still very sort of traumatic for me, because it was just so out of the blue,” she says. Later in 2010, “my cousin, who I was really close with, died of a brain tumour. She was like my sister.”

It took Romy a long time to process everything; the grief intensified once she was off tour, and “I definitely had to take some time to do therapy… there’s only so much, in my experience, that you can push things down and say: I’m fine,” she says today. Much of Mid Air deals with this realisation.

Originally, Romy wrote some of these intensely vulnerable songs at a pop songwriting bootcamp with her friend and collaborator Fred Again.. ‒ who tactfully suggested that she might want to think twice before giving the album’s personal opener Love Her away. “I was so tentative to accept that it could be for me” Romy admits, making intense eye contact with a bookshelf in the attic room of her record label offices. “He made me feel comfortable and empowered, and safe to go there.”

 (PR Handout/Vic Lentaigne)
(PR Handout/Vic Lentaigne)

Alongside Romy’s bandmate Jamie xx, and Madonna collaborator Stuart Prince, Fred Again.. co-produces Mid Air - the final addition to The xx solo album canon. After Jamie initially paved the way with 2015’s floor-filling dance record In Colour, Oliver Sim surprised with the eye-opening Hideous Bastard ‒ a collision of camp horror aesthetics that explored queer shame and his HIV positive status with a sharp wit.

Watching her childhood friends and bandmates forging out alone lit a fire under Romy. Though things are in the early stages, with the band still chucking ideas around, she’s also excited to see how their solo endeavours inform the next The xx record. Though they’ve been on a kind of hiatus since the release of I See You in 2017, it’s definitely on their radar, and the band spent time in the studio at the end of last year and the beginning of this one.

“I purposely put down my guitar with this album [Mid Air] so it was quite nice to just pick it up and connect to that sound again [with The XX],” she says, making sure to be vague about how things are sounding so far. She adds that, for the first time she and Sim have been discussing “what would it be like if we harmonised our voices? This is like three albums in!” she laughs.

“I don’t take that for granted that people would still care, or would still be interested,” Romy smiles. “It means a lot to me that people ask. I do want to put music out soon, and we are all in that same mindset. I think we’ve all grown and learned new things.”

Romy’s debut album Mid Air is out on September 8