As sheets of rain slammed a percussive beat on the skylights above her on a brisk April afternoon, Romy Madley Croft shook her head, smiling with the resignation of a seasoned professional wondering what kind of mess she’d gotten herself into.
In a few hours, Madley Croft, 34 — a singer, songwriter and guitarist in the sultry British trio the xx, and a self-described introvert — would perform a handful of songs from her debut solo album, “Mid Air,” to a small, invitation-only crowd for the first time. The gig was a rehearsal for the show’s debut on a slightly bigger stage a few days later.
“That’s why we’re doing this tonight. I can’t go from a rehearsal room to … Coachella,” she said, and laughed in disbelief.
The setup was pretty much the opposite of an xx show. There would be no bandmates by her side. She wouldn’t be performing behind a guitar. For the first time (and with the help of the movement coach Simon Donnellon), Madley Croft would be dancing. To all new songs — her own songs.
The moment marked a full-scale arrival: 14-plus years into Madley Croft’s career with the xx, she is the last of her band to unveil a solo album. Jamie xx’s “In Colour” cemented his reputation as a prodigious electronic music talent in 2015. Last year, Oliver Sim’s operatic “Hideous Bastard” debuted a facility for theatricality, and came with the news that he had been living with H.I.V. since he was a teenager.
Madley Croft’s album, too, is its own kind of coming out: not simply as a queer woman, but as a woman deeply in love, both with the unapologetically pop club music of her teenage years, and with her wife — something she’s never sang about before. It’s the sound of someone stepping out from the shadows of her own shyness and reserve, and into the klieg lights with an identity previously only known to her inner circle.
The shift “quite excited” her, she admitted. Growing up, she explained, the first music that spoke to her identity as a gay woman was mostly what she jokingly referred to as “lesbian acoustic music.”
“I’ve always fought against that,” she said. “The reason there’s electronic music in the early demos of the xx is me, wanting to make something else.” She readily credits a new generation of rock and indie acts with broadening the scope of queer guitar music, but “indie, and rock, that’s not really my thing now.” She came to a firm decision: “I want to make dance pop.”
In contrast to the xx’s slow-burning romantic chiaroscuro, “Mid Air,” due Sept. 8, is filled with up-tempo dance anthems recalling the music she fell in love with D.J.ing at clubs in Soho in her late teens and early 20s. She mentioned Everything but the Girl — which Madley Croft’s parents raised her on — or even Cher’s “Believe,” which she cited as her favorite song. But rooting the anthemic big beats is inspiration taken from more sober moments in her life: processing the grief of both of her parents’ deaths before she was 21; her ongoing struggles to conquer self-doubt and adapt to a new romance.
Its lead single, “Strong,” explodes with a giddy, euphoric synth line suited for soccer stadiums as much as dance floors; its chorus begs for vulnerability: “You don’t have to be so strong.” The opener, “Loveher,” ascends into a melodic crescendo, with a decidedly unambiguous and specific clarion cry of romance:
“She makes very catchy melodies. That’s the thing that always gets me,” Jamie xx said in a phone interview. He noted that the album was filled with earnest tracks that “could become really big pop songs — and could be super cheesy — but there’s always a level of restraint and classiness that she brings to it.”
For years, Madley Croft said she was “at peace” with not having a solo work to her name. Between xx releases, she worked in the background on songs for artists like Dua Lipa and King Princess. When the producer Mark Ronson once asked her if she wanted to sing a song they’d written together, she declined.
“I was grateful to be asked — I loved the song,” she said. But she couldn’t picture herself singing a pop song. She recalled asking herself: “‘How do I fit into this context?’” Now, she said, “when I listen to that song, sonically, it could be on my album. It’s not a world away from what I’ve made. But I didn’t feel like I could. I wasn’t in that place.”
A few things changed.
In early 2018, she was paired for a songwriting session with a young up-and-coming producer named Fred Gibson, a.k.a. the now white-hot musician Fred again.. The chemistry was immediate. “He has a very magical charm — which is amazing, as a songwriter and a producer — to make someone feel at ease,” she said. “And I ended up opening up to him about where I was at in my life.” She had ended a relationship, and was dealing with the attendant guilt and sadness. She unfurled herself to him almost immediately, and he became a trusted collaborator who helped write the majority of the songs on “Mid Air.”
Reached by phone in London, Gibson marveled at the deceptive simplicity of her writing, calling it “so pure, and so unobstructed, in a way that I find is really disarming and courageous.”
“Something happens when she sings,” he continued. “Sentences other people might make sound sort of mundane or simple — through the context of her lens — sound unbelievably profound. I remember thinking, I’m really learning from how she says things, how she translates a truth, to her, into a lyric.”
Also, a new romance emerged. Or re-emerged. Madley Croft first met her wife, the photographer and filmmaker Vic Lentaigne, in 2008. “Friday the 5th, September 2008,” she recalled, quite specifically. The xx was opening for another band, and Lentaigne and her friends had shown up. Madley Croft, surprising herself, approached her, and they started bonding over music almost immediately. (Madley Croft believes the first song Lentaigne sent her was “Goodbye Horses,” by Q Lazzarus.) They hung out again. “We just stayed up all night listening to music,” she remembered. The timing wasn’t right, but 10 years later, their paths crossed again.
In a later interview over coffee in New York, Madley Croft smiled, knowing how on-the-nose it all sounds. She credited reconnecting with Lentaigne and their joint love of music — “that kind of pureness of joy, of big pop” — along with the unclenching that comes with age as giving her the confidence to make “Mid Air.”
“It is a bit more of a lightweight feeling of just: Actually, OK, I’m going to release a little bit,” she said, sighing. “And I wish that I could give that to my younger self.”
In a phone interview, Lentaigne agreed. “I think part of that has come from just life experiences,” she explained. “She’s always had a strong sense of identity, and known who she is. But in the public eye, or in her music, she never projected that. And she was certainly very shy.”
Madley Croft will readily admit a deeply personal reticence and perfectionism slowed the album. While “Mid Air” mostly resembles what Madley Croft and Fred again.. originally started five years ago, she said, “I needed a bit of time to really grow into how these songs could be, if I felt comfortable with them being as sort of upbeat as they are.”
If “Mid Air” has a central thesis, it’s “Enjoy Your Life,” one of the last songs finished for the LP, which originated when the dance-pop heroine Robyn invited Madley Croft to see a performance by Beverly Glenn-Copeland, the electronic music trailblazer, in 2019. “I didn’t know Glenn, then, but obviously, when Robyn says something’s going to be amazing, you just go, right?” Madley Croft said. Watching Copeland perform “La Vita,” and hearing the fluttering lyric “My mother says to me, ‘Enjoy your life,’” Madley Croft had a moment of revelation. “I just was like: Oh my God.”
She took the inspiration back to Fred again.., and Jamie xx joined their sessions. When her bandmate heard the lyrics, he thought of a disco track of the same name by the Nigerian disco singer Oby Onyioha.
“And then we sort of began this journey of trying to make all the elements fit together,” she said. The song went through countless iterations, which got convoluted. In a last-ditch effort to save the track, Madley Croft took it to Stuart Price, the decorated dance producer who helped Madonna retake nightclubs with “Confessions on a Dance Floor.” Price had a streamlined, bolder take on the song. After an hour, she had become comfortable with his bigger, more unapologetically pop-oriented direction.
“All the songs that I worked on the album went a certain direction. And they were sounding really good, but they also weren’t sounding like Romy’s dream,” Jamie xx said. “The whole album sounds so exactly what she wanted, and I’m so happy for her.” In December, the band reunited for its first songwriting session in a few years — both Madley Croft and Jamie xx cited it as one of the better ones in the band’s history: less preciousness, more openness and more generosity among the trio.
In April, as she rehearsed in Shoreditch, Madley Croft started out reluctant. When she’d move in front of the D.J. decks and take the microphone in her hand, her movements were reticent. Slowly, which each subsequent run-through of each song, they grew.
When Madley Croft hit the stage at Coachella, there were more than a few moments of earnest, genuine cracked smiles: Maybe this is fun. At a performance in August at the All Points East festival in London, Madley Croft — who previously was known for rarely meeting a camera’s gaze straight on — was joined onstage by six dancers, bouncing among them all, perfectly enraptured in the unreserved fun of singing pop music.
But back in April, preparing for that first big show, Madley Croft more tentatively stepped up to the microphone. Nearby, in the crowd of friends and family, Oliver Sim wrapped his arm around Jamie xx, and put his head on his shoulder. They watched as their bandmate started to sing, even flashing the occasional smile. And then, slowly but surely, and to the sound of nothing but her own music, Romy Madley Croft started to dance.