Words by Erandhi Mendis // Photography by
For Romy Madley Croft, there have been a handful of sliding door moments that led to the creation of her debut record – most importantly, falling in love.
“I played an opening set when I was about 18, and my now wife had come along to see the band we were supporting. We met and sort of had a romance then but we lost touch and didn’t speak throughout our 20s. Ten years later we met again – we both joined the same football team. That reconnection, and us getting back together has really been the inspiration for all the love story lyrics on this album.”
She tells me this with a smile in her voice, as we discuss her record Mid Air – a decadent celebration of feeling. Luxurious odes to Euro-trance, the elation of a 2am dancefloor against Madley-Croft’s pellucid, shimmering vocals. It’s a meticulously crafted tracklist that peels back glossy production to reveal the humane underbelly of electronic music.
Of course, the concept of immersing emotion in melody driven music is familiar to Madley-Croft, best known for her years spent as the guitarist/vocalist for the influentially ambient indie rock outfit the xx. The band spent the early 2010’s perfecting a sound that didn’t really exist in the alternative space before Madley-Croft felt a need to extend her comfort zone as a solo artist.
“I think I’m obsessed with the juxtaposition of the mix of emotions – somewhere between happy and sad. I guess it is happy sad music, that’s what my wife said to me when she heard Lifetime for the first time.”
It’s an astute assessment of the music Romy is releasing, to the delight of audiences who have craved release in a club environment after the suffocating pandemic years.
“I love that push and pull between the euphoria of the music but if you catch the lyrics it can bring you back to more of a deeper emotion. I’ve always loved songwriting and have always been drawn to more emotional songs but I also love club music,” she says of finding her sound. “I think I realised I was craving emotional music to dance to and it’s really based on my own experience of clubbing and realising there was something that was missing for me sometimes.”
The reality is, it is quite difficult to narrate the feeling of being swept up on a club dancefloor. A uninhibited seance of cleansing, 120 BPM in a dark room – peripheral bodies under strobes, sweat and tears from complete volitional disorientation. It is a very different kind of release to sitting on public transport, privately turned toward the window as you dab a misty eye while listening to Scott Street. To be loud in our discomfort and deliverance is heightened vulnerability. Sure, the stereotype is that we are often laden with substances to forget the crowd but perhaps that is my ongoing fascination with live music – it is so rare in the long days and short years to be so freely encumbered by emotion in public.
For Madley-Croft, she describes gigs and nightlife as “a release that’s hard to get when you’re just dancing on your own in the kitchen.” A self confessed introvert – clubs have been a safe haven for as long as she can recall.
“The first club I was let into was in London in Soho. It was called ghetto and it was just like a basement. A really small club, everything was painted red. It really did feel like a safe otherworldly universe to go and feel inspired on different levels, whether it was the music I was hearing or the people I was observing. I was very shy so I wasn’t going up to people. It was more looking at people and thinking ‘wow they’re so cool,’” she laughs. “Just having those queer role models in that space was important to me. So many of the people I met there are still some of my best friends. It’s where I got my first opportunities to play just from hanging out! I’m so grateful to the manager there that said “hey do you wanna DJ?” and despite not really knowing how they encouraged me to have a go.”
It’s obvious this is another seemingly microscopic interaction that changed the course of Madley-Croft’s direction. The enduring stereotype of “bro-DJs” has filled our perception that dance musicians are larger than life, brash personalities with very little care. It strikes me that given how softly spoken Madley-Croft is, there has likely always been a bubbling undercurrent of introverted talent in the electronic space. She is, however, doing what she can to change that as she tours.
“It’s called Club Mid Air,” she says of the pre-show. “It’s essentially an extension of those first club experiences. I’ve always loved DJing and I really loved reconnection with that side of my love for music and performance. So this was a way to kind of show appreciation and love for the club and the local scene.”
“The idea is we encourage the audience to come down earlier to the venue and hopefully even though it’s 7PM we do enough to the ambiance and lighting that it feels like it’s midnight. I’ve loved getting to find local DJs for each city and kind of connect with the local queer community. We just say to the DJs, play whatever you want! And it’s so interesting and inspiring to hear how people approach the sets differently. And then we transition from the last DJ on the lineup into our live show.”
“It’s just an attempt to do something slightly different, it was fun to get a bit more creative with this and hopefully give people a unique experience. I was very nervous to see how it would go in Paris for the first time, but I loved it. People seemed to kind of get into it straight away.”
Bringing people back together is something that seems at the centre of Madley-Croft’s ethos. It doesn’t seem a stretch to describe her as a cult favourite, particularly as she does seem largely unaware of how ardent her fanbase is, with live reactions still managing to surprise her.
“I’m so grateful to be doing this again. The live show is very new, it’s been six shows. And when I started the set just to feel people singing along to songs that are slower – like Weightless which is early on, it really surprised me. Even Enjoy Your Life, to really have people singing along with me has felt very moving as that song is very personal to me. It’s just something I don’t take for granted – especially in the moments where I go down and dance with everyone in the crowd. I’m often thinking that this couldn’t happen not that long ago. So to just be talking to people and dancing together in that way is very beautiful and lovely to see.”
While the output is blissful, Madley-Croft describes deviating from a band mindset to being a solo artist as “a process.” Spending years accompanied by school friends Oliver and Jamie on stages where often a guitar would serve as an additional safety blanket, the shift hasn’t been without challenge.
“It’s just been completely different. Going beyond my comfort zone and pushing through so many barriers of self-consciousness. It still blows my mind what we got to do as a band and that people have listened for so long. I was craving another opportunity to challenge myself but I was quite nervous to do this project and even to perform it – standing on stage without a guitar and playing upbeat music while dancing and stuff. It’s been refreshing to try something new and feel scared but I’m very grateful for how into the live shows the crowds have been, it’s been helpful.”
A few days before I chat to Romy, I notice a particular guest at one of her live gigs – Robin Carlsson aka Robyn of Swedish pop royalty. The Dancing On My Own singer’s presence at a Romy show feels correct somehow – without Robyn we would likely not have Romy in the way that we do. In the enclave of queer dance music, both women have pioneered and heralded the sound of ‘happy sad,’ for different eras.
“I’m quite vocal about how much of an inspiration Robyn is to me. She’s been making incredible music and has been such a trailblazer for so many years. The way she combines emotional songwriting with pop and dance music – to balance that storytelling. I just think she’s a really lovely person as well! She’s been incredibly supportive with her friendship and energy – the fact that she came to that show I was really speechless honestly.”
It turns out, Madley-Croft didn’t know until after the show, upon going backstage that Robyn was there the whole time. “It was icing on the cake of a great gig – I was really just so grateful that she took the time and was really lovely about the show. So encouraging and telling me bits that she liked. It’s so helpful and beautiful to have that in my life.”
The real charm in the queer electro-pop lore is that Robyn was the lynchpin inspiration for Madley-Croft’s hit, Enjoy Your Life.
“I was in Stockholm to DJ a fashion party, [Robyn] was invited to the dinner and we got speaking. She said ‘oh by the way, do you want to come to a gig later?’”
It turned out the gig was for American-Canadian jazz musician Beverly Glenn-Copeland, whose voice now features on Enjoy Your Life – a palatial vocal sample of the nourishing line, ‘My mother says to me, ‘Enjoy your life‘.’
Throughout our chat it is obvious that Enjoy Your Life has a particularly tender meaning for Madley-Croft, who lost her parents at a young age.
“It’s very special for many reasons, particularly with my family and sort of being able to vocalise grief and expressing emotions around something that I find very hard to talk about. So it’s a huge moment when I play it live, to connect and feel that with an audience – particularly when my family came to the show in London, that was very special to have that shared experience.”
In a very full circle sense, her longtime friend and bandmate in the xx, Jamie worked on the track with her.
“It’s the only song that he worked on that is a part of the album but he’s very much a big part of the record. We had worked on lots of different pieces together but I think for me to grow and bring new experiences back to the xx, I did need to work with other people as well.”
There is a generosity with which Madley-Croft speaks about her collaborators and producers. Notably Stuart Price who she describes as “something else, completely brilliant,” and Fred Gibson, now known to the world as Fred Again.
“Meeting Fred was another sort of chance encounter too in a way. I had finished touring with the xx but was really excited to keep being creative. I didn’t have the confidence to to a solo project at the time and back then Fred hadn’t put out any solo music so we were sort of paired together to write songs for other people. We just started hanging out and instantly became friends. I do really think through that friendship that’s how this whole project began because I felt comfortable and safe with him to open up and write songs and for them to actually be for me.”
It seems somewhat poetic justice that two objectively reserved and gifted writer/producers are now nominated together for Best Dance/Electronic Recording at the 2024 Grammys with their song Strong. It’s worth mentioning that this category is often devoid of female, POC or queer talent.
Madley-Croft is predictably humble about the nomination, describing it as “unexpected, obviously incredible,” but quickly shifting the discussion to elements of her job she adores – the connection and the creation. With Madley-Croft visiting Australia in the new year, she mentions her eagerness to bring these experiences down under, all the while continuing to ladle praise on collaborators and influences she loves.
“I’m very excited to visit. A huge shoutout to an Australian producer that I really love, who was a big part of the process, HAAi. She’s been a wonderful friend and someone I spoke to a lot through this album making process. She’s obviously remixed a couple of songs and we’ve worked together on Lights Out – she’s amazing.”
We discuss the shift, or rather the magic trick, that electronic dance music has been doing far more publicly in the past five years – to make the smallest moments feel big. Interspersing voice notes or sampling for creativity’s sake rather than publicity has led us to finally laud success for songs that amplify emotion in an accessible way that transcends lyric. There is evident vulnerability peppered throughout Mid Air, but the opening track Loveher is a particularly remarkable moment. It’s a gentle pulsing house track that opens with Madley-Croft asking for the music to be turned up. I often feel like an English teacher analysing some curtains but it does seem representative of her coming into her own as not just a solo artist, but an openly queer artist.
“I was writing with Fred and it was the first song that felt like it was a song for me to sing. [Loveher] started the whole project. It was the first song I wrote openly – to say out loud ‘I love her,’ wanting to be more visible within the LGBTQ+ community and just be more vocal. That was important to me, to share more lesbian love stories. So that song will always be special to me.”
It feels appropriate that the brief moment of meeting her now wife at age 18, ended up inspiring the song that birthed the project in its entirety.
“If I hadn’t had that chance encounter with her at that gig…” she trails off. “I never thought we would ever actually see each other again. To meet again through friends, to now be married and have her be such a huge part of this project with the visuals and the music videos she’s directed.”
Madley-Croft’s wife is Vic Lentaigne, a photographer and director whose portfolio lends itself to kindred queer storytelling. The record is as much Romy as it is Vic in many ways, “it’s very personal, it’s about our relationship.”
In the end, Mid Air is as much an exercise in vulnerability as it is a tableaux of suspended fleeting encounters; an ode to hovering feelings, the evanescence of fate.
“I’m very grateful for those moments, where you sort of think you’re never going to see someone again – and then you do.”
Catch Romy’s debut in Australia in January, tickets available here and stream Mid Air below.
- December 28 – January 1 | Beyond The Valley
- Sunday December 31 | Wildlands Festival, Brisbane • Meanjin
- Wednesday 3 January 2024 | Liberty Hall, Sydney • Eora
- Thursday 4 January | Max Watts, Melbourne • Naarm
- Saturday 6 January | Wildlands Festival, Perth • Boorloo