The past year has taken many things from musicians and their fans: releases delayed, tours and festivals cancelled on a near-daily basis. But it’s the little moments that we will have missed the most, like the post-gig snack stop with a pal at a fast-food chain around the corner from the venue, or on the stagger home; you piece together the night, dwell on that person you locked eyes with in the pit and plan the next time out. Griff – real name Sarah Griffiths – had one such post-gig summit over a box of chips after The Brits ceremony at the start of May. Except she’d just given the biggest performance of her life at The O2 Arena on live TV. And it was with a fan; Taylor Swift.
“I went to her dressing room and just ate chips which was lovely! It was a perfect night really,” she tells NME weeks later on Zoom, back home in her bedroom in Kings Langley, Hertfordshire. The courting had begun months earlier, with Swift first praising Griff on her Twitter account, calling herself a “huge fan”. When Swift collected her award for Global Icon Award at the ceremony, she shouted out the newcomer in her speech and later invited Griff to her dressing room; snacks and advice were shared.
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) May 12, 2021
“Taylor was super encouraging and complimentary of my performance,” Griff says. “The main tone of advice was to take my time with things and not rush the first album, and don’t listen to the outside pressure from labels to do TikTok or something if it doesn’t feel real to you. Basically to do what you want and to not let all the other business minds tell you to do things and force you into doing things if it doesn’t feel right.”
Swift has clearly picked up on what a singular force Griff is becoming in British pop music. The 20-year-old’s creative spirit, songwriting chops and that performance at The Brits has catapulted her most-recent single ‘Black Hole’ into the Top 20 of the UK Singles Charts.
“I’d love to say that there was a moment that we knew that ‘Black Hole’ would be a hit, but I think the torture of songwriting is that I never feel like I bloody know if something is going to be a hit. I don’t know if it’s the self-detrimental Britishness in me or something, but when something is doing well I’ll try and justify and find a reason why it’s doing well, other than the fact that people are just listening to it,” she says.
Does she feel like any of her previous songs – perhaps 2020’s stellar single ‘Forgive Myself’ – deserved similar attention? “I think all my songs are good but that doesn’t mean that everyone else does. I’m fine with that – I trust my talent enough to know that I’m a good songwriter.”
‘Black Hole’ appears on Griff’s superb new EP, ‘One Foot In Front Of The Other’ (June 18), where her songwriting and production skills are more than just ‘good’ – she is a master of her craft. Griff ruminates on love, friendship, faith and family but there’s always a thrilling twist; the playful bombast of ‘Black Hole’s backing beat; an eager eye for charming details in ‘Shade Of Yellow’; the wisdom doled out in ‘One Foot In Front’s explosive chorus, an endearing tale about the maturation from adolescence to adulthood. The latter song inspired the EP’s artwork, a shot of Griff walking on a tightrope for the first time: her face and posture showing both steely determination and just a dash of fear.
“We ended up hiring some Cirque du Soleil set-up and some guy who walks tightrope across buildings and shit,” she grimaces. “But we wanted to capture that really raw emotion – whatever that is – of that process of getting back up and trying again. I think it was just a bonus that I managed to do it.”
Griff grew up in Kings Langley, a small village on the outskirts of London and was accustomed to “sticking out” in a rural setting. “Being half-Jamaican, half-Chinese in a very white area, it created a real identity crisis for me as a kid. But I’d travel into London and see so much diversity and clothes and everything was more creative and looked different. Being out here you have all the time in the world as there’s nothing left to do – I realise with hindsight that I was refining my craft.”
Like her brother, she would experiment on software like Logic to make beats and began writing songs in her bedroom; Taylor Swift’s 2008 second album ‘Fearless’ became an early inspiration. She started taking clandestine trips into London for writing sessions and told her parents and teachers that she intended to take a gap year. When Griff was 18, she had signed a record deal with Warners [Dua Lipa, Anne-Marie].
“I wonder what would have happened if I’d have left school, told my parents that I wanted to be a musician and have no income for a few years,” she says. “It’s not that they don’t care about what I do, but it’s a different world to my mum. She’s an immigrant, Chinese woman who skipped classes and worked really hard for me to have this middle-class life. The pop world and music culture doesn’t really compute in her head.”
The ‘Mirror Talk’ EP followed in 2019, as did collaborations with producers Honne and Zedd. Signing to a major label brings a relentless pace, but it’s something she doesn’t mind, given her occasional apprehension to release anything at all.
“I have the most creative control so nothing gets released without me feeling 100% happy about it. But at the same time you’re attached to a huge machine, so it definitely isn’t at the pace I’d like it to be. I released a lot of music in the last year and sometimes it felt like, ‘am I releasing my best songs and no-one’s listening to them?’ With how content is consumed and attention spans are at the moment, you’re always creatively exhausted because you have to release a song every six weeks to keep people’s attention. And even with this seven-song EP, everyone’s now asking when the album campaign starts. I’m like ‘fucking hell’. I haven’t got that many songs in me.”
Keeping control of the songwriting and production is natural for Griff, but she does so in an industry that does not nurture or encourage female producers – only 3% of credited music producers are women, despite the chart dominance of artists like Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish in recent years (neither of whom are credited as producers on their most recent studio albums). This is a situation that Griff knows all too well.
“I don’t think I realised I was even producing my own music when I started, there’s a whole generation of artists who feel in control of what they’re doing and saying with tools that allow self-publishing and production. It was only when I took meetings with record labels they’d say that the big selling point was that I had written and produced my own songs.”
The atmosphere set by labels did little to combat the disparity: “I’d go to writing sessions and it would always be a guy waiting there. It’s a fucked thing as a young girl and as a songwriter that you’re always meeting new men. The equipment – like Logic and GarageBand – isn’t something that girls are naturally shown or given.” She’s recently joined Spotify’s Equal Campaign to hopefully change the narrative.
Griff went into lockdown last year having only performed live in front of a couple hundred people, and emerged from it by bossing it at The O2 Arena in front of the biggest stars and millions of viewers at home. She may have felt initially “uninspired” working alone in her bedroom on this EP, but her dogged pursuit of a winning song – like ‘Black Hole’ – has paid dividends; this is her finest moment yet. There was no major creative reinvention, she just embraced uncertainty to dig deep for these songs, even if it could lead to falling off the tightrope and crashing to the ground; Griff’s measured steps forward look like giant leaps from here.
Griff’s ‘One Foot In Front Of The Other’ is released June 18. Header image credit: Zachary Chick