As Girl Ray’s sophomore album transforms them to honest to goodness pop, songwriter Poppy Hankin talks to Getintothis’ Cath Holland about the power of the girl and matching haircuts.
Critically acclaimed and quite rightly so, Earl Grey was fresh, twee indie teen romance and heartache given a quirky slant by with the trio’s distinctive harmonies.
There was no sign in the Christmas single of that year nor the following spring in standalone single The Way We Came Back, that the band’s second album would vary even mildly.
What a shock, although a very pleasant one indeed, when songwriter Poppy Hankin on vocals and guitar, Sophie Moss on bass and drummer Iris McConnell, released singles Show Me More and Girl this summer and autumn.
Both are bona fide pop songs in every sense of the term.
The album the tracks are taken from, also named Girl, comes out later this month and is a mix of contemporary pop and R & B with Girl Ray’s trademark off kilter harmonies slipping beautifully into a pop mould with the help of producer Ash Workman (Christine And The Queens, Metronomy).
The album is full of stories of female empowerment, girl friendships and romances, the heartbreak in same and mixed sex relationships, the girl who will never love you no matter what and the boy who won’t fuck off when you’re with your mates.
It was, says Poppy, an easy and logical decision to switch. The trio noticed the music they listened to for pleasure was markedly different from what they themselves made.
When I talk to Poppy, she’s on her way to pick up a guitar she’s having looked at before dates supporting Metronomy start this week. The news they were supporting the much loved electronic outfit made little sense, I tell her, until I heard the album.
It was then that everything clicked into place.
‘The audience will be good people to test it on. We’re just really excited, bigger venues than we’re used to,’ she says.
Girl Ray spent a long time touring Earl Grey, she explains and the band came away from the experience with a different mindset,a fresh perspective.
Seeing lots of indie and pop bands play, comparing them and finding the music they listened to for pleasure so different from what they created and performed themselves, sparked something.
‘We wanted to play something more exciting and lively for our live show,’ says Poppy.
‘And more than that, we were listening to contemporary pop. When I sat down to write this album it was in a different way to the first album. It wasn’t just sitting there with a guitar, it was sitting down with a laptop and it made for a different sound.’
Was there a sense of going off the reservation, to a degree?
‘Definitely! I guess it was a conscious decision that we made, definitely wanted to try something new and make it a different experience for the listeners. And for ourselves.’
The arrangements may have shifted with less guitar and more synths, there’s violin in there and flute as well, but there’s still that Girl Ray distinctiveness which made so many fall in love with their debut.
That familiar lyrical honesty for one – ‘I guess that’s the way I naturally go, yeah,’ Poppy laughs – and humour.
‘It’s one thing to change how you sound but writing lyrics you have a default way of writing them in a conversational way. I tried to be a bit more of a storyteller for this album and not so boxed in by my own autobiographical whatever.
I allowed myself to think outside the box that I’m in and be a bit more free with it. But the style of the lyrics is always going to be the same I guess.’
It’s inspirational for artists like Girl Ray to happily cite contemporary female pop artists like Ariana Grande and Rihanna as influences. The women haven’t tried to be ironic, very apt for this post irony world we live in.
For female artists, I suggest, it is very tempting to be too cool for school and flag up Bjork and the left of field as one’s totem.
Instead the band credit mainstream successful contemporary stars, heavy hitters who have no shame in their pursuit to attract the affections of the mass market. There’s no downplaying of pop as a genre, no ‘it’s a good…for a pop song’ approach.
‘Often these mainstream female pop stars aren’t getting credit when they’re due. People dismiss them, “oh they’ve got a team of men behind them or sometimes they don’t write their songs or whatever”. But actually you know, they’ve got a lot on their shoulders,’ says Poppy.
‘They’re carrying a lot and Ariana for example is an incredible vocalist and vocal arranger and they all have a wide scope there. I think often they’re underrated and actually they are extremely skilled.
And not only are they musically skilled they take the burden of being this icon role model and they roll with it. And I think that’s really cool. I don’t feel ashamed at all to shout them out and be like, they really inspired us.’
Interpreting a song is as much a skill as writing one.
‘Yeah! I think they’re very talented people, Ariana, Rihanna… there’s such a lot of incredible female pop musicians right now.’
So how did Poppy, Sophie and Iris’s own relationship with pop music turn Girl Ray around in such a dramatic fashion?
Earl Grey was a pop album at heart. The songs are there with messages and stories, albeit with looser, lo-fi and guitar based arrangements. But Girl is still a leap.
‘There’s definitely pop in [Earl Grey],’ she agrees. ‘For the first album, we maybe didn’t have the tools to make a pure pop album. On [Girl] we managed to hark back to 90s Max Martin R&B pop in places, more Daft Punk-y pop. We go all over the spectrum. We all love and listen to pop music. That has been our musical diet hopefully that comes across on this album.’
It feels very appropriate that you’ve all got bobs now, matching haircuts. A uniform Girl Ray look?!
‘It’s kind of ridiculous now we all look exactly the same. You need to have a bob to be in our band now!’
Taking the title of a single and using it for and album title is very much in the pop tradition. It suits it though.
The power of the girl is a theme running right through
‘We’re all girls, girl power, there’s a symmetry with Girl Ray-Girl and it’s a nice neat pop album title. That was a winner for us.’
Female solidarity is no more gloriously celebrated than on the quite wonderful Keep It Tight, one of two songs Poppy, Sophie and Iris wrote together.
In it the three open their hearts, the problem over one bad boy who ‘dipped me like a casual fondue’, raising a smirk at this end on every listen.
‘That’s Sophie all over, her humour,’ laughs Poppy, who in the song wistfully laments ‘straight girls only fall for dudes…’
The chorus is wonderfully girl gang, celebratory. ‘Girl, I’m so in awe of you,’ they sing together and to each other.
‘We were listening to a lot of Destiny’s Child they’ve got a song called Girl and they all say their problems. We had to invent relationship problems so we can have this chorus “don’t worry about it, we’re always going to keep it tight and don’t worry about boys or whatever”. It was really fun to write that.’
They recruited up and coming rapper Psuave on the distinctly British urban Takes Time.
‘She absolutely nailed it that song. It was quite a fast beat..I tried a few melodies over it and it wasn’t quite happening and I could see it with a rapper in it and it works well.’
Just Down The Hall has the warm, bass-baritone of Metronomy’s Mike Lovett.
‘We needed someone with a nice voice,’ Poppy says simply.
There’s a lot more space on the new songs arrangement-wise, true to pop conventions. It must be a different experience to switch to something whilst not minimalist exactly, definitely more sparse?
‘A lot of Rihanna’s stuff, a lot of modern pop if you break it down to its core elements, there’s only a few things happening. And they’re all totally essential.
It does take a lot of confidence to strip it back and not cover it up with loads of guitar or whatever. It was a conscious decision that was influenced a lot by Ash the producer who is proficient in that sparse sound. If you pull it off it sounds really really cool, really bold.’
Poppy sounds pleased when I comment on how confident Girl comes across.
The songs on it sound like ones played over the sound system at a gym, firing people on to do another three, four, five minutes then another and another. Some at the other end of the pop rainbow are emotionally naked; there are some very intimate feelings in there, another type of boldness again.
Album conclusion Like The Stars a piano based-ballad for the lovelorn is delicate and beautiful in its yearning.
Does Poppy feel brave, making and releasing this record?
‘It definitely feels like a pivot and I’m quite proud of us for making that pivot. Because we could easily recorded a bunch of songs that were very similar to the first album.
We pushed through and hopefully made something a bit more special.’
It’s going to be a bit of a shock to people who bought the first record. What does she think their audience will think of it?
‘Maybe there’ll be some old timers that will be a bit upset,’ she says drily.
‘(But) I’m not really sure to be honest. What I’ve heard from reviews so far people are saying they can hear Girl Ray in it and it’s not lost that, which I hope is true. So hopefully it will carry through and people will stick with us.’
The album Girl is released on 22 Nov on Moshi Moshi. Girl Ray play the following dates:
8 Nov – London, Roundhouse
9 Nov – Manchester Academy
14 Nov – O2 Academy Bristol
15 Nov – Nottingham, Rock City
Instore appearances (rescheduled):
23 Nov London, Rough Trade
24 Nov Bristol, Rough Trade
18 Feb – Birmingham, Hare & Hounds
19 Feb – Leeds, Belgrave Music Hall
20 Feb – Glasgow, Stereo
21 Feb – Manchester, YES
22 Feb – Nottingham, Bodega
23 Feb – Cardiff, Clwb Ifor Bach
25 Feb – Bristol, The Fleece
26 Feb – London, Electric Ballroom
27 Feb – Brighton, The Haunt