The 20-year-old pop singer from the U.K. opens up about her debut EP, meeting Swift, and how she learned to tight-rope right before a photo shoot.
Whenever I'm in a music rut, my go-to solution has always been to look to the BRIT Awards—the British version of the Grammys, but inexplicably cooler, given the inherent edge that comes with simply being born on the other side of the pond. In particular, the Brit’s Rising Star Award has become the crystal ball that marks the musicians we’ll be listening to for years to come. Little known artists like Adele, Florence and the Machine, Ellie Goulding, Jessie J, and Sam Smith all won the award when they were first starting out. And now, Griff, the 20-year-old from a tiny London suburb, joins their rank.
Celebs like Taylor Swift and Kendall Jenner have openly shared their love for Griff’s debut EP, One Foot in Front of the Other, featuring seven tight emotional tracks set to upbeat pop beats worthy of playing on repeat. Born to a Jamaican father and a Chinese mother, Griff is a fully self-taught musician. “I think it was a very Asian mentality from my mom, where it was like, ‘You go to school to be academic and get good grades. You don’t go to school to be creative,’” she says over Zoom, taking a break from recording in a London studio. “I never formally studied music at all.” Instead, Griff, who was born Sarah Griffiths, spent her free time growing up getting her musical sea legs on her own. “We had musical instruments at home, so when I wasn’t in school, I would sing and write all the time.”
The importance of academics was certainly instilled in Griff, who kept record execs on their toes for a full year, choosing to finish her studies rather than sign a shiny record deal—something nearly unheard of in today’s world of TikTok insta-fame. Get to know the artist who sews her own clothes, learned to tightrope on the fly, loves a winged eyeliner, and most importantly, was well worth the wait.
What was your process like to land your record deal with Warner Records?
I was in school, studying economics, geography, and textiles, and I started to write music in my spare time. After a full day of school, I would travel to London to meet random producers and anyone that would want to work with me for a writing session. I was doing that hustle for a year or so, and as soon as I started working with other producers, my music started to get around a bit. My manager says there was one day where his phone was blowing up because my song “Paradise” was all over Soundcloud. That day, that song went around to all of the labels and publishers, and I was like, “I don’t know what’s going on.” I didn’t know what a publishing or record deal was at the time, but Warner was one of those labels that were really, really excited about my music. But I held out for ages because I had one year of school left. Warner called my manager every day for a year and was like, “Is she ready yet? We’re still here.” I ended up signing during the middle of my exams, and took the year to finish my A-levels and get good grades. I released “Mirror Talk,” my first single, two weeks after my last exam.
That’s quite the graduation present! How did you celebrate?
I actually kind of didn’t. It was very low-key. I didn't like talking about my music in school, so I was trying to keep it very undercover. I don't know if it's just the pessimist in me, but I think I knew that just because you sign a deal, it doesn't mean anything. The work begins at that point.
How would you describe your musical sound?
I’m at a very early stage in my career, so I think I’m still discovering my musical sound. But I’d say it’s pop. For so long, I was afraid of the word "pop," because it feels like it’s become a bit of a dirty word, but I think I need to own it. My music is uplifting, emotional, honest, lyrical pop.
Who are the musicians that inspire you?
Growing up, my dad made sure we listened to a lot of Black, R&B, and Soul music. It was a lot of Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige, Michael Jackson, and Bill Withers. Then I discovered Taylor Swift. I’m a big Taylor stan. She was huge for me, especially her album, Fearless. I remember listening to it as an eight-year-old, and it was mind-blowing. I also love Banks and Lorde.
What was your idea of what it meant to be a successful musician when you were younger?
Before I started making music, I thought everything would come overnight and I’d just have hundreds of millions of streams and be touring the world. And now, I think I’ve realized that songwriting is what I like best; the attention that comes with it is actually not what I naturally lean towards.
What is it now?
The ability to write really incredible timeless songs that can exist beyond my lifetime.
Who is the musician you’ve always wanted to meet, and what would you say?
Max Martin, and I’d just go up to him and ask, “How?” I just don’t understand how it’s possible for someone to churn out hit after hit after hit.
When you’re not making music, what’s your idea of a perfect day?
I’d sleep really late, and then honestly, I’ve learned that I just like being alone. I low-key like my own company. I love a day by myself going on walks, reading, and then maybe going to the pub with my friends in the evening. That’s an ideal day for me.
You studied textiles and make your own clothing. How long have you been doing that?
For years now. I learned to sew when I was in school. I was 16, and I took it for my A-levels. They taught me the basics of sewing, and I just loved it. And when it comes to photo shoots and performances, it adds a nice touch. Nowadays pop music can feel shiny and synthetic, and it feels like people appreciate when there’s a personal touch to what I do. I made my Brits dress, which was fun, as well.
Is there a musician that you’ve met that made you the most starstruck?
It’s going to have to be Taylor. We met at the Brits and hung out in her dressing room after the night ended. I’d like to think I didn’t freak out too much, but my head wasn’t in the conversation. I was just nodding and turning my head. I was like, “This is Taylor’s face in front of me, moving and chatting.” It was pretty surreal.
What is the biggest difference between Sarah Griffiths and Griff?
I’d say that everything I am as Griff is just a bit more elevated. I get to have more fun, experiment, and push boundaries a bit more artistically. There are things that you’d never say, but you can write them in a song, so I write and say them as Griff. Or there are clothes that I’d never wear—like going to the supermarket in a huge dress—but as Griff, it feels acceptable to do that.
Speaking of clothing, what’s been your favorite costume to wear so far?
I wore a young designer named Susan Fang to the Brits for my red carpet look. It had this huge headpiece made with these clear marble things. It was so impractical, but quite ethereal and dramatic. I quite enjoyed wearing that.
You play a lot with clothing, but what about makeup?
I always do a winged eyeliner. I use Burberry or Glossier, but I care less about the product as long as it’s the standard black.
What do you plan to spend with your first big paycheck?
I’m quite frugal. I find it hard to spend money. I can’t imagine spending thousands on a bag or anything. I still live at home with my parents, so right now I’m thinking about saving up for a house.
What’s your favorite snack to have on hand while recording?
I have a sweet tooth. I love pastries, like almond croissants. And it’s the most British thing I’m ever going to say, but you do need tea and biscuits. Just to keep the fuel running!
The cover art for your EP, One Foot in Front of the Other, features a photograph of you on a tightrope. Just...how?
Yeah...I kind of just learned how to tight rope while we were shooting the artwork. When I listened to all of the songs, there was this feeling of a journey and recovery. There are a few references to bouncing back from heartbreak, which can feel like re-learning how to walk, or walking on a tightrope. In the song “Remembering My Dreams,” there’s a lyric that says, “You threw me back with balance,” and there’s another song called “One Foot in Front of the Other.” It felt like the tightrope image was screaming out at me. When I got to the photo shoot, I thought I’d hold onto something and we’d Photoshop it out, but they were like, “No, you just go up there and do it.”
They brought in a man from Cirque du Soleil who tightropes for a living to help. The rope was only about two meters off the ground, and there were crash mats below. I’d get on and fall right down. But I think the beauty of it was that we didn’t know what the shot would look like. And if we ended up with a shot of me falling, I thought that was equally as cool. But I managed to figure it out. I think there's something nice about doing real things in photo shoots. You capture a real emotion that you couldn’t get otherwise.
Have you been on one since?
No, I haven't. I need to pull it out, but I don't know if I can do it again. It's so hard!
Since you’re Zooming from a recording studio, I have to ask, what’s next for you?
Picking out live concert dates! We will be touring in the U.K. and Europe, but I’m keen to come to the U.S., and we’re working on getting the visa logistics worked out. And I’m expected to write an album, which is kind of daunting and scary, so I’ll have to figure out how to do that.
Caitlin Brody is the entertainment director at Condé Nast.
This story originally appeared on: Glamour - Author:Condé Nast