How do you write a song about heartbreak when you’ve never had your heart broken?
For 19-year-old pop singer Griff, the answer is simple: Just look around you.
“There’s lots of scenarios where you can experience heartbreak,” she explains. “It doesn’t have to be romantic.
“Like if a friend moves away, or you lose a family member. When someone leaves your life, you feel like there’s a black hole there.”
So, on the moving piano ballad Good Stuff, she sings about missing the foster children who passed through her family’s home in Hertfordshire. On Didn’t Break It Enough, she’s blindsided by the lingering affection for someone who betrayed her.
Her sparse, dramatic songs about being a “hormonal teenager” have already won her a legion of loyal fans – not least the 160 music critics, DJs and musicians who voted her into fifth place on the BBC Music Sound of 2021 list.
Born Sarah Faith Griffiths, she was schooled in soul and gospel music by her Jamaican father and Chinese mother, before falling in love with Taylor Swift’s Fearless album when she was eight years old.
“It was such a contrast to all the stuff I’d been brought up on,” she recalls. “The pop sensibility, and the fact she was singing about teenage stuff: It was my first memory of realising I loved pop music.”
Griff had her first recording session at the age of 10, “just doing embarrassing things in a band”. By the time she left school, she’d signed a deal with Warner Music, releasing her first single in July 2019, two weeks after she finished her A-Levels.
Despite the restrictions of the pandemic, she’s already enjoyed a meteoric rise – ending 2020 by soundtracking Disney’s Christmas advert, and receiving a personal endorsement from Taylor Swift after recording a cover of Exile, from the star’s Folklore album.
“Honestly, this whole year feels super, super-surreal,” laughs the singer, who calls the BBC from the bedroom where she produces all of her own music (complete with a limited edition Taylor Swift “Baby Taylor” guitar on the wall).
“I still feel like I should be doing my homework.”
Read our full interview with Griff below.
Thank you, it’s pretty crazy, isn’t it?
How did you find out?
There was another “ones-to-watch” list that I didn’t make and I was on the phone to my manager going, “How did we miss this? What did we do wrong?” and he was like, “Shhh… it’s fine, we’ve got the big one.”
You started making music when you were still at school. Did your homework suffer?
I was actually a very good student! But, especially towards the end of my school career, I was doing my A-Levels in the morning, then travelling into London, doing a studio session, coming back home, doing a quick economics essay, then doing it all over again. It was like a split life I was living.
What did your teachers think?
Well, they didn’t know, but it definitely got to a point in sixth form where they were like, “OK, everyone has handed in their personal statements [for university] – but Sarah, where’s yours?”
I was like, “Oh miss, I’m going to take a gap year. I won’t apply to Uni.” And in the back of my head I was going, “I’ve signed a record deal, miss.”
When I was doing my A-Levels, I had a show on local radio and my teacher told me to quit because I was “damaging my future prospects”.
My economics teacher said something similar. He’s proper safe, I like him, but he was just like, “Oh Sarah, when are you going to give up this music business and take your economics seriously?” And then I got an A, and that was a nice middle finger!
Ah, so you’re not just a musical genius.
Well, I’m very competitive. Even when I signed a record deal half-way through sixth form, I knew I wanted to finish my exams and do them well.
At that point, you were going into sessions with much older, more experienced writers and producers. Were you quite self-confident?
I don’t know. I think, when you’re younger, you have less anxiety. You’re just optimistic and bubbly and walking into the studio going, “Oh hi, let me write a big smash hit song!”
So I don’t remember it being intimidating. In my head, I knew you had to say yes to everything – and that might open one door at some point.
Mirror Talk was one of those stop-you-in-your-tracks debut singles. What made you choose it as your first release?
It’s not your conventional love song. It’s kind of about having melodramatic breakdowns by yourself, and your relationship with yourself, rather than other people. And there’s literally two elements in the track – so it was super-sparse and felt different to everything else out there.
We put it out literally two weeks after my last exam, and Annie Mac premiered it [on BBC Radio 1]. It was my first ever radio play and, for me, that was like, “Woah, this is really happening.”
Pop music has become a lot braver about tackling mental health, with artists like Halsey and Ariana Grande discussing depression and self-image. That’s got to be healthy.
Definitely. It makes sense to have songs that tap into what people are really feeling, instead of this inflated, glossy ideal of what we should be feeling.
You’ve been compared to Billie Eilish and Lorde and Taylor Swift. Do you hear those references in your music?
Definitely! It’s the biggest compliment ever. Lorde is probably my number one inspiration. But it’s quite scary to think people would make those comparisons. I feel like I’ve got impostor syndrome and I’ve just been winging it until this point.
They’re all artists who have made their own sound. Is that your goal, too?
I think that’s the only way you can make a career that has longevity. I could easily write songs that would do well in the moment – but to create art that feels timeless, you have to carve out your own lane of pop, which means people come to you. So yeah. I’m always trying to do something that’s a little bit different.
Good Stuff is one of those songs. It doesn’t feel like anyone else could have sung it. What’s the story behind it?
When I went in to write Good Stuff, I had the line “you left me with the good stuff” in my notebook. That was about how my family fosters kids. They come to live with us for years and become like brothers and sisters. But they always move on to a more permanent place, and when they do, we don’t really see them again. And I think when anyone leaves your life, you only remember the best memories. So that’s what that song was about.
My wife and I adopted two children – and we do keep in touch with their foster family, because they’re such a big part of their lives. But I know some new parents find that hard…
It’s each to their own, really. Sometimes, especially when the kids have spent so much time here, it’s kind of like letting your partner see their ex. So I get how there can be insecurities around it. But there’s no hard feelings there. Kids need to attach. But definitely as a family, we sit there and reminisce. But it’s really hard at points. You miss them loads.
To go back to the music – you’ve done a few songwriting collaborations recently with Zedd and Hailee Steinfeld and Honne. Is that something you want to do more of?
I’ve done a little . It’s hard because you don’t want to give away your best songs – but I want to do more of it, because it’s a nice outlet. Instead of always thinking, “Does this lyric fit me? Is relevant to where I’m at?” you can just write for fun.
Have you been in one of those sessions where a singer comes in and unloads all of their personal problems – and says, “Now, turn that into a song for me!”
Yeah, but I like that! Songwriting is my first love, before being an artist. Just sitting there and decoding what people are saying, then trying to put that into a song that everyone can relate to. I quite enjoy it.
Have you got a song or a lyric where you feel you’ve made that connection?
Forgive Myself was a monumental song for me. The lyric in that goes: “I gave my heart to the wrong somebody else… so I need to forgive myself.”
Again, it wasn’t necessarily about love, but I guess being young and being in the music industry, you trust your dreams to a lot of different people, hoping they can help you, and often it falls short. I beat myself up a lot for trusting the wrong people. So that song felt quite healing.
This has been a very strange year for anyone trying to launch a music career. All the things you’re supposed to do – concerts, showcases, festivals, TV and radio appearances – have pretty much been off the cards. How have you found it?
It’s been the best-worst year ever. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been busy. But I also feel like I’m just sitting in my music room and filming myself. Social media’s suddenly much more important. So there’s a lot more stuff to do: Influencer kind-of things, that I never thought I’d have to do as a musician.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve filmed yourself doing?
Erm… I’m always scrapping for content. Like, I’ve got to post every other day. And one day my social media team were like, “Oh, you’ve got onto Apple’s Hottest Songs playlist, you need to post about that. Something funny”.
And before you know it, I’m filming myself trying to fit a whole apple in my mouth. I was like, “What am I doing? Let’s go back to making songs.”
I presume this was a mini Braeburn, not one of the gigantic Hokuto apples?
I don’t remember. I went to the fridge, picked one up and went for it.
Wait, you keep apples in the fridge?
I guess we do, yeah. That’s interesting. I never consciously put them in the fridge. I live with my mum and she just does it.
Are they better cold?
No, because you get tooth freeze.
I’m asking all the important questions here.
Of course! I don’t know where I stand on cold apples. Let the people know I’m in the middle on that issue.
Surely apples are at their best when they’re hot and in a pie?
Oh, I had a really nice apple pie the other day at the pub. You’re right.
Let’s get back on track… Is it right that you make a lot of your own clothes?
I do! I love sewing!
Where did that come from?
I’ve always loved clothes and fashion – but I thought everyone did. I thought it was a normal teenage thing. And then in sixth form, I was like, “Oh no, I think I’ve got more of a vested interest,” so I took textiles for A-Level. That’s where I learnt the basics and it’s followed me since.
For photo-shoots, I’ve worked with stylists and been dressed in the most expensive clothes but for some reason it doesn’t feel like me – so I always end up bringing along pieces I’ve made and wearing them as well.
What’s your signature style?
I like playful, oversized, vintage dresses. There’s an element of fantasy to everything I make.
Will you end up like Lady Gaga, owning a fashion house, churning out the designs and getting other people to make them?
I don’t know if I’ll be quite so Cruella De Vil, getting minions to make everything, but I definitely want to do something in fashion. And when I do, I want it to be proper. It can’t be like, “Oh cute, she’s making clothes now”. I want it to be a proper clothing brand statement.
What have you got up your sleeve for 2021?
Honestly, I’m playing it by ear. I’ve actually been writing loads over lockdown – maybe a hundred songs – but I never know if they’re good or not! Hopefully, I’ll release a single in January, and an EP in March or May.
How do you choose from 100 songs? I know Carly Rae Jepsen blasts out her demos while she cleans the house…
I’m a driver. I like listening to them in the car. And I also send them to my best friend and see which one she’s humming the next time I see her.
Before I go, can I ask what’s on the CD rack behind you?
Oh gosh, no-one’s asked me this before. Hang on… [She pulls out a handful of CDs]
Oh, they’re all empty! Ah – but look at this: Nicki Minaj, Pinkprint! I love that album. And then there’s a load of old-school Christian music, because that’s what my parents listened to back in the day.
Did you sing in the church choir when you were younger?
Yeah! I’m still really involved in church – but it’s not a traditional one. It’s in a big theatre and there’s modern music and lights -and they put on huge events at the O2 and Wembley, so I’ve got a lot of live experience, in a way.
What can we expect from a Griff solo show, if and when concerts start up again?
I managed to do a virtual gig at the Tate Modern [in October] and that was a dream come true. We had life-drawers and projectors and proper set design. So I think you can definitely expect a big production and a lot of energy and me going crazy, really, dancing around with a microphone.
What are your moves like?
Probably quite bad. You can go and have a look on YouTube. I’m not going to recreate them for you now!