GIRL RAY formed two years ago in London when Poppy Hankin (Vocals, Guitar), Iris McConnell (Drums), and Sophie Moss (Bass) were at sixth form college. Their first single, Trouble, was recorded on their last day at school, and their debut album, Earl Grey, was released in August of this year. Girl Ray’s success lies in songwriter Poppy’s honest, heart on your sleeve lyrics, their accomplished pop melodies, distinctive and mature lead vocals, and the wistful harmonies provided by all three women.
You’re 19 years old now. How long have you been writing songs? Was it something you started doing from the get go?
Since I was about 11 when I started playing guitar, I was way too lazy to remember how to play other people’s songs. At that time I was taking myself way too seriously. For the first years it was me trying to be Simon and Garfunkel. What I thought were beautiful lyrics, but looking back, they kill me. I started being so profound, but looking back I was stating the obvious. Typical teenager!
We might mock the way we felt about things and the world as young to mid-teens, but those feelings are very real and intense, aren’t they?
Oh yes, even more so than now perhaps. They are so intense, those feelings, and that’s why it’s cringey to look back when you’re a bit older. You forget they were real, that you were writing with such passion. All those hormones and things! I started writing songs that were acceptable for human consumption at 15 or 16 maybe. At that time, the things that are happening to you, you get relationships, or you realise that maybe less is more in terms of songwriting. If I hadn’t gone through that really cringe stage, when I was very young, then I probably wouldn’t write how I do now. I was listening to some demos from when I was 12 and actually the lyrics are terrible but [with] the music, there’s certain similarities to what I write now, I guess.
Earl Grey came out almost three months ago, but it’s only now I’ve sat down and looked at the lyrics written in the sleeve notes. Reading them, they are very honest. Painfully so, at times.
I thought I was being so vague! Then I look at them written down and think, oh shit! People ask me, “What’s that song about?” and I’m like, “Just read the lyrics!” I’m not very good at metaphors, I say it as it is. I find it hard to lie when I’m writing.
You’ve described the album as miserable. It’s a record of pop tunes, sweet off-kilter harmonies, with a melancholy feeling running through them as well.
From a personal standpoint, my favourite music is pop and music with hooks. I’ve got no patience for music that doesn’t have hooks or isn’t poppy. I like miserable songs, but they’re not my favourite. I like happier songs and I can’t lie when it comes to lyrics. I still love the same bands, but more recently I’m listening in a different way. I’m more analytical and picking them apart a bit more. Some chords do it for me, some lyrics do it for me, it hasn’t changed that much, I just look at it in a different way.
Your voice is very distinctive, cool and low. My very favourite description I read of you is as the ‘Finchley Nico’.
I’m definitely not the Finchley Nico! (laughs) When I read that, I was …no…
You’ve got Nico’s fringe.
Yes! Well, not any more. I did! I never thought I was a very good singer, because I had a really low voice and my range is terrible. I can sing one octave and then people said they really liked it even though I thought it was really mannish, my voice. I never thought of myself as a singer, it was how I’d show Iris and Sophie the songs. I‘d sing them it and it sort of stuck, me as a singer. I mean, I was in the school choir when I was 8, but only just. I fucked up my solo. In terms of vocal styles, not to try and sound cool or blasé, I just sing, and that’s what comes out.
The album is not laid back or casual as such, but sometimes the delivery feels like you’re taking a slightly mocking view of the world.
It’s almost the way that we talk to each other, we can be a bit sarcastic! I think I know what you mean… but at the same time we’re not trained musicians or anything and we’re always going to sound how we sound, which is quite sloppy I guess [laughs]. That’s how we play! But we worked very hard on the album. It was our set list that we’d been playing for a couple of years. And also we started thinking, how are we going to tie this together and make an album and not just a random collection of songs? We didn’t get much sleep. In the studio for 12 days. We packed a lot into those 12 days. We were so keen to get it out, get it recorded.
You make it appear so easy.
It wasn’t. When I was younger and watching endless interviews with bands I’d think, that sounds dead easy, God! They’re so lucky! When the actual story is much longer.
And yet, Girl Ray’s voices knit so well together, it sounds effortless. Girl Ray sound like Girl Ray, no one else. The harmonies are intriguing and sometimes a bit unsettling.
We have to do a lot of trial and error with harmonies. I guess it’s the sound of our voices together. We’ve all got quite distinctive singing voices. Iris’ is very high, Sophie is quite jazzy, mine is husky, all that together creates a low, middle and high, and works quite well actually, if I do say so myself.
The videos to go with singles Stupid Things and Preacher – Nettles of the Parish Parts I and II – are like mini episodes of Upstairs Downstairs; curious, quirky little period dramas.
We suggest something to the director and it’s, “How do we make this work?” and we’re like, “We can!” We’ll say we want to do a period drama where we’re sisters and we’re fighting over this guy. That’ll be really funny. Alex [Cantouris, director] goes away and he watches all the period dramas in the world and he says, “Ok, I think I know how to do this.” Basically all period dramas are the same. With the other ones, we came up with them together. One of us will suggest something and we’ll start talking. Alex plans it all out, he’s the real genius.
So you turn up and be film stars for the day?
I heard a little rumour that Girl Ray have a Christmas single. There was a call out for a choir of children?
It’s got a child choir on it. We found one! It was the hardest song we’ve ever recorded. We begged our record label for lots of studio time so we could go so hard on it, and record loads and loads of layers. And make it very Christmassy. So they did, and once again we got sleepless nights because, basically, we decided to do a Phil Spector and record everything, the majority of the tracks, three times.
It’s got jingle bells on it?
Oh yes. I listened to the Phil Spector’s Christmas album a lot. I love The Ronettes.
I’ve also heard you do a Shadows walk when you play live. Have we got that to look forward to at your Liverpool Music Week show?
We stopped doing it all the time because… we’d do it and no one would react and we were like, we feel a bit lame. But we’ll do in on this tour. We kind of sound like a cover band of Girl Ray live. We’re not the tightest band ever, but people like it (laughs). I think I’d enjoy watching us, but then again, I’m a bit biased. If you like the record, you’ll probably like us live!
Girl Ray play EBGBS on Monday 30th October as part of Liverpool Music Week’s Breaking Out Series. Tickets are available here.
Earl Grey is out now via Moshi Moshi records.