Gran Designs: Let’s Eat Grandma interview
The mesmerising, idiosyncratic DIY pop of Let’s Eat Grandma’s 2016 debut heralded a major new talent. But with their follow-up, I’m All Ears, Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth have dreamt up a classic, says Sam Willis.
It’s a warm summer evening and on the other end of the crackling phone line are Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton of Let’s Eat Grandma. We’re talking about porridge. Porridge is a curious topic to open an article about one of the UK’s most exciting acts, but this is an age of hyperbolic fanaticism, so what better to bring us back down to earth than delicious beige porridge? It gets better.
“We were in the studio with [Transgressive labelmate] SOPHIE”, says Rosa, “and I had to make her porridge, because she’d just got off a flight from LA. So I made her porridge and I put it in a Tupperware, but I forgot to take it, so she didn’t have any breakfast.” This all sounds very inconsequential, but this exchange is the fruit of self-induced lucid dreaming via hypnosis. A mirage within Rosa’s mind’s eye. “It puts your body to sleep but keeps your mind awake,” she explains. “So you keep seeing the visuals as if you were going into a dream, but you can stay awake and watch them, instead… it’s interesting that it’s connecting two big things in my life, SOPHIE and porridge.
It’s certainly a unique and uncommon well to draw influence from, but in the context of Let’s Eat Grandma’s music and character, it makes complete sense. Consistently, Jenny and Rosa use vibrant imagery and an otherworldly mysticism as key cornerstones of their sound and thematic content. This unique tool to blur the lines between dreams and reality is an interesting analogy for their music in general.
Let’s Eat Grandma’s 2016 debut I, Gemini focused in on the former: a dreamland for “escapism”. That first record, which was lauded by critics internationally, was the culmination of years of creativity from the impressively young age of 13. It is drenched with cryptic, childlike mythology – songs about fairy tales and a celebration of youthful curiosity; a refusal to be pinned down by the fetters of convention.
Throughout its dark, chilling and distinctly British contours, I, Gemini balanced whimsy, menace and melancholy on a Fisher-Price knife edge with blistering skill. Utilising extra-long intros on a number of tracks, hand-clapping games as instrumentation and an impressively disparate selection of styles, they succeeded in making something that feels as though it’s both a total free-for-all from two people bursting at the seams with ideas, and a carefully orchestrated narrative held together by the one enduring conceit of a child’s imagination. The balance between childlikeness and impressive experimentation is consistently unsettling.
However, this impressive form at such a young age raised eyebrows, with some people in the industry assuming there was a Svengali behind the scenes, pulling the strings. “I’m not going to lie, that did piss me off a bit,” says Jenny. “It’s just horrible not to have your work accredited to you.” That understandable annoyance made them “apprehensive” of collaborations. Both Jenny and Rosa became “worried about people automatically taking the credit away from us”. For them, it was a bewildering notion to consider that some old bloke in the industry could even create their music if he tried, so concerned are the songs with youthful wonder and sounding “so… us”, according to the pair.
Credit Where Credit’s Due
One explanation for some scepticism might be the unnaturally fierce intelligence that is evident as soon as you speak to Jenny and Rosa. Some people simply don’t want to believe they are so far behind two people so young. The exaggeration of their twin-like qualities; the intertwined hair, the eerily similar voices, their presence on stage, the very title of their debut record and the habit they have of finishing off each other’s sentences during interviews, also created a ‘brand’ – for want of a better word – that has the fingerprints of some unseen industry maestro. No, all of these aspects of Let’s Eat Grandma are an organic product of their natural closeness. As inseparable best friends from the age of four, they’ve developed the same artistic vision and it has coalesced over the past five years of evolution and creation into something extraordinary. On their second album, I’m All Ears, Let’s Eat Grandma’s ability to create wild, otherworldly music has diminished not one iota, but their entwined identities and voices on the record have pulled further apart.
“We’re very different people now to when we wrote the first record,” says Rosa. “We’ve got into different things, had different experiences and bring different things to the record.” During the two years since I, Gemini they’ve had the sorts of first-time life experiences and period of drastic inner change that is natural for teenagers. They’ve left education and, unlike most of their contemporaries, embarked on a litany of tour dates and summertime festival slots, which have fuelled a somewhat nomadic existence. Although they command more space as individuals on and off the record, they also insist “it doesn’t mean that we’re not as close as friends”. This wealth of experience from the past two years is evident in the make-up of the album, with reality taking precedence over mystic conceits and fairy tales. “When we write, for us, it’s quite an intuitive thing,” says Jenny. “Everything that comes out are just things we’ve absorbed over the time that we’ve spent writing. Because so much had happened, I think that’s why people hear such a difference between our records.”
The results are far more inclusive. Rather than being cryptic in their lyrics and the themes they explore, they cover personal experiences and emotions more candidly. These intimate moments come through Jenny and Rosa’s close bond with each other and the people they love, as they walk us through illustrations of their own self-discovery. Tracks such as It’s Not Just Me, which is “one of the most personal tracks on the record”, and paints the image of a blossoming relationship; or Ava – a ballad about mental health – hold up a mirror to the feelings and experiences we have all gone through. It’s through this recognisability that the music commands such a deeply emotional connection.
As well as communicating matters of the heart, the songs on I’m All Ears discuss broader topics of the mind with dexterity and maturity. Using conversations they’ve had with friends and first-hand experience as an influence, throughout the record, Jenny and Rosa voice their concerns about living as a young person in society.
One of the topics they tackle with the most fire is consumerism. On Snakes & Ladders, they air their irritation at the “things I go off and buy into” and ask instead, at the end of the closing verse, for: “Something real, something evergreen, something un-mundane.”
“I think it’s something that’s frustrating to us,” says Rosa, “because you can be so aware of consumerism and the negative impact of it, but not actually be able to fully escape it or do much about it, because it’s just the way the world is.” As an example, they tell us about the mum of one of their friends, who had been boycotting Nestlé all of her life and had recently realised the futility of it all. That it is just one head of the hydra and even if one were able to decapitate it, it would soon return. This inability to change much as individuals means that these topics need to be spoken about by people with a platform to raise awareness. “A lot of problems in society get scapegoated onto people who definitely aren’t responsible for them,” explains Jenny. “That’s a major issue, because it’s a lot about brainwashing and the press. All of the major news outlets are owned by people who have a lot of money, and therefore want the laws to be beneficial only to them. That’s just how it works and you have to challenge the system and try and get more people aware of that. It all links. Consumerism really links to inequality and even stuff like racial issues.”
Elsewhere, in Hot Pink – the first track to emerge from the album and one of two co-written and produced by SOPHIE and Faris Badwan of The Horrors – Jenny and Rosa craft a track that “celebrates femininity” and the power of it for both women and men. It’s a rallying cry for those affected by gender inequality here and worldwide. Rather than the societal default being that masculinity is superior, they “think that people should be able to express that side of themselves”. The track describes a sneering villain who passes judgement and sees them as an “object of disdain”. It also cleverly exposes tags, like “drama queen” as tools used to dismiss women as hysterical, at the same time as repurposing stereotypes of childlike femininity as something to be fiercely proud of in the hook: “On my pony in the sky I just want/ Anything and everything, just paint it all in hot pink.”
On a more personal level, too, this song rails against the assumption that Jenny and Rosa’s existence as young women is somehow a hurdle to overcome. “One thing I’ve noticed about our music, specifically,” says Jenny, “is it’s almost like people are saying: ‘Oh, they make this music that we really like, despite being young women’, instead of because of it. Everything about our music says that we are young women and we’re teenagers, otherwise we wouldn’t make it like we do.”
These two songs, in particular, show an unflinching desire to talk about topics that a lot of artists might shy away from. “Because it’s something that we think about a lot,” says Rosa, “something that affects us and our friends, it’s just naturally going to come out in our music.” These are the types of conversations that young, intelligent and politically aware people have as they reach the end of their adolescence, and it’s something Let’s Eat Grandma have managed to distil into an equally conversational and engaging format. However, there is a trepidation when tackling these subjects.
“If you are going to talk about them, it’s important to be responsible,” says Jenny. “I feel like that’s something that I still feel that I’m learning about. I think that’s often why people shy away from it, because they’re worried about saying the wrong thing. Especially when you have a platform. For us, we just write about things that are a part of our lives.”
As well as a discourse around personal emotions and wider societal issues developing in maturity, so too has the overall quality of production for their sophomore record. Last year, Jenny and Rosa studied production at college, which became a vehicle for change in the way they both write and “view sound”. Progressing to writing via software on a laptop during that time enabled them to “see what you’re making on a screen in front of you,” says Rosa. “That’s maybe one of the reasons that we’ve been able to write in slightly more conventional structures instead of having really long, winding songs all of the time.” Now, the long intros are only there when they need to be, instead of being because of some impulsive desire.
As well as developing the key tools they need themselves, David Wrench (Frank Ocean, The xx) was enlisted as the producer and provided tutelage and guidance. “David’s incredible,” says Rosa. “He’s got an incredible analogue-synth collection. We went in with demos and layered a lot of the synths that we’d made on Logic with loads of David’s analogue synths and it completely brought everything to life. He just knows how to find the exact sound that we wanted.”
Wrench also shares many of the values that Let’s Eat Grandma explore on I’m All Ears; both of them insist on working with women in the studio, and David had even refused to work in one unless they hired female engineers. As mentioned earlier, elsewhere on production and co-write credits are fellow Transgressive pop auteur SOPHIE and Faris Badwan of The Horrors, who worked on Hot Pink and Not Just Me. Their input and guidance helped Jenny and Rosa understand “how to write good pop songs”.
“They’re the two, like, poppiest songs on the record,” says Rosa. “I don’t think we would have been able to nail a proper pop song if we hadn’t had the guidance from them. Especially because the other songs we wrote, we wrote after that. It was a good learning process. Both SOPHIE and Faris are incredible.”
Like SOPHIE – who is currently celebrating the release of her own critically acclaimed debut Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides – Jenny and Rosa have the entire world of pop at their feet. Their ability to write deeply affecting music, which holds a mirror up to society and so accurately portrays the loves, pains and concerns of youth, is enchanting and executed with a skill far beyond their years of experience.
They, quite seriously, are becoming standard-bearers for a brave new frontier of music and have perfected a template, which will doubtlessly spread ever further throughout the remainder of the decade. If this is what they’ve managed to produce at only 18 and 19, it will be a joy to hear what will come in the next 10, 20, 30 years, because they certainly have the legs for it.