LET’S EAT GRANDMA
We catch up with the Norwich duo in Coventry to hear how they conjured up the winner of Q’s Best Album award.
Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton of Let’s Eat Grandma love an idiom. Bite the bullet, tables have turned… that kind of thing. But their favourite is I’m All Ears, the title of their second album and the record Q readers voted their favourite at this year’s Q Awards. Rachel Aroesti joins the pair in Coventry to hear how they pulled it off.
In the foyer of a Coventry art gallery, Let’s Eat Grandma’s Jenny Hollingworth is singing a Jeff Buckley song to approximately three people. Around her, a gaggle of volunteers bustle about, unfurling trestle tables and chatting on walkie-talkies with a cliquey camaraderie. There are crêpe paper streamers, copious plastic cups and a photobooth filled with fun hats. A little boy is wincing at the hubbub from beneath a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. As small-time community arts events go, Boudica Festival is a textbook example – the only mystery being what one of the most critically feted bands in Britain is doing here. Post-soundcheck, Hollingworth and her bandmate Rosa Walton are unable to shed much light on the situation – although they are convinced the event would be better situated in their hometown of Norwich. That’s because the Celtic ruler in question lived in the area, a fact that is reflected in the local infrastructure. “One of the Wetherspoons [ in Norwich] is called The Queen Of Iceni,” explains Hollingworth. “So that’s why we’re here,” jokes Walton, delighted to have wrested some sort of logic from the band’s gig diary. The hundred or so guests who eventually turn up to the pair’s set that night should count themselves lucky – Let’s Eat Grandma won’t be hanging around in regional arts centre entrance halls for long. If the duo’s gratifyingly odd 2016 debut I, Gemini – released when they were 17, and partly recorded when they were just 15 – succeeded in piquing music industry interest, its
follow-up, I’m All Ears, has cemented their reputation as precocious masters of witty, idiosyncratic outsider-pop: it garnered a slew of rapturous reviews, won an AIM award in the summer and, more to the point, was recently crowned album of the year at the Q Awards by Q’s readers. Soon, the duo will be playing to numbers that reflect this success: November sees them join synth-poppers Chvrches on a tour that takes in Scottish arenas and the 10,000- capacity Alexandra Palace. Right now, however, the pair are making the most of some precious time off in their own unique style: eating roast dinners at Hollingworth’s new flat, watching the Lord Of The Rings movies and visiting the local magic shop – obviously. “We’re going to have to get into our other projects,” sighs Walton, pondering this rare abundance of leisure time. These sidelines are, according to Hollingworth, “secrets”. “Magic secrets,” teases Walton. Those familiar with Let’s Eat Grandma’s wilfully eccentric approach to music-making will not be surprised to hear that spending time with the pair can be a slightly disconcerting experience. Walton is all wide smiles and friendly chit-chat, while Hollingworth seems far less concerned with putting people at their ease, but both operate in a tone that hovers just below total sincerity – not quite sarcastic, but not entirely earnest either. To those not on their wavelength, they could seem slightly mocking of the interview process – you have to feel some pity for the clueless American journalists whom the pair managed to convince they were witches and, on a more random occasion, hairdressers. Yet they are also at pains not to trot out pat responses: instead their answers are thoughtful, weird and, most often, drily amusing.
That people tend to overlook Let’s Eat Grandma’s GSOH is a personal gripe of the pair. “People didn’t really get our jokes,” complains Walton. Hollingworth agrees. “Elements of the last album were a bit of a piss-take and people took it way too seriously.” The record’s use of recorders, cringeworthy rap segments and deliberately lazy lyrical nonsense – alongside the moody synth epics and strange fairytale-like narratives – was meant to be a deliberately wacky take on pop clichés; in early interviews they acted almost as if their band was some kind of prank. But instead of placing the girls within the contemporary pop landscape that they – along with most young teenagers – inhabited (the pair first got into musicmaking by performing Ed Sheeran covers, and count Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange as a key influence on their debut), music critics strained to squeeze the pair into the indie canon, comparing them to Kate Bush and the Cocteau Twins. “I hadn’t heard of any of these bands until after the album came out. I love the Cocteau Twins, but I like them now – not when we were 14,” says Hollingworth, who is slightly sceptical of the concept of comparing one band to another. “It shows more about somebody else’s music taste than it does about yours – because sometimes I’ll listen to somebody’s music and be like I can hear a little bit of the Tweenies theme tune in there,” she pauses. “I don’t even know what the Tweenies theme tune is.” Cue Walton performing a note-perfect rendition of the ’ 00s kids show’s opening credits. “Look, Rosa was influenced by the Tweenies!” jests Hollingworth, before the pair embark on an in-depth discussion of children’s TV that takes in The Clangers, what exactly Brum is, and whether or not Pingu is a gender non-binary icon.
If I, Gemini was frequently misinterpreted by the music establishment, I’m All Ears has been clutched to its bosom. “I think that people got the second album much more than they got the first one. I feel understood for once!” says Walton, with mock-melodrama. “Rosa’s like, ‘I don’t need my family to talk to about my emotional problems, I just read my YouTube comments,’” replies Hollingworth. “I just need my fans!” her bandmate agrees laughingly. The reasons behind this shift seem twofold: first of all, the girls spent time filleting down their busy and expansive compositions into something more easily digestible, with some assistance from avant-garde producer SOPHIE and Horrors frontman Faris Badwan. “I think this album is slightly more palatable, structure-wise,” says Walton. “SOPHIE taught us how you don’t always need a massive long intro, and sometimes you can make things a bit more succinct, which creates good pop songs,” explains Hollingworth. They still made room for the kind of kooky instrumentals that characterised their debut, but the album is punctuated by leaner, more immediate tracks such as Hot Pink, where saccharine R&B meets spurts of industrial synth, and I Will Be Waiting, which starts off resembling a Vanessa Carlton torch song before
“Sometimes I’ll listen to somebody’s music and be like I can hear a little bit of the Tweenies theme tune in there.” Jenny Hollingworth
attaching itself to a hypnotic breakbeat. The second change seems to have come from the music industry itself. Let’s Eat Grandma’s approach to chart pop – one which combines giddy enthusiasm for its recent past with a maverick disregard for the rules – has gone from fringe concern to a mode that has all but replaced indie music in the intervening years, partly thanks to the success of acts such as Christine And The Queens, Years & Years and Charli XCX, as well as the insistent influence of London production collective PC Music. It’s a shift in attitude the pair have delighted in. “Everybody’s just suddenly admitting that we’ve all liked pop all along and have just been so far up our own arses we couldn’t see the true light of the situation,” Hollingworth thinks. “It shouldn’t be a shameful thing to appreciate pop music. It is a beautiful art!” Walton agrees, grinning. While the mindset behind their experimental pop might be fiercely contemporary, the pair don’t necessarily take a holistic approach to hipness. Instead they have maintained a sense of homespun, slightly nerdy oddness that satisfyingly offsets their music’s newfound slickness. Aesthetically, the pair have moved on from the olde-worlde creepiness of their debut album – in the video for their first single Deep Six Textbook they gallivanted on a beach in white lace tights like errant Victorian twins, while onstage they hid behind blankets of waist-length curly hair and played hand-clapping games – but a sense of anachronism still pervades much of their work. The I’m All Ears album cover, for example, is a portrait of the two girls rendered halfway between dreamy ’ 60s psychedelic art and a pre-Raphaelite painting. The pair also have a penchant for idioms – those quirky English phrases that slot easily into everyday conversation, but sound distinctly strange and antiquated when held up to the light. Their lyrics and song names, from The Cat’s Pyjamas (an organ-based instrumental featuring heavy purring) to the album title itself, are littered with them. “I really like idioms,” muses Walton. “If you give us a word we could probably do an idiom out of it.” Um, table, I suggest unimaginatively. “Tables have turned!” she snaps back triumphantly. As well as revelling in their eccentricity, the pair are increasingly keen to connect with their contemporaries: instead of chinstroking, middle-aged musos, they would like to see more young women in their audiences. “I think it’s just because we write so much
about the experience of being young people that we just wanted people who could specifically relate to it,” explains Hollingworth. The pair are under no illusions about how their age and gender has affected their reception, however, finding much of the press coverage of I, Gemini patronising. But rather than being impatient to outgrow their teenage girl label, the pair are more interested in undermining its negative connotations. Hollingworth is especially passionate about the unsung role of teenage girls as pop culture tastemakers throughout history. “The thing is, a lot of massive bands who are really popular and respected, their fans were always teenage girls. The Beatles had such a young female audience and they’re so respected now and all the older men are like, ‘Oh yeah, The Beatles.’ I don’t really know this for sure but I imagine that The Smiths had quite a female audience.”
That said, Walton and Hollingworth are keen to distance themselves from the kinds of activities that tend to be associated with their peers: namely, racking up social media likes. “Neither of us really post on social media]. I can’t be arsed with it – it’s a waste of time,” says Walton. “I’m really bad at taking selfies as well, so it’s inevitable that I’m never going to be popular on the internet,” Hollingworth says breezily. Social media, and technology, is something that preoccupies them in the abstract, however – I’m All Ears is littered with references to it: songs get interrupted by ringing phones, a track called Missed Call ( 1) which mines a majestic gravity from the phenomenon of the polyphonic ringtone. They are currently obsessed with Channel 4 reality show The Circle, in which members of the public compete to win the affections of their fellow contestants via the slippery medium of social media profiles. According to the pair, it’s a damning indictment of “the basics of popularity – the surface-level things that makes someone popular, mainly what they look like” and they are particularly fascinated by a contestant called Alex, who has fooled the other players into thinking he is a pretty young woman called Kate. “When our manager was like, ‘Who would you like to present your Q Award if you win one?’, we were like: ‘Can we get Alex from The Circle?!’” laughs Walton.
Fast-forward two weeks, and there’s no sign of any scheming reality contestants in London’s Roundhouse – not that it’s anywhere near the forefront of Walton and Hollingworth’s minds. Instead, they’re reeling from the shock of their win, having fought off competition from Noel Gallagher, Interpol and Arctic Monkeys. It’s their old pal Faris Badwan who ends up presenting the pair with their award, which provides the opportunity for a long overdue catch-up – one that takes in topics as diverse as a recent trip to Japan and the current fame levels of TV’s Alex Zane. As Walton and Hollingworth ricochet between waiting cameras and radio mics, the Horrors man muses on their victory. “I can’t think of a record I’d rather have won,” he says. Yet despite Badwan’s obvious bias, it’s not hard to believe that he genuinely means it. Fusing free-spirited originality with whip-smart songcraft and infectious charm, I’m All Ears is a staggering achievement – and one that suggests the most thrilling iteration of pop music’s future lies squarely in the minds of two Norwich teenagers.
“When our manager was like, ‘Who would you like to present your Q Award if you win one?’, we were like: ‘Can we get Alex from The Circle?!’” Rosa Walton
Cool and collected: playing at Coventry’s Boudica Festival, 6 October, 2018.
Norwich union: (above) the duo pass with flying colours; (right) their second album I’m All Ears.
Hear! Hear!: Let’s Eat Grandma accept their Q Best Album award from The Horrors’ Faris Badwan (left).
“It’s the bees’ knees!”: with their Q gong.