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The Pop Kids: Heartache And Hooks With Girl Ray's 'Earl Grey'

Wednesday, 02 August 2017 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: Neil Thomson

There are times when we become hopelessly fixated on certain songs. We get hooked on the way they make us feel, or the fact that they just get us. They talk to us when we perhaps can’t verbalise what we’re going through, and that’s one of the reasons Poppy Hankin loves pop music so much.

Her band, Girl Ray, are about to release a debut album that’s stacked floor to ceiling with winsome hooks and teenage heartache. The nattily-titled ‘Earl Grey’ is as sophisticated as it is star-crossed and leans heavily on Hankin’s status as a well-versed pop nerd.  

“I find it really hard to talk and express how I’m feeling,” she says. “It’s a problem everyone has, but putting it in a pop song can make feelings you can’t put your finger on a little less scary. You’ve got this weight off your shoulders.

“When I write a song it’s selfish, but you have the afterthought that now we’re a bit more successful people are actually going to hear these songs and it might mean something to them. When I was a bit younger, if I was on holiday and there would be maybe 10 tracks I was obsessed with I’d blast them out in the car. I’d have the time of my life. I like to think that might be Girl Ray for someone.”

Early Girl Ray comparisons landed on C86 and the peak years of twee indie (with good reason) but even at this relatively early stage their music has a sense of ambition and scope outside those confines. Hankin is a devout follower of the gospel according to Abba and it shows in her repeated attempts to create something beautiful in miniature.

Most of the songs on ‘Earl Grey’ are short and sweet, but they comprise numerous movements and deft, clever melodies. Hankin wouldn’t countenance the comparison, but there’s something of Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Frida in Just Like That’s delivery of the line “I need something good, now that you’ve gone away” in multi-part harmony.

“I wouldn’t be as vain to say Girl Ray is like that, at all, but there’s a lot to be said for making a catchy song that people can relate to,” she says. “I do like to think they’re accessible and I like it when people come up to us after a show and tell us: ‘If you’re ever sad just think that I’m dancing around the kitchen singing one of your songs for my daughter.’ Music still powers making people happy. That’s the aim. I don’t know if we achieved it or not.”

That sentiment also powers the record’s lyrics, which carry the bittersweet sting of young love. Hankin and her bandmates - drummer Iris McConnell and bassist Sophie Moss - are all a little way shy of their 20th birthdays, which separates their writing from any semblance of nostalgia.

A song like Stupid Things - where Hankin details small changes in her behaviour in order to grab the attention of a crush - is delivered with flushed cheeks and self-censure rather than a rose-tinted “do you remember when…’. “You’re so cool, don’t know what I’d do if you said ‘I like you too’,” she sings.

Hankin describes ‘Earl Grey’ as containing assorted subtle variations on this theme, having focused in on her style after initially learning enough chords to play some Kimya Dawson songs. In her mind, that’s all it takes to get the gears working if there’s something you need to say.

“That’s a pop song, right there,” she says. “Three chords. Pop became my natural direction. My songwriting voice came after years of absolutely shocking songs. When you’re 16 and things are happening in your emotional life then it’s not so much what’s on the lunch menu or 'when’s my maths homework got to be in?'. You’re feeling all the feels. It gave me the fuel I was looking for.”

Parts of ‘Earl Grey’ are a little more complex than three chords and something to get off your chest, though. The title track (complete with the subheading ‘Stuck in a Groove’) runs to 13 minutes and shares a psych edge with the roaring organ of Cutting Shapes, a highlight around the record’s midsection. Its inclusion is a bold move (and a potentially divisive one) that stems from Hankin training her analytical focus on album structure over song structure once it became clear that Girl Ray would be making an LP sooner rather than later.

Earl Grey is a stridently album-only piece of music written as Hankin became wrapped up in the vagaries of texture and form. It’s so utterly different to everything else here that it creates a natural divide between what happens before and after it. It’s a breakwater followed immediately by a reprise of Stupid Things that only serves as a further reminder of the change in direction.

It would have been far easier to include Trouble, the band’s wonderful first single, in its place and you’d wager that Hankin knows it. This is particularly interesting as it’s easy to imagine that Girl Ray are the sort of band who might one day revel in the task of assembling a sleek, all-killer singles compilation (‘Girl Ray: Gold’, maybe).

“This is a really wanky way to say it, but I had this burst of creativity,” Hankin says. “I was so inspired at the thought of having this album. The reprise comes on the b-side, which is a bit spookier and less poppy. I wanted to hark back to the a-side. Earl Grey is definitely self-indulgent but you want to prove to yourself that you can make something like that. That and the reprise tie it all together and give a feel that was a bit lost when it was just a few songs here and there. It was also quite fun.”  

‘Earl Grey’ is out on August 4 through Moshi Moshi.

Girl Ray Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue October 31 2017 - LEEDS Headrow House
Wed November 01 2017 - MANCHESTER Gullivers
Thu November 02 2017 - GLASGOW Broadcast
Fri November 03 2017 - NEWCASTLE Underground
Sun November 05 2017 - BIRMINGHAM Hare And Hounds
Mon November 06 2017 - OXFORD Cellar
Tue November 07 2017 - BRISTOL Louisiana
Wed November 08 2017 - BRIGHTON Green Door Store
Thu November 09 2017 - LONDON Scala

Click here to compare & buy Girl Ray Tickets at Stereoboard.com.



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