The rise of Griff feels like a silver lining around the thundercloud that was 2020. While all around the 20-year-old pop powerhouse careers stalled, tours evaporated and sound engineers peed in bottles while driving delivery vans, this singer went from buzzy obscurity in Kings Langley, Hertfordshire, locked down with her family and foster siblings, to a Top 20 hit and a Brits rising star award.
Along the way, there have been fistfuls of great, under-the-radar tunes, Taylor Swift endorsements and an ever-growing bubble ponytail, Griff’s visual signature, a sculptural riff on Ariana Grande’s own swishy hair extension. There was also a Disney Christmas ad, of which the best that can be said is that it was a Trojan horse, delivering Griff’s elastic, emotive voice into greater public consciousness. As @wiffygriffy, this holder of a textiles A-level, AKA Sarah Griffiths, does good work on TikTok, posing craft challenges.
On Brits night itself, Griff stole the show; it was only her second-ever gig. Sashaying expertly across a very literal stage set – “there’s a big black hole where my heart used to be,” Griff sang, from a hollowed-out, heart-shaped plinth – she nailed Black Hole’s dramatic vocals. This former bedroom pop producer also made a point of looping her voice live on a loop pedal machine, à la Ed Sheeran at Glastonbury. In interviews, Griffiths has spoken out about the continuing dearth of female producers, never mind female producers of colour (her own heritage is Chinese-Jamaican). That loop pedal is now a competition prize.
You can hear Griff’s Taylor Swift fandom often here, but that is no criticism
One Foot in Front of the Other is, though, an odd release. A debut album in all but name, this mixtape comes with the caveat that it was written and recorded during lockdown. Griff and her label feel that her debut album proper is still ahead of her.
Certainly, this mini-album’s title chimes hard with the emotional rollercoaster of the year just gone. Griff’s mood is often pensive. Sober themes abound. Not for Griff the giddy heights of love’s intoxication – at least not here. One track, self-written and self-produced, ponders the age-defying, cancer-busting properties of Earl Grey tea. “You’re so scared of dying slowly,” sings Griff as the keys on her electric piano clunk in the background, “but why aren’t you more scared of dying lonely?”
Similarly, Shade of Yellow finds Griff finding solace in the quality of lamplight. It makes her feel safe – “and I swear, that’s rare these days”, she notes. Like everyone else, she’s been having weird dreams. “Usually I forget them, in, like, a millisecond,” she sings on Remembering My Dreams, but these details are vivid. Maybe too vivid: the perky bittersweetness of the production finds room for a distant, groaning undertow.
As much as you want to punch the word “resilience” for being everywhere now, wobbling and righting yourself are this record’s themes, not least on the title track. Released last month, it lays out persuasive evidence that Griff is a talent deserving of the hype. Alongside the usual prerequisite pop tick-boxes – earworm melody, punchy step-change from verse to chorus and so on – she emanates effortless maturity. “You know it’s easy when you’re young/ Bounce back and whatever/ Just bounce back like it never happened,” Griff offers in a kind of R&B mutter. The young suffer just as much as anyone else, she argues. Hence the tightrope-walking artwork: Griff is trying, but not quite nailing the art of functioning after some setback or breakup, legs shaking, face plant imminent.
“Things just take longer to heal these days,” she pronounces. Hers is a wise, eloquent head on shoulders that just happen to be encased in architectural ballgowns. If Lorde hadn’t just released a single, Griff would make an excellent stand-in for fans of the New Zealander’s preternaturally poised pop. As it is, you can hear Griff’s Taylor Swift fandom often here, but that is no criticism. With it comes a taut compositional style and ninja-level emotional literacy.
Two tiny concerns nag at this mixtape. One is that, with the arrival of pro songwriting and production hands, the more arresting sounds of Griff’s EP Mirror Talk, released last year, have been homogenised. Another is the vague impression that she may be keeping her powder dry for whatever comes next. Given that these songs are really, really good, you pity the competition when Griff: The Opus finally lands.