For as long as she can remember, Sarah Faith Griffiths has been obsessed with pop music. Now known to a global audience as the rising pop star Griff, in the early years, she was just another kid who learned how to play music because she wanted to cover her favorite songs. She still lives with her parents, though, and she’s still trying to figure out what she wants to
do next. The difference between Griff and countless other aspiring musicians across the globe? Taylor Swift is sending her flowers.
Though Griff has been more than vocal about the impact of Swift’s Fearless on her own impressionable psyche, she had no idea the feeling was mutual. Still, even after the flowers showed up in her dressing room at the BRIT Awards last spring, the signature on the card didn’t quite register.
“Well, she actually tweeted about me and my friend Maisie [Peters] when we did a cover of her song “Exile” last year,” Griff explains during a recent Zoom interview. “And when the BRITs came around, she was there, and she sent me flowers when I was getting ready — which is nuts. But, the thing is, she signed off with just ‘Taylor.’ I got these flowers and they said ‘from your friend Taylor.’ And I was like, ‘Who the fuck is Taylor? Surely not…’ And then after the event, I went to see her in her dressing room backstage, and she gave me so much time and was so nice.”
MAKEUP: Michelle Dacillo
DESIGNED BY: DAISY JAMES
NOVEMBER 17, 2021
BY: CAITLIN WHITE
“Well, she actually tweeted about me and my friend Maisie [Peters] when we did a cover of her song 'Exile' last year,” Griff explains during a recent Zoom interview. “And when the BRITs came around, she was there, and she sent me flowers when I was getting ready — which is nuts. But, the thing is, she signed off with just ‘Taylor.’ I got these flowers and they said ‘from your friend Taylor.’ And I was like, ‘Who the fuck is Taylor? Surely not…’ And then after the event, I went to see her in her dressing room backstage, and she gave me so much time and was so nice.”
Back in December 2020 when she was covering “Exile” as part of her Against The Clock series, the idea of meeting Taylor just a few short months later wasn’t even in the picture. That series, where Griff, and sometimes a collaborator, have one hour to “create, reproduce and reinvent a song,” began as just another way to pass the time during the pandemic. It kicked off in October with “Rain On Me,” for context, but the collaborative Taylor cover that came a few months later was definitely the most popular. And though it makes perfect sense that covering another artist’s song would be part of Griff’s process as she built her own footprint as an artist, when the time came, her breakout hit was a complete original.
I got these flowers and they said ‘from your friend Taylor'.
For anyone who works in music, the last few months and years have been a doozy. For Griff, who was just a teenager when the pandemic began, Covid-19 made doubling down on her momentum as an emerging artist that much more difficult. Cinching a record deal with Warner Records in the summer of 2019, she debuted her first single, “Mirror Talk,” along with the news of her signing, and should’ve reasonably spent the next year and a half leaning into her new connections and resources.
But after her debut single, and a mixtape of the same name, early 2020 left even the most devoted pop listeners with little interest in discovering new music. Especially without shows to help round out the process. And though Griff held steady, and proceeded to put out about ten more songs, it wasn’t the easiest time in the world for an aspiring pop star to get noticed. With a pandemic taking up all the oxygen in the room, and most people stuck in their own anxieties at home, 2020 was as rough for Griff as it was for most people.
Finally, at the top of 2021, after a year of doubt and fear, Griff channeled all her own existential pain into a song. “Black Hole” is ostensibly about a breakup — “there’s a big black hole where my heart used to be” — but the sentiment just hit on an existential level. Cathartic and soothing, agonized and resilient, “Black Hole” went the path of all great breakup songs, which is to say it catapulted out of the realm of romantic pain and spread out into the ether, symbolizing a deeper, universal struggle. The song’s success has been surreal for Griff, though, and not just for all the usual reasons a young artist is overwhelmed by the sudden attention — but also because she was very much still in isolation mode as the song was rising.
“What’s weird is that we’ve been in lockdown, so I don’t feel the ripple effect,” she says of the song’s success. “It’s only now that I’m maybe starting to feel it like you usually would. I’m not out and about where I’d hear it in the shops really, or anything. As soon as it first came out I was still in lockdown. It was still very much in that season of pandemic, so it’s been a little bit of a weird reality.”
Feelings aren’t facts, though; within just two months, the song earned Griff a spot performing it at the 2021 BRIT Awards, where she picked up the coveted Rising Star Award, (won by the likes of Adele, Florence + The Machine, and Ellie Goulding), and caught the attention of Spotify, who added her to their Radar program in early June. Dropping another longer release, One Foot In Front Of The Other, later that month, and following the tape up with another hit, “One Night,” Griff’s momentum is officially building. Oh, and then there’s the golden blessing of Taylor Swift herself. What else do you need when you’re a pop star on the make? Well, a working live music ecosystem, for one thing.
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DESIGNED BY: DAISY JAMES
Photographer: Peter Donaghy
You see, despite all the recent accolades, Griff’s day-to-day life hasn’t changed that much, even as the world has embraced “Black Hole” to the tune of 57 million streams. The song quickly went silver in Britain, and it looks like her follow-up single, “One Night,” might already be on the path to the same accolades. But the pressures of the pandemic have prevented Griff from being able to tour much. And, with the world in a semi-lockdown state for most of the last two years, she’s opted to keep living at her parent’s house, in Kings Langley, Hertfordshire, instead of moving into an expensive flat on her own. Working out of her childhood home in a “super boring” London suburb, and writing music mostly on her own, sometimes the success she’s had doesn’t seem to register with Griff.
“I still kind of just work out of my front room,” she laughs, when discussing how far she’s come over the last year. “I think so far I’ve found a really good thing with Lostboy and Siba, with whom I wrote ‘Black Hole.’ But even still, when I sit down and start to think about the next album, I don’t know. I work well alone or with one or two people. I’m also really proud that a lot of my latest release was just me 100% at home.” Speaking of being at home while she works, at this point in our call, she hops off the phone to check the door for an Amazon delivery — that’s how normal things are out in Kings Langley.
This kind of suburban life can be a blessing or a curse for a young creative person. Despite the ennui of small-town life, Griff’s family life was always steeped in music, and she had the freedom to begin forging her own tastes almost as quickly as she realized them. Surrounded by the warmth of R&B classics and the bare-bones pop melodies of church, her own music lies somewhere between the two. It’s much more complex than the straightforward adoration of a worship song, but the catchy simplicity is there, too, all grounded with some of the soulful rhythm and blues she was raised on.
Growing up in that London suburb, Griff’s Jamaican father was a music obsessive who played and sang, and created his own mixtapes stacked with Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin, Bill Withers, and Michael Jackson. “Music was mainly coming from my dad, actually,” she remembers. “He played a lot of music and he sang quite a lot, so there was always music on in the house. It was a lot of Black artists, and I definitely loved it. He loved it, and seeing that is what made me fall in love with it a little bit more. But as I started to discover more pop music, it felt like everything I loved the most.”
What's the sense of it all?
Pimpin' powder, and pussy tryna make pennies
See niggas lie on the stand, guess hell ain't harder than prison, who knows
In the 90's a traffic stop get you tickets, a joke
Now they find you a traffic stop get you riddled with holes
We be livin' too fast, we be sippin' it slow
One of my niggas was sellin' work, now he sellin' out shows
I mean face it that's growth, pay attention take notes
You over forty and movin' work better be by the boat
Better be by the dock, better not be by your home
If niggas really wan' hurt you, they gonna leave you alone
And though her father’s passion for music paved the way for her own obsession, the bias against pop as shallow music that didn’t matter still remained. “Pop music definitely wasn’t what my dad listened to or loved,” she says. “He loved the culture and the soul and the rhythm that’s associated with Black music, and often pop music doesn’t have that. It wasn’t dismissed or unapproved, but it wasn’t ever really held in any high regard. And then, especially in Chinese culture, pop culture is seen as very materialistic and empty. There was probably just a sense of ‘oh whatever, it’s just pop music.’”
But the melodies of pop also permeated Griff’s childhood in another way, and that was through church music. Her family attended religious services regularly, so Griff and her siblings were exposed to live music on a weekly basis — but the element that always stuck with her was pop melodies. “We were experiencing live music every Sunday, and it was always a big thing for us,” she explains. “It was quite modern band music, and pop melodies when you actually strip it down to what it is.”
Eager to get in on the process herself, at the tender age of seven Griff begged her parents for piano lessons, but quickly abandoned practicing any classical pieces once she knew enough to recreate her favorite hit songs. “As soon as I learned to play chords I felt like I knew everything I needed to know,” she laughs. “I thought, ‘Oh, I can cover and sing anything I want to now,’ because most pop songs are four chords. That was a big eureka moment for me when I started to neglect all the classical stuff. I just wanted to sing and play pop songs.”
“The point I'm making is it'll be people that will judge or making an opinion about my music and A, you don't know this environment, or B, never took the time to even listen to what I'm really saying on the album,” he says. “That happens far too many times. You wish people would really listen, but I don't even blame them because there's so much music coming out.” Does he feel as though he’s gotten overlooked or lost in the furor?
“Yes,” he agrees. “I don't think a lot of people don't know that me, Cole, and Pharrell opened for Jay-Z. We did a whole college tour... A lot of people don't know I opened for Jay before that, even in Europe… A lot of people don't know I opened for Rihanna in Europe. Because there was no Snapchat. I wasn't walking around with a cameraman for YouTube all day. It was a weird time… We got a little bit of the Mandela effect going on in this generation.” However, he says, “I might just try to do the best I can because there'll be a time when it will all connect and everybody is going to put everything together and then it'll all makes sense to some people that it might not make sense to. I would not be lying to say it wasn't frustrating, but ain't nothing to do about it but just keep pushing. It’ll be on Folarin II, where I wrote these subtle reminders all throughout the album.”
When I ask him how this album will be different from the 2012 Folarin mixtape, which featured appearances from 2 Chainz, Chinx Drugz, French Montana, Nipsey Hussle, Rick Ross, and Scarface, among others, Wale compares the project to Jay-Z’s career-defining 2001 release, calling it a “Blueprint” record. “I feel like the process on this one was pretty much, as soon as I got into the mode, it just started feeling like, ‘You know what? Where I am, how I feel, how I know who I am, regardless of what anybody's talking about,’ it started just speaking to me more. I was like, ‘This is Folarin II.’ Folarin is when I started really coming into my own. I really was in that space. I was just singing with my chest. I think that's what's happening now.”
“It's a space that I was in, this bubble,” he continues. “Some days I felt like telling the stories and some days I felt like talking about things going on back home. Some days I felt like talking about shit. The next day I felt like talking about shit. Then the next day I felt like talking about shit. Then the next day I want to do something else. It was just a moment in time, this bubble of where I'm at…. I made sure I spelled it out, it's more grandiose. I think all of them have a different thing, man. Folarin II is its own thing, but it's just the same intentions and the same feeling that I had when I made Folarin 1.”
For the first year, the songs Griff was releasing consisted mostly of older material she’d already written. Part of the excitement of that phase was inherent to signing a deal, and wondering how things would pan out, but figuring out how to write new music in space where the stakes are higher has been part of what she’s navigating lately. “Even still, at any point, music feels like a volatile thing to pursue, and I always feel like it could be taken away from me at any time,” she says. “Every single decision you make at that early stage of your career is so important, because there’s no information about you out in the world, so everything is saying something.”
Interrupted at this rather crucial moment by lockdown, Griff’s live shows have been pretty much nonexistent or few and far between until very recently. There were highs like performing at the BRITs, or on late night, but just looking forward to a real tour full of her own fans is part of the next step. And as a rising pop artist that plenty of fans who fell in love with her music over lockdown will want to see live, it also seems likely she’ll be tapped to open for some other major artists very soon. For now, she’s sticking to a few short headlining shows, and getting a few more performances under her belt.
“I never really did any tours or shows before, I did one show and then lockdown happened,” she says. “And it was a tiny one, just 200 people in London. If lockdown hadn’t happened, and i was able to do live stuff, it would’ve been amazing. But, it’s fine, it’s all still there, and we’re catching up on it now and will definitely catch up on it next year.” She will also be heading over to the US on a proper — albeit short — tour in January, with dates in DC, New York, LA, and San Francisco. “I’ve only done small showcases in the US, so it’s going to be cool to actually come and tour,” she says. “I haven’t seen much of America at all, so I’m more just excited to go and see it for what it is.”
For her live sets, Griff has a decent amount of her own material to pull from at this point. The short, four-track Mirror Talk EP from 2019, along with this year’s seven-song mixtape, One Foot In Front Of The Other, and even a series of one-off singles, including her latest release, “One Night.” This most recent one was actually a revision from an earlier draft called “Midnight Hours,” but became something totally different when she was in a session with Lostboy.
“I wrote a version of this song by myself, it was called ‘Midnight Hours,’ in lockdown,” she says. “And it never was really a showstopper. Then I went into the studio with Lostboy, and he started to make that beat, and I remembered writing that song ‘Midnight Hours,’ so I took those lyrics and wrote them over this new vibe. I walked away from that session thinking it might be a bit too pop — but now obviously I love it. It’s just a song about how during the night time for me, a lot of my thoughts and worries get ten times louder.”
That paranoia creep is definitely a theme that echoes across the most recent work from Griff’s icon, Swift, and also from the acolytes she’s influenced. As a new swell of pop figures take the stage, Taylor’s imprint is obvious on all of them. Luckily, there are few better models in the industry to follow, and it’s the path Taylor has paved — both commercially and critically — that’s helped bring pure and clear pop music back to the main stage.
“I think there’s definitely a new generation of bedroom pop kids,” Griff says. “And it’s funny, I think there is a correlation with Taylor Swift as well. When you hear Olivia talk, or even Conan Gray, and Maisie Peters or whoever, I can hear in so many up-and-coming pop kids how much Taylor Swift has influenced them. It’s funny, but pop is coming back for sure.”
In addition to video games and sneakers, Wale’s other big preoccupation is with wrestling. The appeal is obvious; in the same way rappers create characters for themselves, overcoming financial and structural obstacles, wrestlers do the same thing with physical ones. They can both become larger-than-life, exaggerating characteristics, creating their own narrative, and redefining themselves in the public eye. However, this wasn’t always the case. At one point, Wale was really the only rapper making himself such a visible fan of the sport. Just like with sneakers and livestreaming — that’s right, Wale was livestreaming himself on the now-defunct UStream, years before Instagram and TikTok allowed similar functionality to connect artists with fans — he was just a little bit ahead of his time.
“You know, now there is a little slight shift in wrestling,” he muses. “You got to look at guys like myself and Westside Gunn, Smoke DZA, Flatbush Zombies, we've been a part of that culture for a long time. And Black journalists too, Black writers are talking more about it and uplifting our Black wrestlers. And this is a special time in that culture. The conversations are happening. I work closely with Neil Lawi at the WWE, and I talked to Triple H last week on text. So there's definitely... It's an interesting time for wrestling. You got the R&C podcast, you got the WrassleRap [social media movement], you got Kaz[eem Famuyide] doing it so crazy... Media uplifting the culture, you got Westside Gunn on the crazy run right now, uplifting the culture. So we love where it's at right now. We love where it's going.”
Again, it feels like Wale’s interests parallel his real-life trajectory as an entertainer. He’s always on the ball before anyone else — but he rarely remains there alone for long. It just takes others a while to catch on. On being one of the first highly visible artists bigging up Nigeria before the Afrobeats genre broke stateside, he says, “It's one of them things that I feel like I knew was inevitable and it's not going to stop anytime soon. So I'm proud of all my guys and girls. I'm just grateful that I can be somebody seen as part of that culture.” Isn’t he being too humble? “Nah. I've been valid. My thing is if you know, you know. So I'm not overly concerned with that. Everybody know what I do and what I've did. And if they don't, Google is free.”
He takes the same attitude toward the world’s skeptical view of go-go, which still threads through his music like the ever-critical stitching holding together his favorite Nikes. “Go-go is a genre where you got to experience that shit live to all the way, get it for real,” he says. “After you experienced it live, you have a different appreciation for it. This is what I assumed because I think I was maybe 13 years old when I realized go-go was only local. I thought everybody back then knew what go-go was. When I was a kid, I thought everybody in the whole world knew who those people was. Now that I've learned so much about the actual music and instruments and mixing and culture from all over the world, I can understand why we never really made that leap after [Junkyard Band’s] “Sardines” and [E.U’s] “Doin’ Da Butt.”
GRIFF is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.
stylist: Kamran Rajput
HAIR: Charles Stanley
stylist: bobby wesley
stylist: miquelle west
Photographer: ANDY FORD
My latest release was just me lOO% at home.
I just wanted to sing and play pop songs.
Luckily, Griff’s early determination is part of what gave her a headstart on the music game, and it only took about a decade or so after that first piano lesson for her to catch industry attention. After years spent commuting from her hometown to network in London, she caught the attention of Warner Records. Shortly after, she signed a record deal at age 18, and began releasing music. One of her current collaborators, the producer Lostboy, aka Peter Rycroft, remembers meeting her. He describes her talent as a pretty impressive thing to behold, even back then.
“I was aware of Griff and had heard a few things, but when I met her I was pretty blown away,” Lostboy says. “More by her personality and drive than anything. The first time we met was in our first writing session years ago, and we wrote a song that was okay, nothing special, to be honest. But, I remember when she left and I was comping her vocals, I was just thinking ‘wow wow wow’ and got more and more excited. Not even excited to work with her more, as I wasn't sure we would be, but just excited for what was to come for her.”
Before and after she signed her deal with Warner, Griff kept traveling into London constantly to get into studio sessions with other songwriters and producers. From 16 on, she would balance her school work with music industry networking, determined to get her degree while still pursuing her passion. Working at home with a setup of Logic, a Mac, a midi keyboard, and a pair of speakers, Griff also taught herself to produce and often practiced recording herself at home, too.
“I just loved harmonizing with myself, and putting down drums and stuff,” she says. “When I wasn’t in school, I was trying to produce, without realizing I was doing that. The songs I was doing then were… pretty shit. When I listen back now I’m like, ‘Oh my god, not good at all.’ I was trying to make things that were a lot darker, and had a bit more R&B influence back then. I think it’s taken me a minute to properly embrace the word pop. With music, I knew I loved it, but I also knew the chances were so slim. I think I only really realized I could pursue it full time when I signed my deal.”
I think it’s taken me a minute to properly embrace the word pop.
I got these flowers and they said ‘from your friend Taylor.'
My latest release was just me lOO%
I just wanted to sing and play pop songs.
I think it’s taken me a minute to properly embrace the word pop.
GRIFF is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.