Griff on Falling, Getting Back up and Putting One Foot in Front of the Other

Music Features Griff
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Griff on Falling, Getting Back up and Putting <i>One Foot in Front of the Other</i>

“To be left alone is the most precious thing one can ask of the modern world,” Anthony Burgess once observed. And it’s wisdom to which 20-year-old lone-wolf artist Griff can totally relate. Growing up in virtual cultural isolation in England’s bucolic hamlet of Kings Langley in Hertfordshire, sans local nightclubs or jumping music scenes for reference points, she developed her own unique sound and aesthetic, as well as the dogmatic self-belief to pull it all off. That confidence crackles like lightning through the video for her recent overseas hit single “One Foot in Front of the Other” (from her mixtape of the same name), wherein—sporting waist-length pigtails and frilly home-made dresses that wouldn’t look out of place on Johanna Spyri’s Tyrollean Heidi heroine—she moans like a seasoned R&B vet through a synth-rubbery, ’80s-playful soundscape. Born in seclusion, Sarah Faith Griffiths’ Griff persona/alias is truly like nothing else on the charts today. And this is only her second official release.

As the the exotic-featured daughter of a Jamaican gospel musician father and a Chinese mother who was also a singer, Griff remembers always feeling out of place, not sure of which heritage to claim, and thereby unconcerned with the latest fashionable fads. “I don’t think I constantly thought about looking cool—I think it was more like I just enjoyed creating things,” she admits. “Growing up in a very middle-class, tiny, white village, where there’s not much to do—and also when you grow up with resourceful working-class parents, and you see how resourceful they can be—I think that passes itself down, in a way. And it’s manifested in me, just making my own beats and making clothes in my room.”

The artist’s first lesson in self-reliance came from her mom, a hard-working immigrant who once worked the rice fields in Vietnam as a child. At U.K. supermarket chains like Sainsbury’s, she explains, a strange phenomenon would occur nightly around 9 p.m.—a pricing-gun-armed employee would walk through store aisles, discounting sell-by-date-nearing foods with yellow discount stickers; You either knew about the late-night deals or you didn’t. “I don’t know if they have that in America, but the guy would put a 10-pence sticker on food just to get rid of it,” she says. “So my mom would just hover by that guy, and then put it in our freezer so it didn’t go bad, and that would be the food we had for the week, like ham and broccoli or sometimes loads of scones.” She chuckles at the fond memory. “My mom was very resourceful in saving money and being creative with what we had.”

From dad, young Griffiths acquired her love of music. And even though his parents had emigrated to Britain from Jamaica as part of the Windrush Generation—which began in 1948 when thousands of Caribbean workers arrived in England to fill post-war labor shortages, and ended with 1971’s strict Immigration Act—he never introduced her to any ska, reggae or rocksteady, she swears. “My father was actually born here in South London, so he’s very Western and British,” she says. “So he would always play me soul, like Stevie Wonder and Mary J. Blige, Kirk Franklin and Bill Withers, and Whitney, of course, as well. And he sang in church now and again, and he’d do private functions and weddings, and just do bad covers and stuff. But he’s actually a really talented singer, so I guess that’s where my love of music comes from.”

At eight, after singing at a Christmas church service, the daughter caught the performance bug, too. By 11, she’d started writing, recording and producing original music on her brother’s laptop, after teaching herself the techniques through YouTube tutorials. Her folks allowed her to commandeer a spare room, where she gradually assembled the home studio where she continues to piece her complicated tracks together (she was happy to still be living said isolated life once the pandemic hit, although she hopes to move out on her own to London soon). Today, it includes several acoustic guitars, a mini-synth and a trusty Yamaha piano she was given at age 10, all of which went into her sleek, prodigious 2019 debut EP The Mirror Talk on Warner Bros.

“As a kid, the music room looked way more sparse—it was more like a spare room with a sofa,” Griff says. “But because my brothers had instruments, as well, my parents said, ‘You will practice if you’re taking up that instrument,’ so that was the room where they’d get into. And it wasn’t like I thought it all out,” she adds of her fortress-shaped enclosure, with a central swivel chair so she can pivot to any necessary device or instrument. “This is just how it evolved over time, and developed into my studio space.” Crooning in chapel had revved her engine almost to family annoyance, too: “I was just always singing, even though I wasn’t very good, to be honest. But I just decided that I really loved it, so there just came a point in my childhood where I was apparently not going to stop.”

As for arriving at her unique, undulating sound, Griff had no real sounding boards to bounce ideas off. At school, she kept her songwriting secret, only confiding in one key classmate, Rose, whom she met when they were both 11. “Our friendship really developed as we got older, until by the end of school it was just me and Rose, and everyone looked at us like we were weirdos, but I’ve kept her by my side ever since—she is my springboard for everything, and she’s so unbothered and chill,” she says of the BFF, whom she still runs all of her crucial career—and musical—decisions through. Once the Griff Machine really gets rolling, she’d like to put her on staff in some high capacity, she adds. “But only if she wants to, though—I don’t want it to ruin the dynamic of our friendship. I always want her to come along to photo shoots and help me, but I never want to pressure her. I don’t want her to just be there because we’re working.”

Ergo, Griff cringes at the mention of modern music-biz buzz words like “the team.” She first came into contact with that world when she started taking 30-minute train trips into London, to either drop by fully equipped recording studios or just hang out in the conversely bustling metropolis. She no longer feels like an innocent abroad, and the maturity is reflected on One Foot, in which she contemplates materialism (“Black Hole”), mortality (“Earl Grey Tea”) and human frailty (“Walk”), with a recurring lyrical theme of losing one’s balance, falling down. The cover photo underscores that motif, with her in aerialist gear precariously balanced on actual tightrope. Why the strange focus?

The composer is initially at a loss for words. “It’s weird—I’ve never broken a leg or anything—there haven’t been any physical events, or even one dramatic emotional event, where I’ve fallen down,” she says, flummoxed. “But somehow, writing this mixtape, my head’s just been in that space of recovery. But I think it’s just about being a really fragile person, emotionally, and the best way I could put that into an analogy was the idea of walking a tightrope, and falling down and getting back up. And yes, it’s hard, and it’s vulnerable. But it’s what we’re all doing, every single day.” That’s why she put such an emphasis on the cover shot, she says, and why she trained with a Cirque du Soleil acrobat to actually perform the stunt herself. “Because then I had to just get up there and do it—it was definitely a learn-on-the-job kind of thing,” she says.

The youthful star-in-the-making is happy with her unique sound. But she’s not sure she’s defined it just yet. “It’s nice that there’s an identity, but I feel like I’m still working it out,” she concedes. Some folks have wondered aloud if she was an old soul, channeling energy from some past era. Again, Griff isn’t sure. “It’s not that I feel in touch with another generation—it’s more like I always felt out of touch with my own,” she says. “Even going off to school, I think I hit puberty really young, and I didn’t really know how to connect a lot of times to most of my friends at school. And I think that’s probably why I just lose myself in music.”