“Sorry, I drink a lot of coffee, Steph,” says Georgia Barnes, taking her second flat white of our interview. The producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist is in a South London café expounding on the artists that inspire her – Björk, Joni Mitchell, Missy Elliot, Oneohtrix Point Never – as well as the heartache and anxiety that affects her work. “Mine manifested into a physical thing,” she says, “I had a terrible stomach.”
Be Ache could very well be the manifestation of said anxious state. Appearing on her eponymous debut album, out through Domino in August, the song rides on a clobbering beat while a distressed synth pitch wavers and is battered by several sound waves moving manically in the same direction – forcibly forward. It’s a motion that mimics the sense of a city. For anyone living in London, it’s one that could only have been constructed from its cultural, social, and even physical geography.
Barnes – known creatively just as Georgia – grew up around North London. She’s studied ethnomusicology, learned the kora, a West African harp, and has spent a short time training percussion in Cuba. She’s a session drummer by trade – perhaps most notably performing as part of poet, rapper, and childhood friend Kate Tempest’s touring band – and has travelled a fair bit as a result. Except that, really, Georgia says she’s never actually left London: why leave when there’s so much to inspire you right here?
Counting a certain set of London-based producers including Kwes, Micachu, and DELS as friends and collaborators, Georgia’s is an approach that combines programmed live instrumentals and a passion for the dynamic and multi-cultural sonic palette London has to offer, as well as her personal experience of it, as the source of her sound. Kombine opens with a cassette-tape sample of Qawwali music from South Asia. Move Systems is directly inspired by the “empowered” music and dance of baile funk from the Rio favelas. Heart Wrecking Animals is a deeply poignant ballad built from a collage of thoughtfully composed keyboard melodies that are almost clumsy in their vulnerability (So in love we could never fly).
It’s this delicate, shaky, unsteady sense of a city, and by extension its inhabitants, that feels always on the brink, never quite collapsing. “Actually, as soon as you get that feeling, you have to act on whatever’s making you feel that way,” Georgia says about the anxiety – and, yes, even stomach pain – that she’s endured in the making of an album that’s both the root, and result, of her unease. “It makes you do shit. That’s the problem with it. It made me do shit, and it’s a fucking bitch because it’s horrible.”
How much of London is in the album?
Georgia: “I’ve lived in London all my life. I’ve never moved out. I think most of the album's informed by being in London – I’m interested in music from other countries, and London’s a great multi-cultural place to explore all that. It’s all London, really. I’ve never left, Steph. I’ve never left! Only when I get an email saying, ‘You have to be at the airport at this time…’”
Have you ever wanted to leave?
Georgia: “No. A part of me goes through times when I’m like, 'London is so oppressive. I can't stand it. I feel like I’m caught underneath this thin layer of ice that I’m trying to break out of.' But I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I really can’t. There was a point where I was like, 'Maybe I should just go and live in the Himalayan Mountains for three months and see that none of this shit really matters.' I don’t know. It’s weird.”
I think of living here as trying to climb out of a stocking.
Georgia: “Yeah! But you know [the album]’s all London. It’s my experiences in London. Living in London. I think we have to be informed by the places where we live. I think that’s a characteristic of artists, really.”
"[The album]’s all London. It’s my experiences in London. Living in London. I think we have to be informed by the places where we live. I think that’s a characteristic of artists, really.” – Georgia
A new song on the album, Heart Wrecking Animals, speaks to me.
Georgia: “Really? I’m really pleased it speaks to you. It’s a love song, really. It’s about trying to pursue something and putting everything in and it’s just like, 'Actually, I can’t. I can’t try.'”
Something, or someone?
Georgia: “Someone. [Laughs] Yeah, someone I guess.”
Do you think they’ll recognise themselves in it?
Georgia: “Maybe, maybe. But I like that it speaks to you. It’s really weird – I actually wrote that song after I went to a Oneohtrix Point Never concert. I was so inspired by it, because I went through so much emotion during that one concert. It was really emotional. Like, really happy, and then suddenly it went all orchestral and it’s just this one guy and visuals. You know what, I was so affected by that concert. I just remember being so inspired. I’ve never heard anything like it.”
It’s interesting that it has that effect, because the concepts that Oneohtrix Point Never draws on are so much bigger than a single person.
Georgia: “I know, of course. But I’ve always been inspired by electronic music like that, that just sort of manages to tap into something.”
There’s a dread there as well.
Georgia: “Yeah, totally. But I literally saw that concert, went back to my bedroom, and wrote Heart Wrecking Animals. Sometimes it literally is just as simple and easy as that. And then other times…”
Sometimes I worry about using people and relationships as material.
Georgia: “Yeah, totally. I watched the Joni Mitchell documentary and she talks about how ‘Blue’ was written entirely about Graham Nash – the fact that he asked her to marry him, and that she refused and said she didn’t want to become a grandma and a mum. Because all these women who were artists were never allowed to fully flourish. I guess it’s quite selfish of her, but you know…”
Well, you could say it’s selfish of him to want to marry her.
Georgia: “Exactly, exactly. But so then she writes ‘Blue’ and she says, ‘Oh, perhaps I was a little bit…’ Graham obviously knew that that album was about him, and obviously it was her most successful album [Laughs]. If you recognise it, I don’t think there’s any harm in artists using their experience. Love is a two way thing, right?”
It’s like the email you never sent.
Georgia: “Exactly. It is really the email you never sent, that's a good way of looking at it. Everyone has those emails, don't they? Never send them. Plus, I hate the fucking email situation. Why send a bloody email? We all do it, but it’s just so torturous. It’s the worst when you get that email.”
"I actually wrote [Heart Wrecking Animals] after I went to a Oneohtrix Point Never concert. I went through so much emotion during that one concert. I’ve never heard anything like it. I’ve always been inspired by electronic music like that, that just sort of manages to tap into something.” – Georgia
There’s an anxiety that comes that across a lot in the music for your record, this manic sense.
Georgia: “Yeah. I think it doesn’t feel like there’s one constant musical style. I guess there is a real reflection of myself from the last four or five years.”
I was recording an interview while walking from the top of Mare Street to Gillett Square in East London and it was really nice because you also have a soundtrack to the area in the background.
Georgia: “There’s so much in London, there really is. When I play drums I'll have to get cabs back with all my drum kit, and being in cabs, all the drivers are from different countries and they’re playing all their music. I think it’s great, it’s wonderful. It’s really inspiring how you can just walk down Kingsland Road, or Portobello, or Lewisham, [and] there are so many different cultures going on in one place. It’s amazing.”
Domino Recording Co. release 'Georgia' on August 7th 2015 (buy).