“It’s purely about the sound and how that makes me feel”:
A Conversation with Lola Young
Helicon had the incredible opportunity to catch up with award-winning singer-songwriter, Lola Young, an emerging Island Records artist at 19 years old, hailing from South London. Her debut Intro is a nuanced, atmospheric allegory about love and growth. Whilst tracks like ‘Blind Love’ are stripped back with sparse piano and guitar chords, ‘3rd of Jan’ evokes Amy Winehouse in its soulful inclusion of drums and horns. Her latest release ‘Pick Me Up’ is languidly jazzy, a single from her upcoming EP Renaissance due later this month. Music Editor Caitlin Thomson caught up with Young to discuss creative process, success in the industry, and artistic influence.
Photographer: Francis Plummer
You have a pretty musical family and upbringing, having attended the BRIT school. When do you feel your musical career really began?
Lola: I would probably say my actual music career began when I got signed, just under a year ago. I started doing music as a kind of job when I was 15, it was making me a little bit of money then. But I guess career is having a job that will last you, so when I got signed was when my career began.
Because you were gigging before getting signed right?
Lola: Yeah, I did a lot of open mic stuff - that was really good. It helped me learn how to perform in front of an audience. I’ve done quite a few gigs, some have been my own headline gigs, some have been supporting other artists - they’ve all been really fun.
Recently you’ve played some gigs at Scotch of St. James and Kansas Smitty’s, how do you find the performing aspect of making music?
Lola: Performing is my favourite part of doing music, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. For me it’s like therapeutic in a way because I can perform to an audience and receive immediate feedback and improve my art. I’m always trying to learn new things when performing and to up my game. For me that’s the best aspect of doing music, a lot of artists might say recording but yeah, for me it’s actually live performance.
If you could open for any artist, or play any venue what would it be?
Lola: I’m hopefully playing Alexandra Palace in august which is a dream come true, if it goes ahead with everything going on. Probably the O2 if I could play any arena, the sound is shit but I just love that venue and the history it has. Or there’s a venue called The Palladium in central London near Oxford street and I’d love to play there. I’d love to open for Anderson Paak or Frank Ocean, that’s like the dream, or even Summer Walker too!
You’ve been vocal about your dislike of being shoved into a metaphorical box by categorising your genre or style. How would you describe your own music?
Lola: It’s kind of a difficult question because my music varies quite a bit in terms of what I make. So this next project coming out is called Renaissance, it has 3 tracks: ‘Pick Me Up’ which I just released, then ‘Same Bed’, and ‘None For You’. Some of my songs are quite different in style but I try to merge … if I’m making a project I try to make the songs within that project sound similar to each other, so I fit songs categorically rather than throwing together a bunch of different genres into one project. But I do make different styles of music, which makes it quite hard for people to put me in a box because my music constantly changes. But obviously I’m still an up-and-coming artist and not ‘famous’. So for the most part, people don’t do that anyway they just take me as I come.
That makes sense, so what kind of eclectic musical influences have shaped your sound?
Lola: When I was younger - well even now still - I listen to a lot of folk music. So like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Then I listen to a lot of RNB too, currently like Summer Walker but then old school/traditional as well. And I also listen to some soul, neosoul and singer-songwriter stuff. I didn’t grow up listening to Amy Winehouse but obviously she’s a legend and my manager used to manage her, so for me it’s quite close to home; her lyrics and her songwriting skills are like blow me away every time. So I guess quite a wide range of stuff.
How is it being managed by someone so iconic? Is it intimidating?
Lola: Yeah, it is for sure. It’s quite a lot of pressure, but at the same time it’s nice to be managed by someone that’s experienced and I have a very close relationship with my managers. It's great to work with people who understand you and also understand the industry. Because there’s a lot of artists out there with managers who don’t know anything about the industry and that’s the worst boat to be in.
You’ve already worked with some pretty big names like Al Shux (Kendrick Lemar, Lana Del Rey and Jay Z) and Two Inch Punch (Sam Smith, Rex Orange County).
Lola: Yeah - I’ve also worked with this guy called Paul Epworth, who’s done a lot of Adele, Lana del Rey. It’s very cool to work with producers that are so experienced but my favourite people to work with are just my friends who I hang with all the time. Their names are Conor and Will and their duo is Manuka, they’ve worked with Master Peace and a few other artists. I love working with them because you’ll never hit a better vibe than you do when you’re just with your mates. You know what I mean? It’s so different from when you’re working with someone you don’t know. I mean, I’ve got to know Two Inch Punch really well now and we have become friends so it's easier to chill in the studio. But getting in a session with a producer for the first time when you don’t know anything about them can be difficult because you can’t really write with them…
Your answer might be different depending on who it is you are working with, but what is the creative process like when you make music?
Lola: Well for me it’s always really lovely regardless of how tough it can get. It’s a really warming experience because you always get something out of a session, even if you technically don’t come up with anything. For me, I always want to work super hard in the studio but sometimes it doesn’t come out that way and you don’t get anything done. But just the experience of being in a studio, trying to write, trying to produce a song and just being in the zone is really important. I think some artists maybe overlook that… the best artists in the world are always the ones that work super hard and know even if they don’t get anything out of a session they’re there for a reason.
I can imagine you don’t have that level of relationship immediately. What’s the hardest song you’ve had to write? Maybe the one that’s taken the most time in the studio?
Lola: This unreleased song we have that will be on my next project after Renaissance, which is a project called Woman. It’s the title track that I wrote with Conor and Will and oh my gosh we went through it and tried to produce it thousands of times. They went back on it and had another go and they’ve hit it on the head. So now we can get it mixed and mastered but it took forever and the writing was long - like we couldn’t really figure out if it was a proper song! But it’s a great tune, it’s about the struggles of being a woman but also it plays to that. There’s a self-empowering element to it. One of the first lines is “Woman, I think that I should when I shouldn’t”. There’s lots of different elements that come into it but I’m so excited to release it. It took us a fucking while!
So when should we look out for that, a couple months down the line?
Lola: Yeah, basically yeah.
There’s some amazing female musicians coming out of London right now, like yourself, Joy Crookes and Mae Muller. Have you found the music scene in London supportive?
Lola: I know Joy Crookes, not well, but we’ve met and she’s lovely - I love her music and I think she’s doing incredible. I don’t know Mae but I know her music and she’s doing sick as well. There’s a competitive element which occurs probably only because I’m competitive! The London scene is super supportive but at the same time… I don’t know, I think things can be generally competitive because it is a competitive industry, you can’t really avoid that.
And I guess a lot of the time, female artists can get compared a lot more than male ones and get kind of pitted up against each other which sucks.
Lola: Yeah exactly, for real.
Talking about London, you’ve said before that Intro reflects where you are now, and your London. I think that shines through more than anything on ‘The Actual Intro’, how important was that track for you to include?
Lola: I think it’s super important, for example my mum grew up in Gloucestershire so going there and experiencing that side of things is so different from London. It’s so weird how you can go a few miles up or down and it’s a whole different world. For me, it’s important to mark where you’re from because it shows a lot about you. If no one knew I was from London, I don’t think people would be able to relate to my music as much. It’s definitely important for your audience to know where you are coming from and they will connect with you more if you share a home. For example, the 1975 do a lot of small gigs in Manchester, where they’re from, and they have such a core fanbase there - people really relate to the sound and atmosphere of their tracks. So yeah, I guess always be proud of where you’re from?
So your newest single ‘Pick Me Up’ has a gorgeous music video directed by The Rest. This song stuck me with its fullness, this sense of vulnerability alongside a cocky ‘fronting’. For me, you really emulated the presence of already-established performers like Kali Uchis.
Lola: Aw thank you very much!
How do you find that aspect of being in the music industry, filming videos?
Lola: Most of the time I really enjoy it, it’s just really cool to create a visual for a song. One of my favourites Frank Ocean sees his music as a visual thing, (I heard him saying on a BBC interview), he sees it very much as a visual product. But I don’t, I’ve never seen music like that. For me it’s purely about the sound and how that makes me feel. While it’s interesting to create a world you can immerse yourself within after creating a song, it can be difficult once you start delving into visuals - if it's not perfect it can really piss you off. For example, when I wrote ‘Blind Love’ I didn’t want a visual for it, I didn’t want it to be some cringey love video. Also I just didn’t see it as a visual song - it’s a song about a relationship with a person that you’ve loved or lost or maybe both, I didn’t want that to get lost. But everyone said ‘you should do it, it will be great’ and actually it came out nice. I did see ‘6 Feet Under’ more as a visual… But this is why it’s sick working with directors because you get to talk to them about their vision, what they think about the song. It’s super interesting because it makes you realise art is very much subjective, because you can take something from a painting or song or book or whatever and someone else can take a completely different thing from it, that’s pretty cool.
I get that - the fear of subtracting from the words of what you’re saying and the meaning you’ve invested in a song, and wanting to do justice to it. And I totally agree with the subjectivity of art, as a creative arts magazine we love all that - responding to each other and all building on top of each other creatively. I think that’s one of the coolest things about making art.
Lola: Exactly! So true.
Having already featured on Annie Mac’s future sounds, playing live on the BBC Radio 1, you’ve made some major moves so far. Obviously the new EP Renaissance dropping this month, what else is coming up for you, just making music in lockdown?
Lola: Yeah basically that, just making music and dropping it. I had a few live things coming up but they’ve been cancelled due to the pandemic. It’s sad, it’s difficult times for musicians but we are all in same boat so it’s not that bad.
Yeah, it’s especially shit for all the smaller venues that are gonna be hit the hardest, for sure. Before you go, will you let us in on who’s on your current playlist?
Lola: I’ve been listening to a bunch of things: I really like Lana’s new record, Baby Rose is really cool, and Remi Wolf - she did a thing with me at the Annie Mac show and she’s really cool. And then also my regular stuff like some trap. I quite like The Weeknd’s new album and Jhene Aiko’s too. Omg! Also my new favourite song, ‘If The World Was Ending’ - it’s a pop track, but it’s so good. It’s just a pretty love song, it goes ‘but if the world was ending, you’d come over right? You’d come over and you'd stay the night’. That’s my guilty pleasure in music, super poppy records.
That sounds pretty apt right now - I’m definitely going to check that tune out, thank you so much for speaking to us and stay safe!
Since Caitlin talked to Lola, her second single 'None For You' from Renaissance was released, listen to that here:
Edited by Henry Richmond