Girl Ray, the English Teens Playing Pop Songs Middle-Aged Music Geeks Love

North London indie-pop trio Girl Ray formed when its members were just sixteen years old.
North London indie-pop trio Girl Ray formed when its members were just sixteen years old. Neil Thomson
Girl Ray’s debut album, Earl Grey, is a pitch-perfect example of classic indie pop, packed wall to wall with jangling guitars, airy melodies, lovesick lyrics and ageless melancholy. Released last fall via tastemaking U.K. label Moshi Moshi Records, it sounds like the work of someone with an incredible vinyl collection built up over decades: Beach Boys harmonies, doo-wop rhythms, Velvet Underground & Nico deadpan, shimmering Field Mice vibes and, perhaps most persistently, the charming bounce of Welsh indie heroes Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and Cate Le Bon.

Here’s the rub: Other than Le Bon, all of those acts have been around longer than any member of Girl Ray. The North London trio formed when Poppy Hankin (vocals/guitar), Sophie Moss (bass) and Iris McConnell (drums) were all sixteen, and Earl Grey came out when they were just eighteen. So while it’s tempting to trace the band’s sound back through decades of pop-rock influences, the truth is simpler than that. Earl Grey is the sound of three young women coming together and making their own brand of pop music.

On Monday, February 26, Girl Ray will play the
Larimer Lounge, opening for New York synth-pop act Porches. Westword caught up with Hankin for a conversation about influences, expectations and pancakes.

Westword: Is this Girl Ray’s first time touring America?

Poppy Hankin: It is. We’ve never played in the States before. I’ve gone over as a tourist a few times, but we’ve never played over there, so we’re all extremely pumped.

Is “conquering America” still something that English musicians aspire to?

Yes! Whenever we do interviews, it always comes up how much we want to tour America somehow. It always comes up. Now that it’s actually happening, I don’t know what we’re going to talk about.

In the past year or so, Girl Ray has gone from a little-known teenage pop band to a critically acclaimed group with fans across the world. Does that feel overwhelming?

Well, there’s a feeling of “This is all coming on very quickly” that happens at moments, but when you look at the big picture, it makes more sense. Like when we went to an awards ceremony and walked the red carpet, it was like, “What the fuck is going on? We’re not meant to be here at all.” But it also does feel like it’s time to go over to the States. Things have happened quite quickly, but we started like three years ago, so it does very much feel like we’ve worked up to it.

Have you been surprised by the reaction to Earl Grey?

My older brother had a band that did quite well, so that’s what I saw growing up. So I just thought that’s what happened. I just thought that was normal, that your band is going to do well. So I was just very optimistic — not arrogant — but I just kind of had no doubt that it would happen, because I didn’t know any better. But then you realize that there are all these bands out there and that we’ve really been quite lucky. It was still a shock that people liked our music.

On release day, we went to the pub and had a little countdown to the record being out, and I just remember loads of reviews rolling in that evening, and it was like, “What? The Guardian reviewed our record?” So we do get excited at every little thing that happens. The first time we were played on the radio, we literally screamed and wet ourselves a little bit, we were so excited.

You and Sophie and Iris are teenagers, yet the music you make is a kind of wistful jangle pop that reminds a lot of people of a time before you were born. How do you all arrive at your sound?

We’ve been doing this since we were sixteen, and we all kind of learned to play with one another, so maybe that’s how we found our groove. We all like some of the same music, and we all like different stuff, too. Personally, I’m just in awe of the biggest pop songwriters, like Abba and the Beatles — the kind of classic pop that makes you want to get up and dance around and sing really loudly. I get frustrated sometimes when I feel like I can’t write that kind of stuff for Girl Ray.

What do you make of people who tie your band back to the jangle pop of the 1980s?

People like to bring up the C86 mixtape thing, which...I mean, I get it, but I had to look it up when I read about it. I was like, “I don’t know what that is...” I feel embarrassed admitting that, but it’s true.

I’ve certainly been guilty of this kind of thing myself, but I just think it’s a little strange to take forty-year-old music made by bands few people have ever heard of and project them onto a group of nineteen-year-old English women in 2018.

Well, it’s refreshing to hear you say that [laughs]. I certainly don’t think we reference the bands that we most frequently get compared to, you know what I mean? We don’t try to sound like those bands. Instead, it’ll be us in the studio, and I’ll be like, “Okay, let’s do this, and it’ll sound like Queen!” And then we do it, and it comes out sounding nothing like Queen. And nobody picks up on it.

Do the things that people write about your band affect your work or the way you write? Have you thought about the fact that there will be a lot more people listening to Girl Ray’s second album than the first?

Plenty of those songs on that first album, they were very much just me writing about what’s on my mind. So I do find it different, because there is a kind of pressure. People are going make assumptions about the lyrics and what they say about you. And I say this to Iris and Sophie, and they’re like, "You know, Neil Diamond wasn’t singing about his own experience. It doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not."

But, yeah, I do have freak-out moments about sophomore-album anxiety, because people liked the first album, much to our surprise. I remember the first review I read of it basically ended by saying, “The only negative thing about this album is how is Girl Ray going to top it on their next one?” And I’m like, “Oh, my God. What are we going to do?” But the songs are getting written. They’re all right, they’re okay. So I’m going to stop panicking.

Well, good. Don’t panic. Everything will be just fine. Have fun touring America, and thanks for taking the time to chat.

Thank you! It’s pancake day here, so I’m going go eat lots of pancakes now.

Girl Ray, with Porches, 8 p.m. Monday, February 26, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, 303-296-1006, $15-$17.
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