“It’s hard out here for a bitch,” as Lily Allen has been telling us on her new album, but for Hannah Reid, the big-voiced star of breakthrough band London Grammar, so far everything is pretty peachy. “I’m really lucky. I’ve never really been put under any pressure to do anything that I haven’t wanted to do,” the well-spoken 23-year-old from Acton tells me. She’s loving the singing life so far, as you’d expect of someone playing sold-out shows across Europe, whose debut album recently took up residence in the UK top 10 for a solid seven weeks.
There was a sexist tweet from Radio 1’s Breakfast Show in September, an attempt at ironic laddism that misfired, and irregular instances of people assuming that her blonde hair must mean she has nothing to do with the songwriting (she very much does). “We all think that the girl from @londongrammar is fit. Let us know if you agree on 81199 #ladz,” said Radio 1’s Twitter feed, before deleting the message and apologising. “Our tweet earlier about Hannah from @londongrammar was meant to be ironic but we got it wrong,” they said. “We’re sorry.”
“It was a weird thing,” geezerish guitarist Dan Rothman, 24, who makes up the band with polite 22-year-old keyboard player Dominic “Dot” Major, says today. “We genuinely didn’t think anything of it when it was put up. It was a childish joke but I don’t think there was any malice in it. But then it blew up. If we’d reacted, whatever we’d said people would have thought we were either being too sensitive, or that we didn’t care enough. We just decided to stay out of it.”
In the media it became another focal point for an issue that has been raised repeatedly lately, from Sinéad O’Connor telling Miley Cyrus that she is allowing herself to be “pimped”, Charlotte Church claiming that the music business has a “culture of demeaning women”, and Lily Allen depicting herself being pressured into having liposuction in her new video, Hard Out Here. Reid says she has moved on from bad experiences and feels positive today.
“At the start, people in the music industry would talk about the songs to the boys rather than me, assuming that they’d written them. But we got over that quite quickly,” she says. “Things might be different if I was a solo artist. I haven’t been asked to do anything naked and everyone takes pictures of the three of us because we are a band. I tend to get put in the middle but I think that’s because I’m the singer rather than because I’m a woman.”
Rothman is less sure. “If it was three blokes we’d just be considered a band and the singer would just be the singer. Hannah does get separated in a different way because she is a woman, which is weird.”
However, London Grammar were well on the way to success before anyone got a good look at them. Last December they put their first song, Hey Now, online with no accompanying picture or further information, and watched the buzz begin. When they played their first London headlining show, at the Electrowerkz in Islington in March, it quickly sold out. By the summer the hype was so deafening that they were named as the bookies’ favourites to win the Mercury Prize before their album had even been released. That their serene debut, If You Wait, didn’t end up on the shortlist was a major oversight on the part of the judges but didn’t really matter — it rapidly went gold under its own steam.
“Our album release party was the day of the Mercury shortlist announcement so we got over it quite quickly,” says Major. “By that time we were already on the way.”
New fans have been won over by a stately, restrained songwriting style that gives a classy electronic backdrop to Reid’s glacial, emotional voice. The songs are understated, like a Farrow & Ball hallway, and could certainly soundtrack your next dinner party, but there’s something remarkable about Reid’s tones that prevent them from merely slinking into the background. In the single, Strong, they have a classic on their hands — a ballad in which barely anything happens yet which feels monumental.
“We never wanted it to be an overproduced record,” says Reid. “Dan always said he thought my voice shouldn’t be drowned out, and Dot’s a classically trained pianist so his musical style suits beautiful minimalism.”
“I can sit for hours deliberating over nuances in sound,” adds Major. “All the times we had problems were when the sound got too full. You can dress up a shit song with production but fundamentally it will never be great.”
This low-key style has earned comparisons with their fellow London electronic indie trio, The xx, and seemingly every new female singer, including Banks, Indiana and Laura Welsh, is doing something similar. “We’re about the least fashionable band on the planet,” claims Rothman. “In terms of our music, it is maybe a sound that’s going round and I hear it all the time. But we started making the record three and a half years ago so it was fresh and modern then. Maybe everything else has caught up with it now.”
Their melodic sense also makes them better suited to mainstream appeal than their peers, something they tried to reflect in the band name, says Reid. “Not only was it where we’re from but London is also so international and multicultural that it actually felt like quite a universal name in a way.”
She still lives with her mother in Acton on the rare occasions that she’s off the tour bus, while Rothman is with his parents in Hendon and Major, originally from Northampton, resides with his brother amid the giant wall-mounted shoes of Camden High Street. “It is very touristy but massively good for musicians. You meet a lot of people and there are a lot of great gigs,” he says.
They met as students at Nottingham University but were gigging in London from the beginning, where they were discovered by a record label man at a Camden pub soundcheck at the end of 2010. “He was blown away by Hannah’s voice. Then this A&R storm kicked off,” says Rothman. They ended up signing with Ministry of Sound, a label whose ongoing legal row with Spotify (the streaming service has been allowing users’ playlists to copy Ministry’s dance compilations) means you can’t stream London Grammar’s album online. That could be one explanation for their impressive sales figures, muses the guitarist.
The main reason, though, is that these are potent, intense songs that reveal themselves more with the repeated plays that they deserve. When their looks eventually fade, London Grammar will still have something great in their possession.