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Let's Eat Grandma: Defying Commas And Expectations

Meet the British teenagers behind one of last year's most startling pop albums.

Let's Eat Grandma arrived last year fully formed — now they're looking beyond their beginnings. Francesca Allen/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Francesca Allen/Courtesy of the artist

Let's Eat Grandma arrived last year fully formed — now they're looking beyond their beginnings.

Francesca Allen/Courtesy of the artist

From Norfolk, one of the more remote regions of England, came this preternaturally talented pair of teenage girls, Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth. Their close, verging-on-telepathic friendship dated back to pre-school, and they emerged from pre-pubescence clutching a debut set of sophisticated, wonderfully askew songs. Those recordings – collected on I, Gemini – had the duo playing every instrument themselves.

Growing Up

A year on from the release of that acclaimed debut, Let's Eat Grandma is still sporadically touring behind it. But here's a funny thing: Walton and Hollingworth now appear keen to shed — even shred — the public perception that's wrapped itself around them, despite the fact that it's based on an aesthetic approach to the project that they've rather concertedly worked to establish.

Most teenagers hope to look as adult and sophisticated as possible. They're keen to grow up in a hurry. But the way Let's Eat Grandma has presented itself up to this point, in live performance and in promo videos, is the complete opposite. The pair's image in their break-out video "Deep Six Textbook" — long golden tresses, buttermilk skin, white lace frocks — casts Walton and Hollingworth as virtual twins and as out-of-time figures seemingly plucked right out of Picnic At Hanging Rock, Peter Weir's eerie film about disappeared schoolgirls in Victorian-era Australia. Songs like "Welcome To The Treehouse," "Chocolate Sludge Cake" and "Rapunzel" seemed to cement the child-eyed viewpoint running through the album, exacerbated by the homespun feel of the playing and instrumentation choices like recorder and glockenspiel, which conjured the atmosphere of the elementary school music room. "Sax in the City," the most recent video off I, Gemini, regresses even further, into the nursery, with Walton & Hollingworth togged out as Edwardian toddlers in pink onesies, bonnets and bibs.

YouTube

Their friendship began when they were just 4, forged from the start through creative projects. "It's our way of processing the world," said Hollingworth. They started with a series of increasingly ambitious treehouses, built by themselves, unsupervised. It's a subject – one of several – that they're now reluctant to be drawn on, precisely because reviewers and interviewers have found it so charming in the past. Walton and Hollingworth seem wary of being infantilized — except in videos like "Sax in the City," where they sport pacifiers and crawl hands-and-knees through the city.

After that treehouse phase Jenny and Rosa progressed to making short films, taking turns handling the camera while the other acted. Then, aged thirteen, after making "loads of films," they decided to "try something else. So we formed a band."

Only In Dreams

Let's Eat Grandma's music often has a dream-like aura to it; twinkly, upper-octave piano trills at the start of "Rapunzel" have the quality of a cinematic dissolve, or the kind of vaseline-on-the-lens effect that lends gauzy enchantment to a movie. Some songs appear to evolve according to dream logic, ending somewhere completely unexpected, as with the multi-part suites of "Sleep Song" and the two-part "Welcome to the Treehouse," or the listener-ambushing eruption of the rap section midway through "Eat Shiitake Mushrooms."

As it happens, dreaming is where the duo derive much of their inspiration. "I get lots of inspiration for lyrics from that phase just after I'm gone to bed and I'm very tired and falling asleep," says Rosa Walton, referring to a stage in the onset of sleep called 'hypnagogic'. We chatted in an Echo Park café shortly before Let's Eat Grandma were to perform their debut Los Angeles concert. "Lots of images and interesting combinations of words come into my head," continued Rosa. "When I'm in that state, I can wake myself up a bit and write things down or record them, then I slip back into the state. I'll keep doing that over and over for maybe half-an-hour, until I'm just too tired and feel like I really need to fall asleep."

Hypnagogic imagery is actually different to the mind-movies you get in the rapid-eye-movement phases of deep sleep, which are more, well, dreamy. "You have more control over the images," Rosa said. "I can think of myself as being somewhere and then I can change things and they become weirder and they start controlling themselves." She pointed at the air-conditioning vent hanging off the ceiling, near our table in the upstairs balcony section of the café. "If I was in a [hypnagogic state] now, I could look right up that pipe. And then as I went up the pipe the dream would start controlling itself."

The pair's fascination for dream worlds is very psychedelic-'60s. But it also harks back to surrealism, to psychoanalysis in both its Freudian and Jungian schools and to all manner of religious and mystical belief systems going back to antiquity that have set great store in the oracular truths revealed in our night visions. What it's not, this interest in dreams, is contemporary in any sense. We live in an era that has lost all interest in dreams as an artistic or spiritual resource, as a deeper truth of the self or of the collective unconscious. As a teenager growing up in the '70s, when books decoding the symbolism of dreams were popular, I kept an incredibly detailed dream diary. But nowadays "dream" generally refers to secular ambitions of fame and glory, the sort of dreams where, if you just keep on believin', they'll come true, or if you work your butt off they'll be achieved. Instead of dreamed otherworlds we have digital, the virtual realities of games and CGI. So when Rosa talks about writing her dreams down in her diary "as soon as I get up," or exalts the dream life as "free entertainment when you're sleeping", it's a sign that the duo are probably not typical of their own generation.

Evolution! Evolution?

Perhaps the duo's eagerness to sidestep received ideas of what Let's Eat Grandma is about is more understandable if you take into account that they are still repping songs written four or five long – especially relative to their chronology — years ago. The recording process for I, Gemini started when they were fourteen and took two years to finish. Because they were still in high school back then, Walton & Hollingworth could only access the free studio at their local music college during the summer holidays, which is why it took so long to complete.

This long, fitful process led to an inevitable mentality gap between I, Gemini and where the duo's heads are at today. Just think for a moment how different you felt about things aged thirteen from how you saw the world aged eighteen (the pair's current age).

Let's Eat Grandma are keen to surprise everyone with the new songs they're writing, which they say center on social and political issues. "When we were younger we were obviously less clued in on politics – we were writing about what we were experiencing then," says Walton. They are also forthright feminists, indignant about the sexism they've encountered in the music industry. It's not just a case of being taken less seriously on account of their gender and age, says Hollingworth. "It's more blatant than that. When we've done festivals, and we haven't gone with our own engineer, people have said really objectifying things to us. It's the kind of thing that happens so subtly that you don't really notice at first."

Let's Eat Grandma might have started to put away childish things, but they are still very much teenagers. There's an incommunicative tendency that any parent will find familiar — even a hint of "whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not" intractability.

"Wait until you see the show tonight, that'll help you understand," they said. Yet that performance, at the Echo, was largely in line with the established image they were ostensibly in the process of shedding. The live rendition of "Deep Six Textbook," for instance, involved a patty-cake handclap routine to generate a percussive pulse. Then there's their disconcerting stage moves, like Hollingworth sitting on the floor beneath the keyboards during one number, or the pair lying flat on the stage during the first part of another song, as if hiding from the audience. These stunts are wonderfully suspenseful — you start wondering, are they ever going to get up again? — but can recall, too, children throwing a sulk. The couple of new songs played in that short set sounded terrific — and did, indeed, showcase new sonic directions, featuring electric guitar, in the form of Walton's elegant lead patterns, for the first time. It was hard to discern a new social consciousness.

Let's Eat Grandma's Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton perform during SXSW 2017. Bob Boilen/NPR hide caption

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Bob Boilen/NPR

Let's Eat Grandma's Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton perform during SXSW 2017.

Bob Boilen/NPR

What We Are Not

Back in the café, after another line of enquiry was parried, it was time to try a different tack. What is the least Let's-Eat-Grandma-like fact about Let's Eat Grandma that is actually true? What information about them would most thoroughly blow their image and blow the minds of their compact-but-devoted following of fans and critics? Like, are they secretly into sports cars? Do they avidly watch Top Gear?

"That's quite a hard question... there's so many things," says Hollingworth, not very helpfully.

"Everything!" says Walton, less helpfully still.

Finally, they think of one secret truth, or one they're prepared to share, at any rate.

"Even though we like them...," offers Hollingworth cautiously. "We're not really inspired by CocoRosie.... or Kate Bush.... or Bjork... or—"

"Cocteau Twins!" they both say, in that charming, chiming unison way of theirs.

"People just like to compare us to any female performer who's doing something slightly different," complains Walton.

Asking Let's Eat Grandma about specific bands that possibly do have an affinity with their sound – if not an outright inspirational connection – isn't productive, either. Most of the groups that tend to get mentioned in reviews as reference points or influences — Kevin Ayers, Caravan, Virginia Astley — are ones they say they've never heard or even heard of. "I don't think there's anybody who's fully got it right yet," says Walton, neither pleased nor displeased.

Another thing that vexes Let's Eat Grandma is language – terms like "kooky" or "ethereal" that get applied, in a gendered way, to any female artist doing something unusual or arty. "If we were a male band," suggests Hollingworth, "people wouldn't say 'kooky', they'd probably say 'psychedelic'. Because, in lots of ways, our music is quite psychedelic."

"Eat Shiitake Mushrooms", one of the most delightful tunes on the album, might, they hint, be inspired by a mushroom trip. But just try to get them to elaborate. "Can't disclose this information," says a tight-lipped Hollingworth. That song, which surprisingly erupts midway into a deliciously unexpected rap section, is a wonderful example of Let's Eat Grandma's unconfined approach to genre. True children of the post-Internet, listen-to-everything generation, Walton and Hollingworth have in the past described what they do as "experimental sludge pop" or "psychedelic sludge." Well, that's how I took those descriptions anyway: tags for a smushed-together splodge of flavors, like the dripping cup of a kid at a frozen yogurt joint who's gone a little overboard with the toppings. Actually, sludge — they say in unison, again – refers to "drone notes", their love of extended-notes that create a smeary, woozy feeling in the music.

YouTube

So – on the subject of critics and their misperceptions — what is the single most misguided, off-base thing that a professional pundit has ever said about Let's Eat Grandma?

"The worst one," says Walton, wrinkling her nose with annoyance, "was someone who said 'I think there's a few very clever adults behind this'. That just made me so cross."

Let's Eat Grandma bitterly resent this reverse-ageism, finding even praise of the "oooh, look how prodigiously and precociously talented they are!" type to be "a bit backhanded, like it's surprising," complains Hollingworth. "People find us quite confusing, that we're two girls and we bond over being creative," she adds. "Like teenage girls are just supposed to go shopping together or something! But I think there's loads of girls like us out there."