Having been described as “the Death Grips of pop”, her sound is hard to define but has received critical acclaim from The Skinny, Guardian, Clash, The Line of Best Fit, DIY and many more. Law transcends genres, time and sound. Loneliness, darkness and romance are themes she regularly explores. She describes her music as “Law themed” and she’s spot on – you can look, but there’s no one quite like Law.
Our writer Gavin Brown spent some time chatting to Law Holt, surrounding the release of the debut album, Gavin discovers more around the recording process and release of ‘City’, the Death Grips comparison, the best live shows and more. Read below for the full Q+A feature.
How did your musical journey start?
Sweet sixteen. On the bus home from school I saw the words ‘sing’ & ‘dance’ in faded lettering in the windows of the local arts school. I decided I wanted a back-up in case education failed me. And alas, as a child of a certain generation, it has. Now my voice is my meal-ticket.
Who were your influences when you got started as a vocalist?
You have your building blocks. Just like young white boys get into The Smiths, The Doors and the Ramones. I got into what is expected of a young mixed-raced girl. Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill were my high life. Then came the jazz singers, Billie Holiday mostly, Sarah Vaughan less so. Ella Fitzgerald never. Then Bessie Smith a few years later, when I was ready for her.
You were raised in Leicester, did the city shape your musical tastes in any way?
Nothing happens there. Nobody leaves. You have to make things move. So I sought out music for myself. There used to be loads of independent music shops where you could pick up the kind of records that felt like contraband because no one else had them. These establishments have slowly disappeared. Ainley’s, a really special, family-run place, was a weekly haunt for my Dad and I. I was initially bored of waiting around for him for an hour each week whilst he rifled through the records. But I soon decided to make the best of it when I realised it wasn’t going to change. I began to imitate that fast finger action he used to flick through the vinyl stock, that movement of quiet resignation, frustration and anticipation that you’ll spot in any record store.
How would you describe your music to someone who hadn’t heard you before?
Firstly I’d ask where they’ve been hiding. But the best music sounds like nothing except itself. I’m confident enough to state that my music sounds like nothing but LAW.
Your brilliant new album City is out now. Can you tell us a bit about it?
City is an album that explores loneliness in an age of connectivity. It is about being completely alone whilst surrounded by millions of people. It is the many voices and poses we inhabit to navigate a day. It is truth, but a truth hardened for public consumption, an uneasy fiction.
What inspired the making of the album?
My life living in Edinburgh and London. My experiences living as a young woman of colour and realising that I am not the world’s favourite. My frustration with a music industry populated by boys who don’t actually like music. And the necessity of creation, the intermittent need to purge.
Who did the production for City?
The album was produced by Tim London, who worked with Young Fathers. They invited me into the studio one day to make something beautiful. People will never realise how they affect others. Tim has the same secret approach to production as I do to singing. Perfect match.
There is a harshness to your music but also a lot of warmth. Is that something you wanted to get across?
That just happens. The Soulpunk studio has its own microclimate. You don’t sit there and think, ‘I want to get something harsh and warm out of this.’ The record has that tense cohesion because it is a document of a particular period of my life. It can’t be recreated. My next record will be and must be completely different.
Is there a reason you chose to name the album City?
I sing of a specifically urban condition. You can hear the beats echoed back to you in the sounds of the city itself. Just like ‘I’m Waiting For My Man’ replicates the rhythm of the train rattling over the subway tracks, this record recreates the push-pull motions of a big town. These places aren’t interested in you, they challenge you to cut and run. And there is always somebody else to take your place. Just how I like it.
The song Spit from the album is quite intense. Can you tell us a bit about the song?
I wrote and recorded that song in 2 hours so it’s probably born of some frustration that I’m not completely aware of. Sonically it explores the margins, hangs over the edge of a precipice. I’d been spending a lot of time alone, fed up of people staring at me or making comments about my appearance. I wanted to spit at them. In the UK spitting is seen as an antisocial act but in the Punjab it is done to ward off evil spirits. People on the street can be evil spirits too. You stare, I spit. Deal?
You have just done a video for the song Love Drive Through. Can you tell us a bit about it?
We commandeered Young Fathers’ studio for a day to shoot in and found a beautiful man, Timoy Riley, to shoot with. Then we went to a scrapyard near Glasgow and shot there too. I remember being sat in the studio looking around at all the people around me who were there to help just because they believed in the music. We had Theresa Coburn who designed and made the clothes, Rudi Davidson doing the make-up, and Ray Bird as Director of photography. All of us there doing it for the love. Pop music videos are now made primarily for male masturbatory purposes. But not this one. It’s dark and dense and allusive and I’m looking you straight in the eye.
How does City differ from your last two EP releases Haters & Gangsters and Cowboys & Hustlers?
This feels like more of a cohesive piece of work, a set of songs with a narrative. It flows together because I wrote it in a week in which my circumstances and mood were pretty consistent. I also sing better now. I’m working on my craft. Lyrically, it’s much more concise. It’s much harder to write linearly, in plain English. There is a fine, often-crossed line between surrealism and bullshit.
You have worked with Young Fathers on that first EP. How did you meet and start working together?
I met Young Fathers through friends working at a charity shop. We made each other mixtapes and from that I was allowed a shot in the studio. Too right, it was a good mix tape. Since then we’ve shared stages from Brixton to Soweto to the Mercury awards and back. We all share the same artistic principles. Music is politics. Whilst our tastes are formed subjectively, we believe in them with a stubborn objectivity.
How is it working with the group?
They work fast too. I think I’m quoting them right when I say we are all firmly in the Phil Spector camp as opposed to the Brian Eno one. We are into analogue highs; feedback, first takes, and temperamental equipment. No one is afraid and each person takes their turn to step out. We embrace inconsistency. I can shout and scream and hiccup and mumble and it’ll probably make the final mix. You can hear G saying ‘that sounds nice aye’, on the end of one of the mixes. I sang the vocal hook to Old Rock n Roll outside the pub down my old Nokia. It’s on the record as it was put down that night.
Will you work together in the future?
Of course. There are still plenty of people to convert.
You performed with Young Fathers at the Mercury Music Prize ceremony. How did you feel when you found out that they had won?
After we’d performed, I knew they’d win. If you watch the footage of the announcement you’ll hear a high pitched scream in the audience. That was me. Our performance that night was spectacular. We all aligned. Their next album was even better than DEAD and should have won every award going. Their records are exactly what prizes like the Mercury should be recognising: a righteous disregard of the expectations of genre.
Your label Soulpunk is very eclectic. How did you get started on the label?
The label is run by my producer, Tim London. He has never played me a beat or record that I don’t like so I take it as a great compliment.
What is the musical climate like in Edinburgh where you now reside like at the moment?
I reside in London too, and it’s like night and day. That contrast contributes some of the light and darkness on the album. Edinburgh prides itself on the festival and rests on its laurels for the other 11 months of the year. There are hardly any decent venues and the council get hysterical about noise levels. All the Jazz nights have been co-opted by wealthy, white fifty-somethings from Morningside. London prides itself on how quickly it can overwhelm and dispel you with all that is happening. There’s almost too much which leads to lots of great stuff getting ignored. So boredom and hysteria are only a few hundred miles apart.
You’ve been described before as ‘the Death Grips of pop’. Do you think that is a fair comparison?
I understand that journalists need to draw comparisons between artists to compensate for their lack of imagination/vocabulary. I suppose it is more thoughtful than some other lines they’ve drawn. Plenty of other publications just end up comparing me to other women of colour with short hair.
Are you a fan of Death Grips?
I know very little about them. Which album should I start with?
The Exmilitary mixtape definitely.
Have you got any live dates coming up soon?
I play Levels Festival in October and we have other dates pencilled in that I won’t publicise until they are written in my diary in the promoter’s blood.
What is a live Law Holt show like?
It depends where I am and when. Sometimes I’ll perform in the middle of the crowd with a cassette tape and a boombox. Other times I perform with the Soho Sisters who sweeten every line. I stand right up front, singing like I’ve always tried to, singing the best I can cos otherwise it’s just a waste. I want people to feel uncomfortable and entranced all at once. I want to stop people coming to gigs just so they can drink shit lager and stare at their phones.
What was the first gig you ever went to?
I remember seeing a steel band at Leicester carnival. I was 6 with a whistle round my neck sat on somebody’s shoulders. The best gigs aren’t happening in arenas, they’re on street corners.
You opened for Ghostface Killah at the Restless Natives festival in May. How was that experience?
I was challenging myself to out bass him. And a church is always a great venue for some noisy melodrama. The crowd warmed to me and I warmed to them. Then the room swelled and the stage vibrated with bass and I realised it had gone well.
Did you get to meet him?
He was surrounded by people. But I went to see him at Rock City as a kid so we snuck backstage and met him there.
If you could play a show with anyone, who would you choose?
I love those I share a stage with too much to jump ship. And us vocalists aren’t all that democratic.
How do you feel about social media nowadays, do you think it’s a necessary evil for artists?
An unfortunate but necessary opiate is how I’d describe it. Social media just seems to thrive off our insecurities and desire to gain the approval of others. People treat a retweet like an action. Instagram isn’t activism and it’s not the ideal home for music, but music needs a home somewhere, Christ knows no one else will have it.