Girl Ray talk new album Prestige, Pose, The Beatles, and teenage influences

On August 4, London-based three-piece Girl Ray release their third, disco-infused album Prestige. Headliner caught up with singer and chief songwriter Poppy Hankin and drummer Iris McConnell for a glimpse inside the band’s world, from teenage influences to The Beatles, TV series Pose, and more…

Girl Ray are one of those bands that don’t just create music, they create universes. With hindsight, fans of the band’s debut album, 2017’s Earl Grey, may feel somewhat wrong footed given the subsequent sonic excursions upon which they have embarked since. While it may have established them as one of the most exciting new ‘indie’ acts on the circuit, that record’s homespun, highly melodic brand of minimalist jangly pop was rapidly obliterated by its follow-up, 2019’s Girl.

You can listen to this interview here or continue reading below.

Taking its cues from late ‘90s/early ‘00s pop and R&B, Girl may only have arrived two years after its predecessor, but was light years away in style, genre, and execution. From the songwriting and production to the sonic foundations upon which it was constructed, Girl was the sound of a band not just tugging at its creative threads but unravelling them altogether to create something entirely new. Its bright, synthy, summery sound was reflected in every facet of what we might describe as Girl Ray 2.0, from the album cover art of the three identically posed in a red, open-top car, reclining with hands behind their heads wearing sunglasses and the same white outfits, to the music video for the title track, which saw them driving with the top down along a stretch of beachy coastline

Now, almost four years later, we come to album number three. Released on August 4, Prestige sees Girl Ray reinventing themselves once again, this time drawing from ‘80s disco as its primary influence. Produced in Atalanta by Ben H. Allen (M.I.A, Gnarls Barkley, Christina Aguilera, Deerhunter) along with Hankin, it is certainly the most polished the band has ever sounded, gleaming with sparkling guitars and shimmering synths. On singles Up and Everybody’s Saying That, which are among the most infectious additions to the Girl Ray catalogue yet, you can almost feel the beams of light bouncing off the mirror balls. It’s meticulously crafted, but like their previous two albums, is infused with the sense of gleeful abandon that flows through everything they put their hand to. Indeed, chatting to Headliner via Zoom from the sofa of Hankin’s East London living room, she and bandmate McConnell are as engaging and entertaining company as one might expect.

“It’s a total cliché but it’s a mixture of excitement an anxiety,” laughs Hankin, as she does a lot during our conversation, when asked how they’re feeling about releasing their first record in four years. “When you’re a couple of weeks away from the release there is this low-level anxiety. Also, I’m pretty sure I got scammed on Facebook Marketplace over buying a pizza oven and all my anxiety about the album release is being channelled through this scam! I’ve been saying to my girlfriend, ‘why would they scam me, why would they do it’?! I’ve lost about £80 so it’s fine but she was just like, I think you’re getting really anxious about the album release!”

You feel albums so powerfully as a teenager. It's something I really miss and try to achieve when writing. Poppy Hankin

Like most artists releasing their first post-pandemic record, their relationship with Prestige is a strange one. As Hankin, explains, the material feels simultaneously old and new, although they are perhaps more excited than ever to be sharing new music with the world.

“In terms of writing, you put out an album and you’re already thinking about writing for the next pretty sharpish,” Hankin elaborates. “So, I first started thinking about some of the tracks when we were touring Girl in early 2020. It was written in lockdown, so it’s been thought about for a while. Then we recorded it last February, so it definitely feels like it’s had a long life to us, so were really excited for people to finally hear it. The whole album campaign bit is such a fun part of being in a band and you’re creating a whole aesthetic and world. It’s just fun for us.”

“But even though it was a long time ago,” notes McConnell, “we haven’t really started writing the next album yet, so our mindset is very much with Prestige.”

As we address the genre-hopping nature of Girl Ray, the pair slightly play down the idea that each record must adhere to a specific stylistic blueprint. For them, it’s a process that develops more naturally.

“We’re definitely a band that doesn’t want to rest on our laurels,” says Hankin. “We are constantly trying to change and evolve. We really crudely set ourselves a genre that we’re interested in for each album. The last album, we were all just so into mainstream pop and R&B, so we aimed for that and if we got 10% of the way there that’s cool. It’s never going to sound like Ariana Grande, it’s going to sound like Girl Ray with a tinge of R&B. So, with this one the same happened for disco. It’s a genre we’ve always been fans of, but it’s never a conscious choice until we go into the studio. Its only when we start to write and rehearse that we think about it. It just depends on what we’re listening to.”

“The last album was the first time we’d stepped into the electronic world,” adds McConnell. “And with this one, because we’d dipped our toes in that a little bit, it felt a bit less scary to leave our indieness behind [both laugh].”

“We still have our indieness,” Hankin asserts. “The indieness will live within us! But we’re less ramshackle than we used to be. I hope!”

One of the biggest influences on Prestige, Hankin explains, was TV show Pose.

“It’s a really great show that came out a few years ago that’s centred around the queer ballroom scene happening in and around New York in the ‘80s,” she elaborates.

‘There are these nightclubs where different houses, as they were called, made up of queer people and those on the margins would get together and compete – in quite a fun way – over the best looks and who could give the best face. It was just this whole scene that was happening and the show is about the people competing and the struggles they went through.

“For me personally, I really enjoyed it as a series and it was really eye opening to the struggles these people were going through, especially as a queer person it was really interesting and shocking. And the music and the vibrancy of the nightlife was super inspirational for writing.”

The indieness will live within us! But we’re less ramshackle than we used to be, I hope! Poppy Hankin

In order to bring that sense of vibrancy and fun to the fore, the band decided to scale up the production values of the record, decamping to Atlanta for two weeks to work with superstar producer Ben H. Allen at Maze Studios.

“When we were working on the demos, the label head at Moshi Moshi set me up to write with Ben who was over from Atlanta in London,” says Hankin of how they came to work together. “We got on really well and wrote Tell Me and I just liked the way he worked and how precise he was in his vision. And he had a really good understanding of what we were going for. I just asked his manager on a whim – not really aware of how successful he was [laughs] – would he be up for working with us? He’s worked with Biggie Smalls and Christina Aguilera! But he liked the music, so we made it work. He has a great studio and after Covid the idea of going away and having a new space to record in was super attractive. It was like a long working holiday for us, it was great.”

As we talk through the band’s creative process, Hankin reveals that one of the driving forces behind her writing is a desire recapture the power with which music lands during adolescence.

“You just feel albums so powerfully when you’re a teenager,” she says, “which is something I really miss and try to achieve when writing.”

So what were the records that left a lasting impact on the pair during their teenage years?

“My brother was in a band when I was younger, so I saw him tour and that was definitely part of the reason I was interested in being in a band,” Hankin recalls. I got a lot of my music tastes from him, stuff like Pavement, Dandy Warhols, Pete and the Pirates were friends of my brother’s. But when I started discovering my own tastes Best Coast and Vampire Weekend were the biggest influences on me as a teenager. I also watched loads of KEXP sessions.”

“The big one for me was The Beatles, and that’s why me and Poppy really became friends,” says McConnell. “I just couldn’t listen to anything else for about three years of my life, and that was why I wanted to be in a band. Then I went through a big ‘80s phase – I really liked The Police when I was a teenager [Hankin laughs]. I had a really middle-aged man’s taste [both laugh]. When we were talking about being in a band, we went to see White Denim who I still really like. I think that night I was thinking, playing the drums looks quite easy, let’s do it. So lots of white indie males, basically!”

Talk of The Beatles brings us onto Peter Jackson’s already legendary 2021 documentary Get Back.

“It just made you feel like you knew them, and I already felt like I knew them anyway, but it made me feel like The Beatles and Girl Ray have a lot in common [laughs]. It really humanised them in the best way, and you just get on their side even more.”

“Being a musician, you tear your hair out so much over writing, being perfect, and to see the most successful band in the world having exactly the same conversations and the same issues and struggles in trying to get an album made, writing shit things and good things, it was so inspirational and amazing to see,” adds Hankin.

Returning to the subject of the music that shaped their formative years, are there any artists or records more recently that have come close striking the teenage chord within them?

“The latest Let’s Eat Gandma album (Two Ribbons),” says Hankin after a pause. “There are a good handful of songs on there that hit that teenage spot for me, where I can’t stop listening to it and I don’t want to talk to anyone else about it as it’s only made for me! And we know Let’s Eat Granma and I don’t even want to talk to them about it because it’s like, these are my songs now! It’s that feeling of ownership over a song, where it feels like it’s just for you.”

“I guess also, quite predictable, Haim, because we like to think of ourselves as the English Haim,” McConnell laughs. “That album really struck many chords.”

With a series of in-store gigs in the pipeline and a UK and European tour set for November, it’ll be a busy remainder of 2023 for Girl Ray. For the first time, they are releasing a record without any new music or ideas lined up for the album to follow. What shape it may take is anybody’s guess. And if they remain true to form, there’s little point in guessing.

PHOTOS: Chiara Gambuto and Eerie Rose (fountain image)