Let’s Eat Grandma arrive in a cafe after their Guardian photoshoot, looking exactly like a pair of pop stars. Jazzed up in opulent jewel tones and immaculate eyeliner, they are both tall – about 5ft 9in – but the resemblance ends there. Rosa Walton has the plump red curls of a 40s movie star, while Jenny Hollingworth channels something of the young Kate Bush.
They find it funny, being back in band mode after three years away, says Hollingworth, “because we view ourselves as just …”
“… us,” says Walton.
It feels right that the pair, both 22, spend much of the next two hours talking to each other. It’s easy to bask in their fervent, thoughtful, funny company. In robust Norfolk accents, they offer each other backup and emotional reassurance, cackle at absurdities, and tenderly analyse their personality traits from the perspective of an 18-year friendship (one that started over mutually appreciated snail drawings).
Their tight bond drew fans in from their debut album, 2016’s lurid, sludgy, swaggering I, Gemini. Some critics couldn’t believe that two Norwich college girls had made this fantastically inventive music without a bloke pulling the strings. In 2018, the duo challenged that assumption with the single Hot Pink, an industrial, bubblegum piledriver of defiance “all about the misconceptions of masculinity and femininity”, says Walton. It led off their second album, I’m All Ears, which embodied the rushing emotions of their brilliant, impressionistic lyricism with euphoric synthpop. Nominated for an Ivor Novello award for best album, it made clear that they were massive generational talents. “We were viewed less like a novelty band,” says Hollingworth, pleased.
Due next April, their third album, Two Ribbons, is their best yet, balancing fierce adrenaline with a new sense of space. It frequently plays out as a conversation between the pair from a time when their friendship had faltered. The cracks started to show in early 2018 when they found they could no longer finish each other’s sentences. In March 2019, Hollingworth’s boyfriend, the musician Billy Clayton, died of a rare form of bone cancer aged 22. Faced by these awful, random cosmic realignments of what had once seemed certain, somehow they still had faith that the band would survive. It took on a spiritual purpose. “Not in the sense of religion,” says Hollingworth, “but we were at a point where life felt very stripped of meaning. We were looking for a reason to live our life.”
Before that, though, they tried to fight change. They were rehearsing for the I’m All Ears tour when they realised their relationship felt off. They assiduously tried to fix it, says Hollingworth, “because that’s what we’re like: Let’s have 50 discussions about it!”
“We were talking but we weren’t really saying anything,” says Walton.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. “It wasn’t as simple as: ‘Oh, you hurt me by saying this,’” says Hollingworth. “It was like: we are fundamentally misunderstanding each other in some way.”
The confusion coincided with Walton moving from Norwich to London. She craved independence and a new chapter – “somewhere busy with loads of exciting things going on and opportunities”. How did the reality compare with her expectations? “Oh, it didn’t!” she laughs. She quickly burned herself out. “And then ended up spending a lot of evenings in by myself, and feeling quite isolated and lonely.”
Hollingworth jumps in, kind and enthusiastic. “Because you’re actually a very sensitive person underneath all the spontaneity and excitement, sometimes you forget that side of yourself and then it’s crying out for help.”
Walton agrees. “Mostly I’d describe myself as an extrovert but then sometimes I go too hard with that.” It’s where they balance each other out, she says. “Jenny is much more measured and less risk-taking.”
Walton tried to write through this strange period. The pugnacious, clattering Levitation describes experiencing a breakdown on a bathroom floor yet still managing to find hope in the promise of connection: “Shooting stars in your direction as I’m losing grip on my reflection.” It’s a surreal, vivid marvel about feeling “out of it and disoriented”, says Walton. “But at the same time, you feel up in the clouds and quite elevated. I quite often get it when I’m anxious: things look bright and there’s a lot of creativity.”
Back in Norwich, Hollingworth understood why her friend had moved – though she stayed with her weekly as she travelled for therapy sessions in the capital – but couldn’t help feeling left behind, especially as her life shrank. She had met local musician Clayton in 2017, the pair bonding over their love of avant-garde pop production crew PC Music. At first, she admits, she found him annoying. “I got on with him better than you!” Walton hoots, her glorious laugh sounding like someone inhaling bubblegum.
Hollingworth says she can be standoffish sometimes (though she is nothing but gregarious in person). “I was very drawn to him in a way where I didn’t realise that I liked him,” she says. They describe Clayton as “a massive sweetheart”: vibrant, witty – always taking the piss out of Walton’s not inconsiderable height, because he was “proper tall” – and very sensitive. He loved music and his idol Charli XCX had taken him under her wing. “But things were very complicated,” says Hollingworth.
Clayton had been diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. He was doing all right when he and Hollingworth accepted that they were, unavoidably, an item. She once said Hot Pink was partly about not feeling respected in past romantic experiences, but says Clayton – her first boyfriend – treated her as an equal. “We were always learning from each other. He was very focused. I was a lot more scattered before but he knew what his goal was creatively.” His drive emboldened her. “Maybe I didn’t have that much confidence in myself when we were doing I’m All Ears.”
But in autumn 2018, as Let’s Eat Grandma’s profile rose, Clayton’s condition worsened. “And it wasn’t back from that, really,” Hollingworth says. She sounds surprised that she’s getting choked up, although her composure when narrating this horrendous period of time is frankly astonishing. I offer to move on but she doesn’t want to stop talking: “I’m just trying to get it right, that’s the hard thing.”
The duo ploughed ahead with touring. Hollingworth felt a responsibility to the band and their crew “to keep going and not make a fuss”, even though she felt totally out of it. And Clayton needed space. “It was hard for him to be vulnerable with me because he didn’t want to be defined by his illness,” she says. “And that’s not how I saw him.” He eventually let his guard down, but told her to finish the tour. “He wanted me to have a good time with the band. It was hard because he really wanted to be doing music himself.”
To survive on the road, she had to compartmentalise. “It was hard because you really wanted to talk to me about things,” she says to Walton, “but I couldn’t access that.”
“It’s such a massive contrast to being on tour where everyone’s very excited all the time,” Walton replies. “That must have been even more alienating for you.”
Hollingworth still agonises over whether she made the right decisions back then. “I always tried to ask him what he wanted and then that’s what I did.”
“And that’s the best thing,” says Walton.
“But I lost sight of myself because I was doing all these different things that I felt like I needed to do – that I wanted to do,” Hollingworth says emphatically, “because I wanted to be there for Billy, to be with him, because I loved him.”
In spring 2019, the band were preparing to tour the US. Hollingworth had been staying in Cambridge so she could visit Clayton, who was receiving treatment at Addenbrooke’s hospital. She eventually left to give him his dignity. He died two days later. Even after that, she worried she was letting people down by cancelling the band’s imminent shows, although they still played the US Coachella festival to honour Clayton, who had dreamed of performing there. “I don’t regret that because I felt so numb, I don’t know what else I would have even been doing anyway,” says Hollingworth.
It took her a year to be able to write again. The tough, desolate Watching You Go is an obliterating distillation of the rage and futility she felt after Clayton’s death. “A lot of the emotions I found quite frightening; I didn’t know how they could get any more intense without me feeling like I was actually going to die,” she says. She was stricken by anger, which in turn provoked “a deep sense of shame because I felt like this is not a normal reaction. It’s not socially acceptable to be really angry and particularly when you can’t explain exactly where it’s coming from.”
She passed those fraught months in nature, discovering a sense of acceptance in the natural cycles of growth and death, accompanied by the music of 60s folkie Tim Hardin and Suede (a favourite of Clayton’s mum, Becky, “a legend” with whom she’s very close). Although Clayton was cremated and not buried, Hollingworth found solace spending time in graveyards. She knows some people found the way she processed her grief unhealthy. “How can I view death purely in a negative way when someone who I really love is dead?” she counters, with heart-piercing clarity.
Clayton dying so young made Hollingworth reconsider what she wanted from life. She realised she was “overwhelmingly passionate” about music, and found empowerment in writing Two Ribbons – reclaiming her voice, and music, after the stress of the previous tours. Still, she says, it “was an agonising process”. The head of their label insisted she didn’t need to push herself so hard with her writing. “I was like, I’m not suffering because of the songs!” she laughs. “I am anyway, and I’m just trying to get that represented well.”
The band wrote separately for the first time (although they contribute to each other’s lyrics), and the words on the new album are phenomenal. “It was quite a moving experience to be able to express ourselves to each other,” says Hollingworth. Some songs are about distinctive personal experiences: Hollingworth’s about grief; Walton’s about a breakup with her long-term boyfriend and the discovery of her bisexuality, one that made her feel as though “everything was coming to life”, she says. “I’d had these internal experiences of how I imagined it being with a woman,” she says, getting giggly, “even through watching films, or … getting any content on the internet that’s out there!”
“Not necessarily video content!” Hollingworth clarifies, with comic primness, and their laughter echoes off the cafe walls.
But they also write to each other. “It’s OK to say what you wanna say / And that we’ve grown in different ways,” Walton sings on Happy New Year. “Have we lost sight of the same light?” Hollingworth wonders on Insect Loop, a song that teems with anger, sadness, guilt and tenderness. “It’s nice not to be afraid to express difficult emotions about a person, and that not be seen as a shameful or a bad thing to do,” says Walton.
The problem that had emerged in their friendship, they realised, came down to assuming that they each knew how the other felt. “Which is how we used to be,” says Walton, describing their childhood bond as “telepathic”.
“Creatively and as individuals, we’ve always done so much together, it’s almost like we didn’t have the confidence to do things individually,” says Hollingworth. She remembers how as kids, and even on their debut album, they portrayed themselves as twins, hiding behind matching waterfalls of curly brown hair. “Bants!” she laughs (back then they also revelled in telling the press entertaining fibs). “It felt necessary because we needed to be a united front.”
“Protecting each other,” Walton agrees.
“People always talked about how similar we were, but we’re actually so different, and I don’t think we really realised that,” Hollingworth continues.
They’ve come to recognise their differences: although Walton is more spontaneous and extrovert, she values precision, right down to creating colour-coded spreadsheets to organise her parts in the recording studio. Hollingworth may be cautious as a person, but she has more faith in following her mood creatively.
She wonders whether she would ever have joined a band without Walton. “Particularly when I was younger and lacking in confidence, you would be like: ‘We’re going to do this.’ You pull me out of my comfort zone.”
“That’s a nice thing to say!” Walton grins.
The pair live close to one another again now – Hollingworth in Norwich, Walton in nearby Diss – and they understand that their friendship has changed for good. For Walton, who struggles with change in any relationship, the album is about accepting these shifts. Hollingworth wants to emphasise that Two Ribbons doesn’t offer any answers. “It’s question after question,” she says.
That open-endedness underscores her newfound confidence. She’s less concerned about the pressure of expectation this time around, “because I feel much more connected with my purpose now, and also more confident in my ability to advocate for what I need”. You can hear it in the closing lines of the album, from the softly strummed title track, which refuse any sense of resolution:
I wanna find the answer but I can only be your best friend
And hope that that’s enough
But I know that’s not enough
Although she wrote the song about Walton and Clayton, that part was about the sheer fact that no amount of love could prevent her boyfriend’s death. “The end result of that song is someone dying or a relationship washing away,” says Hollingworth. “It’s in some ways hopeful, but also in some ways completely devastating. I never wanted it to sound like sticking a plaster on it.”
• Two Ribbons is released on Transgressive on 8 April 2022.