PinkPantheress: ‘Music’s been the same for so long. Can we get something else?’

After uploading her tracks online, the UK singer-producer thought the industry was a closed shop. Then she turned to TikTok ...

In December, a TikTok user in London named PinkPantheress started uploading clips of a song, intending to keep at it until “someone notices”. Ten months later, the social media platform named her song Just for Me its breakout track of the summer; it has more than 20m plays on Spotify and, after being sampled by the drill rapper Central Cee, went into the UK Top Five.

A flood of similarly fleeting tracks have followed: rarely lasting more than two minutes, they are mostly self-produced, lo-fi mash-ups of saccharine-sweet vocals and jungle and drum’n’bass beats. Gen Z adores her; Grimes and Charli XCX are fans; Lizzo and Charli d’Amelio, TikTok’s reigning queen, have used her music to soundtrack their own TikToks.

Her relative anonymity has accentuated the interest. She had more or less hidden her face on TikTok until recently. As we meet on a video call for one of her first on-camera interviews, her publicist sternly instructs me not to reveal her name. It is about convenience, says the 20-year-old film student.

“At the end of the day, I am still at uni and I enjoy my life outside of doing interviews,” she says. I expect her to be shy, but she is the opposite: self-deprecating and funny, shooting back thoughtful, intelligent answers deadpan. She clearly recognises her growing stardom, but isn’t flustered by it. “I am just an internet kid at the end of the day – always have been and always will be,” she says.

This week, she releases her debut mixtape, To Hell With It. Her first for the major label Parlophone, it features self-produced tracks alongside collaborations with Mura Masa. Her bubbly, high-spirited productions disguise melancholy lyrics (“We split in two, now you don’t want me,” she laments on Noticed I Cried). They are not inspired by her life, but rather tales of troubled teens in Jacqueline Wilson novels and TV shows such as Waterloo Road.

Typically of “internet kids” who don’t care for genre boundaries, her colourful palette also includes pop-punk and emo, which she says inspired her melodies and cadence. K-pop, too, has “influenced my music a disgusting amount”. Despite the use of classic drum’n’bass samples – such as Adam F’s classic Circles on Break It Off – she says: “I can’t call myself a junglist or a D’n’B head, because I really don’t think my music does anything but scratch the surface of those genres.”

Breakout hit ... listen to Just for Me by PinkPantheress.

Born in Bath in 2000, PinkPantheress moved to Kent at five with her mother, a carer of Kenyan heritage, and her English father, an academic now based in the US. She fronted a band in her early teens, covering My Chemical Romance songs and taking inspiration from Paramore’s Hayley Williams; they made their debut performance at a school fete. “I had jeggings on and cut a hole in the knee to look more emo,” she says. “I’m a really nervous performer now, but I remember not caring about who was watching and how many people. I left the stage thinking I killed it, even though I was super off-key. I was too young to be nervous. Hopefully, I’ll get back to that point.”

In her later teenage years, she created songs on GarageBand, singing over sped-up old-school jungle and garage beats she found via YouTube and friends from the DJing and skateboarding scenes. She wanted to make music professionally, but found little success posting her music on SoundCloud, so she moved to London, where she is now based, to study film as a backup. “I thought every artist was an industry plant or something,” she says. “These people weren’t ever like me, not just a student or normal person. I was a bit naive, I think.”

She migrated to TikTok because of the platform’s openness to throwaway, imperfect content – and quickly went viral. “It took me until I was 19 to realise that there was a way of getting into music without having loads of industry connections,” she says. “If XXXTentacion can use SoundCloud and do it that way, then I feel like I can, too.”

She is determined to stay grounded. “Everything’s on your phone – it almost feels like a virtual game,” she says. “I can turn my phone off and then I’m just me a year ago again, in uni doing uni stuff. It doesn’t feel too crazy. It feels good knowing people are listening, but I can turn it off really easily.”

Still, her desire to stay under the radar is offset by sizeable ambitions. Although she finds the attention on TikTok’s role in her rise a bit tiresome, she wants to inject the playfulness of the platform into a stodgy mainstream. “Music has been the same for so long. It’s like: please, can we get something else?” she says. “I hope people start to feel more free to break the boundaries of what is acceptable, or the most sonically appealing to everyone.”

• To Hell With It is out now on Parlophone.


Christine Ochefu

The GuardianTramp

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