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Let’s Eat Grandma: “Whenever I write on really good synths, it's not any better than when I'm writing with shitty MIDI sounds. It’s more about the feel”

let's eat grandma
(Image credit: El Hardwick)

Friends since they were aged in single digits, Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth are blessed with the kind of creative clairvoyance that only arises in collaborators that know each other inside out. 

As vocalists, songwriters, multi-instrumentalists and producers, the duo better known as Let's Eat Grandma share a singular vision. “We've been making music and writing songs together since we were 13,” Rosa says. “We developed our sound-world and our musical style together. That's the way that we learnt to write. In terms of how things sound, there's not really any disagreements.” 

I, Gemini, the pair’s 2017 debut, saw two Norwich teenagers barely out of high school turn pop music on its head, baffling and delighting critics in equal measure with a collection of sonic curiosities that delicately balanced whimsy and pathos. Opening up a window into the surreal fairy-tale kingdom of their imagination, the record captured the exhilaration and absurdity of teendom in music that was anything but childlike. The pair wrote songs that only they could’ve written, managing to sound like no-one else but themselves across freak-folk lullabies, DIY dance-pop and uncategorizable ballads about enchanted mushrooms.

On I’m All Ears, the album that followed, Let’s Eat Grandma invited new characters into the fairy-tale, working with the late SOPHIE, The Horrors’ Faris Badwan and producer David Wrench to begin taking their self-described “experimental sludge-pop” to new places. It’s a direction they’ve continued on their latest record, Two Ribbons. Amplifying their appeal without attenuating the sheer individuality that made their debut so spellbinding, Rosa and Jenny have perfected the pop without sacrificing the sludge. 

In a departure from the hermetic fantasy of their imagination to the wider world outside, their eccentric fables have been substituted for stories drawn from their own lived experience: tales of love, loss and self-discovery that are more powerful than any daydream. Let’s Eat Grandma still write songs that only they could’ve written, but now they’re songs to which all of us can relate. 

Following the release of Two Ribbons, we sat down with Rosa Walton to hear more about the creative process behind the new record. 

Do you feel like you’re going in a new direction with the new album, or refining a sound you’ve developed on your previous two records? 

“It felt like a combination of the two. When we were setting out to write the record, I was definitely more focused on refining the ultimate pop thing, trying to improve my pop songwriting skills. That was when I wrote tracks like Happy New Year and Hall of Mirrors. 

“Jenny brought a whole different soundworld into the picture. Some of her tracks have reached further - she spent a long time listening to lots of different styles of music. While I was writing more on the pop side, she brought this new element. We’ve both got very different skills, and we’ve always brought different things to the table, but even more so with this record, because we did a lot of writing separately.”

We’re curious to find out more about your collaborative process as a duo. How do you and Jenny divide your responsibilities in both songwriting and production? 

“Overall, everyone is on everything. We’ve got different strengths. I did more of the production side for this record, though equally, Jenny did some too.”

It’s mentioned in the press release that for the first time on this album, there are Rosa’s songs and Jenny’s songs. How would you characterise the difference between the two?

“Jenny really likes to hone in on a very specific emotion or feeling and spend time perfecting that. Whereas I'm a bit more, like… I write lots of songs. More like throwing paint at a canvas and seeing what sticks. So we've kind of got different processes in that way.”

When you’re approaching a new track or project, where do you typically start?

“It really depends. I've quite enjoyed experimenting with different methods, even in terms of what software I'm using to write on. At the beginning of writing the album, I got Ableton for the first time. We've been writing on Logic and, and that certainly opened up new doors… there’s a double meaning of DAWs there. [laughs]

Neither me or Jenny own any synths. I’ve got quite a good guitar, but other than that, it's not expensive stuff

“Just in terms of things like getting into the Sampler in Ableton, which is so much easier to use. The way that I write is very much based on what is available to me at any given time. If Ableton’s there and the Sampler is in my eyesight, then I'll click on that and go for that. It really changes depending on the song.”

How are you finding Ableton in comparison to Logic? 

“I love it. There are distinct Ableton songs and Logic songs. I feel like Logic’s better for vocals. But with Ableton, I really like the clips feature, because our music’s quite loop-based. That makes arrangements easier. I’ve also really got into the Granulator. I found some really interesting textures using that, by dragging in a loop from something else. Especially because it can create some quite interesting rhythms. I’ve used that quite a bit.”

Where did you record the album?

“There were two steps to the process, I'd say. The first step was on our laptops at home, where we made quite fully-formed demos. The second step was in the studio with David Wrench, who co-produced the record. During the first stage, I'm less focused on doing the technical side of things in a conventional way. I try not to restrict my creativity. 

“Then when we go in with David, obviously he's very highly skilled in that area. So there might be a synth sound that I've made on the laptop that he’ll enhance by finding it on one of his amazing synths, and making a better, sharper, brighter version of it. He was great to collaborate with in many ways, but especially that way. We're good friends with him now as well, and I think that really helps.”

let's eat grandma

(Image credit: El Hardwick)

Do you find that having more musical tools at your disposal in the studio compels you to write and produce in a different way?

“All of the songs were written pretty much at home, so I’m still working with those restrictions. That's something that I really like. Neither me or Jenny own any synths or anything like that. I’ve got quite a good guitar. But other than that, it's not expensive stuff. I think that’s a good thing. 

“Anytime that I've tried to write on really good synths - for example, David's got the Moog One, which I absolutely love, and we used all over the record in later parts of the process - when I tried to write on that, it's not necessarily any better than if I'm writing with some really shitty MIDI sounds. I think it's more just about the feel. There’s something quite intangible about the feeling of a sound, it doesn't necessarily have to be a high-quality one for it to capture the emotion I want it to.”

Could you pick out one or two pieces of equipment - instruments, synths, effects - that were fundamental to the sound of this latest record? 

“In the writing process, I got really into that iZotope vocal synth. I actually decided not to use that for the final recording. But it was integral to the writing process, in that when I'm writing a vocal, I usually put it on, for a few reasons. One is that I feel that I can sing more confidently, because of the pitch correction. Also because it's almost like playing a character, because it's not your voice. 

Writing this album, I got Ableton for the first time - now there’s Ableton songs and there are Logic songs

“I found some quite interesting melodies that way. If you’re singing an in-between note, it’ll pitch-correct one way or the other, and you might write melodies that you wouldn't have necessarily have found otherwise. I kept some bits for backing vocals. There's a vocal loop in the chorus of Happy New Year that I've made using the Sampler on Ableton then played through the iZotope vocal synth to create a different voice or a different texture.”

The sound of the new album is pretty synth-heavy. What kind of synths were you working with?

“In the studio, we used the Moog One a lot. The Elka Synthex too. Dave's got a Mellotron, which I really love, for the human qualities that the choir sound brings. That’s something that I love and used a lot. I'd already used a lot of choir samples in the demos, and I hadn’t realised that he’d bought a Mellotron since I'd last seen him, so when I got to the studio and I saw that I was like - ah, yes, this is gonna be good.

“What else? The Solina, and Dave’s got an ARP 2600, which is one of my favourites. It’s the best for bass sounds. That’s another reason why I feel like I don’t have to buy any synths myself. If I’ve written the sounds that I want, they can be recreated and enhanced elsewhere.”

I can hear a mix of live drums and sampled stuff on the record. Were you using hardware drum machines or working with samples in your DAW?

“It’s a combination. When I wrote the drum beats originally, it would just be using whatever drum kit in Ableton. Once we were in the studio with David, we’d program using real drum machines. He's got an 808, CR-78 and the Dave Smith Tempest, so they're the ones that we used. And then yeah, I did live drums as well, when we were in the studio.”

You guys have been known to work with a wide variety of instruments, especially on I, Gemini. Did you use any unexpected or unfamiliar instruments on the new album?

“That's a really good question. Jenny's saxophone is quite a signature part of our sound and maybe not the most conventional for pop music. She did a couple of really good sax solos, there’s one in Hall of Mirrors which really elevated it to the next level. When you’re using synthesized sounds, it's really important to have organic, real instruments in there as well. They really bring something different.”

I read that in your track Hot Pink, you sampled your old Nokia phone. Are there any similar samples layered into the new record? 

“There’s some birds that were recorded for In The Cemetery, and there’s some wind chimes in Sunday. I think there’s some rain at the beginning of Levitation too.”

Both In The Cemetery and Half Light feature no vocals, and sound more like interludes. How do you figure out when an initial idea needs to be turned into a full-on track or when you’d like to keep it just as it is?

“Those tracks were written deliberately for a bit of a breather, because a lot of the songs are pretty emotionally heavy, when it comes to lyrics. We both had a lot to say and to talk about, so we wanted something to create some space in between. In The Cemetery was originally a song that we'd written with the intention of it going on the record, but it didn't really fit. So we made that into an interlude because I thought, there's some really nice sounds on this, but it didn't quite work in terms of a full song. So that was quite convenient, in a way.”

How do you typically translate your songs for live performance? Are you aiming to recreate the sound of the record, or create something new for the audience? 

“It’s a bit of both. We've got two musicians for live now. Previously, we were just working with a drummer. Now we're working with a drummer and a bassist, and she’s also a multi-instrumentalist. That’s opened up a new door in a way. For example, there’s synth lines on the record that Polly, the multi-instrumentalist, will play on guitar. That brings a new element.

“Having different musicians with different styles is important. For example, our drummer has got an amazing drumming style in and of themselves. I’m not a technical drummer - I played the drums on the record, but our live drummer has a really amazing feel and groove. That brings another aspect as well.”

You worked with David Wrench on this album and I’m All Ears. Could you tell us more about his role in the recording process and how you worked together? 

“We brought the demos in, and we used a lot of the stems from the demos. The sounds that David enhanced were a big part of it. He’s very precise in the way that he works. But in terms of arrangement and songwriting, nothing really changed. In terms of the mixes, there’d be bits that I’d worked on where David would say: ‘Maybe let’s turn the volume down on that,’ and I’d be like ‘No! That bit’s important!’ [laughs]

We developed our sound-world and our musical style together. That's the way that we learnt to write. In terms of how things sound, there's not really any disagreements

“He’s really good at making space, and helping all the parts sit in their own space. He creates a really good studio atmosphere. It’s really nicely decorated - he’s got really nice orange rugs, and good quality scented candles, things like that. When I walked into the studio, the smell of this particular scented candle reminded me of the last time we were in the studio together, and brought back this excited and inspired feeling for making music. 

“Personality-wise, he’s very calm - we joke about if he ever gets angry. He’s very in tune with people. That’s really important as a producer, when you’re working with artists, the psychological side of it. If people aren’t feeling comfortable, they’re not going to do anything good!”

Do you and Jenny ever find yourself disagreeing creatively? If so, how do you move through those moments? 

“We disagree less creatively than we do in our day-to-day lives. Probably because of the fact that we grew up making music together. I mean, we've been making music and writing songs together since we were 13. We developed our sound-world and our musical style together. That's the way that we learnt to write. In terms of how things sound, there's not really any disagreements. 

“Jenny's less precise than me. She does things better on the spur of the moment. For example, I like to have everything sorted before the studio, but she'll come in and do something like a vocal take, just on the spur of the moment. She'll sing something, and it'll be incredible, but she might do it once, and she won't recreate it. Whereas I prefer spending time honing a melody. And if I do it lots of times, and then know what I'm doing, when I get to the microphone, it's better. We just have different ways of working. That really comes across, in terms of our vocal styles, and has been furthered with this record.”

What was the hardest song to write on the new record?

“Some of them took longer than others in terms of the lyrics. Quite often, I'll have written the music for a song, and then it'll take me a long time to know what I want to write about, to actually find the words. Happy New Year was one of those, where the music was done months before the lyrics. Just before we went into the studio, I had to finish the lyrics because of the time pressure. That's pretty much the only way I can get lyrics done, is if I've got a deadline for them. Especially as we were tackling quite big topics for both of us, there’s pressure to say things exactly right.”

As your audience has grown over your past two releases, do you find yourself under more pressure to live up to their expectations?

“I think it must have changed a lot about how we write. It was actually really useful, the fact that a lot of the time while we were writing this record, we weren't doing anything else. Because of the pandemic, we weren’t doing shows or anything in the public eye. That was quite important, to be able to get back to ourselves and to what we did it for in the first place, which was just for ourselves. I felt quite disconnected from being Rosa in Let’s Eat Grandma - I was just Rosa again.”

Let’s Eat Grandma’s new album, Two Ribbons, is out now on Transgressive Records.

I'm the Tech Features Editor for MusicRadar, working on everything from artist interviews to tech tutorials. I've been writing about (and making) electronic music for over a decade, and when I'm not behind my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard, or a synthesizer. 

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