Passion and Privacy: An Interview With PinkPantheress

PinkPantheress is one of 2021's biggest new stars. We discuss her debut project 'to hell with it,' navigating the music industry, viral snippets, and more.

pinkpantheress by brent mckeever

Photo by Brent McKeever

pinkpantheress by brent mckeever

It’s a cold and dark October evening in east London, the onset of winter creeping in. And yet in Bethnal Green, around 200 people are alight, an assortment of faces buzzing with anticipation as they crowd into an intimate venue called The Pickle Factory. They’re here to see PinkPantheress, who’s playing her first show. 

The 20-year-old began posting on TikTok on Christmas Day of 2020, with the catchy single “Pain” breaking out shortly after. It’s the first time for many fans to witness the musician in person. Up until recently, she would rarely show her face on social media, either. The gig, one of three, sold out almost instantly, with listeners scouring the depths of the internet in its aftermath for tickets and footage. Suspense and excitement circulate. “No matter how big or small you are as an artist, I think it’s always important to start off with smaller shows and venues so that you can work your way up to the bigger ones,” PinkPantheress tells us afterwards.

It’s just over a week later, 3 p.m. in London, and PinkPantheress arrives on our Zoom call. She’s just woken up, and whilst she agreed to our interview, her camera remains off and her publicist reminds me not to share her name. There’s an air of secrecy to PinkPantheress, anonymity deeply entwined with the UK artist. Yet, despite being clad in this mystery, she’s easy to talk to, self-aware, a little self-deprecating, and quick to articulate herself. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, but as PinkPantheress knows, it’s easy to jump to conclusions when judging an artist’s online persona. 

“I think if you want to have people perceive you a certain way then there are definitely things you can do online to kind of push people in that direction,” she explains later on the topic of privacy. “For example, I wanted everyone early on to know that I’m not the type of person to let [out details] about me. I wanted to make clear that I’m a musician first and then everything else second.”

In mid-October, PinkPantheress released her debut project to hell with it, the 10-track project a culmination of previously teased TikTok snippets, a handful of already released tunes (“Passion,” “Just For Me,” “Break It Off”), and several new songs. Weaving between genres, she performs over iconic garage samples, old school jungle beats, R&B, bedroom pop, and emo stylings—genre never a constraint. As she explains, everything is about natural progression, and the mixtape, a blend of old and new clocking in at just under 19 minutes, feels like a fitting first step.

We sat down with PinkPantheress to talk through to hell with it, navigating the music industry, viral snippets, and more.

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You played your first live show last week. Tell us more about the experience.
It was really fun. It was really quite intimate, there were maybe 200 people, but it was fun. It was a really good way to start off my first performances. The crowd just got into it and I really ended up enjoying myself when I thought I wouldn’t.

Why was that?
When it comes to live singing, I used to do it a bit when I was younger and it always used to go wrong, so I was kind of setting myself up and preparing for failure. But it ended up being really good. I ended up going up there and just doing what I could and it turned out for the best because I enjoyed it.

Did the live show make all the excitement and success feel more real to you? You’ve mentioned before that all the buzz was happening on your phone, but you can turn your phone off, so it’s easy to not get too caught up.
That’s exactly how it felt. I think that once you see everybody in the same room, especially in such a compact space, it kind of becomes more apparent to you—these are actually real people and not just people behind a screen. I think it’s a way to build up too. I would quite like to do some crazy venues at some point, especially festivals. I think it’s important to do intimate shows before you move on to the bigger ones though. It’s a completely different atmosphere at smaller shows.

When it first came out, you didn’t post about the mixtape. This felt like it created even more of a frenzy around it—was this on purpose?
One thing about me as a person, and then I guess secondarily as a musician, is that I don’t like promoting my stuff. I hate it. I’ve just always hated promoting and being like, “Listen to this, listen to that.” I have a lot of faith that if people are interested enough they will just go and find it. And that’s not me saying everyone listens to me so everyone will know about it, it’s me saying for people that do want to listen, it’s there and they know it’s there because I posted about it once. I’m not going to force everyone to listen to it, I’m just going to post it and I guess the real ones will be the ones listening to it [Laughs]. So I don’t really like promoting, I hate it, and I’m also just really bad at it as well. It’s nice to post it once and get on with your day.

Has being signed shifted how you approach social media at all?
I still have lots of freedom. I think when you’re attached to people that want you to promote yourself, as someone that doesn’t like to promote myself it might feel a little bit like now I’m signed, I’m going to have to do this and this and this to fit a criteria that someone else has set. But honestly for me I think the proof is kind of in the pudding. I got here without a label thus far, so I don’t see why a label would change my approach when it’s been working.

I feel like you were thrown into the deep end a little. What was it like to navigate the music industry as a young artist? Did you have somewhere to turn for support?
Oh 100%. [Laughs] Yeah definitely. I suppose I’m quite cynical in a way, and before I was signed or anything like that I knew a fair bit. I didn’t know the ins and outs, but I knew that not everything within is as glittery as [it looks] on the surface. I knew what I was going into, so I kept my wits about me and made sure I had a support system which would have an unbiased opinion that could support me and help me make decisions without being too involved themselves in the industry.

pinkpantheress by brent mckeever

In previous interviews you’ve mentioned making K-pop fan edits and being active in online communities. Now that you’re the artist, do you find that this online background influences the decisions you make?
Yeah I think so. Being online… You know, like being streetwise, it’s almost like being internetwise. You become savvy with what you can say, what you can’t say, what’s a good look, what’s not a good look. I mean there’s no right or wrong, but I think if you want to have people perceive you a certain way then there are definitely things you can do online to kind of push people into the direction of this. For example, I wanted everyone early on to know that I’m not the type of person to let [out details] about me. I wanted to make clear that I’m a musician first and then everything else second. So you’re not going to see me out every day. It’s maintaining a private life as well as an online one and finding the balance between the two. 

Did growing up in Bath with less around than a bigger city influence how you’d approach the online world? 
I was born in Bath, but when I moved to South East England to live with my mum there was a lot to do. I think for me it was just—and this is going to sound really cringe—I really enjoyed the escape that was the online [world] and I really enjoyed having my own private obsession. No one really knew about me liking K-pop because I was embarrassed. I thought people were going to make fun of me so I didn’t tell anyone and I just had it at home in my laptop. It wasn’t necessarily because there wasn’t much to do, I had quite a lot of extra curricular stuff, [the internet] was just a really nice way to escape.

With its culmination of singles and teased snippets, to hell with it feels like an ode to the past year. You must get asked this a lot, but where did the name come from? 
Actually I think you’re the first person to ask. It’s like everything—I don’t think about names of things much, especially my stage name. I FaceTimed my friends asking them what I should call the mixtape and they said, “You should call it this: to hell with it.” It had a different title at that point, and I was like wait, I do really like the to hell with it part—we’re going to do that. And it worked quite nicely. People have come up with their own interpretations of it, and I like the hell part. The whole mixtape is quite dark, so I think hell as a buzzword fits nicely with the whole concept. I also like the fact it came from a personal space; it was literally just a phrase that my friend always said so it just felt right

In previous interviews you’ve talked about the mixtape as more of a hallmark. Where do you want to go from here?
I would like to do some dance stuff. Obviously drum & bass and jungle are dance, but I think there are so many branches when it comes to dance and electronic music and I would actually like to get more into house as opposed to D&B and jungle. I want to get more into house, R&B, and stuff like that. As I said before, everything has to be a progression as opposed to a giant leap, so I’d like to experiment around with more sounds as opposed to just abandoning everything I’ve done already. I think that with every body of work I want to propose something different, so you probably can expect to hear something a little bit different but not a giant leap.

“I wanted to make clear that I’m a musician first and then everything else second. So you’re not going to see me out every day. It’s maintaining a private life as well as an online one and finding the balance between the two.”

Do you feel more of a pressure to continue to make a similar type of music now that more eyes are on you?
This is going to sound like such a weird thing to say, but sometimes I question why people listen to my stuff because on the one hand there are a lot of people that love the D&B, love the jungle, love the sonics behind the beat, but then there’s also an equal amount of people that just like the way I write and sing. I think you can create equally as good a song and equally as good an impression on your listeners with another beat if you know how to maneuver your way around the beat. Well, I hope so anyway.

I obviously hope that people listen to me because of D&B, jungle. etc., but at the same time those beats—the singing on top of those beats—isn’t anything new. It’s about me creating a more distinctive writing style and melody style and singing style. So yeah, to answer your question, do I feel pressured? I do feel pressured to some extent, but I also have faith that I can get around that.

A lot of your music has been teased through TikTok snippets. Did you always know that certain songs would evolve, or was it based more off interactions?
Literally, it was just off the engagement. What I’d do essentially is when I’d post a snippet I’d only write that 15-second part I’d post online, so there was no part of me thinking I’m going to write a whole song. But if people want a whole song I’ll make one. I’m so lazy when it comes to writing, and I’m so lazy in general when it comes to music, that I really don’t like having to write more than I have to, which is actually why my songs are so short. I only ever want to write what I want to write. I never like feeling like there needs to be a section B and a hook and… I just like having the freedom to write exactly the length of what I want.

Every time I wrote a snippet, it would never be to throw away. It’s the same now. if I’m in a session, I really don’t ever go to a session intending to not create something that I’m going to put out, which sounds really crazy and almost a little bit toxic. [Laughs] It feels like I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself, but I try to be efficient. It sounds really bad, it’s never wasting time because you’re always learning, but I always try to make something worth putting out. And if I can’t put it out because it is terrible, then I’m like damn, this is a bad moment.

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Did “Pain” taking off affect how you approached music moving forwards? 
The way I write has just been the way that I’ve written for years and years. I think if “Pain” did anything it taught me that I can write a song that is palatable, because before I’d written “Pain” I felt like the songs could only fit into more of an alternative space. So when “Pain’’ came out, you’ve got a boy from Camberwell riding on a scooter listening to it and you’ve got a mum taking her kids to school. I was like, you know what, this is mad, because I didn’t know I had it in me to write something that everyone would like. 

Not everyone! I’m not saying that everyone likes the songs, there are some people that probably don’t like it. [Laughs] But I didn’t realize that I could write a song that could fit in so many playlists of so many different people. I assumed that I would be limited by this alternative space and I wouldn’t be able to break through from it. I was always happy to be in an alternative space, but yeah, “Pain” did that for me and I realized okay, I can write songs assuming that people will listen to them—it won’t just be a small group of people that like dance music.

What did your process with music look like before TikTok?
Before TikTok it was kind of a mess, I was just uploading to SoundCloud hoping that it would get picked up. The reason that TikTok worked so much better is because of the algorithm, whereas Soundcloud doesn’t really have much of an algorithm for random people to find a track. So even though SoundCloud’s a music-sharing platform and TikTok isn’t, I’ve found it so much better. 

As a quite private person, how have you felt navigating this past year and dealing with this newfound success?
Navigating it has been a lot easier because of the people that I’m around. There could be potential sometimes to be surrounded with the wrong types of people that do this for the wrong reasons and don’t understand what you’re trying to do as a musician. I think a lot of the public assume that if you want to make music then you want to be famous and have your face everywhere. I think for me there were just certain bits of information that I knew I didn’t want out, and even a few months ago I didn’t have my face out because I didn’t really want people to know what I looked like.

I’m obviously not at this point yet, but the idea of not being able to leave my house is gross to me, and the idea of having to make my life a bit harder because of people invading privacy made me really nervous. But I think there is definitely a way to navigate your way around it, and surrounding yourself with the right people is the most important part. But then also a lot of the time you are in control of what is put out about you. I think things like me not posting much on social media, me not giving out my name, not giving out this bit of information or that—it’s just little things that people can’t access that make me feel a lot more comfortable in this situation. 

How did things change for you when you revealed your identity?
I guess what happened was people realized what I look like and, as naturally people would do with any person, they all start to comment on what you look like. Oh, she’s Black? Oh, so she looks like this? People saying “I didn’t expect her to look like this” or “that’s exactly what I knew she looked like even before I knew what she looked like.” Once people knew what I looked like it also felt way more intimate which is nice. I’m really glad that people feel like they can know me better without knowing every single detail about me. Just showing my face is a tiny way of making someone that listens to my music feel like they can resonate with me even more.

Initially you hid the fact you made music from your friends. What was the thought process behind this, and how do you feel now that they know?
When I was posting my snippets, I wasn’t telling my friends but it wasn’t that I specifically didn’t want them to know. It was like when I was in school and with K-pop, I just like to have private things. I love privacy, which sounds so bizarre, but I love when anyone has a private hidden hobby. I love when people are passionate, because I find that you are more passionate about something when less people know about it.

My friend put a TikTok with my sounds into a WhatsApp group chat and said, “This sounds awfully like you.” So I had to basically admit that it was me. But the thing about us is that we grew up going to London a lot and going to underground London shows where you would see people that you recognised, whether it be from Instagram or musicians. And when we were younger we got kind of media trained into not getting really gassed to see these people. Or you can be gassed internally.

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Are you still at university too?
Oh God, I’ve got no idea. [Laughs]

Shouldn’t ask?
Don’t ask.

Moving on… “All My Friends Know” is one of my favorites from the mixtape, and I was curious what prompted this shift in sound?
You know what, thank you for saying that because that’s one of the ones that I was really scared to put out.

Terrified. Because you’re right, it is quite a jump from everything else. So what happened with that one… I like working with people that I know. I wouldn’t say I’m awkward, but when I work with a producer it’s way more intimate than you might imagine. You need to understand this person, what they like, and have good enough communication to be [honest with them]. Sometimes I find it hard to do that, so I usually like to work with people that I know really well.

So Phil is basically someone that I’ve known since school days. He came with one of our other friends from home who I’ve known for a while and literally he just made that in the studio. It isn’t usually the type of beat I’d jump on, especially not this early in my music making, but I’m going to try it on a whim and see what comes out. I went into the studio, did it, and at first I wasn’t sure if it was sonically my thing but it really grew on me. I realized I’m literally singing this in the shower. It’s stuck in my head; I need to listen to it again to get it out. Even though it’s not particularly my bag, I think there are definitely some people out there that will love that track, either for the melody or for the beat itself. And like with you, it ended up being a few people’s favorite. 

Do you have a favorite?
My favorite’s always going to be the same. My favorite is “Noticed I cried.” There’s a few reasons why it’s my favorite—first of all it’s because I made it with Oscar Sheller, who is a really great producer and overall great person. When I listen to it I’m like yeah, he’s just a great human and I’m really glad we worked together on this. And two, I really like the melody. Three: it was the first song that I didn’t produce. So it was the first moment I let go and put my trust in someone else’s hands.

How’s this process of letting go been?
At first I was like why do I need to work with another producer? Another thing is I’m not really good at producing at all, I’m really kind of terrible which is why all of my stuff is sample based. I was open to trying sessions but I was sure the person wasn’t going to be able to do what I wanted. But as soon as I went in with Oscar for my first session I was really taken aback. I felt hesitant to work with other producers but ended up warming to it. 

Do you think you’ll still use sampling as much now that you’re working with other producers or is that an element you want to keep?
There’s only one hindrance to working with samples, and I think— well, there’s two. One of them is that people sometimes don’t understand what sampling is and therefore will think you’ve stolen, and two, using a sample means a song, regardless of how well it does, can never truly be yours. Obviously you can make it your own but it can’t be more of a classic than the original version of the song. I almost don’t like the idea of a song being less popular than the sampled version. 

So for example obviously I sampled Adam F’s “Circles” [for “Break it off”] and the idea that people haven’t heard the original but have heard my version actually very much upsets me. It genuinely makes me sad because it doesn’t truly feel like the song’s my own. Just because of that I feel like I’d rather be making completely original music. You don’t have to clear anything when it’s original music which is another plus.

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What did you learn from the experience of making to hell with it?
I learned a lot. I learned the actual importance of tracklisting for one. I came to learn that tracklisting is quite an important part of putting out any type of body of work. Another thing I learned was the power of a conceptual piece of work. I always knew about conceptual works because I listened to a lot of My Chemical Romance, where pretty much every album they had had a very visual but also musical heavy concept. 

But when when I was putting out the mixtape, I realized that this is actually something I have to curate and put a lot of effort into curating. And I guess I also learned how to have fun. [Laughs] How to have fun and let go. The weeks before I was putting out the mixtape I was bricking it at every moment. I was like, “I don’t want this to come out.” And then someone just said you know what, you’re going to have to let the bird fly from the coop. So I literally just let it go and accepted that what will happen will happen. 

It’s a good attitude to have. Your first body of work must be so daunting. Is there a main takeaway you want listeners to have?
Yeah it was quite daunting but I’m just glad it’s out. It’s a first step in hopefully a few steps.

Where do you want PinkPantheress to go from here?
I want to be happy and I want to not have to go back to university.

pinkpantheress by brent mckeever