If you’re finding the return to society post-lockdown a little surreal, spare a thought for poor Sarah Griffiths.
When the pandemic began, the newly anointed Brit Rising Star was a resourceful, introverted, slyly competitive Gen-Z teenager with a silken voice and a secret stash of killer hooks. She tended to keep her mind-blowing levels of ambition to herself. She told no one at her school about the record deal she landed in 2019, in the middle of her A-levels, on the basis of a few self-produced songs on her SoundCloud page: ‘Everyone was like: “Sarah why are you not writing your personal statement?” I was like: “Because I’m gonna be a f***ing pop star?”’
But this wasn’t something she said aloud. In fact, this time last year she had played precisely one gig: a small industry showcase in Hoxton. And for the past 15 months, she has barely left the bedroom of her childhood home in the sleepy village of Kings Langley, Hertfordshire.
So when a ‘bougie, flashy chauffeur car’ arrived one morning in May to escort her to her second gig — the Brit Awards —she found the experience a little hard to get her head around. ‘Let me think’, as Alice asked in Wonderland. ‘Was I the same when I got up this morning? That’s the puzzle. If I’m not the same, the next question is, who in the world am I?’
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Well, she is Griff, 20, ‘Sarah Griffiths’ having been discarded on the basis that it sounds like something a middle-manager of a call centre would be called rather than the great hope of the British pop industry. And thanks in part to what Griff calls her ‘lockdown content hustle’ — three words that would have sounded alien to a pop star of any other generation — she has managed to break through while effectively working from home. This is not something that past Brit Rising Stars such as Adele, Sam Smith or Florence and the Machine ever had to contend with; surreal doesn’t begin to cover it. ‘They kind of just tell you that you’ve won a Brit. You’re like: “Okay? What happens now?”’
What happened then was that Griff aced her Brits performance of ‘Black Hole’, her irresistibly melodramatic banger of a single. She received flowers from her childhood heroine, Taylor Swift, who came backstage for a bag of chips and a ‘general chit-chat’ after the event. And as she took her place among the international megastars, it occurred to Griff that maybe this wasn’t so different from school after all. Maybe being a pop star was another game she could play and win.
‘I am innately very competitive,’ she says. ‘What got me at the Brits was being in this line-up of people. I thought: “Well, Coldplay’s going to open and Dua’s going to spend a million pounds on her performance and then The Weeknd’s going to come out and I’m going to have to compete with all of that.’ She used to be good at sport but as soon as she stopped winning, she gave up as she couldn’t bear coming second. ‘I’ve always been like that. I’ve always felt like I needed to be on top, in school work or whatever. I just want to be better than anyone else.’ Otherwise, she reasons, what’s the point?
We are talking a week after the Brit Awards at Bekonscot, England’s oldest model village. Her signature pom-pom hair extensions brush against the tiny fortifications. Resin villagers stand dumb with awe. As she poses, the giantess must be careful not to misstep and come crashing through the circus tent.