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PinkPantheress reimagines garage music for a new generation

Brent McKeever
Courtesy of the artist

PinkPantheress agreed to an interview, but kept her camera off and chose not to share her name. The life of the internet's buzziest new artist has been shrouded in mystery, but in conversation she's cheeky and approachable. The 20-year-old from southeast England laughs through her phase of making K-Pop fan edits, name-drops formative artists with the abandon of someone who religiously makes Topsters, and describes the song "All My Friends Know" on her new mixtape as a "Drake type beat."

Her songs, which place her vocals on garage and drum and bass inflected beats, similarly toe a line between the familiar and mysterious. Press play on almost any of her TikTok viral songs, and iconic U.K. garage samples will start flying through your ears. Her catchy breakout hit "Pain" samples the 2000 garage hit "Flowers" by Sweet Female Attitude and Sunship. Another song "Break It Off" samples the drum and bass classic "Circles" by Adam F. She writes songs that submit to the norms of the attention economy — keep it short, keep it hooky — but this frame serves her music perfectly.

She also has plenty of support from the U.K. dance world. After garage saw its most popular years in the '90s and early 2000s, it went back underground, but is now having a small resurgence with artists like Bklava and AJ Tracey. "I think she's sick. I swear to god I think she's sick," says garage luminary DJ Q. "I think it only helps the scene, man, 'cause it's gonna shed light on the scene for people who are not generally into garage. They're gonna listen to that and think, what's this? and then maybe discover artists or more tracks like it."

Clocking in at just under 19 minutes her debut mixtape to hell with it, out on Parlophone Records, serves more as a soft launch than a grand statement. Half of the tape will be familiar to fans. The new songs on the back end have fuller arrangements, benefiting from the studio and collaborators, but still feel like hazy dreams from a bygone era.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mano Sundaresan: What were the first garage songs you really loved?

PinkPantheress: I think one person to mention would be my mom. She played a lot of stuff in the car and at the time I would go home and [she'd] put on a music channel. I don't know about where you guys are in the U.S., but over here it's not uncommon to see a garage song or even a jungle and drum and bass track on the mainstream music channels. The early garage tracks I remember were "Rewind" by Craig David, "Baby Cakes" by 3 Of A Kind, and "Flowers" by Sweet Female Attitude. [Those songs] are kind of known as the most mainstream garage tunes from the early 2000s and mid-2000s. I think the reason [they are] so popular in the UK is they're super palatable and you can play them anywhere and everyone will know the lyrics. When I was a bit older, I kind of started to listen to more GoldLink, Kaytranada, which is not straight up garage like down-the-line garage or drum and bass, but it's a subgenre of those main genres, dance music, and electronic.

When did you start recording music?

I was recording music when I was in high school, I just wasn't putting it out anywhere or promoting it. I would do it when I got home, and it would be kind of a nice little hobby because I didn't really have any hobbies.

When I left my home to move to university, that was when I was like, now I actually want to turn this into a career. I was studying film. I really enjoyed editing growing up. I used to make [laughs] fan edits for my favorite celebrities and stuff like that.

When you said you were making fan edit type things, was it like One Direction, or what are we talking?

It was K-pop [laughs] K-pop! I was a way bigger [fan] when I was younger, but I am a big fan of K-pop.

Do you ever think about your music through the lens of K-pop?

I do, actually. One thing about Korean music that really drew me to it in the first place was the topline writing, because the topline writing is a lot more intricate than Western pop. Some of the melodies, they're just way more interesting, in my opinion, as well as the instrumentals. One of my earliest tracks as PinkPantheress was an instrumental from a K-pop group called EXID. I sample Korean rappers and I think it's just a great genre of music, if you can call it a genre. I mean, it's not really a genre. It's a great community.

"Pain" was your first song to really take off. What do you remember about recording that song?

When I posted "Pain" I was doing one song a day. I was really sure what I wanted to achieve through TikTok and it was obviously to get a bigger audience. I was like, I'm just going to try and do this as quick as I can, because I'm really impatient with everything. I kind of resorted to doing one song a day in order to speed up the process, which sounds bad. It sounds like I was fully rushing it, but it was also a challenge for myself. I was taking like an hour a day when I got back home from university to write a 20 second loop, which sounded like it could develop into something longer than 20 seconds. "Pain" just happened to be one of those.

You were talking about being impatient with how you make and release music. Does that partly explain your songs being on the short side?

That definitely comes into it. When it comes to my own personal writing, I get kind of tired of hearing the same melodies over and over. The way that a usual song is structured is you'd have two verses, two choruses, maybe a [post-chorus], then obviously a fade out. It feels awkward for me to write any more than I feel like I have to. That being said, I've never been opposed to writing longer than one minute. It's kind of like, I make a song and in my head, I'm like, this must be the three minute mark, and then somebody will tell me it's only come to like two minutes. [laughs]

I listen to the mixtape and it feels a lot longer than it actually is. I don't know why that is.

I try to jam pack my songs. I try and flesh out the song as much as I can given the short amount of time I've got. I'll sing the same melody once, then move to another melody, then another melody. It's like you're getting a few melodies in a minute. I don't blame people for being like, this could be a bit longer because this isn't developed enough. People just have different attention spans and sometimes it takes people longer to really immerse themselves in a song. And I think the only remedy for that when you're listening to me is just to replay it if you want, if you so wish.

Your music obviously went up on TikTok after "Pain." And you have all these legions of fans, mostly Zoomers coming to your side. Did that at all affect how you were sort of writing songs after that?

Did you say Zoomer?


[Laughs] I don't know what it means.


I've never heard of that.

You've never heard of that. Wow. So that's just like, Gen Z. But I'm wondering, did having all those fans make you think about your music differently?

No, I don't think so. I think subconsciously. I guess us "Zoomers" like to hear sad songs. Billie Eilish, a lot of her songs stand on the feeling of grief and emotional despair. I was doing that anyway, just because I was listening to My Chemical Romance and Linkin Park growing up, so naturally my lyrics are just going to be in that same vein. Adele, for example, a lot of [her songs] are sad and about missing someone. I think I'm definitely writing probably sadder lyrics to appeal to the youth.

Your music is often described as nostalgic. What do you think about the baggage of that word?

I think I get it. I don't personally really get that feeling when I listen to my stuff. I think I've actually kind of come up with a theory as to why a lot of people think it's nostalgic, and it's just because [of] the beats, because they're naturally from the 2000s. But I think the way that my melodies sit on the beat are probably the reason that people are like, "I've definitely heard this kind of thing before." It's like, nah, I think you're hearing a lot of things. You're hearing a lot of music that you used to listen to in one, at the same time. That's essentially why it feels nostalgic.

If you used to listen to Green Day when you were younger, I use some of the melodies that they use, because I use pop punk melodies. If you've heard the beat before and you feel like you've heard it somewhere, you probably have. Nostalgia for me is a positive word. I think it means that people feel more comfortable because it's like, I feel safe listening to music.

Have you seen any of the people who are on the other side of this nostalgia debate who are very defensive about the samples that you use?

I have, indeed.

What do you think about that?

I sympathize with those people actually, funny enough, because I think you're actually right. Everything you're saying is right. I can't disagree with any of these people. The only thing I can say is...yeah, it is lazy not producing my own beats and taking them from online. It's also definitely important for people overseas to realize that DnB and garage weren't started in my bedroom, it was started yonks and yonks ago by artists like Shy FX. It's a very ingrained part of UK culture. When I started out, I was a terrible producer and I couldn't make a beat from scratch, so I genuinely had to just go and find a beat and be like, I'm going to kind of mess around with it, maybe change the tempo, maybe change the pitch.

When I was taking those beats, I wasn't like, I'm going to steal this beat, and everyone's going to think I was [the] one that came up with it. It was more, I'm going to take this beat and see if I can write anything to it that differs from the original. I'm not going to defend myself. I guess you could argue I just did, but I'm not going to be like, "No, you're wrong, and you shouldn't gatekeep!" I've always tried to make sure that everyone is credited and everyone gets their dues. I try and even speak with most of the original creators just to make sure that they like the version I made, or they're at least happy that it's out there and that they are getting their share.

Who have you talked to, if it's ok to share?

I'm a big fan of Just Jack. He's a rapper or, I guess, alternative pop artist here in the UK. And he had a great few singles I was a massive fan of when I was growing up. One of them [was] "Starz In Their Eyes," which is a big song over here. And I sampled it and we just happened to DM, and I was like, "Thank you so, so much for creating such beautiful music, and I hope that you are one, happy and two, like what I did with your song." And he was like, "Yeah, I think it's great!" And I was just so shocked but super mega happy that he liked it.

The last thing people need to realize is that sampling isn't a new thing. Most people should know that I sampled Adam F's "Circles" for "Break It Off" and there is a sample within that. Sampling is embedded into a lot of genres: EDM, garage, jungle, DnB, rap, hip-hop. I think it's very hard to monitor which artist should be able to and which ones shouldn't. I think I've at least tried to do them justice, but obviously if you disagree, then you disagree. This is the longest answer I've ever given, I'm so sorry. I think a lot of people don't think a lot of people's intentions are pure, but mine have always been pure.

Scanning the credits to your mixtape, I noticed you put the songs you recorded at home in the first half, and the second half is all songs you recorded in different studios. Is there a difference in how you write songs in both settings with a bunch of musicians versus sort of in your own head space?

I feel a lot more pressure to write something good when other people [are] in the room, and when I'm by myself, it's just me. I can write some rubbish and no one's going to know.

There is a difference to me in how the music sounds. For instance, "Reason" has that deep bass you don't hear in your bedroom recordings.

That was an example of a song that I didn't and could not have produced if I had tried. I can't produce for toffee. There is a 100% difference between what I've chopped and screwed in my bedroom and then proper production. "Reason," that was by Zach Nahome, he's a great producer. The only thing I do in the studio is I kind of just say, "This is kind of the vibe I want, if you could kind of go for this kind of energy." And then they kind of just do it because producers are wizards at the end of the day.

Are there any artists that you want to work with in the future?

Oh 100% I definitely want to work with Kaytranada. I literally bring him up honestly, every single interview because I'm just like, I love you. You are a genius.

How do you want fans to understand you after this mixtape?

The first and foremost thing is if you like breakbeats and you like DnB, you need to tap into the British classics. Get a vinyl, go onto YouTube, type in Shy FX, type in Adam F, type in Sunship. I think if there's one thing I want people to know about me, it's that my music only scratches the surface of what real DnB is. Please take the dive that you need to do if you enjoy it and properly. And don't worry about me. A lot of people worry about me and think I'm super sad all the time because all my lyrics are so sad. I'm happy. [laughs] I'm happy.

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Mano Sundaresan is a producer at NPR.