Nursing a cup of English Breakfast tea, having smashed out DIY’s candlelit photoshoot to the strains of Sonic Youth’s ‘Daydream Nation’, Gretel Hänlyn is musing on the purpose of music - the purpose, we should note, of the sort of really good music that the West London singer is working hard to find herself considered alongside.
“[I’m drawn to] something that has a very powerful atmosphere and something that doesn’t sound like it’s trying to copy something else. That’s all you can really ask for,” she nods. “Something I strive for in my own stuff is a change of culture. Sometimes you get a new artist that changes things, like Billie Eilish introducing more downtempo music where then there’s a lot of artists who follow on and do the same. What I strive for is that original idea.”
Shaking up an entire music ecosystem is quite a lofty ambition to casually throw out there at 3pm in a coffee shop, it might be said… “It’s Monday and I’m thinking about changing the world,” Gretel shrugs with a glint in her eye.
Since drawing a line under her previous acoustic endeavours, choosing to write for a full band and deciding upon a new, Brothers Grimm-inspired moniker, Gretel Hänlyn has been steadily widening her own sonic boundaries in a way that suggests a little game-changing might not be entirely out of reach. Where the now 21-year-old describes those early teenage tracks, released under the name Maddy Bean, as “gothic acoustic folk”, by 2022’s debut Gretel EP ‘Slugeye’, she’d begun to craft a “world-building” new direction, informed entirely by instinct. Having never played a gig with a band, ‘Slugeye’ was written with the singer crafting parts for imagined musicians. “I didn’t know what would ever work live and I never had a reference point for any of the songs, they just shat themselves out,” she laughs.
Follow-up ‘Head of the Love Club’, released back in March, was penned in the wake of both a considerable amount more on-stage experience and a romantic “infatuation” that proved particularly lyrically fertile. In the centre emerged an EP that amped up the dynamics, veering from Nico-esque opener ‘Dry Me’, to ‘Wiggy’’s Pixies nods and ‘Drive’’s razor-sharp indie riffs. Full of wryly dark observations, pulling from horror as much as romance (“Do you need me? Would you come to my show? / I’m your pet really and I just wanna be owned,” goes ‘Wiggy’), it began to clarify a worldview that’s been building since childhood. “I used to write a lot of short horror stories, and a lot of the music I wrote was putting a melody with depressing chords to a horrible story I'd written,” she recalls. Pause. “No, I did not have many friends, to answer your next question…”
Sometimes you get a new artist that changes things. What I strive for is that original idea.”
While a lifelong penchant for the darkly evocative and macabre forms a central pillar of Gretel Hänlyn’s artistic outlook - be that via the records (Nicks both Cave and Drake, Jeff Buckley, Wolf Alice) that would be played around the house or the gothic art that her mum would introduce her to - it was a period of sickness as a teenager that would change the course of her output in an altogether different way.
Around 2018, Gretel fell ill for a year with her diaphragm particularly affected. The continuing problems it presented for her voice, meanwhile, lasted much longer. “I wasn’t able to sing, and there was never a point when I was [fully] able to sing again but I just decided I had to make it work somehow,” she recalls. “The only way I could sing without it sounding really scratchy and terrible was if I sang through a different path, lowering my larynx and really pushing the sound out from within rather than singing in the way that would come naturally to someone who wasn’t sick. But after all that illness I still came back to music and to writing because it was just always something that I had to do.
“This has always been the dream from when I was little,” she continues. “I’d always play guitar and sing for my family, and that’s something that carries on when I see my granddad. He’s got very bad Alzheimer’s and he can’t remember anything - can’t remember me, can’t remember my mum - but I’ll pick up the guitar and sing an old Irish folk song to him and he’ll always sing the words back to me. Music’s always been something that’s fascinated me, and pulled me in and dazzled me.”
As she’s recovered over time, so has Gretel’s ‘natural’ voice come back; these days, it’s a choice rather than a necessity. And while that presented its own problems at the beginning (“I felt trapped by it in a way because people seemed to really like how I sounded on ‘Slugeye’ but I don’t need to do it anymore,” she explains), now Gretel is seeing the variety of her vocal options as yet another tool with which to paint her evocative musical pictures. “Now I dart between all of the voices that I’ve used as another mode of storytelling, another narrative,” she nods.
Music’s always been something that’s fascinated me, and pulled me in and dazzled me.”
Currently, Gretel is working on extending that narrative into her debut album. Long-term collaborator Mura Masa is on board as both producer and an artistic foil to bounce ideas off; “He’s a bit of a Rick Rubin type where he’s a great producer but he’s also equally as good at being a creative director,” Gretel enthuses. “He thinks about the context of the world and thinks outside the box. It’s hard to find someone you trust that much with your music.”
Thinking outside of the box, indeed, seems to be the MO of the record as a whole. Lyrically, there’s still a love of love but taken and twisted into new vantage points. One track destined for the release, ‘Squish’, is an exhausted takedown of modern hook-up culture. “What happened to courting and giving things a go?” Gretel says. “‘Squish’ is saying: ‘All I wanna do is just drown in love and let you squish me’. And you can hurt me, but at least something happened.” Another, ‘Far Out’, uses both sides of the term to muse on a recent long-distance relationship. “He was far away but he also loved to do drugs so he was pretty far out…” she notes.
Lyrical care and originality is evidently a big priority for the singer. “I actually get a little bit weirdly upset when I’m watching interviews and someone says the lyrics come last,” she says. “No! Don’t say that! They have a lot of importance to me and I spend a lot of time thinking about lyrics - or thinking about good lyrics. When I’ve written a good lyric, I’ll spend a long time thinking, ‘I love these lyrics’,” she corrects herself with a chuckle. “I spend a lot of time congratulating myself about lyrics.”
Musically, meanwhile, it seems like the box has been broken down entirely. Words like “challenging” repeatedly pop up when talking about the tracks she’s working on, whilst Gretel jokes that she might title the release ‘Have I Taken It Too Far?’. There are still, she promises, “accessible songs to balance it out”, but much like her proclivity for offsetting the sweet with the sour, finding “something beautiful in something grotesque”, it’s in the marriage of the two that Gretel Hänlyn’s increasingly singular style really soars.
As 2024’s debut dawns, the belief in her own vision seems to be working. “I did a short UK run earlier this year and it was mostly [older] 6 Music listeners, and now having just gone on this tour the rooms are way more packed, there are a lot more young women, and there’s a younger fanbase singing every word, there with their friends,” she smiles. “It’s lovely seeing the hard work pay off through those people. It’s like we’ve unlocked the next step.”
After all, you can’t change the culture without making a few bold moves.
As featured in the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of DIY, out now.