london pop prodigy georgia dreams of collaborating with missy elliott
Meet the genre-defying, Maharishi-wearing North Londoner storming the UK pop scene with mashups of 90s electro, hip-hop and Burmese panpipes.
photography laura coulson
Georgia Barnes loves Missy Elliott, is often seen wearing head-to-toe camouflage and can play the kora, a 21-stringed West African lute - as well as at least seven other instruments. She grew up in North London with parents who fed her a diet of soul, Madonna and house. And between the ages of 13 and 16, she played soccer on the Arsenal and Queens Park Rangers youth teams.
Change any one of those things, and Georgia, her newly released debut album, might have come out completely differently. The album is its own unique sonic universe, vibrating with loud, angsty energy. "Move!" the 21-year-old commands on the album's biggest, best-known track, "Move Systems," and you want to. Georgia's music is powered by heart-pounding drumming (she used to tour as a session drummer with Kwes) and layered with angry horns and catchy, danceable electronic jingles. She sings about chains, disaffection, and dealers named Sheila. It's very London - her lyrics are half-rapped, half-sung in a voice that ranges from a rude-girl whine to a "yeah, whatever" deadpan - but her sound also calls on her world-spanning studies in ethnomusicology.
"It's been so funny doing press because no one can pronounce 'ethnomusicology'!" Georgia laughed over the phone last week. She took the course at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, after deciding at 16 that women's soccer was not for her. ("At that time there weren't many career opportunities there. But that doesn't seem to be the case now - maybe I'll take it up again!") At the other end of the spectrum, SOAS, she says, "attracts that sort of 'let's all get in a drum circle and get some hashish and get to a higher field' crowd."
It also gave her access to a world of instruments and musical styles. Including indigenous Burmese panpipes and Gamelan (a kind of Southeast Asian percussion ensemble), both of which make appearances on Georgia. "Maybe you can't even hear it in the music," she says. "But it's there. It's just another texture that I add to the sound." A sound she mixes up at her small home studio in London, and in her bedroom.
"I was quite lucky that I grew up in a household that embraced music," she says. "My dad was in the electronic scene in the 90s in London and my mum has always been a big fan of music. They were there at the height of the 90s rave [scene], at warehouse parties in London." From her mom, she got classic pop like Madonna and the more soulful sounds of Joni Mitchell. From her dad, she got house, techno and electro. "I grew up with quite a vast knowledge of music, and ever since I can remember, I've been totally fascinated with instruments." The cover art for her EP Come In is a photograph of a 3-year-old Georgia plugging away at her dad's keyboard.
When I ask her about her love for camo (just scroll through her Instagram), she also says the 90s have a lot to do with it. "I always loved camouflage as a kid but I have a particularly strong connection with Maharishi because my mum and my dad used to wear it. It was the brand of the 90s rave scene in London." But she also vibes with it on a personal level. "Two years ago I went back and checked out their store, saw all this camouflage and thought this is me! I quite like that ragamuffin thing." Now she even has camo tape for sticking down her leads onstage when she performs. "It's turned into a bit of an obsession."
Most recently, she played in New York, where she warmed up for Hot Chip at Webster Hall, and headlined at Baby's All Right. They were her first shows in the US as her own artist, and one week later she still couldn't quite believe that people had actually come to see her. "There were girls who'd traveled from Houston, Texas. It was pretty amazing to hear that at the first gig. It shifted everything into reality, instead of it [existing in] this sort of cosmos of blogospheres and the internet."
She was also recording while she was in the States, at Electric Lady Studios in downtown Manhattan. And while she says her priority for now is promoting her first album, she's already thinking about material for a second. "I don't want it to be too different from [Georgia]," she mused. "I want to keep that same soundscape, but I guess it will be a bit more…. matured?" Back on the other side of the Atlantic, on the day of our interview, she'd also just announced her first headlining gig in London, at Corsica Studios. She is, in the words of her number-one, Missy Elliott, making sure she's ahead of the game.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Laura Coulson