Honoring the poetry that goes into songwriting, Close Reading is a series of intimate conversations about all the books, movies, and thoughts behind some of your favorite songs. Diving into the lyrics and separating the lines that make you want to sing a little louder, Lucy Harbron sits down with some of the most exciting songwriters around to hold a magnifying glass down to lyrical form.
Greta Isaac is a creative force. Born into a musical family in Wales, and moving forward to spread her artistic wings in film and creative making as well as songwriting, she doesn’t like limits. Solid in her vision and ever-evolving in her sound, Greta’s latest releases speak of an era with a newfound confidence in her artistic eye.
Having worked with some of her closest friends and the biggest names in grassroots music right now, including Orla Gartland and Dodie, Greta consistently goes above and beyond what everyone expects of her. Speaking of clowns, weird movies, and dandruff, Greta and Lucy dove into his moodboard.
Even with your early builds, everything seems to go together with the visuals and the art. When did music start to merge with this other side of your creativity?
I’ve always been into music – I grew up in a musical family so the music was always playing, my dad has a studio so there were always strangers coming in and out making music and it was so encouraged for my siblings to sing together. It has always been part of our family dynamic and our identity, we are musicians. So even though they’re both creative, it was still a bit of a shock like “oh why is Gret doing that?” when I got into other things.
My first boyfriend showed me how elaborate the world of cinema is and how it can be a vehicle for all of these different forms to come together and create something amazing. Then it wasn’t until I started hanging out with friends who were more interested in design and illustration that I really started to appreciate the art world and use it as something which can go along with my music rather than having to be a completely different company. Now I see music as a vehicle to satisfy all my passions, sometimes I would even say that music comes after those things.
What films have really opened your eyes?
I grew up watching like Back to the Future and Jaws and all those great sports movies. When I first started dating this boyfriend, it was more about arthouse stuff, stuff that seemed more ambiguous and hard to watch. The main thing I took away from watching movies with him was German Expressionism and that era of cinema. I was a huge fan of Tim Burton and seeing where he got his influences from was crazy to me.
When writing music now, at what point in the process do visuals come to mind? Or is it always the opposite with ideas for videos or artwork that come first?
More and more now, I think more visually than sonically. I always think about my project and see it as a moodboard or a mind map to make me think about what things are part of it. When I write, I think about what Greta Isaac would say on this subject, rather than Gret who you’re talking to right now, or what the project would be about, visually or lyrically or even sounds weird in a song. It all helps me think beyond what I would say on a day-to-day basis, to what the artist would say – and having visual aids really sparks those thoughts.
I would love to do an album where I do all the visuals first and then write songs like it’s a pitching session, like what that artist or that visual would sing.
On the practical side, do you have big albums or moodboards? How do you gather all your inspirations?
It’s more digital stuff that I collect but I’m always on the lookout for stuff that connects to the project. Even if I’m out for a walk, I’ll take a video of the things I see, even if it’s like dead seaweed or tangled thread, if it makes sense to me but I don’t know why yet, I’ll capture it. I always document stuff; my camera role is full of shit. But it really helped me to let my intuition guide me a bit more about what a project should be.
I also work very closely with one of my best friends, Suzie Walsh, who is so involved in all of this with me. She’s so resourceful and constantly has a magnifying glass for the most mundane things, even if it’s like a chip in an old paint job, she’ll be like ‘omg this should be at the Tate’. Even unbeknownst to her, she encouraged me to seek beauty in ordinary things, and that you can always take it and change it to create something more beautiful.
I know you did the visuals for Orla Gartland’s album, how does the process change when you’re directing the creative for someone else?
It’s mostly about listening to the songs and coming up with your own interpretations and where you see yourself in them. But also me and Orla sat down so many times to talk about the visual language she wanted to have [on Woman On The Internet], and we talked about each other’s songs and what they all meant in a level of detail that we would never have shared or showcased publicly. But knowing that Between Us really helped lay some Easter eggs and bring some ambiguity to the visual world. It’s mostly about letting go of the ego, for this project it was about what Orla wanted and it’s a really interesting thing to keep practicing as an artist.
Whether it’s for your project or someone else’s, are there any references you fell in love with years ago but keep coming back to?
This is such a fun question because I feel like the minute I’m constantly renewing myself and constantly looking for new things. I’m a bit of a magpie that way, constantly looking for new things to inspire me. But German Expressionism, 1940s circus culture, and clownish theatrical behaviors still crop up. Camp leaning worlds inspire me all the time and I’ve always been fascinated by people left behind in life who decide to veer off course, the visual world that’s associated with this is always so rich and gives the impression that there is blood flowing through this.
Do your references change when you return home to Wales? I imagine everything is getting more insular?
1000%. Growing up in Wales and the family I grew up in, I’m obviously eternally grateful to have had music available to me, but I feel like it’s shaped the songs I’ve written when I was young. Now, there was a time in my life where the visual language I create really helped me not feel so attached to traditional writing. A song I wrote recently has no chords or melody, it’s like shouting over a baseline. And I know for some like EDM producers that would be pretty normal, but for me it was so freeing that it had never been an option for me in my head.
“How Are You Not Freaking Out”, both lyrically and sonically, feels stuck between those two places – home and where you are now. I really relate to this whole idea of looking back at a small hometown while you struggle in a city…
I wanted this song to feel stuck in an in-between, and I think sonically it does that as well as it dives into the classic songwriter structure that I grew up on, and then pushes against this in production. Lyrically, there was so much stuff in there that sounded a little scatty that I liked, so we really wanted it to sound like ‘oh my God, the version of me in the suburbs? How weird!’ Like, ‘Come on, there are battles to be fought and there is art to be made!’ It was really interesting to wonder why we don’t allow ourselves a quiet life? Why are we not allowed this?
When it comes to writing something like that that’s quite vulnerable, or when you’ve thought about something so deeply that you’ve dug yourself into a hole, I imagine working with friends like Orla and around this creative circle must be so helpful
Oh my god of course. I think that’s why I find it harder and harder to write on my own, I feel like my brain is a bit of a pressure cooker or a big filled balloon, so I’m working with Orla , Matt Zara and my partner Martin Luke Brown helps drill a small hole in it to pull out the pieces needed to write a song. But having someone you trust and who knows you and your project so deeply seems necessary and important to me.
I guess when you look back through the artistic history of the Bloomsbury Group or the Beats and all those great circles of artistic friendship there’s obviously such power in that closeness where you hardly need to express yourself to collaborate…
There is such security there. With the lyrics, I constantly have to say anything to get the lyrics out and generally understand while speaking, and there has to be such confidence there because my God, the shit that comes out of my mouth before I happens to the song is awful. You need to have someone there to be like ‘I’m really good, aren’t I…?’
From the vulnerability of this song, ‘Payri$e’ is such a change. What was this process like?
I wrote it with Martin and it was fun writing this song with someone you’re so in love with and so deeply relaxed and happy about. But I think it actually created the perfect space for us to be playful in the lyrics and just go for it, because it didn’t feel right at any point. Or maybe those moments felt real in the arguments, but writing it with someone you trust so much gave us so much room to be playful.
But I still remember being so loaded down as a teenager by dance tunes and big pop tunes that sounded really twisted and crunchy. They felt like someone was scratching my brain in the best way possible, so I always wanted to make a song that was both very pop and catchy, but also had dance influences. And lyrically, I feel more and more like a Trojan horse that rides on those big feelings and hides those funny little leftist lyrics in great pop songs. It feels good.
Greta Isaac recommends
To see – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
It’s an old German expressionist film. It’s quiet and really really long and hard to watch, but even if you only see snippets of it, it’s visually appealing and cool.
Read – How to do the job by Dr. Nicole LePera
It’s more of a self-help book. She has an Instagram account called The Holistic Psychologist and every post I look at like she is looking into my soul.
‘Payri$e’ arrives tomorrow via Made Records.