Girl Ray Rebel Against Pop Snobbery

The Londron trio’s third album Prestige isn’t just a modern pop masterpiece, it’s the best dance record of the year so far

Music Features Girl Ray
Girl Ray Rebel Against Pop Snobbery

Every person begins as a child finding a glow in the topography of music through curiosity, heirlooms or both. I was 10 or 11 when my father introduced me to disco music. He had a Bee Gees greatest hits CD that he’d wear out over the years. On summer weekends, he’d light the tiki torches on our back patio, crank up the outside stereo speakers, spark up the fire pit and get drunk to the merriment of “More Than a Woman.” Once I had a car and a debit card six years later, I blew part of my allowance on a copy of Saturday Night Fever at the record shop you had to cross three towns to get to. Growing up as a closeted queer person in a rural Ohio town, you can’t escape “Chicken Fried” or butt-rock or slurs that are sometimes casual, sometimes violent. The world of disco felt like a forbidden prophecy I was granted intimate access to. The genre taught me how to live a life of survival, which was priceless in a town that actively worked to erase people like me.

Perhaps that’s why Prestige, the newest record from Girl Ray, has been on my mind constantly for the last four months. Many people are making dance-pop right now, synthesizers haven’t been this popular since 1989. There’s likely no better time to make a disco record than right now. Girl Ray—Poppy Hankin, Iris McConnell and Sophie Moss—make electric, hypnotic music when in company with each other. Since their debut album Earl Grey arrived in 2017, the trio have woven tapestries of indie rock and Top-40-worthy pop with seamless ease. When they made Girl in 2019, destiny made it almost impossible for the band to not break out big. With songs indebted to the Go-Go’s, HAIM and everything in-between, Girl Ray stuck out boldly from the get-go. They’d traded in mellow indie pop of their debut for cheeky mainstream resplendents that pull cues from towering chart figures like Ariana Grande and Drake—employing programmed drums and bass rather than recording together live as a full unit. Given how talented the trio is, it’s no surprise that—despite positioning a focus on electronic layering and not an organic, rawer sound—Girl came out sounding like Hankin, McConnell and Moss each had a hand firmly on every synthesizer they used.

The Guardian labeled Girl an album with “the great sound of a band getting pop wrong”—but what the hell does The Guardian know about Girl Ray? I call the band up early on a weekday—well, early for me, as I’m in the states and they’re across the pond. Hankin, McConnell and Moss all gather around their computer screen together, rather than dialing in from different places. Much like Prestige, they exude joy that is infectious and relieving. They don’t take on serious tones while they answer questions—not because the work they’ve made isn’t serious, but because Girl Ray has gone to the edge of melancholy and back and now know what it means to make a record from a place of immense pride and care. While on tour for Girl, COVID hit, and the trio didn’t get to see the record’s cycle through like they had Earl Grey two years prior. It wasn’t long before Hankin turned her sights on a new batch of songs.

“It all felt incredibly dramatic and insane,” Hankin says. “We didn’t have that long to live with [Girl] being out before everyone’s priorities naturally shifted. I think, as with a lot of musicians, the creative spark happened during COVID, when you just had all of this time to yourself. We had an abundance of time to actually think about what we wanted to make. But it was difficult being apart from [McConnell and Moss], as well. I tend to do most of the writing, but it was a lot of sending ideas back and forth. ‘Oh, do you like this? Is this a cool vibe?’ It was weird, but we got there.”

The early skeleton of Prestige began coming together for the band while they were playing gigs around Europe pre-pandemic. Hankin was plunking away at Logic while watching Pose and listening to a bunch of disco music. The FX show’s vivid, campy portrayal of queer excess, underground ball culture and Houses in New York City helped shape the trio’s inclinations to fashion themselves into makeshift pop stars. “There were whispers of that influence when we were touring and then we all spoke about it and agreed that that would be a cool touchstone for Prestige,” she says. “When we play live together, we all have the capacity to play disco songs. I like to play quite rhythmic guitar in that Niles Rogers style, and Iris and Soph have such a groove when they play together—so it made sense when we just said, ‘Okay, shit, let’s just be influenced by disco on this record.’ We ran with it, and I think it was a really good way to write.” Around that time, Róisín Murphy had released Róisín Machine, Jessie Ware put out What’s Your Pleasure? and Dua Lipa made Future Nostalgia. It was the perfect time to make a pure, unabashed dance record. “A lot of people were doing it, some better than others,” Hankin adds. “But it seemed like a good time to have a go at it.”

Girl Ray came up in a guitar-focused indie world. Earl Grey was a product of that environment. A song like “Stupid Things” combines modernist dream-pop with strummy, mid-century strumming. If you spend enough time with that record, you can hear the access points that the trio were able to grab onto and bring with them into the landscape of Prestige. The melodies, the vocal patterns, the twinkling bridges—they all endure, just in slightly different tones now. The lyrics were full of sorrow; the instrumentation was restrained just enough to keep listeners’ feet on the ground. “There’s a snobbery towards music that makes you feel good and makes you dance. A lot of what we’ll hear on the radio these days is not necessarily danceable music. It’s anger. We just wanted to make something that makes you want to dance. That was a priority.”

And immediately, Prestige does just that. Normally, bands will put out a handful of singles prior to a record’s release and at least one of them is a ballad. Girl Ray careened the other way this cycle, tumbling head first—brilliantly—into four immeasurably great, candy-coated pop tracks with running legs. “Hold Tight,” I contend, is the single best dance track of the year so far that is as coastal in its brightness as it is accessible. “Up” opens with a kick/snare combo that immediately flowers into a glitzy, bubbly guitar riff. Hankin’s vocals take center-stage, airy and malleable inside the explosion of McConnell and Moss’ rhythmic cosmos.

After going through a sonic evolution and hitting checkpoints of indie rock, R&B, soul, house and, now, disco, the musical curiosity for Girl Ray is the result of rebelling against being pigeonholed in one place. “We always say we never want to find something that works for us and just stick to it forever,” Hankin says. “You should constantly feel pushed out of your boundaries. And we all have such an eclectic taste that it’s fun to take a genre as a center point, aim for it and know that, because it’s us, it’s always going to sound like some warped version of it. We know that, when we make disco, it’s going to sound like Girl Ray doing disco.” The trio have built a library of references in their heads and use them to create a cocktail of genres. In 2021, they linked up with Joe Goddard and Al Doyle of Hot Chip and turned a 30-second demo into an eight-minute house song called “Give Me Your Love,” again obliterating whatever box Girl might have laid out for them. It was a precursor to the freedom they’re now fully ensconced in.

And Prestige is the ultimate Girl Ray record because it, at its core, is the perfect middle ground between the indie guitar sonic they started with and the mega-pop they made on Girl. With poignant, historical grooves and the trio’s incomparable rock ‘n’ roll influence, it sounds timeless and the production—courtesy of Grammy Award-winning producer Ben H. Allen, who’s worked on projects by everyone from Neon Indian to Deerhunter—is complex and illuminated. Hankin, McConnell and Moss convened at Allen’s studio in Atlanta and took advantage of his wide arsenal of instruments and gadgets. They’d record as a three-piece, focusing on just guitar, bass and drums, and then overdub, layer vocals and ham everything up to an 11 in post. Though Prestige housed a lot of experimentation, the final result is a full-band, energetic space with no cracks.

The transition between Earl Grey, Girl and now Prestige is symbolic in the way that Queen’s turn towards Hot Space or David Bowie’s dive into Let’s Dance were both huge risks that germinated through a genuine desire to discover new forms of expression in the liminality of a sonic space. “[Queen and Bowie] were trying something totally different than what they were used to, and it ended up being amazing. I think you have to keep trying new shit, even if it sounds weird,” Hankin says. “There’s an excitement, as well, where I’m like, ‘Oh, I wonder what Poppy’s voice will sound like next to a really, really phat kick,” McConnell chimes in. Whether or not songs like “Cool Cat” or “China Girl” were the commercial or personal successes that Queen and Bowie demanded, they both represented an intrepid changeover for two of the biggest rock acts in the world—and that’s something that Girl Ray take stock in themselves when it comes time to make a record.

“As a musician being in the studio, you don’t want to get bored. Even if the music works for an audience, it might not work for you,” Hankin adds. “We’re just constantly trying to find ways to play with our sound and make sure we’re excited by it. .It’s always good to try out stuff that’s out of your comfort zone. I think that’s one of the most important things you can do as an artist.”

While recording in Atlanta, Girl Ray pulled a lot of influence from the city’s rich hip-hop roots. The trio didn’t make any attempts to write a rap song, but they did find themselves inserting subby drum loops or sample-style piano beats into tracks. It helps that Allen was a part of the project, as he got his start over 20 years ago working with Sean Combs at his Bad Boy Records label, contributing to Puff Daddy, Mase and Carl Thomas albums. His influence allowed Girl Ray to merge technical features from rap and disco and make an active homage to both genres with an alchemy of bouncy, historical and memorable textures.

“Hip-hop was another way of re-inventing disco with the sampling from old records, and I think that’s what really attracts me to disco,” Hankin notes. “You had the first form of disco, when it would happen in clubs in the ‘70s, and then you had this resurgence in the ‘80s with post-disco and then, in the ‘90s, people found it again and they’re sampling it and putting on phat drum loops. I love how disco has this ability to be invented and re-invented. Anyone can put their mark on it.”

In the wake of COVID, as countless artists are releasing their “pandemic records” that center loneliness and alienation and heartache and grief, Girl Ray injected Prestige with relentless joy. Legitimately, every single track is the antithesis of sorrow. “It’s your sweet words keepin’ me alive, your light is as warm as the sunshine” is a lyric from “Hold Tight” that could very well define the gleam of Prestige altogether. There’s a quest for survival adrift on the album, but one that refuses to acknowledge the punishment that loss inflicts. Many bands focus on writing through heavier shit because they’re too busy living through the vignettes of happiness they have. Girl Ray, however, are not so interested in letting that bliss dissipate.

“One of the only good things about being depressed is that you’re gonna get a good album out of it,” Hankin laughs. “That’s what’s unique about Prestige, is that it actually comes from a place of love and happiness. For us, most of our songs are usually quite sad, even though they might sound happy. I think it’s difficult to write about happiness in a convincing way. This album, it’s not always positive, but it certainly comes from a different perspective than the last couple of albums. [When writing], you definitely have to think more and more. It’s less visceral. Obviously, love has been written about forever. If somebody doesn’t love you back or if you’re feeling lonely, that visceral often does lead to creativity. When you’re content and happy and doing well, you have to put more thought into it and how to express yourself.”

In the States, club music is alive and ferocious in city scenes, especially in New York City. But that resurgence isn’t Top-40 style. It’s work that pays homage to Grace Jones and Giorgio Morodor-type beats. In Europe, disco—especially post-disco that merges patterns of post-punk and new wave. Girl Ray aren’t as interested in the Donna Summer quadrant of the genre so much as they are looking towards Blondie and Orange Juice. “We have more of an interest in those bands that, in the ‘80s, took inspiration from the people doing it in the ‘70s,” Hankin says. “When we were writing Prestige, it was very on trend. But pop music in London, at least in the scene we’re in, people can turn their nose up at it. I think there’s really interesting things to do with disco and re-embracing it and re-inventing it in new ways for modern audiences.”

Girl Ray have zeroed in on just that, as the 12 songs on Prestige arrive upbeat and catchy and harness a buoyant energy at every turn—but the work is such an explicit documentation of queer joy and history in ways that, through the annals of time and shifting, progressive mindsets, have allowed the band to be upfront and fearless about their sexuality and identity. 50 years ago, when disco was just getting its legs, the genre didn’t offer that same accessible freedom. House music hadn’t yet gone mainstream, though it became a haven of expression for queer people of color of the era—and even today. If you look at an event like Disco Demolition Night in 1979 in Chicago, it was a gimmick on the surface. But beyond the masculine, hedonistic pleasure many stone-cold rock ‘n’ roll devotees found in blowing up Grace Jones records, the whole ordeal symbolized a greater attack on queer people—especially Black queer people. Tapping into a Girl Ray track is special because it’s an archival—in many ways—of a genre that nearly went extinct at the hands of belligerent, self-indulgent, straight white men.

“When we started thinking about making disco music, we didn’t think about the context,” Hankin says. “But, as we started to record it and started to build reference tracks and build playlists and try to understand disco and everything that it means, we started to have a deeper appreciation of what it meant, especially to us as queer people. The idea of embracing it with our own color and our own take on it, it feels really important and we really wanted to do it justice the more we found out about it. Disco might sound like a fucking alien club in 100 years, but it’s the sentiment that’s behind it, isn’t it? That’s what’s really important. We just wanted to be a part of that.”

Prestige is a pop record, despite Girl Ray not being able to think of it as one, given the scene they came up in and its attitude towards the mainstream. But they also have a level-headed outlook on the excesses of fame and whether or not it’s accessible to them. “The thing is, we are too poor to be pop stars,” Hankin says. “Even if we had money, we wouldn’t be pop stars,” McConnell adds. “I think we’re always gonna be weirdos, really.” And that’s the mantra that made disco so priceless 50 years ago. A bunch of marginalized shapeshifters made the grooviest music of all-time and it’s been a worshipped, beloved emblem for half-a-century since. Girl Ray fits into the modernized vision of that equation now, too, whether they buy into it fully or not. Their next project might not be a dance album, but it’s a safe bet that it’ll be a can’t-miss blockbuster.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from his home in Columbus, Ohio.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin