London Grammar don't wear fame easily, but with a recognisable sound, emotional lyrics and a demure lead singer, they're achieving top marks, writes Ed Power
For anyone who believed we had moved on from the days of toe-curling disc jockeys and their car-crash banter, it was a reminder certain things never change. "We think the girl from London Grammar is fit. Do you agree?" tweeted staff at BBC Radio One's breakfast show in September, demonstrating in 140 characters the degree to which off-hand sexism is alive and leering in the entertainment industry. A kerfuffle ensued, the tweet was deleted and the BBC issued a grovelling mea culpa.
Seated in her dressing room, the 'girl from London Grammar' -- she actually has a name, Hannah Reid -- shrugs. Still coming to terms with her growing public profile she is inclined not to let the background noise -- sexist tweets, borderline creepy comments about her appearance -- get to her. Having barely reached the point where she can go on stage without experiencing overwhelming terror, to have strangers offer crass observations regarding her looks is not something she can begin to process.
"Enjoy is a strong word," says Hannah of her rise to ... well, it's starting to look a lot like real fame. "I enjoy the feeling of having performed. Meeting fans after a gig is great. Ultimately [the spotlight] is difficult. I will probably always have issues with it. The difference is I'm better at hiding it now."
With big sparkly eyes and imperious cheek-bones Reid looks every centimetre a pop star. She sings like one too, her voice a soaring blend of Florence Welch and Kate Bush. Yet she has little of the drilled-in confidence you associate with the uncommonly beautiful or talented. Lost inside a huge hoodie, she speaks in wispy sentences, often trailing into silence rather than state anything definitive. She's a glamorous wallflower but a wallflower all the same.
"Early on I would be physically unwell if we had a gig coming up," says Reid. "I would be literally ill the entire day -- occasionally the whole week. It has happened so fast for us. Our first major concert was in front of a 500-strong crowd, including loads of industry types. Bands spend years trying to arrive at that position. It is a lot to take in."
Propelled by Reid's glorious vocals, London Grammar have become 2013's break-out story. Swooning, introspective, layered in minimalist beats, their music suggests a sort of sad, sexy Portishead (look them up, young people). Entirely off the radar in January by late summer it seemed everyone was talking about the trio, to the point where they were perceived as a shoo-in for the Mercury Prize. This before their album, If You Wait was even released.
"To be spoken of as the winner early on was funny," smiles Hannah (in the end London Grammar weren't even shortlisted). "Nobody had heard our record at that point. One media person said we would be nominated, then another chimed in. All of a sudden we were up on Paddy Power as favourites. Initially I thought 'no way ... no way'. However, so many said we would, I almost started to believe."
If You Wait may not have garnered a Mercury nod but, when it eventually saw daylight, it confirmed London Grammar were a pop group the world was waiting for (even if the world didn't know it). Standing defiantly apart from the bubble gum ululating of GaGa RiRi et al, Reid's dulcet quaver cuts like a blade as she moved through songs by turns sad, moving and quietly dazzling.
"In our writing we are definitely very melancholy," says Reid. "I think that's a natural state of affairs if you are a composer. We're pop artists only not in the Katy Perry sense. Sadder emotions lend themselves to musical expression."
London Grammar had a zeitgeist moment in May with their single Wasting My Young Years. Soft yet steely the track has been heralded -- mostly by middle aged journalists admittedly -- as an anthem for a generation of 20-somethings which has known only recession and mass unemployment. While London Grammar didn't set out to be political they understand why Wasting My Young Years has struck a chord.
"It is difficult for anyone our age," says Reid. "We have friends who are interning forever or are holding down not terribly well paid jobs. There is a lot of disillusionment among the youth. A sense of dissatisfaction."
They are an overnight success years in the making. Hannah met guitarist Dan Rothman at university in Nottingham in 2009, inviting Dot Major (percussion, backing vocals) to join 12 months later. Rather than push the trio into the spotlight before they were ready their label, Ministry Of Sound did something extraordinary: gave London Grammar the space and time to develop at their own pace.
"It was hard because the songs weren't ready for the world yet," says Reid. "You had no reference point -- nobody has heard them, so you don't know whether they are good or bad. Everyone has an opinion. We went through a phase of letting outsiders sway how we approached the project. Fortunately, we were able to come through that."
Reid is en route to proper, can-I-have-your-autograph fame and, in all honesty, does not seem to appreciate what she had signed up for. "With a lot of the artists who make music similar to ours, you wouldn't necessarily know what they look like," she says. "There is a difference between a celebrity and a musician, although those lines are blurred."
She purses her lips and leans back. "I think the stars have aligned for us. There was a gap in pop at the time we were coming along. I wouldn't get carried away. I mean, I haven't even heard one of our songs on the radio yet."
The album If You Wait is out now.