It is a remarkably sweaty day for mid-September. London has been enveloped by a brief period of Indian Summer, making the hum and bustle of Dalston feel even more palpable than usual. In typical British fashion the heat seems to be accompanied by a collective anxiety as throngs of people grimace under the tugging of makeshift masks.
Walking further out of the high street and into the suburbs I meet with Aux of Hackney-based collective GRAMN. We meet just outside her family home before strolling to the local park in a bid to avoid what can only be described as ‘the Covid-ness’ of the local coffee shops. We are joined by her excitable pup Trouble, who interjects with a bark every now and then just to remind us that he too is integral to this interview. Aux is an unwittingly warm and welcoming presence who, despite declaring her own awkwardness on multiple occasions, comes across as quite the opposite. Indeed, her passion for politics and music seems to ooze from her with an effortlessness that only comes from a certain level of self-assuredness and confidence.
GRAMN describe themselves as a musical collective fronted by singer/songwriter Aux and backed by producers and instrumentalists James and Johnny. The meaning behind their name is two-fold, embracing both a raw honesty lyrically whilst simultaneously showcasing a wide range of musical and cultural influence. Aux further explains that their name came from the idea that everything in life can be sold by the gram, be that from drugs to steak. The ‘n’ on the end was later added as a nod to Kendrick Lamar’s significant album Damn, released the year that the project took off.
It is this very combination of political awareness and a slightly dark, soulful sound that is explored in their debut EP MEDIUMN. Delving into all manner of social issues including racism, domestic abuse and mental health, one might be mistaken in predicting a tough listen. However, thanks to flawless production and deeply groovy beats, GRAMN allow the listener to wade in as deep as they wish.
GRAMN are often described as being a Hackney based collective. Would you say that growing up in this area has had an effect on you musically and personally?
I think being from the hood definitely has its advantages because you have a more critical perspective on life – you have to, because it’s survival. If you are poor that’s one thing, and then obviously I’m black so that’s a whole other thing. So, in a place like this, even though it’s hard financially, what you do find is you get a massive, concentrated dose of culture which if I’m honest, I wouldn’t have necessarily got because I come from a multicultural background. Both my parents are mixed race and they were both born here so I didn’t really get that dose of culture that I find a lot of black girls get from their Grandma from Jamaica or somewhere in Africa or the Caribbean. I didn’t have that so I think being around so many black girls at school definitely helped.
I come from a musical family and I actually couldn’t sing for a long time, I was really bad! Then I started smoking cigarettes when I was like twelve or thirteen – something stupid like that – and my voice broke, and all of a sudden, I could sing. I get my finesse and my critical brain from my Dad, and then my arty brain from my Mum. She does abstract, expressionist type art and, for lack of a better description, she’s very ‘Kate Bush’. She burns incense and would rather walk around bare foot if she could. My older siblings are musical as well so I just grew up around it. It felt natural.
How about this Covid/ lockdown period, have you noticed it affecting you musically at all?
No actually, but I have noticed a lot of lockdown vibey tunes, even Anderson .Paak did a tune about lockdown. We started writing our new project literally in the last two/three months. We started making the beats and the music over the lockdown period digitally and now we are starting to write and record songs. One of the songs is actually about lockdown, but more about how being locked inside means you can’t be distracted. I find that most people can’t live with themselves for whatever reason, which is insane for me because I don’t distract myself from things.
I’m a reflective person generally so I’m a reflective writer. It takes me a long time to process because I think instinctively I keep my emotions at the back. If they are at the front then I find that I have quite a fiery response, especially to negative things. I think it also means I write it better, because I have thought about it for longer. If I was commissioned to write a song I would still be able to do it but my preference in regards to creating my own art is that I write things that I have had time to reflect on. I prefer my music to have more than one layer to it which means I need time to think about it.
Are you missing performing in front of people?
Yeah, I love performing live! I feel like people get me much more and I’m like really awkward and inappropriate. I don’t even know how to explain it to you, but I’m literally the most uncomfortable person so it comes across like I’m cool but inside I’m shaking!
I get to show people I’m not just the grumpy face bitch on all of the press shots! I don’t smile in photos, I’m just not really here for it. So, when people see these pictures they think I’m gonna come out on stage and be too cool but instead I come out like, ‘I couldn’t find an outfit in time so I just brought this tracksuit, let’s do the set’, or I will just be random and wearing an entire outfit that’s made of mesh with like shorts and a T-Shirt underneath. My gigs are the gigs that you can come to on your own because I’m the more awkward person. There are going to be like 50 weirdos in there anyway because you have to be a bit weird to enjoy me, and that’s fine.
Tell me about the creative process for MEDIUMN – how did the idea for the EP come about and materialise?
MEDIUMN is basically the first set of music that we wrote. It’s so interesting now because we hear the new project and you can hear how we have developed our sound. You can hear that we are more confident and more aware of what we are doing now. I live in this ‘medium’ place, if you ask me how I am I’m usually like, ‘medium’. I’m not positive enough to say it was good and I’m not negative enough to say it was bad. So that’s where it came about.
How do you guys go about working together creatively in the studio?
We have an idea of the trajectory of the song and that’s usually a sonic thing. We usually have a beat and start with a little bit of melody line, then once the melody is there we fit words around it, and I think then we understand the shape of the song. Like some songs have a round sound and some songs peak. With Freak Out I find that people groove less to it than Write it Down, but Freak Out for me is much more hooky and catchy. Coaster Boy is the same, it just becomes rounder and nicer. It doesn’t really get bigger, it just gets richer and fuller. We just fill more sounds in the small space we have created.
There is a gorgeous breakdown in the middle of Freak Out where it sounds almost like a different song, where did that come from?
Because it’s about my bipolar we felt that we needed to categorise sections more definitively than we would on maybe a different song. As much as the song has a natural progression, I think that you need to feel that feeling when there’s tension and then you blow your top and you are finished being pissed off, you end up being like quiet and like, should I really have done that? Should I really have called you a skank bitch? I think that’s what that section in the song is about. When I come down from my mania that’s what I’m left with usually.
I think that the stigma makes it harder for you to express yourself because no-one wants to feel like they are crazy. I’m settled into it, if I’m crazy, I’m crazy – its fine!
Your bipolar diagnosis is obviously an important part of who you are, how would you say it has fed into your music?
It’s who I am, it’s what I’m made of. I write regardless, I write music regardless of whether I’m manic, depressed or in my normal state. I actually find it weird in my normal state because I feel like I’m always waiting for something to happen because the natural progression is that you go manic or you become depressive.
There are quite a few artists and actors in the industry that suffer with bipolar and it’s interesting to see how they function and what they talk about. I guess artists are generally quite self-indulgent, so I think that’s how it gets reflected in the music. There is always an element of self – I never write for anyone else I only write with the thought in my head that you should probably be able to understand what I’m saying. I don’t write for the purpose of anyone else, just for me.
Freak Out is basically my bipolar in one song. Just a back and forth and the whole rabbit hole of medication and drugs and stuff that comes with being manic depressive.
You tackle hefty social issues such as mental health frequently in your lyrics, do you feel a responsibility to use the platform you have to discuss these topics, especially with regard to race?
I think we all have to live in this world together and I wouldn’t feel comfortable creatively talking about things that I don’t feel and I think, that’s why Mini Milk happened. Mini Milk is about white fragility, privilege and guilt, the way it came together was very organic and I had a lot to say. My mum has always been proactive in acknowledging what we are culturally. I’m aware of where I come from and who I am and what that means, but I’m also aware that to anybody who doesn’t know me I just present as a black woman, and it’s irritating because I’m not really interested in what people are, I’m more interested in who people are.
Interestingly we actually wrote Mini Milk before the Black Lives movement. James is a political facilitator and he’s a leftie so he has the same opinions and views on things that I do and he recognises that he is more able to say it because he’s white. He’s aware of his privilege so I think it’s something we all talked about a lot and it comes up even in a jokey way.
Johnny and James are middle class, thirty plus white men so it’s quite funny because I’m like, ‘I wrote this with two white people, it’s not like I’m just here digging out white people’! I don’t have the privilege of being racist because I’m black, so it’s not really about me attacking anybody, it’s more me highlighting things that affect my day to day life and I guess that’s what art is. It’s our job to have a critical opinion on the world. And when it came to the movement I was not comfortable talking about anything else. I just felt that at this point as a black woman with the teeny tiny platform that I have being a brand new artist, I was just like I think it’s a lot easier to just say this is who I am now and sell myself as an artist that way.
You explore further heavy subject matters in Better Places, could you explore the context of the track a bit further?
Better Places is about domestic violence. I had a friend who just kept entering into the same patterns. It’s pretty dark. She’s actually now in a really good place but we always get a bit worried about her because it was the same guy for a number of years.
I guess it’s for all women who have ever suffered and also for all women to know that they shouldn’t have to. I think that we could all sit here comfortably prior to being abused and say ‘I would never let that happen to me’ but this girl that I’m talking about specifically is one of the most ballsy, rambunctious people I have ever met and she turned into a ghost of herself. I think it is important for all women to highlight because if it is a problem that affects us, as with racism or homophobia, everyone should be addressing it and pro-actively against it.
Do you address masculinity from a different perspective elsewhere in the album?
Yeah, Howl is about toxic masculinity and how it doesn’t really work for the majority of men. Like, it’s not fair that they should feel that they have to be breadwinners but also emotionally vulnerable and also this and also that. We kind of expect them to do all the things and then some and we women have our ‘and then some’ as well but Howl is obviously about the lads.
What’s next for GRAMN then?
We have stuff to release before the end of the year, we’ve got stuff ready to go… I won’t give you the date because it won’t be exciting but we have got more stuff coming within the month!
Gramn.’s new single ‘Kitchen’ is out today – listen below at Wax. Their debut EP ‘Mediumn’. is out now via Marginalia.
Words by Hermione Kellow Photos by Max Dillon