Griff, very good popstar, meets Lyor Cohen, boss of YouTube

The Rising Star 2021 winner sits down with the Global Head of Music at YouTube, a key partner of this year’s BRIT Awards. Up for discussion: songwriting, Central Cee, and championing new talent.

It’s late morning in Manhattan’s Jungle City Studios.

Last night Griff played the first night of her first US tour at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. It was, says the 21-year-old from Hertfordshire, wild. But it’s just quite surreal to be here,” adds a woman whose 2021 touring plans were mostly kiboshed. Last night, though, the thrill was real, on and offstage. It felt like everyone was really living it and wanted to be there, which is wicked.”

She’s got a twofer,” chips in the man sitting beside her. By which Lyor Cohen, YouTube’s Global Head of Music, means: One, that she’s really, really good. And two, people are really desperate to engage and be a part of something. So well done to whoever came up with the timing [of the tour], because the timing is brilliant.”

For Griff, that timing couldn’t come a minute too soon. Last May she picked up the Rising Star honour at the (delayed) BRIT Awards 2021. But the momentum generated by taking home a prize, previously won by FACE cover star Adele, was severely compromised by last year’s restrictions on live music.

So, like many artists, Griff got out her music and her message via other means. In that regard, YouTube was a crucial tool, with the platform promoting her as one of their Artists on the Rise.

Now, as the BRITs 2022 roll around – at which she’s nominated in the Best New Pop and Best Pop/R&B categories – Griff is sitting down for an exclusive joint interview with Cohen.

He’s a veteran American music industry executive, with legendary status on account of his early work managing the first wave of hip-hop royalty: Public Enemy, Run-DMC, LL Cool J and Beastie Boys. Today, the 62-year-old is here in his capacity as boss of the video platform whose new YouTube Shorts video-making and video-sharing tool sponsors the BRITs 2022 Artist of the Year Award.

Lyor, why are we here today?

We’re here to celebrate the BRIT Awards, and the fact that the BRITs is probably going to be the biggest awards show to celebrate music [since the onset of the pandemic]. And I think it’s really important to celebrate music, especially during these times when people are so polarised. Music reminds us that we have way more in common than what separates us.

Culturally, music is huge in the UK. That’s why we wanted to do the BRITs, so we could broadcast that around the world. So you can watch the Brits on YouTube, whether you’re in Lagos or Los Angeles.

Griff, how important for you was winning the Rising Star at the BRITs last year?

I genuinely didn’t see it coming. Last year was a whirlwind – I don’t think anyone envisions their career to start moving in a global pandemic. We were trying to keep up with what the demand is right now – as a pop artist, and with streaming, you’ve got to release things every six weeks. You’re always online. Always on content.

So by that point, there was quite a little fatigue and creative exhaustion. Then when I found out I’d won the Rising Star, it was like, whoa – the work has really paid off. And suddenly everything really accelerated. So it was really exciting.

Back in the day, Lyor, with the rap artists you worked with, how important were awards and award ceremonies?

Unfortunately, I feel the same way as Chuck D did [on 1988 track Terminator X To The Edge of Panic]: who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy? I sat there at the Grammys [one year] with Run-DMC, having lost five awards to random people. And at that moment, I decided not to be a big fan of the Grammys. It feels way more business… more Hollywood. The BRITs feel way more music. I think it’s much more musically meaningful to win a BRIT than a Grammy.

What are your memories, Griff, of watching the show when you were younger?

The first memory that came to my head, I was at school, trying to write essays after school. And I put it on iPlayer just in the background. Every year there were performances that were inspiring. The Adele Someone Like You performance [in 2011] was a huge moment.

Lyor, away from their involvement with the BRITs, what are YouTube doing to champion new talent?

Championing new talent is the drug that we love. Working with artists early on is the most gratifying moment in our work experience. So we have dedicated an incredible amount of resources, and ideas like Artist on the Rise. We enjoy introducing really talented people to their audience. We think it’s hugely valuable… and we’d like to think that we have great taste, and a great platform for artists to find their audience. That’s our joy.

Griff, aside from the actual functionality of YouTube as a viewing platform, what’s the importance of it to you and your music?

It’s always been super important to me, just being creative. I was self-taught on Logic and making beats – even sewing or whatever. I really love to make stuff, and YouTube has always been really important and helped inspire me. But in terms of reaching a fan base, it’s been instrumental, especially over lockdown. We couldn’t tangibly meet people. Suddenly I was trying to figure out new ways to connect to people out there. So I was just going for it, releasing anything I could. I started doing these Against The Clock” covers in an hour. I started a series explaining how I make beats. I was putting behind-the-scenes [stories] up. It was a tool for me to just keep telling different parts of my story and creativity.

Griff, you’ve come of age in an era when YouTube was never not there. Does that mean that, for you, visual creativity is as important as music-making creativity?

No, in the sense that music always has to come first. I’m a songwriter and a musician first. But I love making visuals, because it helps explain and tell the world around it… And I think it’s important for women in pop as well. When it’s so saturated and there’s so much out there, I found it really empowering to create content and videos to hopefully put myself in my own lane, and not try and associate with all the rest of the noise.

We’ve seen you writing and recording Head on Fire, your current collab with Sigrid. Can you talk us through filming the video (even though this BTS film does a pretty good job of that)?

We were building a bit of a friendship by getting in the studio together. This song came out on a day where we weren’t even trying to write a song, really. And [with] the video process, Sigrid’s such a strong performer and I really love performing. So we wanted that to be the focus, and to have a good time – and, again, show female pop chemistry. Because I think that’s important. It can feel really competitive sometimes, and I think it’s a powerful statement to see two, really strong young girls in a video together, supporting each other, having a really good time, and just not taking it all too [seriously] as well.

Lyor, YouTube previously heavily supported and promoted Dua Lipa. Is it important that the company foregrounds and highlights female artists, not just as performers but as songwriters and producers – and make sure that viewers understand that these are artists who do everything?

It’s just accurate. And it’s not just external, it’s also internal. We have a dynamic group of women that make this company so much better.

You mentioned earlier, Griff, the accelerated demands and expectations that social media in particular puts on artists. How pressurising is that? And is it healthy that you feel the need to deliver stuff all the time?

It’s extremely pressurising and it’s definitely not healthy! But it feels like there’s no way out of that. Especially in the pandemic, it was either sink or swim. You [have to] go headfirst in and take it on. And that’s what the job is – you have to stretch your capacity as an artist. Or you don’t do it.

So, yeah, it’s a lot. Every single day now my job is to be as much of an influencer as it is to be a songwriter, as it is to do all these other things. And it’s confusing, I find it hard. I’ve just had to try and find my own relationship with it… and try and just find a way where I’m being myself through it all. So it doesn’t feel like I’m on a hamster wheel where I can’t keep up.

You’re working on your debut album right now. How has that impacted on your songwriting?

My songwriting has definitely struggled, because you’re balancing these things. You can’t creatively just flick a switch and write something that feels truthful and incredibly inspiring and new, when you’re also thinking: I’ve got to Instagram this”, I’ve got to post tonight”, I have to find the right time, the right engagement”. We’re in a strange time.

You’ll have heard about the dispute between Damon Albarn and Taylor Swift, which arose after Albarn, in an interview with the LA Times, sought to diminish Swift’s songwriting by falsely inferring she was only a co-writer. Griff, that seemed to speak of an ongoing misogynistic supposition that, of course, you couldn’t write your songs on your own because you’re a woman. How prevalent is that perception in your experience?

It’s still there, clearly! Yeah, it’s there, it’s real. Female talent is still looked at as a product. So there’s so much more doubt that we could possibly be involved in the back-end of creative. And it’s frustrating. But that’s something that I’ve just tried to shut away. When I started, I’d go into these label meetings and everyone would be like: Oh my God, she produced this!”

So I’ve tried to not overthink it. But [I’ve also] tried to be very protective over that, because it’s easy for everyone to go: Right, pressure’s on now, we need you to get in with a hitmaker…” Suddenly I’m not capable of writing the songs that feel most like me. So I’m trying to now be really intentional about protecting my work and not letting loads of people come in, just because the pressure is on and we need a hit song. Actually I am a producer and I am a songwriter, and the same talent that you signed, so I can still do this. So, yeah, it’s frustrating!

I want to ask you both about another platform: TikTok. With its exponential rise in importance, for artist discovery and song promotion, what’s been its impact, firstly, Lyor, on YouTube?

We’re developing a product called Shorts. It’s still iterating and getting better and better every day. But the reason I’m so focused on Shorts is because I don’t want music to be a soundbite. I want short-form video to be an appetiser for a premium music video, or storytelling… I want powerful storytelling, and I don’t think you could do it inside of 30 seconds. So I want it to be combined [and show] that there’s a reason for short form video – but it should ladder up to a more profound opportunity to storytell. So it’s a combination of Shorts and YouTube that make powerful tools for artists to use.

Griff, anecdotally we hear that the architecture of songs is changing – writers need to get to the hook that much quicker so the song works more effectively on TikTok. Has that impacted on you as you work on your debut studio album?

I’m not thinking about writing anything to TikTok [requirements]. I think that’s really scary. It’s definitely affected me. It’s hard to keep up, and it’s worrying to me that labels are only signing TikTok kids. It’s worrying to think that’s what people are digesting. I personally don’t feel connected to the stuff emotionally that’s breaking out of TikTok at the moment.

But you’ve got to go with it, and it’s obviously part of culture right now. And it’s fun and I use it as a recreational tool. But as far as letting it influence the way I create, I don’t think that would be positive or healthy. The best thing I can do as a songwriter is to just focus on my stories and not think about all the other external noise.

But writing, again, is something that you’ve got to fight for as an artist. I don’t spend most of my time now writing, which is really a weird thing. Because I didn’t think I’d become a musician and my job would be something else! So, yeah, this year I need to get intentional about writing this album and making it fucking incredible.

Apart from Griff, which other young British artists do you like, Lyor?

Central Cee. I love his melodies, but just also the whole thing. I really enjoy his music, and I had a chance to meet him as well. I like him a lot. Could he make it in the States? It all depends if he’s willing to humble himself to travel, and if he’s curious enough to invest in building audiences outside of the UK. But he’s talented enough.

Griff, how does YouTube fit into your ambition for your music?

It’s another platform where I can share my story. I’m also aware that when we talk about the household names from the UK, it’s Adele, it’s Harry, it’s Bowie, it’s Sam Smith, it’s Ed. But we haven’t quite yet seen anyone of colour break internationally, and sell out shows and arenas all over the world. So that’s the goal. And to have the support of YouTube is integral.

The international livestream of this year’s BRITs will be hosted exclusively on YouTube, with the ceremony set to start from 8pm on 8th February (tonight!). You can follow #BRITsUnseen on YouTube Shorts for exclusive behind-the-scenes access to this year’s show.

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