Before Griff’s debut album had a name - or its first single, even - it had a feeling: Vertigo. That pit-of-your-stomach, up-is-down sense that the world is spinning faster than you can keep up with, and your own place in it has never felt less secure. In hindsight, Griff is an artist for whom the road regularly travelled was perhaps never an option - from her unorthodox, small-town Chinese-Jamaican upbringing to breaking through whilst trapped in her bedroom during a global pandemic. Yet being different has long been Griff’s superpower, and on her stunning new record you sense a young woman taking charge of that power.
Vertigo, then, is a debut album with a difference: here is a dynamic, three-volume story that sees the 22-year-old multi-hyphenate misfit build her first full project in real-time, and in her own unmistakable way. A coming-of-age album shaped for complex times, Vertigo scales new creative heights for Griff without compromising the hand-stitched, home-made magic that marks her out as British Pop’s most modern, exciting voice. As the chapters of music culminating in the album move through melancholy and heartache into healing and joy, Griff takes the listener - and herself - on a journey of self-discovery: from the disorientation of young adulthood to losing the fearlessness of youth, and gaining the wisdom that maybe only a little bit of collateral Vertigo can bring. “You’re scared of love? Well aren’t we all.”
Griff’s debut album started life in the summer of 2022. The performer, producer, designer and all-round prodigy had just spent a whirlwind of months on the road opening for Dua Lipa, playing her anthemic early material to thousands a night. For the first time, she wasn’t able to regularly retreat to the solace of songwriting as she’d first done as an 11-year-old Sarah Griffiths looking for her place in the bucolic village of Kings Langley. “It was the longest period I’d gone without writing, and that was strange for me. Writing has always been my natural go-to – up to that point, I’d probably written a song every day for as long as I can remember.” On the road, and grappling with public attention, she felt more like “a fish out of water.”
From the outside, Griff looked to be on a singular, rapid ascent. Since seemingly appearing from nowhere with her 2019 EP Mirror Talk – released while she was still in school, but already boasting a signature bubbly ponytail – she’d racked up incredible acclaim. 2021 mixtape One Foot In Front Of The Other charted in the top 5 (a first for any woman artist), spurred on by the hit single ‘Black Hole.’ She’d won the BRITs’ Rising Star award, an Ivor Novello Award nomination, a BBC Sound of 2021 shortlisting and been picked out by Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, MTV Push and others as one to watch. Surfacing from the quiet of lockdown, Griff emerged with more than 600 million global streams as a fully-formed pop act with an endless arsenal of propulsive, evocative earworms – or so it seemed.
Really, since early 2021, she’d felt the creep of a new kind of insecurity that Griff explores on the album’s first volume, vert1go vol.1 - an atmospheric, cinematic and intimate portrayal of how to hide yourself in plain sight. “Looking back, my exposure ramped up from zero to 100 even though I hadn’t really seen people for two years. I was going from my bedroom to performing my first real show at the BRITs.” After that awards show performance, where she famously met her hero Taylor Swift backstage, “things started to creep in. Comparison; social media; feeling conscious that I had to deliver this time around. That meant I’d lost a real childlike confidence in myself.”
Released from lockdown, Griff seized the opportunity to finally see the world, touring with some of today’s biggest artists (Dua Lipa, Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, Florence + the Machine). Along the way, however, she needed to reconfigure her creative centre, and move the songs from her touring suitcase into a new home. And so Griff left the bustling family household for a stay at Imogen’s Heap Hideaway recording studio, tucked in a green conservation area where the edges of London and Essex meet. Its sprawling spiral staircase subconsciously connected with Griff, and despite the 100 odd songs already sitting in her Dropbox folder, she wrote a new one built around a single, insistent chord and the lingering sensation she’d been carrying in her chest. “Vertigo is a roller-coaster of a song which always feels like it’s building, with this sense of tension and anxiety. It crescendos at this massive bridge, and then everything is released. I spent days sitting by the piano in the countryside, fleshing that out. The title resonated on a level because in hindsight, I did feel completely upside-down. A lot of these songs are written from that headspace, and ‘Vertigo’ gave me the thread to draw the album together.”
Whilst she may always have presented as a confident, fearless performer, vert1go vol.1 finds Griff at a new, even surprising place in her life: missing the naivety of adolescence, yet turning any young woman’s generational identity-crisis into a crystallising of confidence. ‘Into The Walls’, for instance, “is essentially about wanting to disappear,” having been written just before the BRITs. “It felt like the most honest sense of not being sure I could handle all of the exposure, but knowing I could disappear into myself.” ‘19th Hour’, meanwhile, depicts the challenges of communication, “when sorry starts to lose its meaning” over a taut, alt-pop guitar that feels suited to the stadiums in which Griff, paradoxically, has cut her teeth as a live performer. As an album, Vertigo hinges on knowing yourself first as a way to grow, and its first volume rawly captures that learning process in real-time.
If ‘Vertigo’ built Griff a home for her album, she has since set to work on each room: weaving songs that already resonated with her narrative arc in with new material, which sports the kind of euphoria and ecstasy only possible after the excavation of deep inner thoughts. ‘Miss Me Too’ sets Griff’s yearning, gospel voice against a banger about finding your way back to yourself, with the album ultimately realising how so often the answers to life’s tough questions come from within. For Griff, coming-of-age is less of a straight line than it is a curve: today, she sees a younger version of herself in the woman she’s becoming. That tenacious, no-nonsense talent always wise beyond her years also sounds - crucially - like she is living: free of expectation, and moving through a world in which there is no one way to make an album or to be yourself. “As I’ve been finishing the record, when I’ve heard these songs so many times I’ve lost track of them, I draw it back to one perspective: 15-year-old Sarah. If she was on the bus, headphones on, on her way to school, would she love this?” She only hopes the songs make people feel something. “In the same way that my favourite pop albums have made me feel things, since I was a kid.” A once-in-a-generation talent, Griff’s debut album will make you feel it all, too.