- Words Isabelle Cassidy
- Photography Jasper Cable-Alexander
We caught up with Gretel Hänlyn to discuss her new music, a Glastonbury career goal, collaborating with Mura Masa and how cats really have it easy.
Get in the car, start the engine, roll down the windows and turn the volume up to full. You’ve just created the perfect conditions listen to Gretel Hänlyn. That, or looking out a bus window dreamily, channeling all of the 20-year-old singer-songwriter’s intense emotions rippling throughout last year’s debut album.
Picking up a guitar and exploring songwriting from the age of 11, Gretel might still be young, but has spent years honing her craft. The artist was initially platformed by South London charity The Basement Door, before being encouraged by her mum to pursue music full time. Full of punchy guitar hooks and deep ethereal vocals, Gretel’s current sound is as intriguing as it is charming: balancing angst and lyrical honesty in a perfect recipe for relatability.
The selection of Gretel’s moniker (real name Maddy Haenlein) is shrouded in the fantasy exuded in tracks like “Today (I can’t help but cry) – a dreamy reimagining of a relationship gone wrong. It derives from a great aunt, and Maddy’s doppelganger, who grew up on a vineyard in Germany, another nod to the sense of Gretel as a possessing a soul older than her years.
She recently kicked off the year with new single “Wiggy” from her upcoming album ‘Head of the Love Club’. Another project proving the artist’s ferocious storytelling ability, her commitment to finding beauty in the difficult or grotesque makes it well worth a listen. We caught up with Gretel to discuss her new music, a Glastonbury career goal, collaborating with Mura Masa and how cats really have it easy.
Hey Gretel! Your new single “Wiggy” has been out in the world for a few days – how are you feeling about the release? And can you tell me a bit about the track?
Has your new music been a long time in the making? What was the creative process like?
For me, I write in spells and my dry spells can last for months so I never know when a surge of songs is incoming. I wrote the demos for my upcoming EP over the span of about five months, but didn’t commit them to a body of work until I collated all the demos together and saw a lot of running themes in many of my best demos.
Then the EP came together in just under a week when I went away to Hastings with the producers Mura Masa, Jadu Heart and Lloyd Wayne. It’s funny, I hadn’t much faith in many of the demos until I showed them to the boys, and they were like ‘how fucking long have you been silently sitting on these songs?’.
Your EP, ‘Slugeye’ dropped last May, how do you reflect on its reception? I know you’ve had a few releases since then – do they feel like a continuation of the project or something new?
I like to think my new work is an evolution of the project. I think I’ve really found myself musically with my new EP, ‘Head of the Love Club’, which is coming this March. With ‘Slugeye’ I was trying some things out that I maybe wouldn’t do now, but those songs still hold a place in my heart. I had a very clear vision going into this EP of what I needed ‘Gretel’ to be.
To me, I’m filling the gaps I want to be filled in my playlists. I’m doing something that would speak to me as a listener. That to me is being an honest writer, even when the honesty gets humiliating, because that’s when it speaks to people. And also, being willing to show myself up a bit as a person. I knew I needed to be willing to put people off in order to be honest and therefore really hit home for other people, including myself.
“Today (can’t help but cry)” is one of them, and such a good shout-along anthem – what was the inspiration behind the track? I know you’ve spoken about it helping you work through some emotions in the process?
Yeah, “Today” is such a complicated song. I know I’ve said I’m trying to be honest on this EP, but this was the exception as it’s about what could have happened, rather than what actually happened. I had strong feelings towards someone that I found out weren’t shared after a period of time and this song was me lamenting the fantasy I’d had. It’s the story of a future I’d imagined to be true but sadly wasn’t. So it’s the most idealised love song ever, and in that sense it’s beautiful, but there’s a tragic edge to it which allows me to really shout it out when I’m playing it live.
It overwhelms me every time I hear it to be honest. In fact, the song made me feel so much emotion when I finally finished it that it forced me to confront what I was feeling and finally move on. That’s why I chose it to be the final song on the EP. I wrote a lot of the EP about this person, and how they made me feel in myself, so ending it with the song that made me move on was a perfect resolution. And “Today” itself ends with sounds I can only describe as ascending and moving on after a long time of circling the drain and being stuck in a never-ending episode of obsession.
Did you always know you wanted to do music? Do you a remember a moment where it became a career that seemed a viable reality?
I’ve always loved playing and writing music, and always dreamed about making it my job. I’ve been playing guitar and writing songs since I was 11, so at 20 I feel like I’ve put enough hours in to not be a total fraud. ‘Succeeding’ in music wasn’t something I ever thought would happen, the chances are slim and I know how competitive it is, but when I met my manager I saw a clearer route to getting my songs out and playing shows. That must have been when I believed it might be possible for me.
It sounds like you come from a creative family. As the daughter of a carpenter and an artist, do you think that’s helped you be able to harness own forms of creative expression?
Definitely. My mum has always been really on hand with me and my brother. She was very devoted and always steered us to be creative without forcing us to do things. I think she was trying to give us the attention and company we lacked elsewhere. Instead of sitting us in front of the TV, she’d get us to sew or paint or just something using our right brain. I think that upbringing taught me patience with my craft, and also taught me to think outside the box – logic can’t explain everything.
I also remember when my mum first said to me ‘quit the day job, Maddy’. It didn’t actually mean much at the time, but I think her pushing me to do the thing that brought me catharsis, rather than the route that would provide stability, was an important moment. Having people believe in you is such a strength and privilege.
You had a pretty big festival season last summer, were there any highlights?
I always enjoy the shows, there’s only ever been one show I didn’t like and that’s because I was feeling very…fragile on the day. Going into Europe (London Calling in Amsterdam and MS Dockville in Hamburg) was such a highlight. Me and the band/team get on so well, so we always have such a laugh, and going abroad together is a pleasure. We’re like a big family of sleep deprived losers. I have to say though my favourite shows was Pitchfork London and Dot To Dot Nottingham in Rough Trade. I can’t say why, but I really felt something in those shows. Sometimes you just feel close and connected to the crowd and I really felt that, especially in Nottingham.
Do you have a career goal or bucket-list moment where you’d turn round and think, ‘yeah, I’ve made it’? Maybe a venue you’d love to play?
Oh boy, yes I do. I want to play the Other Stage at Glastonbury. It’s ambitious, I know, but if I keep challenging myself and being dedicated to my project, I think I could get actually there. If that happens, that’ll be the moment where I really pinch myself, especially if it’s headlining that stage. I’d probably be too busy crying from overwhelming happiness and pride to actually sing any songs.
You’ve lent your vocals to some massive tracks, Mura Masa for example has been a long-time collaborator of yours. How does the process differ when you’re working on someone else’s creative vision? Do you enjoy the collaborative process?
There are so many variables when collaborating, there’s no set way of how any collaboration is going to work, because ultimately you’re serving the piece of music and the project, not yourself. When Mura showed me “2gether”, a song he wrote by himself, I knew that this was a song where he was calling to his lost love. For me to go in and try to change things would have been like sending a love letter to the protagonist of the song and sign it from both of us, that’s just weird. No, this was his and hers. I was just someone that could do the song justice and could understand the feeling and perspective of what he’d written. As for collaboration in my own project, I like to write my songs but to be in the room with a producer who can record it as I go, because I like to base my lyrics off what the production of my parts sound like.
What era is 2023 ushering in for you? What are your hopes for the year ahead?
Well, I got the bug for gigging when I was touring last year and I feel I know what I’m doing as a musician now, so this year I’d like to do as many headlines and festivals as possible, whilst also writing a debut album. I also do hope that I get something from my new EP. I adore each of these songs individually and even more as one body. I’m so proud of it, so the main job is done, but I’m not one of those people who says they don’t care if people like it or not. I want it to resonate with people and I want people to listen. If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound? I’ve had my catharsis from it already, so now I just want other people to have the same and recognise the emotion and perspective in it.