Photos by Phil Sharp.
There are two things you need to know about Girlhood: they make excellent, genre-resistant, intricately textured pop, and they have a really good ‘how we met’ story. If we were Hollywood types, we’d call it a meet cute – but we’re not so we’ll just call the way Christian Pinchbeck and Tessa Cavanna’s paths crossed ‘amazing’ and bagsy the film rights. “We met on a canal,” producer and writer Christian explains. “I used to live on a canal boat and I’d spend a lot of time just sat on my roof. She walked past singing and – I was a little bit drunk – I was like ‘Hey! Do you like music?'”
Without even exchanging names the two hopped aboard and got to work, Tessa ad libbing over tracks Christian had “lying around” following the demise of his previous band (the doom-poppy Elephant). This is an amazing story considering every other band in London met through friends or went to school together like all the insufferable couples you know. “It was a risky thing to do,” Tessa concedes. “But he seemed fine. I was like, ok, worst comes to worst I’ll fight him to the death and I’ll win.”
We decide that Simon Pegg would beat Eddie Redmayne and Rupert Grint to the role of Christian, while Tessa insists that her role goes to veteran broadcaster Barbara Walters – “Bawbwa Wawwawwaa” – the pairing of which Christian declares to be “the weirdest mix of people ever”. But it’s kind of appropriate; I’m not sure you’d ever put Christian and Tessa together on paper either. Their musical tastes are radically different, for example. Tessa favours neo-soul and RnB over Christian’s glitchy, heavy guitar music. His last project was a dream-poppy Beach House homage worlds away from the “hip hop and stuff” Tessa performs with south London collective Inner Peace. Even in their demeanours they’re a bit of an odd couple; Christian’s guarded nature falling away when you get him on a topic he’s excited about, Tessa’s hearty laugh following her frequent impressions and snapshot fragmentary sentences. But it works; the two clicked straight away. “I’d never had the chance to work on the kind of music that Christian makes,” Tessa explains. “It was amazing to meet someone who just – ” here, Christian snaps his fingers. “I was like, ‘That’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to do’.”
Turns out what Christian has always wanted to do is make chill summer house with gorgeously warm vocals over the top, chopped and sliced together, layer over layer. Often songs begin as a single sample from an old song that he’ll futz with and build on until the original sample disappears from the song it birthed, then Tessa will lay some vocals over the top. Even these early tracks that started life on an iPad (you don’t get much power on a longboat) sound gleaming, polished, but actually Girlhood prefer to leave the imperfections in, favouring early takes over technically perfect but tired-sounding later ones. “We only really do one take for each instrument and often if I fuck it up I’ll just leave it in,” Chris confesses. “We like the nuances. We like to be a bit more real.” And it works for Tess too: “Yeah, when it’s off the cuff it sounds different; we’re trying to make a sound but we don’t want to limit it.”
There’s only really one sample in the songs the duo have released so far – the outrageously summery Together, which is bookended by a cut of a kid chanting. “I love kids’ chants,” Christian says. “I don’t know why, I’ve got a real thing about them.” So when he stumbled across this one on a royalty-free sample site, he knew he had to use it. “We had no way of contacting this person or anything: it’s literally just someone’s kid.” He was also amazed to discover the true meaning behind Tess’s lyrics on the funkily romantic ‘My Boy’. Having thought the song was a poignant ode to falling in love he asked who it was about: “She told me it was about her pretending to be Charles Manson’s wife.” “No, not wife!” Tessa shouts, as though that were the most outrageous part of the story. “You know those people who fall in love with people on death row? I was channelling one of them, and I was picturing Charles Manson because he was just a funny looking guy.”
The story behind ‘My Boy’ dovetails with the reasoning behind calling a boy-girl duo ‘Girlhood’. They see it as much as a concept as a band name. “Really it was just about making music with a little bit more of a female gaze – for me anyway,” Tess says, even if that female is a woman falling in love with a mass murderer. “You’ve got so much of the male gaze in music, but I wanted to have something a little bit different. Not necessarily like” – and here she breaks into vocally fried uptalk – “‘It’s only for women, made for women, by women’. We can all join in on this ‘other’ perspective. Girlhood just seemed right.”
Although sampling and iPads have played a big role to date, Girlhood are keen to stress that nothing you’re hearing is fake. “None of it is synthesised,” Chris says. “It’s all organic instruments.” These organic instruments won’t be coming out on tour with them, though – their first live dates are coming up later this year and they’re keen to put on a show. Instead of instruments they’re planning to feature props. “Lots of props,” Tessa says firmly. “We’ll win everyone over with props.” They cite Coco Rosie’s avant garde approach and Flume’s basic stage setup as the kind of thing they’re thinking but really, no one knows yet what a Girlhood show will look like other than that it will be a lot of fun. “To be honest, we just can’t wait for people to hear us,” Christian says. “I think we’ll know that we’ve definitely got somewhere when we get to do the live shows,” Tess agrees. “It’s hard to know you’re going anywhere when you’re stuck in the studio. Whenever Chris shows me the Girlhood page on Spotify I just don’t believe it – I’m like, that’s a nice picture that you’ve fabricated, well done. To do them live is going to be so big, I’m really excited.”
This is how Girlhood’s film ends: with cheering crowds and dancing feet, confetti canons and a unicorn grazing in the green room. Simon Pegg and Barbara Walters high five as the credits roll up the screen before the words “To be continued” come into view. The story has only just begun.