Born in Bradford, a city in West Yorkshire, England, Laura Groves released her debut album under the moniker Blue Roses fourteen years ago. Following the self-titled record, she formed a project called Nautic alongside the producer Bullion, who also provided additional production on two subsequent EPs, 2013’s Thinking About Thinking and 2015’s Committed Language. Honing her skills as a producer and multi-instrumentalist, she put out her next EP and first under her own name, A Private Road, in December 2020 via Bella Union. Last week, the London-based singer-songwriter returned with her a new LP, Radio Red, which is rooted in the intimacy of folk music while showcasing a fascination with the immersive layers, world-building, and large-scale shimmer of synthpop. Made mostly in solitude – with help from mix engineer TJ Allen and vocal contributions from Sampha – the album’s soundscapes are lush and dreamy yet bleak and labyrinthine, evoking the geography of West Yorkshire in ways that create an ineffable link between past and present, not too unlike the romantic push-and-pull that Groves’ lyrics often unfurl around. For such a hazily introspective album, it never puts itself at too much of a distance, pushing instead for a deeper kind of togetherness.
We caught up with Laura Groves for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about growing up in Shipley, the years leading up to Radio Red, collaborating with Sampha, and more.
What are some of the strongest memories that you associate with growing up in West Yorkshire, in terms of the landscape or images that have stuck with you?
I’ve thinking about this a lot, because I think this record is really rooted in that place. And I think to an extent a lot of what I do, I won’t even be consciously thinking about it, but it often does come back to that environment and the landscape. I grew up in this town called Shipley, which is kind of on the edge of this bigger city called Bradford, which is quite built. But it’s an interesting area, because Bradford’s built in this valley, and it’s surrounded by the moorland; quite expansive, open countryside, but it’s got a bit of a harshness to it. When you’re in the center of the city, you can see that in the distance. I used to go up onto the tops of the moors quite a lot, just to get out of town, but then you can see this big city all built up down there. I feel like growing up, I was always kind of looking off into the distance, the hills in the distance. They were always this presence, it was always there. I’ve always felt quite sensitive to all these stories that exist there. It’s just this contrast – there is a strangeness and a bit of a melancholy to the place, and I love it, it’s where I grew up. I feel like I’m often exploring that place in most creative things I’m doing, but it’s quite a complicated set of emotions and feelings.
In a press release, you talk about the radio tower on that hill you just mentioned, and there were two radio towers watching over the studio where you recorded the new album. Beyond the immediate symbolism of that in relation to the theme of communication on the album, did that feel evocative of the past in any way that was significant to you?
It’s funny because the radio tower was opposite the house that I grew up in – it was this long street straight out of the front door, and then in the distance a hill, and the tower on top. There’s bits of green, but houses are built up on the side of the hill, and the lights in people’s houses glowing at night, that kind of imagery has stuck in my head. But I didn’t even make the link between that tower and this album and these towers until I’d finished the album, and I think it was actually somebody that mentioned it online. They were like, “Oh, I wonder if she’s talking about the tower that’s in Shipley.” I think because it was such a familiar site – every day coming out of the front door I’d see it – it was such moment because I was like, “Oh, yes.” I think the feeling that that gives me when I think about it now is just having a view out onto something. In London, obviously it’s very built up and often you don’t get those kinds of views, but I think there’s something about having that here where I live as well that it’s become such a feature of where I’ve been working and living. I’ve ended up living on a big hill with a view out of London, so there’s definite links there, but I guess a lot of the time they’re subconscious. It’s just things that I seem to end up being drawn to somehow, and they work their way in.
How did your relationship with your hometown change when you moved to London? Did the strangeness that you’re describing look any different when you moved out?
When I first started making and releasing music, which is a really long time ago now, I still lived in Yorkshire, but I would come to London. There were certain aspects of that that were difficult, just moving between the two places. I think there was a big part of me that needed to move out of Yorkshire at the time I did. It’s been a long process of being away from that place to kind of understand a lot of the ways that growing up has affected me, and I probably needed some distance from it to understand it in a different way. But a lot of my family still lives there, so I do go up and visit every so often. I’ve been in London for a long time now, over ten years, which is still surprising. I can’t believe I’ve been here for that long. I do still feel the pull to go back and visit and see places.
How do you feel when you go back? Is it any different to how you remember it?
It’s just so familiar. The streets that I walk – I’ve always done a lot of walking around and exploring, and I feel like I know it so well. You know when you go back somewhere and you just the geography and your way around immediately? I do kind of just slip back into it.
I read that you were introduced to artists like Kate Bush and Fleetwood Mac through the records that your mom gave you. Did they also feel like an escape, something that took you out of this world and into another?
Yeah, definitely. I remember my mom giving me a small pile of her records that she had when she was a teenager, just playing them over and over again. It’s like a feeling of discovery, discovering another world. Especially artists like Kate Bush, that really opened my eyes as an artist in terms of an inspiration of somebody who, yeah, she writes songs, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a whole artistic world – video and photography and being in the studio and being the producer. That kind of blew my mind, because it really resonated with me. That way of working just really makes sense to me – you get the sense that it’s all the same thing, it’s all just this expression of this world that’s in her head, maybe, and there doesn’t need to be such separation between those things. Musicians who also record themselves, I’ve always been so interested in that from the start. That’s kind of how it all started, just by accident, discovering, “Oh, I can layer everything up, I can do all this in my house on the computer.” [laughs] That self-producing thing has been a big part of everything.
Even going back to to Blue Roses, there’s this excitement I hear in you layering all these sounds, which is part of what makes it so delightful. I’m curious how you look back on that record and the time it represented in your life.
I haven’t actually listened to that music for a really long time until very recently. It’s almost like making this one has allowed me to revisit it again and and listen back. In a lot of ways, making that was such a joyful time, because you’re just free of the constraints of “I should do it in this way” and there’s a bit of a naivety to it. We just did it without overthinking too much. It’s weird as well, because I actually recorded that album with my good friend Marco [Pasquariello] at his parents’ house, and that is near that radio tower. [laughs] It was a local thing, and I met him through making music. It was this very peaceful, free time, really. And then releasing it, it goes through this whole other journey. It has been difficult to go back and listen to it again because certain aspects of that time of life were difficult, and it just becomes so linked and connected. So it’s really amazing to be able to go back and listen to it again and be really at peace with it now. It’s the same as what we were saying about Bradford itself and the landscape and everything – there were a lot of contrasting emotions around it, but it feels really nice to treasure that time now.
You’ve released several EPs and collaborated with a number of different artists since then. When did you feel ready to take that leap and self-produce another full-length record?
I think one big one major element of that was I started playing keyboards and went on tour with Bat for Lashes. I was working on my own music, that was just always an ongoing thing, and I got this opportunity. I feel like that was a bit of a turning point, because even though it it took a lot of focus, learning someone else’s music, it gave me a lot of more confidence in myself, because it was challenging and it took me out of my world a little bit. I met some really amazing people, Natasha, and my friend TJ Allen, who was also in the band. He’s a studio engineer and he has his own studio in Bristol, and he offered me some time in his studio to work on my music. Suddenly I was taking all this stuff that I’ve been working on, hiding away a little bit and unsure of, into this new place with new ears. Tim was so encouraging and kind and generous, bringing his skills to it as well, and he went on to mix the whole record. I felt able to be vulnerable, because it is a vulnerable thing sometimes – it felt like such a hill to climb to even play any of it at one point. It made me realize how important that is, because otherwise you can wind up never finishing anything. Not having the confidence to say that for yourself, like, “Oh yeah, it’s done now.” I could have just been stuck in that forever.
Could you talk about your connection with Sampha and what it was like having him in the studio?
I’ve known Sampha for such a long time. He just came round to the studio, which is also my living room. [laughs] It was lovely, just making music together and having our voices side by side like that. We’ve sung together a little bit over the years since meeting. It just felt very natural, because we’ve known each so long. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, just singing with other people and the power that has – just voices together. Obviously, his music is inspiring, and his devotion and dedication to his music is inspiring to me. There’s so much to be said for making music together.
I find it fascinating that the album was made mostly in solitude, even though a lot of it revolves around communication. I love that contrast and the way you embody it musically and vocally. How did the dynamic shift by having Sampha’s voice come in?
It’s something I think about a lot – communication, loneliness, isolation, especially in the world that we live in where we’ve always got our phone and we have access to so many ways of talking to each other, but it can still feel very lonely. Even with the radio towers looking out, the red lights that are on them at night, just knowing that there is something out there and using the music to explore that and access it somehow. There’s so much that can keep us separated from accessing that. I’ve often felt like I have to do everything on my own – that sort of hyperindependence, like I have to look after myself. And it’s a little bit of an opening up of that and finding joy in that as well. I’ve been putting on this music night called Desire Paths, which is also the name of the radio show that I do on NTS. And we’ve just been improvising – at the root of it, it’s just purely improvised music. It’s just been so beautiful playing music together where it’s not necessarily through performance or a recorded product; it’s just being in the moment, and getting through that fear. Because it is scary the first time you do it, it’s not something I’d really done before. All feeling so together in the moment has been so eye-opening, and it’s made me think a lot about the power of playing music together. I want to do more of that for sure.
When you sing “for the love of trying” on the opening track, that one line seems to somehow encapsulate this constant reaching that stretches out across the record. Did it feel significant to you, writing that down?
It’s interesting that you pinpoint that line, because you could use that as the overarching attitude of the whole thing, really. So many times it’s been like, “Why am I doing this?” [laughs] I know I’m here to create things and make thing, and it’s just trying to get through those values, whatever they might be. I think everybody should be able to access creativity. “For the love of trying.” There’s so many things I could say about that. It does all come back down to love, at the end of the day. That’s what you can condense it all down to, and that’s what’s kept me going.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.