PinkPantheress no longer cares what people think of her. When she released her lo-fi breakout tracks Break it Off and Pain on TikTok in early 2021, aged just 19, she did so anonymously, partly out of fear of being judged. Now, almost three years later, the 22-year-old is at the other end of the spectrum. “Opinions? How people perceive me? I just don’t care any more.”
Approaching the stress of fame with indifference may bring a sense of freedom for an artist, but the musician fears it may lead to complete apathy. She questions herself, “How did I go from being so invested to feeling nothing at all?” There are moments when she sits alone in her room and worries that she has lost the ability to care. While this may sound appealing to some, it can ultimately have negative effects. “I still need to care because I have an image to maintain. I’m working on finding a balance.”
We are currently at the office of her record label in east London, discussing her first album, Heaven Knows. She is dressed in a casual and understated outfit of jeans, a T-shirt, and grey boots. Her signature accessory is her handbag, which she often brings on stage with her. A TikTok user shared a video of her performing with the handbag, captioning it with: “When you have a concert at 8 but need to run errands at 9.” PinkPantheress describes her style as “young auntie”, but she is still in the early stages of developing her look. She admits that she doesn’t see herself as easily marketable and that she considers her fashion sense to be unconventional. She also mentions feeling shy.
PinkPantheress, who chooses to keep her real identity hidden, may come across as shy. She tends to avoid making direct eye contact and frequently checks her phone. She also occasionally yawns, but this is likely due to her busy schedule in anticipation of 2024 (so I don’t take it personally). However, when she speaks, her voice is confident and her delivery is dry and serious – a stark contrast to her light, sweet singing voice.
When it comes to music, PinkPantheress is very clear about her personal brand. After gaining popularity on TikTok in 2021 with multiple viral songs, her success has been swift: she was ranked first on the BBC’s Sound of 2022 list; her remix of Boy’s a Liar featuring New York rapper Ice Spice went platinum in February and reached No. 3 on the US charts; and her song Angel was featured on the Barbie soundtrack this summer. The release of Heaven Knows is a pivotal moment in her career, allowing her to showcase her talents beyond creating hit singles. “I want my music to push boundaries,” she explains.
The way she blends different genres reflects the current trend in pop music. Her songs are heavily influenced by drum’n’bass and 2-step garage, which initially caught the attention of listeners. However, her latest album, Heaven Knows, showcases a greater use of guitars, strings, and gothic keys. For example, “Nice to Meet You” includes a sample from Spandau Ballet’s “Gold,” while “Mosquito” has a bossa nova feel. According to her, the album’s theme revolves around love, loss, and life, aiming to evoke memories of loved ones and those who have been lost. She wanted the overall mood to be melancholic and is pleased that it will be released during winter and close to Halloween.
Melancholy is a prominent theme in PinkPantheress’s music. Her songs are filled with sorrowful synths and lyrics that express feelings of despair and sadness. In 2021, she released a mixtape titled “To Hell With It” which included the song “Nineteen” with the lyrics “Some days when I’m feeling down, I just drop myself to the ground / It’s not a problem if it hurts, because I can’t feel pain anymore.” The New Yorker described the mixtape as “a captivating mixture of dreams and nightmares.”
PinkPantheress was born in Bath in 2001 but grew up in Kent. Her mother is Kenyan and works as a caregiver, while her father is English and works as a statistics professor. Being one of the few Black students in her school was challenging, but she has always felt a strong connection to her African heritage. Despite being mixed-race, she has never let others’ opinions make her feel confused about her identity. She says she identifies more with her mother, possibly because she is a woman, and she has always been sure of who she is.
She relocated to London and joined the University of the Arts to pursue a degree in film. However, she eventually decided to leave the program. According to her, the pandemic rendered her studies pointless. She originally aspired to become a film editor, but upon realizing the highly competitive nature of the industry, she knew it would be a challenging path. If she couldn’t excel in this field, she didn’t want to pursue it. In fact, some of her classmates were much more skilled editors than her.
From a young age, she had a strong passion for music. Her parents exposed her to a variety of music genres, including Queen, Michael Jackson, and African music. She received piano lessons during her childhood and was greatly influenced by her brother, a sound engineer who created experimental music. She was first introduced to the music scene in Canterbury through her friends, who opened her eyes to a new world. They took her to shows in London and introduced her to music production programs. After finding her film degree unfulfilling, she rediscovered her love for music and began sharing her songs on TikTok. She recalls feeling a strong urge to pursue music and felt a sense of desperation to do so.
At the age of 17, she taught herself how to create beats using GarageBand and produced a majority of her early works. She admits that she initially struggled with producing from scratch and relied heavily on samples. One example is a sample from Linkin Park that she used in her music, as she wanted to create a synergy between her own sound and theirs for her audience.
Her musical style encompasses elements from her upbringing. She draws inspiration from various genres such as K-pop, emo, and rap. Combining these influences, she creates a unique sound that she describes as an amalgamation of her favorite components from each genre. Some of her current favorite artists include Steve Lacy, Kaytranada (who co-produced her song “Do You Miss Me”), Kendrick Lamar, Baby Keem, Chloe Bailey, and Amaarae. Additionally, she credits Lily Allen’s distinct sound as a source of inspiration. One of her main goals as an artist is to develop a recognizable sound that sets her apart from others.
At the beginning of her TikTok career, she would hide her identity in videos by covering her face and adding text like “Day 2 of posting my song until someone notices.” While she desired recognition, she also didn’t want people she knew to find out about her videos. She went as far as blocking her friends from viewing her TikTok page. Protecting her privacy is a priority for her, which is why she only revealed her face in TikTok videos during the summer of that year and still uses a fake name.
However, PinkPantheress quickly discovered a successful formula. Her ethereal vocals, combined with breakbeat loops, resonated with audiences and her music began to spread across the internet. Her track “Just for Me,” released on August 13, 2021, was featured in over 2.2 million videos on the app. It was praised by TikTok as the official “breakout song of the summer.” Central Cee sampled it in their song “Obsessed With You” and Coldplay covered it on BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge. “When my single “Pain” started gaining popularity on TikTok, a friend told me it sounded like me, but I denied it. I lied to her,” she chuckles. “But then I realized, why am I lying? She didn’t think it was a big deal. And honestly, no one did. Using music for TikTok wasn’t a big thing back then.”
Several prominent musicians, such as Lil Nas X and Olivia Rodrigo, have gained fame through TikTok. However, the app has faced backlash for promoting a lack of originality and prioritizing short, catchy songs.
However, PinkPantheress has no concerns about her beginnings. “I have never been bothered by the association with TikTok and my rise to fame. I have always known that I am more than just an app. From the beginning, I was determined not to be seen as a gimmick artist,” she explains. “It’s also exciting for a British artist to be making waves. It often seems like Americans are the ones having huge moments. It’s rare for it to be someone from the UK.”
It is rare for someone to achieve success overnight, especially without any support from a label, and even more so for a Black woman. In the UK, there is a reputation of not supporting Black female singers, as stated by Laura Mvula: “There is a belief that Black women cannot sell records.” Initially, many assumed PinkPantheress was white based on her music, but her success after revealing her identity proved that Black women can also be highly sought after.
During our conversation about the music industry, PinkPantheress remarks that she believes it hasn’t been successful for a long time. Her sudden success was not a coincidence, but rather a result of carefully observing American artists like Lil Nas X and Doja Cat, who utilized internet fame to build enduring careers in music. Not one for lengthy processes, PinkPantheress was on the lookout for a faster way to achieve her goals. Her distinct British sound allowed her to stand out among the noise, and coincidentally, she entered the scene at a time when UK rap and drill were dominating social media, indicating a growing interest in British music.
Nevertheless, she continues to have a sense of needing to demonstrate herself. “With each new accomplishment, I have this urge to show that I am a dedicated artist,” she explains. “Even with the success of ‘Boy’s a Liar,’ I feel the need to prove my ability as a songwriter.”
In November 2022, Boy’s a Liar, a lively dance-pop song infused with chiptune elements and a Jersey club-style beat, was initially unveiled. However, when a remix featuring Ice Spice was added, the song reached even greater success and became the most-streamed track for both artists. PinkPanthress shares, “I never imagined it would become my most popular song. I knew it would do well on the internet, but I never expected it to gain radio attention.”
What are her thoughts on Boy’s a Liar and the remix? “I don’t like them,” she says without hesitation. “Ironically, the songs that I don’t consider my best end up being more popular.” Her favorite track is “I Must Apologise” from the mixtape “To Hell With It”. She has already determined which songs from her new album will be successful and which ones won’t. I mention that I enjoyed the mellow R&B vibe of “Internet Baby”, but she dismisses it as “crap” as well. However, she does have a soft spot for her song “Angel” from the Barbie movie. “It was such a fun experience. I was thrilled to be asked and I loved meeting the director. I even got to meet Mark Ronson and visit the set.”
PinkPantheress is part of a new generation of artists who possess a strong understanding of algorithms, the concept of virality, and the influence of streaming. However, her success is not solely based on numbers. While she may have quickly risen from a mysterious, almost mythical figure to achieving 23 million monthly listens on Spotify, it is all rooted in her genuine passion for music and her determination to be a trailblazer. Her upcoming album may surprise listeners with its change in tone, but it serves as a testament to PinkPantheress’s commitment to following her own path. “I feel like the music industry these days is so…,” she expresses with a roll of her eyes and a retching gesture. “When I release new songs, I always strive to challenge people’s expectations of me as an artist and also to break away from the current trends in music.”
The song Heaven Knows is now available.