Let Rosa Walton make something immediately clear about her and her bandmate, Jenny Hollingworth: “We’re not dating.” “I love how you feel the need to specify that,” Jenny interjects. No, they’re closer than that — the 22- and 23-year-old synth-pop musicians are best friends who’ve been attached since they first bonded in school, over drawing, at age 4. (Usually, they’re mistaken for twins.) That kinship founded the tight collaboration across their first two albums as a two-person band named after a grammar gag. The duo from Norwich, England, couldn’t have arrived at a better time — just as an emotional streak hit synth-pop in the latter half of the 2010s (prompted by albums like Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion and Chairlift’s Moth), their ability to infuse mischief into songs without undercutting poignancy stood out. It also allowed for the Let’s Eat Grandma sound to remain distinctly recognizable even as they branched to outside producers like the late SOPHIE.
Their upcoming third album, Two Ribbons, though, is foreign territory: their first written separately, out of necessity. After releasing I’m All Ears in 2018, Hollingworth spent much of 2019 grieving her boyfriend of over a year, the musician Billy Clayton, who died from cancer that March; simultaneously, Walton was discovering her bisexuality and dating women. For the first time, both as a band and as friends, they had experiences to which the other couldn’t relate. The resulting album is the most intimate document of their friendship, songs that often sound like they’re sung for an audience of one.
Do you recall when music first entered the mix of your friendship?
RW: Quite a lot later on. We wrote joke songs when we were 10 for fun, and would make spy movies and attempt to make sweets and dye our clothes with beetroot. Things that kids do.
JH: It wasn’t really intended to become what it’s become. We were really quite atrocious at first. We’ve always had ideas, but have sometimes lacked in execution.
RW: I think that’s one of the things that makes our first album interesting, is the fact that a lot of it’s out of time and that doesn’t always have to be an issue. We’ve become slicker as a band. It’s important to retain that initial freedom and creativity that we had back when we weren’t trying to make an album. We were just writing for ourselves.
On the past two albums before this, what had writing together been like?
RW: We used to sit in a room together and literally one person would say a word, and then the other person would come up with an idea off of that word. Even in one line of lyric, it could be really collaborative.
JH: I feel like we would always present each other with ideas very early on and then develop them together. Bits would be done individually, but it would be things to bring to the table.
RW: And we’d jam. There can be some quite good accidental, interesting combinations of notes. You can’t do that by yourself.
Then at one point the two of you drifted apart —
JH: [Coughs.] Sorry, I’m not — [Both laugh.] No, I’m just choking on my feelings.
RW: We were still in each other’s company, but then we also weren’t getting on in other ways.
JH: It’s not like we stopped talking. Emotionally we were going through different things and struggling to process. We just couldn’t really get into the other person’s head as we used to do.
RW: Whenever we’d have a problem before between us we’d sit down and talk about it and understand each other’s points of view. This time, we tried to do that a lot, and it was quite confusing why we couldn’t understand each other.
JH: It shows in some ways that we were pretty young, because you’re at that point where you feel like everything has a real clear, logical answer in life.
RW: The whole point of the song “Ava” was that you can’t always help people or fix something. That could apply to our relationship — sometimes you’ve just got to accept that different things happen to people. You have to live with that.
How did the two of you writing separately on this album come about?
JH: I didn’t write for a long time after my boyfriend passed away. So it naturally came about that Rosa was writing on her own for a while, because I think it’s important that she stay creatively busy for her mental health.
RW: At the beginning, I didn’t think that I could write a song by myself. Then I thought that it wasn’t a bad thing to be trying this new way of writing. I know some artists prefer to have a break and live a bit and then write about it, but it’s important for me to be writing constantly.
JH: As the process of us experiencing things differently went on, it didn’t really make sense to intertwine our perspectives on every single song like it used to.
RW: But what we have brought to each other’s songs is great. There’s bits that Jenny’s done on my songs that have elevated it — “Hall of Mirrors” is very much about my experience, and then Jenny came in at the end and did an amazing sax solo and some backing vocals that just lifted the whole thing. And I know, obviously, what you come out with would be much better than — well, I can’t play the saxophone! [Laughs.]
JH: Same with “Watching You Go.” Rosa did a lot of guitar on that song at the end. We know what the other person’s good at. We know where they’d be able to fill in a gap that we’re not able to reach — whether that be something as obvious as a solo or a section of the track — and then we’d give each other freedom to write. But the other person would be writing with what you have in mind for the song, and we don’t really try to edit the other very much. We trust each other so that when we give each other the space within our own tracks, whatever you want goes.
Do you ever feel nervous to tell the other person if you think something’s not working? How does that go?
JH: Often, when you play demos to people outside a band, they’ll be like, “Hmm, I don’t know about that bit.” Whereas if we play each other a demo, we can both hear what the good bit is and what the foundations of the song are. As long as you can both hear it, we’ll both be aware of what needs changing and not even really need to discuss it.
What was it like to see the songs that the other had been working on?JH: [Laughs.] Emotional?
JH: Sometimes difficult. Some of the songs felt quite hard-hitting to hear the first time. We definitely had to talk through a lot of them.
RW: The fact that we’ve written so much about each other, I think, says a lot about the amount of love and care we have for each other.
JH: We don’t write songs about people we don’t care about.
It’s really beautiful to hear that the two of you were both independently deciding to write songs about or to the other person.
RW: I don’t think we knew that the other person was doing that when we did.
JH: We both just had a lot that was unexpressed towards each other. Songwriting was and is both our ways of doing that.
RW: It’s really useful for making some sense and meaning out of your life. Being able to say things in a way that sometimes words and conversations can’t.
Do each of you have a favorite of the songs that the other wrote?
RW: Oh, my favorite of Jenny’s songs is “Two Ribbons.”
JH: “Happy New Year” feels significant in terms of our relationship.
RW: They’re songs that are at least partly about each of us. “Two Ribbons” is probably the saddest song on the record; “Happy New Year” is emotional but in a different way. It’s more like, “We got through this.” It’s the nostalgia in that song that makes it sad.
JH: After you’ve heard “Two Ribbons,” when you hear “Happy New Year” again, it changes what the song means. On “Two Ribbons,” I say, “These places, they stay, but we’re changing.” And then you talk about all the places on “Happy New Year.”
RW: That is quite a running theme in the record: struggling to let go of the past, especially where people and relationships are concerned. And just finding it very sad that things do change.
What do you like most about the other person?
RW: The immediate thing that comes to mind is Jenny’s unique worldview, which comes into her creativity, and also how she views things like emotions in quite an insightful way.
JH: Oh, that’s very sweet. For me, it’s your passion. It makes you really, really dedicated to learning the ins and outs of things. You will decide that you want to master something and you will work really hard to get to a really high level. And you’ve also got a fearlessness. When we were starting the band, I’d always be really nervous, and still am with certain things. Rosa throws herself in headfirst.
RW: That’s so nice.
And then the flip side of this is —
RW: [Laughs.] Are you going to ask what we hate most about each other?
Not necessarily. What’s something that gets on your nerves about the other person?
JH: You know what’s weird? My immediate reaction to that was thinking of things that would probably get on Rosa’s nerves about me.
RW: When Jenny drinks the last of my oat milk. [Laughs.]
JH: I don’t really know, to be honest. I’m going to say one about me. I think I can be very indecisive, and sometimes not communicate things as clearly as I should probably.
RW: I think I can be pretty indecisive, too! I probably can’t communicate anything either.
JH: It’s interesting, when we were talking about stuff we like about each other … I think I particularly value your creative fearlessness because sometimes I feel like it’s something I often lack.
RW: I feel the same for the things that I said about you. I think I’ve noticed them more because they’re things that I would aspire to for myself. That’s the good thing about friends. They can push you in different directions.
JH: Which is why we work together. I value how you push me. Not push as in, “You’ve got to do this,” but “inspire.” If we’d never been in a band together, I don’t think I would finish things.
What is the biggest thing you’ve learned from the other?
JH: It’s very difficult to explain other than to say I would be a completely different person if I’d never met you. When you are really close to people, who they are gets woven into the fabric of who you are as a person.
RW: Sometimes I’ll even do a mannerism or say something and I’ll think that I sound like Jenny.
JH: I do stuff like that as well, actually; I’ll be like, “Having a Rosa moment.” We used to go to restaurants and we’d see old couples sitting next to each other facing the whole restaurant, and they’d have nothing to say to each other over dinner. But there was obviously this feeling of being connected. Sometimes we go to the pub and end up just sitting there, drinking a pint. Usually we run out of stuff to chat about, but there’s just so much here that doesn’t need to be said.
RW: There’s only a select few people that you can just literally sit in silence and it could be really normal.
JH: It makes me think about how grief works as well. Loss has made me see my actual relationships with people differently, because you carry parts of people with you, even when they’re still here. Death has a lot to teach us about living.
This is interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.