JGrrey's journey of self-discovery through songwriting

A contact sheet containing various shots of a young female singer.

Musician JGrrey knew nothing about her past – including her ethnicity – but a gift for songwriting helped her create her own identity

As told to Shannon Mahanty   Friday 3 January, 2020

‘I grew up in around five or six different foster homes in south London. As a child, I was unsure a lot of the time, like I never knew what was going on. I remember being at a supermarket once and getting told off for walking away from everyone. I felt like I never knew the rules. I did what I wanted to do, and if someone told me off that’s how I’d learn I wasn’t supposed to do it. 
‘When I met my adoptive parents, I assumed it was just another foster home, so I wasn’t that bothered. But I do remember thinking my dad was so big, the tallest thing I’d ever seen. During the first month of living there, I’d always ask for a drink or to go to the bathroom. My parents kept saying, “You don’t have to ask, this is where you live.” I slowly started to get it. 
‘They lived in Edgware, and I remember on the way home with them I asked if that was London, because I didn’t want to get on a plane and go to a different country. I thought anything outside London was this whole other world; it’s always been a big part of who I am. We moved to Hertfordshire when I started secondary school, and the first thing I wanted to do was move back. Hertfordshire felt a lot more homogenous. I came from a school where my five best friends were Chinese, albino, black, Indian and white, and at my new school I was “the black girl”. My hair was weird, I was different, and that was strange for me. I didn’t know people were different, I thought people were people. I didn’t think about ethnicity or race, but when we moved to the countryside it was like, “Oh OK, that’s a thing here?”. Mum would always say, “People might be racist to you” and I was like, “Not me”. Now I’m 25, I understand that.
‘The only thing I know about my ethnicity is that my birth mother is Irish. Not knowing only fazes me if I really think about it or when I’m around people who are super connected to their heritage. My friend Caspar is half-Bajan, half-English. He can speak patois and has an amazing sense and understanding of both worlds. I have a lot of unanswered questions. My whole life is trial and error, but I think it makes me grow in different ways. I want to be at a comfortable place in my career and personal life. Right now, my focus is music.  
‘When I was younger, there wasn’t one specific artist I was into, but I do remember listening to Adele’s album, 19, and thinking, “How are you singing like this?” “How are you writing like this?” “How are the melodies and the music so good?” I felt the same about Beyoncé. It’s her vocal runs; how the hell does her voice do that? I also started to fall in love with musicians like Amy Winehouse, Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu.

‘I made my first song when I was bored one day with nothing to do. Me and my boyfriend at the time recorded it and put it online. I didn’t think anything of it, but it got all these comments, and somehow [Roll Deep’s] Manga Saint Hilaire reached out and invited me to a studio session. I went, and was so nervous, but something clicked.

‘I always knew I could sing. I never thought I was particularly good, but I think what made me go back to music after that initial session was the fact that I knew I could do it better. Still to this day, I listen to my earlier songs and think, “Why didn’t I do that part differently?”
‘I’m figuring out a lot more about myself through my writing. I don’t overthink it, it’s straight off the cuff. That means when I look back at my lyrics, I realise I’ve subconsciously written all this stuff. I’m then like, “Oh, that’s a thing I said? That’s something I need to address.” It helps me understand myself a lot better. There’s a song called “Happiness Seems A Hell Of A Guy” from my new EP, which really allowed me to learn about my emotions and relate to them more directly.

‘I usually write when I’m sad, because it’s all I want to do, and it helps me make sense of my feelings. “Pretty Insane’’ is about mine and my mum’s mental health: “My mother doesn’t believe in everything she sees. Sorry, it’s quite sad, we’re both going mad.” I don’t really talk about how I feel, which is ironic because now it’s out there for everyone to hear. I’ve had so many messages from people saying, “This is exactly how I feel”, and that can only be a positive.
‘At the end of the day, I’m not clever, I haven’t got any GCSEs. The one thing I’m good at is music and I think, “OK, let’s fucking do this”.’ 

Instagram: @jgrrey
Imagery courtesy of Kamila K Stanley
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