Music

Chloe x Halle: ‘People said our music was too complex for the average ear’


For most people, working from home entails some combination of bad posture, unwashed hair and laundry-based procrastination. For Chloe and Halle Bailey, it involves neon leotards, drone-mounted cameras and, if this interview on Zoom is anything to go by, immaculately applied red lipstick at 11 in the morning. Lockdown, it is fair to say, has not dampened the go-getting tendencies of this precocious sister act; in fact, it has facilitated a long-overdue breakthrough moment.

The release of their second album, the presciently titled Ungodly Hour, has seen the pair school the world in the art of pandemic promo. “I feel like we’ve been making the best of what we have,” says Chloe, casually evoking the cluster of visually spectacular performances and photoshoots – including an entire high-fashion ad campaign – they’ve staged from the tennis court of their family home (admittedly, having a good lockdown requires certain advantages).

Their graft has not gone unnoticed. Until recently, the sisters were primarily known as Beyoncé proteges, the pop giant having signed them to her management company in 2015 off the back of their YouTube covers of her own tracks (the duo also racked up views for versions of songs by Adele, Ariana Grande and Lorde). They appeared in the Lemonade visual album and opened for their mentor on tour, all the while producing a stream of music that, while impressive, never quite elevated them to superstar territory – until now.

Ungodly Hour charted in the Billboard Top 20 and spawned their most successful single, Do It, a slinky and intricate number that showcases their ornately beautiful vocal harmonies. Meanwhile, the quality and ubiquity of their homemade content has gained meme status on social media (“Time’s Person of the Year should be Chloe and Halle’s tennis court,” opined one Twitter user).

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It’s not the only internet sensation the sisters have sparked during lockdown: Do It has become a hit on the video-sharing app du jour. “We’ve never seen one of our songs blow up on TikTok before, so we’re just like: ‘Oh, OK!’” says Halle, who is more softly spoken than her elder sister (both have wry amusement as their default mode).

Time was when a mimed performance on Saturday morning TV was all that was required to win over young fans; now pop stars must attempt to harness the mysterious hit-making potential of the virtual teen hangout. In Chloe and Halle’s case, this was achieved through some quick reflexes. After noticing people recreating the video’s choreography on the app, the sisters promptly uploaded their own version, helping it become a bona fide “challenge” that saw thousands of users painstakingly copy the dance routine in exchange for likes. “I never thought we’d make music that could be used in a challenge!” exclaims Chloe.

Flower power ... opening for Beyonce and Jay-Z during the On The Run II tour.



Flower power … opening for Beyoncé and Jay-Z during the On the Run II tour. Photograph: Larry Busacca/PW18/Getty/Parkwood Entertainment

You can see her point. The pair’s output, which combines 90s R&B, jazz vocals and subtly inventive electronica (Chloe is responsible for the majority of the production) prizes sophisticated restraint over splashy novelty and elaborate melodies over instant earworm potential. At the same time, you’d have a difficult job arguing the pair aren’t deeply entrenched in the world of showbiz; they have been appearing in movies since they were preschoolers (they are now 22 and 20). Acting still forms a core part of their portfolio – they currently feature in US sitcom Grown-ish – and will soon provide a Disney-sized profile boost when Halle takes on the role of Ariel in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid.

A year on, Halle is still reeling from the news of her casting. “It’s overwhelming and I’m astounded every single time I think about it,” she says, wide-eyed. “All I can do is try my best and see what happens.” Her palpable nerves make the supposed “backlash” to her winning the role seem all the more cruel (the announcement was greeted with racist outrage by a handful of social media users, largely trolls, keen to police the racial identity of a fictional character – a mythical creature to boot). Still, the pair remain wholly unbothered by online haters of any type. “People will always have something to say,” shrugs Chloe. “You can’t please everybody. You’ve just got to please yourself.”

Whereas their debut album, The Kids Are Alright, focused on the agony and ecstasy of mid-adolescence, Ungodly Hour sees the pair sift through their love lives, calling out cheaters, playboys and prolific booty-callers. But it’s not simply good girls versus bad boys; the album is suffused with a compelling moral ambiguity. Wonder What She Thinks of Me is told from the perspective of the “other woman”, while on the darkly comic Tipsy, the pair fantasise about murdering flaky love interests. (“It is such a shame that they went missing, they can’t find ’em now / Oh, I wonder how I accidentally put them in the ground.”) “We were pissed off writing that song!” insists Halle. “Sometimes when people mess with your heart, you’re like: ‘Dude I gotta do something about it.’” Chloe is keen to clarify that “we never would kill somebody. But I feel like if everything’s so general, the song gets boring.”

Golden girls ... Chloe x Halle.



Golden girls … Chloe x Halle.

Fantasising about offing errant boyfriends is one form of catharsis, but there is also more wholesome consolation to be found on the album. “When we write these songs it’s to make ourselves feel better, so when we listen back, it continues to make us feel better,” says Chloe. “I laugh at myself because there’s been so many times when I’m feeling like I don’t have too many friends or a relationship didn’t work out, I’ll play Lonely and instantly feel better.”

The sisters’ songs have also provided comfort in unforeseen ways. The pair postponed the release of Ungodly Hour out of respect for the Black Lives Matter protests – “We couldn’t make this about us” – but didn’t want to delay it for too long. “Music is a healer, and with all this going on even I need a distraction from the world or I’m going to drive myself crazy,” says Chloe.

It is a relatively recent development, but speaking up about injustice is now a prerequisite of pop stardom. Yet Chloe and Halle view their political activism not as an element of their career – let alone their celebrity image – but as an inherent part of their own existence. “The reality is it’s our life: we live a life of being black women and we feel it’s our duty to use this platform we were given,” says Halle. The pair are particularly intent on encouraging their fans to vote. “Our ancestors fought for this right, and got it taken away from them so many times: they would get tested and quizzed, the rules would be bent. So, now we have the chance to say what we want to say, we must use that to honour them,” she continues. Chloe is less equivocal: “If all of us get out and vote, that man won’t be in the office any more.”

Growing up in Atlanta, the pair had no entertainment connections to speak of (their father was a stockbroker, their mother worked in recruitment). Yet by the age of three, Chloe was starring in a major movie. How did that happen? “Our mom would always have the camera in our face, and she realised we were children with a lot of personality who [liked to] perform,” says Halle. “She was like: ‘My children are talented, what can I do?’ So we got into the acting industry, we’d do commercials for Gap and little things.”

From there, Chloe was cast in the 2003 musical The Fighting Temptations, as a young version of the character played by Beyoncé. More than a decade later, the megastar signed the duo to her management company. “She didn’t make the connection until we saw her again,” says Chloe. “The manager of her company and my dad were in talks and it came up how I was in The Fighting Temptations, so of course she told Beyoncé. When we saw each other in person she was like: ‘I didn’t even connect the two, it makes so much sense now!’” She grins: “I love how the universe works.”

Sister act ... on the red carpet for Meet The Browns in 2008.



Sister act … On the red carpet for Meet the Browns in 2008. Photograph: Michael Tullberg/Getty

At eight and 10, the pair pivoted from acting to music. Although their father is not musically inclined (“He tries to sing around the house but he’s tone deaf”), he helped them to Google information about songwriting, while the girls learned how to play instruments from online tutorials. Despite garnering attention with their YouTube performances, they realised “no one really wanted to produce for us because we were very young”. So Chloe taught herself: “I’ve always loved technology, so that part came easy, but it took me five years to start making good beats.”

“That’s not true,” says Halle, rolling her eyes. “She always made good stuff.”

“No, it was trash! The first good beat I made was Drop, which was our very first single.”

Entering the music industry as teens, the pair say they were routinely patronised in the studio. “Low key and high key at the same time,” nods Chloe. “People would tell us what we were creating was too complex for the average ear. I feel like that’s so not cool to tell two young creatives who are pushing the boundaries, especially when we’re in a world where everything’s so manufactured exactly the same.”

One person who did not underestimate them was Beyoncé. “Just knowing that she appreciated how complex it was and [hearing her] go on about how beautiful something was truly meant a lot,” says Chloe. The pair still run all their work by her, although she didn’t end up having much input into Ungodly Hour. “She listened to the album and she had close to no notes, which is pretty rare because she’s such a perfectionist!” she beams.

While delighted with Queen Bey’s approval, the duo make it clear they are not seeking anyone else’s. “We really don’t need outside validation to tell us if something’s good or not,” says Chloe when I mention the praise Ungodly Hour has received online. “I feel like we’re in a place where we don’t have to explain ourselves. Make the art, put it out, if people feel a way about it – oh well!”

Ungodly Hour is out now



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