As she releases her new album Seeking Thrills, Georgia talks teenage hedonism, headlining Glastonbury as a child, and sobering up
When Georgia Barnes was five, she was taken on stage at T in the Park. The Stone Roses were walking off stage and Ian Brown kissed her hand. She was pulled on to someone’s shoulders and stared out at 10,000 people in a tent. “It was so sweaty,” she says. “I realised even then that dance music was all about love. It’s about collective energy, everyone sharing this one pulse. It was very inspiring. I call myself a child of the dance scene.”
We meet in a café in north-west London’s Kensal Rise, not far from where she lives. She has just had a swim, and has been planning her set list for Radio 1 Live Lounge (she chooses a haunting cover of Lil Nas X’s “Panini”). It is two days before the multi-instrumentalist is to release her second album, Seeking Thrills, and she is feeling “vulnerable”. Reviews will call it a “vivid tribute to the dancefloor”, “pop greatness” and a “British hymn to hedonism”.
“I’m keeping a level head this time,” she says. “With the first [eponymous] record [released in 2015] I had such high expectations for it and then it wasn’t anywhere near the same scale as I thought in my head.”
This time, though, she has been hailed on “ones to watch” lists across the British media, including the BBC’s Sound of 2020 poll.
That momentum doesn’t make things easier, though. “As much as I love it, it can bring false expectations. But it does fill you with a nice confidence.” On this album, she knew her music needed to be more “accessible”. “We’re in the streaming world and I’m totally with that,” she says. “But there’s something about an album where you can take the listener on a journey. This was inspired by the history of the dance floor. The club is about people coming together. That’s what I wanted people to relate to.”
When the 29-year-old was still a teenager, she started out as a session drummer, for Kwes and later Kate Tempest, before moving into producing. She attended the Brit School for four years before studying Ethnomusicology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and her approach to music is academic and rigorously researched. Understanding the origins of house music in Chicago and Detroit, how it helped black gay men and women find a community in the 80s, helps her to shape her own. “It’s hugely important that it feels authentic.”
Dance was one of the most important moments in history, she adds. “This country always focuses on punk music and it’s like…” she mimes being sick. “Yeah, that happened for two years. Dance happened and it never stopped.
“In the darkest communities, in the late 80s with Thatcher, people were miserable, with no opportunities, and these raves might have changed these people’s lives. It’s unifying. That’s what separates it from other forms of music. It was underground, but when you listen to the pop charts, dance music is mainstream now.”
Though she has never been part of the EDM scene, she is not snooty about superstar DJs such as David Guetta or the late Avicii. “I find it hard to talk about the commercialisation of dance music, because my dad was in Leftfield. Leftism was a groundbreaking record and it took my family from a council estate to a house in Queen’s Park, so I don’t feel like I can be too cynical.”
Barnes’s father is Neil Barnes, who founded the influential electronic group Leftfield in 1989. Georgia was “literally born” around musical equipment. “I was brought up in a co-operative living scheme flat in central London,” she says, adding that her lullabies were Crosby, Stills and Nash. Her father turned his flat into a home studio.“That was the amazing thing about house music,” she says, “the technology allowed people to make studios in their bedrooms. All these drum machines and four-track recorders and handheld microphones became accessible.” He encouraged her to experiment as she got older. “He’d say, ‘Here are some tools, you do it.’”
The flats were small, and “they put me in the studio upstairs and listened to me in my mum’s flat downstairs over the intercom. My mum remembers taking me to a warehouse rave. I went on Leftfield’s whole journey. I remember them headlining the Other Stage at Glastonbury in ’98; I felt very proud.”
Being taken to raves with your parents is a very different experience to going clubbing yourself, though, and because Barnes looked young and couldn’t get a fake ID, she had to wait until she hit 18. As soon as she did, she went to Fabric in Farringdon. “But I was still very young, and couldn’t connect with the dancefloor,” she says. “It was when I went to Berlin at 19 and went to Panorama Bar with my best friends – I danced for about nine hours, saw Moby DJ, hooked up with a guy – I felt like ‘This is me, I know how to do this.’”
For some, getting trashed at university is a time looked back on in revulsion, but in her eyes it takes on an almost spiritual significance. “I’d get completely out of it, exploring drugs, my alcohol intake, being promiscuous, yeah. Bit dangerous, probably,” she chuckles. “I was at the hedonistic side of that culture. Daytime for me felt like a mundane existence, the night felt alive.”
Georgia is now gluten-free (very hard, she says eyeing up a pile of bagels), vegan (not that difficult), and is drinking a cup of hot water. “It changed in my mid-twenties,” she says. “I stopped drinking for two years, shed about three stone in weight, and became a lot happier. After the release of the first record, I just wanted to see where the night took me all the time. I was drinking a lot. It was two years of madness, really.” Her first sober Glastonbury, last year, was also her debut as a solo artist. “Usually I’m off my head on an array of drugs somewhere in the Shangri La area; this time I was sober and it was work. But I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”
Her Glastonbury set is still on BBC iPlayer. Georgia performs alone, none of the intensity of the music lost in the bright broad daylight as she switches between instruments. Its highlight was “About Work the Dancefloor”, her breakout single, shimmering, pentatonic pop bliss. She was inspired to write it by a scene in Lena Dunham’s sitcom Girls, in which the lead character dances in her bedroom to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own”.
“What Lena Dunham was able to do with Girls is so unique, I don’t think anything has come close. And Robyn’s song was such a moment. I wanted people to put on ‘About Work the Dancefloor’ and feel an escape like that. The dancefloor is about escapism. There’s an escapist theme in this record – it’s Seeking Thrills, of all kinds.”