Step Into the Light: The ascent of Bishop Briggs - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Firefly 2017 | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

It was only two years ago that Sarah Grace McLaughlin — the Scotland-born, nomadically-raised modern rock singer and songwriter better known as Bishop Briggs — was living in Los Angeles, hustling for gigs at any venue that’d give her a space to play.  And then “River” happened.

Released in January of 2016, the earworm single was an instantly captivating blend of sinister, simmering electronic rock, with an undercurrent of retro soul and R&B, tied together by a powerful vocal delivery from the then-23 year old Bishop. The single crawled its way up the modern rock charts and got something of a second life this past summer, when her self-titled debut EP was released on Island Records. Her set at the main stage of Dover, Delaware’s Firefly Festival this summer was gripping on a sweltering June afternoon; her pop-up performance in the shade of the festival’s Treehouse stage was even better.

This fall, Bishop returned with her latest single, “Dream,” a hugely uplifting gospel anthem with a lyrical dark side; it’s been slaying on her fall tour. This Thursday night, Bishop plays the main stage of The Fillmore, opening up for Bleachers, but when I caught up with her via phone, she was pulling in to Toronto’s almost-certainly haunted Massey Hall, getting ready to open for Alt-J. “It’s been insane, it’s a dream come true,” an effusively positive Bishop says at the top of our chat. “I love Alt-J so much, I love seeing them every single night. They’re unwaveringly good and consistent.”

Our conversation from there touched on collaboration, knowing one’s limitations, the slow-and-steady release strategy, and the influence of place on the creative mind.

The Key: I first saw you play live earlier this year at Firefly Fest – one set on the main stage, one set on the tiny forest stage. Both performances great, though very different in terms of vibe. Can you contrast for me how those felt from your perspective?

Bishop Briggs: I will say I’m very biased towards the treehouse one. I loved how that stage was set up; it felt like we were all in it together, in the middle of the woods and the greenery. There was a connection that is harder to achieve when you’re on a bigger stage. But that being said, 21 Pilots played the night before on the mains stage that I was on earlier, so I was in awe. And I got to run around on that huge stage, which was so much fun. But the treehouse vibe was beyond that. When you are that close to the people, it’s so much more fulfilling.

TK: You studied music all your life, into college – in a Fader interview you did last year, you talked about how your songwriting begins at the piano. But onstage, you mostly leave the instrumental side of things to your bandmates, and focus on performance as a singer and frontperson. How early did you make that decision with your live shows – to not play instruments, and really own this persona – and was it an easy decision to make?

BB: It’s interesting. I played around in LA, and by played around I mean playing shows in LA for like five years before this crazy year happened. And I was constantly surrounded by other musicians, and because I was always around piano players and guitar players that were beyond significantly better than me, I was like, I might as well take advantage of this. It made the decision easy, because although I am proud of my four-chord piano playing experience, and I would love to incorporate it into the set, I saw how effortlessly the people around me were playing. They could dig into the emotions, and it was how I felt with singing; it really felt like a third arm, it felt like it was always a part of me.

TK: For a long time, you only had a handful of songs out there in the world. Then “River” became a hit, and more followed in 2016. Then the EP back in April of this year. You just a couple weeks ago released your first post EP single, “Dream.” It seems like you’re very much biding your time with each piece of new music you release. What are the positives and drawbacks of that approach?

BB: Well, if it was up to me, I would release every single piece of music, every voice memo on my phone, like, yesterday. But I will say with this new journey, this new chain of events, it has been really exciting to give music a moment to breathe. For example, a song like “Dream,” it was exciting to release it when we did, because it was only written a couple months prior. I always love it when people release music about stuff that currently happening in their life; I find that really engaging. It’s also nice to shine a light on each song, each moment. That said, I’m ready to release everything.

TK: “Dream” has this seriously uplifting gospel / soul undercurrent, which was all over the EP as well. What do you like about working in that style and bridging it with electronic rock?

BB: I think whenever I can bring in the music that influenced me growing up, that’s when I feel most inspired. I grew up listening to a lot of Motown, Aretha, Etta James, Otis Redding. That led to Janis Joplin, and another arena of soul. I feel so excited to release music that really feels like me, feels authentic. I think whenever you use influences from your childhood, you have a familiar feel with it.

And with “Dream,” it’s funny, it does feel like most hopeful song I’ve released, but lyrically it still has that dark undertone; I’m talking about a dream I had where I scream and nobody can hear me. “Secrets make you sick,” that sort of thing. But beyond lyrically, it does feel hopeful, and performing live felt so positive. It’s definitely the first time I released music like that, and it’s scary at first – it’s still scary — but I hope I’m always evolving and remaining true to who I am, and when you really look at lyrics, you realize it’s still dark emo girl.

TK: You’ve been based in L.A. as long as you’ve been a musician, but you moved around a lot growing up – London, Tokyo, Hong Kong. How do you feel living in so many places around the world shaped you personally and artistically?

BB: In a personal sense, it shaped me so much simply because it was when I was growing up. So I had what everybody else had — heartbreak exciting things, sad things — and all of those contribute so much to writing. And in the other sense, for me, it’s all I’ve ever known. So I didn’t realize it was unique until I moved to the U.S. and people told me it was unique. But just the same as growing up anywhere else, you really hone in on the things that make you who you are, and I think what makes anyone who they are is that nature v nurture thing. It’s a mix of my family, my family is Scottish, and environment-wise it was such a free environment to be independent and creative. It lends itself well to what I wound up doing.

TK: I’m guessing / hoping you’ve got a full length or some sort of new project on the way for 2018. Are you able to share much about that yet?

BB: Well new music is always coming! My dreams of things being released will come to fruition soon, and I’m very thankful for that.

Bishop Briggs opens for Bleachers at The Fillmore Philadelphia on Thursday, November 16th; tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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