Hype List 2024: Picture Parlour: “We’re giving it a good fucking go”

They arrived into a tornado of buzz, chaos and badly-targeted social media outrage, but you can ignore all of that, Dear Reader. Picture Parlour are the real deal.

Words: Finlay Holden.
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.

Exploding from the live circuit into the wider industry zeitgeist back in June, London-based outfit Picture Parlour have dominated internet conversation with an all-consuming storm of buzz. Vocalist Katherine Parlour and guitarist Ella Risi are the creative drive behind the group, and their giddy, infectious chemistry and electrifying writing sessions have resulted in two tracks released to date. 

Previously, they both existed within their own musical entities up in Manchester, but that was until a pretty brutal accident rendered the former sofa-bound. “Oh yeah, I’ve got titanium metal in my right femur bone now! It makes going through airport security a nightmare,” Katherine quips, seemingly miles past what must’ve been a fairly traumatic period. 

After slipping into a muddy pothole at Sziget and breaking both her legs, she was forced to put her music – as well as everything else – on hold. “Out of life for a year and a half,” she grimaces. “If you’re gonna break both legs, though, do it at a music festival.”

Shortly after “learning how to walk again”, Katherine met Ella through mutual friends in the Manchester scene. “I saw Ella play guitar and knew I had to get my hands on her; we had to work together. We lived in Fallowfield on adjacent roads and went through uni side by side without ever knowing it, but we finally met properly in 2020 during the pandemic.”

The admiration was instantly mutual, as Ella recalls. “When I heard you sing for the first time, I was really taken aback. I was like, I haven’t heard a voice like that come from anyone in my lifetime. There was something raw and gritty there; I have never heard anyone, especially a woman, sing the way that you do.”

Shortly after meeting and with little else to do (“the live music scene was dead and out of action, getting a whole band together wasn’t a priority”), a three-week period of drinking, partying and songwriting began and solidified the future potential of Picture Parlour; not only were everlasting bonds formed, but much of their intoxicating material developed while… well, probably while they were intoxicated too.

“Those three weeks were enough for me to realise, this is it,” Katherine reflects. “This is something that I would be willing to put everything into. It felt like a magical escape that neither of us had felt before in any of our past projects. I’d written songs since I was a kid, but it never felt that electric before.”

Classic influences from their similar regional histories fanned those growing flames of friendship, with the union of groups like Fleetwood Mac, T. Rex and The Smiths, as well as the individuality of artists like Joan Jett, David Bowie and Elton John providing some common ground, but the aim was never to impersonate.

“The songs come from such a raw place,” Katherine describes, “it can’t come from influence outside; it’s too much of an insular thing. But the Picture Parlour world, the clothes we wear or the mood we’re trying to create, 100% that comes from the things that excited us as kids. I remember watching the likes of Marc Bolan onstage and thinking, that’s a true rock star. Glamorous but not in a shallow way; it was just this pure power. I think we try and capture that, for sure, because we love seeing it ourselves.”

As the pair began to funnel their idols and experiences into something truly fresh and special, the question that remained was one of their immediate futures. Although a career in music was but a twinkle in their eyes, a move to London was on the cards, with both women starting part-time masters’ degrees and investing that student loan straight back into their creative exploits. Outside of smashing out assignments fuelled by copious Red Bull, the duo were busy trying to fathom a city they’d never experienced the scale of before.

“We didn’t know anyone; we didn’t have a live band. We knew the Manchester and Liverpool scenes, but where do you even start in London?” Ella asked herself. “Lots of Googling, Facebook forums, emailing venues… the one place we had heard of before moving down was the Windmill [in Brixton]. It’s so iconic, and so many of our favourite bands have come out of there. We thought if we could play there for our first show, it’d be insane, but it seemed so far out of reach.”

After recruiting drummer Michael Nash through Facebook groups and poaching bedroom bassist Sian Lynch from social media, Picture Parlour were nearly ready to get on a stage. After sending over some self-made demos, they were booked to play the Windmill show they’d fantasised about.

“When something comes from a genuine place, it cuts through all the bullshit”

Katherine Parlour

“We practised for six months because we didn’t want to embarrass ourselves doing gigs in random venues and being shit,” Katherine says. “We were finally ready to hit the stage, but unfortunately, my dad became sick, so I had to move back to Liverpool for months to look after him full-time. We’d got the band together but hadn’t even done a show yet; we were sure they were going to leave. It was a nightmare scenario.”

Three months later, and with another kind invite extended, Katherine’s father urged her to take the leap and chase the dream. “For us, we knew this was our last chance,” she admits. “If we really wanted to do something in music, and we believed in something like this as much as we did, we had to make sure everything was right. We had to get it right because we wouldn’t have the opportunity to again.”

Rehearsals paid off, and Picture Parlour stunned the crowd with a refined performance that turned their Windmill headline into a regular fixture, generating their initial excitement and earning fans in the industry and beyond. Long-standing icon Courtney Love attended their sixth-ever show and went on to declare, “There’s no more mojo to go around. It’s all gone. They ate the mojo.” It’s fair to say things were looking up, then.

Winning over an audience that knows you only by reputation had the quartet spinning with satisfaction. “It’s a different level of excitement when I can see that I’ve locked someone in during a song they’ve never heard before,” boasts a gleeful Katherine. “They don’t know our songs, they don’t know who we are, they don’t know what it’s about, but there’s still some interest. That indicates to me that we’re moving in the right direction. If our songs can grab that attention while no one knows them, what will it be like when people warm to it and actually learn the words, sing along to the guitar solos, and do all the things we’re obsessed with for the bands we love?”

They didn’t have to wait too long to find out. Debut single ‘Norwegian Wood’ has been regularly recited back to them since its release in summer, and it’s easy to see why – atmospheric rock with a soulful presence underpinned by severe vulnerability? A winning formula, for sure, but it took its creator a minute to accept that herself. Having written it while wallowing in homesickness during that three-week period in Manchester, Katherine allowed her swirling thoughts – feeling out of place, trying to centre yourself with the tunes of your hometown, questioning your own self-worth – to manifest into what she deemed to be a throwaway track.

“I’d written on my own and was not even gonna show Ella because it’s shit, that’s what I genuinely thought,” she reveals. “Ella came home, and she was like, ‘What have you been up to?’ Well, I can’t say I’ve done fuck all yet again tonight, so I showed her my work on an acoustic guitar. She wanted to jump straight on it but said the name has to change,” they laugh, debating whether The Beatles would be offended, “but then it almost stuck as a joke.”

The song itself details the delicacy of love, faith or “whatever you put your belief in. It is so pathetic,” she laughs, “The beauty in it is that everyone feels that shit; everyone feels sorry for themselves sometimes. We’re all multifaceted, right? You can have days where you’ve got confidence and cheek, and that’s still you, but everyone can have a bit of a down day as well.”

It details anxieties that many a youth has internalised, offering broad and accessible lyricisms that make the narrative feel as if it could have almost spawned from your own brain. “They’re my favourite type of song, to be honest,” Katherine notes. “Stevie Nicks is my hero, and she has this way with lyrics where I’m always like, I could have said that; I’ve probably said that to myself before, right? But then they put it into a song. Suddenly, it feels like it’s a brand-new thought. I really rate it when a songwriter can do that. I love clever lyrics, wordy lyrics, but there’s something so beautiful about a songwriter that can just go, there it is.”

That direct delivery mechanism struck a chord for some; meanwhile, the press campaign that bolstered the big debut had specific online communities furiously bashing their keyboards. Lurkers on the social platform formerly known as Twitter refused to believe that a band could accrue so much devotion so quickly and started pointing fingers at how this could have happened – without ever considering hard work or talent as potential factors. At first, Picture Parlour themselves thought it was a joke, but soon, it had them questioning their choices.

“I literally could not care less about what everyone and the dog thinks about Picture Parlour because that’s just life; you’re gonna have people who like it and people who don’t,” Katherine begins. “There are bands I like and bands I don’t; that is fact. When it’s a personal attack and an erasure of some part of you… I’ve been instilled with so much love for the city where I’m from and my working-class background; that’s part of who I am. To have strangers on the internet be like, no, no, no! I don’t have a clue who she is, but she’s definitely a nepo baby because of a magazine online cover of the week? That, to me, is crazy.”

In reality, the music industry is a relentless machine looking for fresh meat to take to market, and these four determined artists worked to ensure that their moment in the spotlight would be utilised to its full extent. As Ella explains, “After COVID, the live scene is bustling again with all these new acts. A&Rs are going into these little underground gigs looking for the next big thing. There’s an element of a lot of hard work – we didn’t want to do our first gig until we were at the point where we’d be happy if anyone did happen to be there – and there is some good luck, too.” 

“If you’re gonna break both legs, do it at a music festival”

Katherine Parlour

The industry plant discourse has latched onto many women-led projects in recent years, a symptom of long-running misogyny, which is still very much present in many of the arts. “It’s sad because you’ll see your male counterparts who actually do come from privilege – which is fine, privilege or no privilege, people are still entitled to make art and pursue music – but the witch hunt for them isn’t the same. It makes you want to go online and go, okay, here’s my family tree. Here’s my history. Why do you owe that to strangers on the internet?” 

As they demonstrated during those three weeks spent back in lockdown, Ella and Katherine would be singing these songs regardless of who’s watching. “Like anyone making music, you’re not making it for something. It’s a very selfish art, or at least it is for us,” Katherine confirms. “We’re making it in lockdown, just us two doing it ourselves – no one else is listening to it; it exists solely for our own entertainment and satisfaction. Everything we put out is to the void; you never know who or what is going to consume it. If there are people at the gig, that’s great. Honestly, though? We’d do it either way.”

The fact of the matter is, fans are now showing up. In the case of their recently-concluded sell-out UK stint supporting label mates The Last Dinner Party, sticky bar floors are rapidly filling with gig-goers curious to get an early look at the next big thing. Although Picture Parlour do enjoy revelling in the energy of their honeymoon period, recent feedback has them looking to the future.

“It’s all good market research,” the singer smirks. “Those shows were the first ones where we left the tour, and we know at least two songs we should definitely release. They’re the ones that people clearly clicked with, which immediately indicates we’re doing something well, so we steer into that. We’re starting with songs from a pocket of time I am fond and proud of, but then we just keep getting better and releasing better music – at least we got to show who we were at the beginning of it all.”

As a strong vocalist and formidable frontwoman, too, Katherine inevitably seizes the bulk of a crowd’s attention and with that comes the comparisons. As a strong personality with unique storytelling abilities and a regional dialect, Alex Turner has become an obvious point of reference for fans, but that’s about where the similarities begin and end.

“There are two sides to every coin, aren’t there?” she considers. “The bottom line for me is that it’s a massive compliment because Alex Turner is the leader of a generation for a whole lot of people musically. But yeah, it gets kind of tedious. I don’t know; I’m still grappling with it. I’ve never had this before, being perceived by other people. I am a singular person doing my own thing. I’m a woman – why are you comparing women to their male counterparts? 

“Someone yesterday said about me that if you like Alex Turner, you’re going to like the new female version. Loads of people like Alex Turner, so if they’re gonna like us by proxy, then great, that’s cool, but I think there are so many more elements to what Picture Parlour is than just having a confident frontwoman with a Northern accent who croons.”

Sharing that she’s also just been told she sounds like Bon Jovi (“I don’t know, people see different things in different people”), the one attribute that rings true across all those attempts at relation is an assured creative force delivering their vision with conviction. Perhaps her years spent in football built up a resilience and determination to succeed? “It puts a fire in your belly, so it’s deffo shaped me,” she supposes. “The pitch prepared her for the stage,” Ella interjects before the pair crease with laughter.

Once again, huge performative chops confront an intimate thematic on the recently arrived single number two, ‘Judgement Day’. On first listen, it is a simple love letter, but it shows Picture Parlour continuing to open up more questions than answers with a context that only unfolded for Katherine much later.

“I feel like that’s how you find the most out about yourself,” she depicts of this conceivably signature style. “You’re left with loads of questions about yourself that you have to fill in along the way. Every time someone asks, ‘What’s this song about?’ I can’t answer right away because I write from an unknown space.

“With ‘Judgement Day’, I can look back now and realise that it reflects the queer experience. There are thoughts on being observed and feeling exposed, judged – all those things. Amongst all that, it’s an unashamed, dramatic declaration of love. That was me saying, I don’t care about any of it; this is a feeling that I’ve got, and it’s valid and it’s normal and it’s vulnerable. At the time, it did just feel like a love song, but it’s become much more than that. Words mean a million things at the same time.”

A crystal clear sincerity permeates each word Katherine and Ella utter as their intertwining voices shimmer and overlap throughout the conversation, bouncing the ball of chatter between them midsentence with affection and charm. Far from the smooth ride gifted to them from upon high, Picture Parlour are a band that, starting with their live shows, have grafted and collaborated for years to achieve more than they could ever have envisaged.

“Performance itself is an act,” Katherine concludes. “It’s an art. When something comes from a genuine place, it cuts through all the bullshit. That’s what we’ve got, and that’s why we’ve got a good shot at this. You can’t deny that when we’re stood on stage, we’re giving it a good fucking go.” They’re confident, they’re capable, and they’re barely getting started.

Taken from the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of Dork.


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