Words: Neive McCarthy. Photos: Patrick Gunning.
There are periods in your life that can only be described as messy. Things aren’t always smooth sailing – sometimes there’s heartbreak and confusion, and it’s all slotted in-between moments of love and affection and dancing with your friends. Maisie Peters’ debut album, ‘You Signed Up For This’, is an ode to that glittering magic quality there is to life’s messiness – it’s an ode to the glimmers of hope, to naïve youth and the sage wisdom that comes with growing up a little bit. This is Maisie Peters’ coming-of-age, and it’s one that is rich in nostalgic detail and drenched in wit. Would you expect anything else?
The album opens with the titular ‘You Signed Up For This’; a twinkling soundscape with some not-so-twinkling admittances of flaws. She might not be the person she has the potential to become just yet, but she pleads that you stick around long enough to find out. “The entire point of the song is to be like ‘this is me, as I am now’. It’s almost like a snapshot or a freeze-frame of me where I was at the time – I was 20, I hadn’t got my driver’s license, I was just about to move to London and live with five girls who I didn’t know. It was all kind of in the air,” Maisie reflects over Zoom. All her cards are on the table, and it’s in your hands whether you shy away from that.
At one point in the track, Maisie laughingly remarks, “shout if we fell apart / actually don’t, it’s my narration”. It might slide by easily amidst synth-heavy beats, but that need to take things with a pinch of salt and recognise that this album is solely Maisie’s is a grounding factor in the album as a whole. “It’s very much my version of events. I used to struggle with that a little bit in songwriting because it felt unfair. I think, in saying that in the first song, it says it how it is – it’s like, well, this is actually my story, and this is my album, and this is how I’m going to say it, and that’s what’s happening here for the next fourteen songs.”
That level of autonomy and ownership precedes the album. Maisie is refreshingly self-assured when it comes to her own tracks. ‘Love Him I Don’t’ was one track that was the subject of debate with her producers. “Joe [Rubel] and John [Green] were saying, you know, maybe it’s not a song about somebody necessarily being bad. Maybe it’s about growing apart. But I was like no – I knew what that song was about. I knew the second I did, that this was what I need to write. It wasn’t even necessarily how I felt at the time, but I think sometimes you write songs, and they come true. That song definitely was written and came true. It was a statement, it was what I wanted, it was how I wanted to feel, and it was one of those things where sometimes you have to write that to try and pretend you do.”
In many ways, it’s a successor to earlier tracks like ‘Look At Me Now’, only from a matured perspective. While her younger narrator might’ve been helplessly delivering an ex’s postcode to taxi drivers instead of her own, this version of her narrative sees her walking away and choosing the route that hurts the least. Retrospective reflection is healing, and this often filters into Maisie’s writing. “I love nostalgia – I find it really hard to write in the present tense; I never write in the present tense, literally ever. I think everybody does dissect the past, and because I like telling stories so much, in storytelling and most stories you read, most novels will be in the past tense because then you have a bird’s eye view of the whole thing. I like that in songwriting, as well. If I’m talking about the past, I have all of the memories, and I am able to go over them and pick which one and have everything at my disposal. Whereas, if you’re talking about the present, it’s very hard to do that.”
That nostalgic veil falls over Maisie’s writing like an old film filter, blurring it into a gut-wrenching, maudlin montage. “I love the written word, and I’m big on seeing cool words or ideas or concepts and taking them with me and writing songs with them. The way I write is influenced a lot by reading and telling stories and really setting the scene and using a lot of those visual scenes.” It’s because of this that ‘You Signed Up For This’ feels as though it exists in its own unique universe – one with all the hallmarks of the years where you’re first standing on your own two feet and learning how to be this new version of yourself. From drinking cheap wine and enduring shattering heartbreaks to drunken embarrassment and running from red flags, they are recognisable experiences brought to kaleidoscopically vivid life.
“People are multi-faceted; I’m multi-faceted, my music is multi-faceted”Maisie Peters
Arguably the best moment of this comes in the form of ‘Brooklyn’. Tenderly piano-heavy yet effortlessly elated, it recalls a holiday with her sister to New York so intricately you may as well be dancing down 42nd alongside them. It epitomises that affectionate but infuriating bond with a sister, deadpanning “I hate your tracksuit / sister, I’ve missed this” in the very same breath. “There were a couple of times where people tried to take it off, and they were like, it’s too niche, it’s too specific. But I was like, no it’s not, and if it is, that’s a good thing, I think. I like the idea that this album has moments that aren’t just about love, or relationships, or boys. I really like that there was a song that wasn’t about that at all. I’m really excited for it to come out – I hope one day I’ll play in Brooklyn. The moment when I sing ‘if you’re looking for the girl of your dreams, she’s in Brooklyn with me’ will be so, so fun.”
Her lyrics may be incredibly specific in their ability to freeze moments in time, but that relatability never fades. ‘Hollow’ is a shattering account of a breakup, but its melancholic harmonies capture a shared feeling of gutting emptiness in navigating that world. “’Hollow’ is super sad,” Maisie laughs. “I remember someone at the time was like ‘I think this is too sad’, but I was like ‘no!’.” Shying away from the full weight of emotion is unheard of in her music, regardless of the visceral wince they might evoke. Not every aspect of life can be wrapped in synth and bundled in joy, and Maisie documents those slightly less pretty moments just as much.
She strikes an impressive balance, though. ‘Hollow’ follows directly from the laughing, electric duo of ‘Psycho’ and ‘Boy’ – it’s a jolting adjustment. “You want an album to ebb and flow – I wanted to have those ups and downs. ‘Boy’ into ‘Hollow’, when I did that I was like, is that too much? But I was just like fuck it, let’s see what happens. I think that’s so funny. I like the idea that those feelings do co-exist, and you can feel both ways. People are multi-faceted; I’m multi-faceted, my music is multi-faceted. It’s nice to see those two distinct, different sides close together.”
Written with Ed Sheeran, ‘Boy’ is an absolute standout. Dripping in early 2000s influences and primed to accompany a Love Islander walking away from a white skinny-jean clad boy and discovering her worth, it relishes every sarcastic moment. “It was so funny, because it was Ed, and me and Joe, and Ed’s friend called Nick. As a 20-year-old girl, I was giving them insight into the dating scene, and I was teaching them what a fuckboy was and what a softboi was. I was telling them all the traits, and they’re like, oh my god, we should write a song about this! It was basically savaging left, right and centre. I remember when we did the lyric ‘you say you have a lot of enemies, and you claim your dreams are always lucid / but you’re just high and can’t tell the difference’ – I remember literally wheezing with laughter, because it’s so true! That’s not what a lucid dream is! I thought it was the funniest thing.”
The unflattering portrait she paints on tracks like ‘Boy’ sees Maisie at her most biting and witty. “A lot of the album, some of the songs, I’m just like super immature, which I’m obsessed with! I think that’s so fun – ‘I’m Trying’ and ‘Boy’ get super immature, but they own that, which I love.” It’s that unashamed acceptance of the slightly pettier lyrics that is so amusing; they might be blunt comments, but they’re accurate ones. There’s a light-heartedness to Maisie that shines through these tracks, and it makes each listen more fulfilling.
It helps, too, that the cutting remarks are set to some of the most delicious pop in years. ‘Psycho’ plays on the ‘good for her trope’ of a scorned woman vindicated, but it does so to an ABBA-esque guitar line and shimmering synth-enthused strings. It’s made to dance away any thought of those who’ve wronged you. “I was writing it and thinking, can I say this? Is this too far? And everyone was like hey, yeah do it,” Maisie recalls. “That song was a really fun way of me taking a narrative on its head. ‘Psycho’ was a fun moment, and that was really important too. I’m somebody that doesn’t take myself too seriously, and I’m really super up for the jokes, and I’m up for dancing and Carly Rae Jepsen, and I wanted that on the album. There’s something in the air in 2021 where there’s a lot of amazing art which takes itself very seriously, which is so great, and I love that! But I miss the eras of ‘Call Me Maybe’ and Girls Aloud and all those songs that were just fun and good times; I wanted to contribute to that.”
“I don’t take myself too seriously; I’m really super up for the jokes”Maisie Peters
Luckily, as versatile as she is, she manages to lead the album down slightly more politicised routes whilst allowing those inhibition-free moments of euphoria. ‘Volcano’ may have the illusion of a soft, acoustic-led track, but it’s the most incendiary moment on the album. “’Volcano’ came out of a very personal situation to me. There’s so much simmering rage and resentment under that song. It’s sort of about people who you feel never pay the consequences for their actions. A lot of that song is very rooted in the fact that you can be a young, 20-year-old woman, and there’s a lot of situations you go through where you can never say how you feel, and nobody ever holds anybody to account, especially men holding other men to account. That song has that feeling of being like, this felt like it was really bad to me, but nobody else seems to think that? The whole song centres around this idea of ‘you just say nothing’ and what that does to you as a person, the mark that leaves. I have a really close friend called Gretta Ray, who’s an Australian singer-songwriter and is amazing. I got her to sing harmonies on it, which felt amazing because she’s a really close friend of mine, and she’s somebody that I talked about a lot of the stuff with, so to have her singing on it was really, really cool.”
Following the increased discussion and outrage around women’s safety and men not doing enough earlier this year, ‘Volcano’ undoubtedly will resonate with a lot of young women. Its barely contained disbelief is an all too familiar feeling, but when documented in this manner, it has the potential to spark further conversation.
The deep-rooted understanding of what it is to be a young woman is fundamental to her music. It’s also largely why her relationship with her fans, for whom every release is treasured, is so special. Just a few days before we speak, two of them have set up a page called ‘@mazziememes’ (“It’s the funniest thing you’ll ever see in your life, I really recommend you check it out”) and a pink cherry print jumper worn in the video for ‘Psycho’ is repeatedly dipping out of stock on ASOS. “I fucking love them. We’ve all just grown up together. I’ve been making music now for a few years, and so I’ve gotten to really experience a lot of life with them. We’re all similar ages, similar people, we go through similar things, and they’re all really funny and good vibes. It’s really easy to have a good relationship with them because they’re all just wonderful.”
It’s hard not to be a fan of Maisie, either. Being in your early twenties can be rocky at times – you can experience every emotion under the sun. Across the album’s fourteen tracks, Maisie acknowledges that and allows you to feel each one in glorious depth. Her more flawed moments are there for all to see, but so are the moments where she shines and emerges victorious and exhilaratingly happy. It’s mature enough to acknowledge what went wrong, but it still bubbles with vitality and sparkling life. Each track feels like a love letter to who she has been and who she is yet to become, sealed with a healthy dose of synth and classic, bubblegum pop. ‘You Signed Up For This’, Maisie Peters warns. In the end, you’ll be glad you did.
Taken from the September 2021 edition of Dork, out now. Maisie Peters’ debut album ‘You Signed Up For This’ is out 27th August.