Onstage, Bishop Briggs paces and hop-steps like a cross between a boxer and a caged tiger, engaging audiences with a laser stare, then letting roar with a voice just as dominating.
“When I’m up onstage, there’s no part of it that’s put on or acting. It’s like a knee-jerk reaction,” says Briggs, 25, recalling a recent photo shoot where she let down a photographer who’d hoped to replicate poses from her live shows. “I remember the state I was in when I wrote each song. … And that can bring out lots of different emotions.”
There’s no faking the fast-rising success of the London-born, LA-based singer, whose dynamic singles “Wild Horses,” “River” and “White Flag” rolled into her debut album, Church of Scars, its title derived from the lyric “My heart is a church of scars.” The April release consolidates her glossy, cinematic blend of gospel-soul and trap music with bright, sparse-to-dense production standing in contrast to dark, grittier songs that echo relationship woes.
“Through the process of writing this album, I went through a breakup and that’s where the fire came in,” a gregarious Briggs says from a Vancouver tour stop en route to a May 19 show at Royale. “The reason why I can have perhaps a cheery exterior is because I deal with the interior in writing and performing. That’s the importance of having an outlet for any negative emotions or darkness inside you.”
Bishop Briggs plays Royale on May 19.
Music provided that outlet early for Sarah Grace McLaughlin, who took her stage name from Bishopbriggs, a town in Scotland where she has family roots. After her Scottish-born parents moved to Japan, Briggs got her first taste of performing at age 4, singing Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” in a karaoke bar. “It all began with just feeling like my soul was fulfilled by performing,” Briggs says. She began writing songs, which she calls “some form of therapy,” three years later.
“Even when I was 7, I always found it to be far more authentic for me as a writer when I wrote about things that weren’t perfect,” she says. “A big influence for me at that time when I was writing was Pink. She was talking about her family and what was happening behind the scenes that wasn’t as pretty, and I found it to be really refreshing, and that’s something I’ve tried to hold onto.”
Her parents played Motown in the house and exposed her to Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, the Beatles and Janis Joplin, who Briggs lauds as “so direct and ruthless, relentless, powerful and vulnerable all at once.” Briggs briefly took piano lessons (“If I did a good job, I got stickers, but only for the short time while I was into stickers”) and when her family moved to Hong Kong, she spent eight years with a voice teacher. “I really went full steam ahead from there,” Briggs says.
Not that success came quickly; she moved to LA after high school but spent years playing small clubs until she was discovered. “I’m really happy with the timing, just because I kinda got to earn my stripes,” Briggs says. “Some of the venues I would play, it was seven of my best friends in a room that smelled like pee and there was a stripper pole. Memories like that I guess I’ll keep with me.”
On the major-label path, the singer collaborated with songwriter/producers led by Mark Jackson and Ian Scott to craft alt-pop songs that pulse and surge with trap’s bass-buzzing beats and electronic shading as well as gospel vocals that nod to her Motown influences. She listened a lot to Alabama Shakes, the Black Keys and Hozier as well as Jack Garratt and Kanye West while forging a hybrid sound.
As she does in the studio, Briggs will play piano and trigger samples on this tour, backed by a guitarist and drummer. But when it comes to the vocals, she’s not looking to contain solitary feelings. “There’s something very liberating about all of us being able to sing together and lose ourselves in the music and get sweaty and jump around,” she says, “feeling like you’ve been on an emotional roller coaster.” ◆
Bishop Briggs plays Royale on May 19.
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