Bishop Briggs is not going to tell you her real name. Not yet anyway. “I just want people to focus on the music right now,” she said on the phone from Los Angeles where she was preparing to head back into the studio for another long day of writing. It’s easy to comply with the request, because her music has a magnetic draw that holds your attention. She has only released three songs so far, but they are racking up plays and accolades, and earned her a spot opening for a little band called Coldplay.
Her debut song “Wild Horses” had people scrambling to Shazam the Acura ad in which it was featured, holding their phones up to the TV in the hopes of finding out who was behind the lilting, hypnotic track. The follow-up “River” has garnered over 1.3 million plays on Soundcloud, which sounds like a lot until you realize the song has been listened to seven million times on Spotify. It’s a haunting tune filled with Bishop’s husky Motown-inflected voice drifting over rhythms that sound like GIFs, the action cut short by a repetition that draws you back in.
But despite the buzz, Bishop Briggs is still a mystery, in fact this is her second interview ever. “We know that makes it appear that we’re press shy, but we’re just trying to make it about music,” said Briggs, including her writing partners and producers Mark Jackson and Ian Brendan Scott in her collective we. “People can get to know me more through my lyrics and the melodies that we’re coming up with.”
In her music, Briggs’s voice is hay-scratched with country gothic undertones, but on the phone, she is surprisingly bubbly. “You weren’t expecting a Valley Girl drawl?” she said, laughing, further dispelling the noir-ish, unsettling persona crafted in the video for “River,” which looks a bit like a ‘90s remake of The Ring.
For Briggs the fact that she has press wanting to speak with her at all is a dream come true. “It was a dream from the moment I knew how to dream,” she said. Her family comes from the town in Scotland whose name she now bears, but she was born in London, lived in Japan and Hong Kong for years studying piano, writing what she called “dark poetry,” and singing karaoke with her father.
A few days after she graduated from high school, Briggs headed to Los Angeles as an 18-year old with Hollywood dreams in her head. But Briggs was no doe-eyed starlet-in-waiting; she enrolled at the Musicians Institute to study vocal performance and set about becoming a musician with a dogged determination. While on paper it sounds like a glissé maneuver from anonymity to near stardom, Briggs takes her very work seriously, treating her dreams like a job.
“I performed every two days in Los Angeles,” she said. “I was writing all the time, but even if you’re feeling good about the music the only way to really know is to perform it live. So for years and years and years, I played constantly.” She played anywhere that would have her hopping from one hole-in-the-wall venue to another. “I played anywhere, everywhere, places where no one cared, just to get my craft up,” she said. “A lot of people that are pursuing this crazy dream, they want it to happen overnight, they want to rush it, and I was one of those people, but I decided to just keep my head down and keep working and have tunnel vision and I’m really thankful for everything I did before. It taught me so much.”
That tireless slog changed in a clichéd instant when she was playing at a songwriter’s round and was heard by George Robertson, a music industry heavyweight who used to do A&R for Interscope Records. A week later, Robertson was her manager and took her to meet producers Mark Jackson and Ian Brendan. “A few days later we wrote ‘River’,” Briggs explained. “We realized we had something and we just kept going.”
Briggs, who still considers herself the dark poet of her childhood, is taking her shot at stardom seriously, visiting the studio every day to write for hours on end with her new partners. They are weighing record label options, too, hoping that soon they can come up with enough songs for a full-length release. While the group has played only a handful of shows together (just 12 at the time of the interview), she felt an instant rapport with the two men. “I had done co-writing before,” she said. “But this experience was like being bare in a room. They let me be vulnerable. We found we had so much to write about and so many stories to tell.”
It’s that vulnerability that is telegraphed so clearly into her music, and Briggs gives it her all in her live shows, especially in songs like “River” which she knows is becoming as important to her fans as it is to her. “You’re tearing out your lungs to send this message to the people in front of you,” said Briggs. “When it’s the last song of the set and you’re exhausted and you’re tired, you have to give everything in you to really make that impact.”
This summer, Briggs will take her show on tour, opening for Passion Pit and then hitting the road with Coldplay for a string of dates in the West. With Bishop Briggs and Alessia Cara–the 18-year old behind the anti-social theme song, “Here”–joining them on tour, Coldplay fans have two good reasons to show up early to the concert…and perhaps leave right after the openers). People who do catch Briggs in concert also know exactly how many songs she will play in her set—eight, because that’s all she currently has in her repertoire. “The people who go to my shows are definitely hearing all of the music first hand,” said Briggs. “It’s a cool way to show them the music for the first time.”
Not that fans show up to the gigs unprepared to sing along with her dark pop songs. “Thanks to YouTube, a lot of people know the music that is unreleased,” said Briggs, who uses the shows to get first-hand feedback from fans about which songs resonate. She also truly respond to her fans’ thoughts on her music, even adopting their interpretations of the songs based on her own experiences.
“The inspiration behind ‘River’ is always changing, because I’m always finding out different interpretations of it from other people, which I love so much,” she said. “Originally the song came from a place of strength and wanting the other person to stand up to the plate. And now, it’s about completely letting go.”
Briggs is incredibly grateful to have fans at all, but she earned them, steadily collecting a base of support over her years working in the trenches of the L.A. singer-songwriter circuit. While she now performs under a different name, her fans know who she is, and so far they’ve kept the secret of her identity to themselves. “It probably won’t be secret much longer,” she said, laughing. “Let’s just enjoy this little moment that we’re having together.”