When some musicians adopt a stage name, it’s strictly a narcissistic cry for attention. But for London-born singer-songwriter Bishop Briggs, it was a practical decision borne out of sheer necessity.
Just consider her birth name: Sarah Grace McLaughlin.
Though her last name was spelled differently than Canadian songbird Sarah McLachlan’s, the starry-eyed girl with plans to pursue a singing career knew at a fairly young age that competing with perhaps the finest pop-folk voice of her generation would be foolhardy.
It’s a story Briggs has undoubtedly shared millions of times. But the refreshing alternative artist with a booming voice and a charming, easygoing manner told it enthusiastically during a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles on Sept. 13 before catching a flight that night to Denver. She is one of the rising stars set to appear at the inaugural Grandoozy festival, where she’ll perform Friday (Sept. 14).
“I was born in the ’90s,” said the 26-year-old Briggs, who has made a name for herself with the 2018 breakthrough album Church of Scars (Island Records). “So Sarah McLachlan was — and still is — queen in every way. So I always knew that I’d be changing my name.”
It’s worked out well for Bishop Briggs, who cut a gap through the middle of Bishopbriggs, the town in Scotland where her parents grew up, altering it just enough to make it her own. Her mom and dad left behind all their other relatives, moving with the kids to Tokyo when their Sarah was four years old. By 1996, Sarah McLachlan was a worldwide sensation who would soon push women in music to new heights with Lilith Fair.
Briggs’ immediate family and former school chums still call her Sarah, but the name to this day can be more of a curse than a blessing. “Any time I booked a reservation, and I showed up, they would always be very disappointed,” Briggs said with a touch of bemusement rather than resentment. “And it still happens today.”
Asked if that’s a frequent occurrence, Briggs said with a laugh, “Well, people are very excited about the thought of meeting her. So, yes, it does happen all the time.”
That will soon change as word of Briggs’ formidable abilities spreads to those unfortunate music lovers not among the fans turning her single “River” into solid gold or the listeners helping Church of Stars reach the top 10 album charts worldwide. Her debut album has only been out since April, though Briggs has been working on her music career and piano playing basically since she bravely left Hong Kong at the age of 18 for Los Angeles.
“I thought of this mystical place where dreams came true,” Briggs said about her La La Land adventure. “And I think the impression of L.A. is that the minute you land, someone is gonna meet you. It’s gonna be an overnight thing. And for some people, it is that way. I also think that L.A. will always have that lure. And the minute that I graduated high school, I just had to come.”
Briggs could be living the dream now. Besides having a Grammy-worthy album out, her name is on the map of many prestigious music festivals and other concert venues seeking sellout crowds, while her dynamic presence got her an MTV Push Artist of the Year nomination at the MTV Video Music Awards as one of 2018’s biggest breakout artists.
Though Hayley Kiyoko was the winner in voting by fans, Briggs was flattered and appreciative for just being considered, saying, “I don’t think that will ever get old.” But if Grammy somehow comes knocking, she added, “I will combust into sparkles and glitter and I’ll just be above everyone else. (laughs) No, I’m kidding. That is the ultimate goal, for sure.”
In the meantime, she has plenty of other projects to occupy her time.
Giving “people more of an insight into who I am is always something that feels liberating as an artist and as a human,” Briggs said of the release of Church of Scars less than five months ago. But she isn’t resting on her rave reviews and press clippings.
Always coming up with ideas for new songs, she plans to perform at least two of them during her 45-minute Grandoozy set, accompanied by Beaudry Evans on drums and Taylor Van Ginkel on guitar. “Holding On” and “Let Me Out” reunited her in the studio with John Hill, who produced the glorious “Water” on Church of Scars, but Briggs isn’t ready to commit to plans for her next record.
“I think sometimes it’s important, especially with the daunting and heavily pressured second album, that you kind of never acknowledge it to yourself,” she said. “So I’m just doing that now.”
Don’t be surprised to also hear “Baby,” the recently released Hill-produced single.
Upfront about saying “Baby” is about her love life after being in a relationship with Sir Sly singer-songwriter Landon Jacobs for a year, Briggs added, “It’s kind of [my] first love song that is just very cheeky and silly and light. And it felt disingenuous to not release it because it is what’s currently happening. Church of Scars is something that truly represents that time of my life and so it felt important to release ‘Baby’ as something that is representing what’s currently happening in my life, too.”
Wanting to be “as transparent as possible,” Briggs wasn’t sure if she had enough experience to know what “falling in love easily” means, but did admit, “The person that I’m currently with is very lovable and I did find that with him. He’s just very, very easy to love. So I think in that sense, for sure, everything happened very quickly with him.”
Briggs felt just comfortable enough about their relationship that they costar in the music video for “Baby” — as cartoon characters.
“The thought of being onscreen with my boyfriend was really intimidating,” she said of the animated music video (shown below) directed by Malia James. “But it was kind of great to just create this alternate universe that is kind of what I stepped into when it came to writing the song, too. It was kind of about going into fearless land that didn’t have rules.
“Even just swearing in the song and talking about weed. It was all a new writing experience for me where I just kind of wrote as if no one would hear it. I try and do that as much as possible. But this time I really kind of took it to an extreme of, ‘What are the things I would say with my friends? And what are things I would joke about?’ And really just putting pen to paper and expressing that. And so with the video, it felt so important to kind of have that same energy. And I hope that comes across.”
The video (illustrated by Anja Slibar) puts Briggs in living colors that include blue and purple. (“I love the full unicorn with the white eyes,” she said.) But the most pleasant surprise upon first viewing the video came when the image representing her “appeared to be sane looking.”
That’s fortunate, considering what a wild and crazy year Briggs is having. She used that C-word when describing another believe-it-or-not collaboration that arrived out of the blue.
Briggs was chosen by Academy Award-winning composer A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) to sing his song “I Am More” that appears in Love Sonia, a film starring Freida Pinto and Demi Moore that addresses international sex trafficking.
Having grown up in Asia and going on family vacations to Thailand, Briggs said she was a front-row witness to what was happening, and was moved as a result of this “incredible” movie to not only “be a part of the conversation of sex trafficking” but also “be able to speak about and educate others about” the subject.
So how did Briggs get enlisted for the project?
“I have no idea,” she said, laughing. “I’m serious. I have no idea. It was a mystical, magical sequence of events. And before I knew it, I was in [Rahman’s] living room outside the studio and I got played the song with a group of people and I was just so in awe the entire time. And everything happened so quickly. … And I think his thought with it is pretty much getting the most authentic take that the artist can have on the music that he’s creating, which was a really cool thing to experience. It was (laughs) … high anxiety, too. But I tried my best to step up to the plate and it’s a movie that I think I’ll tell my grandkids about one day.”
That’s when Bishop Briggs will continue to visit Bishopbriggs, where as a little girl she became fascinated by pig-out sweets at the movie theater, morning fry-ups and the Loch Ness monster.
Looking back at the good ol’ days, though, the boisterous tattooed lady with the graying hair will take great comfort in simply being called “Grandma.”
AIN’T IT GRANDOOZY? FESTIVAL TALK WITH BISHOP BRIGGS
What do you know about this inaugural festival?
Oh my gosh! Well, I know that I’m playing it. (laughs) No, but I mean, just the lineup alone I just feel it makes it a standout from other festivals, which is really exciting. I was just re-reading the lineup. And it really is crazily intimidating but crazily exciting to be a part of.
One of the questions I’ve been asking is: Among the headliners, who you would pay to see?
Oooh. Florence + the Machine, Kendrick Lamar. It sounds as if I’m listing the first line. But when I saw those two I just … it just really is crazy. The thought of seeing both of them would be a total bucket list, for sure.
For people who might not be familiar with your music, what do you want Grandoozy festival-goers to know about you?
Well, my set is very high intensity. There’s a lot of jumping around and sweatiness and, hopefully, you’re kind of taken on an emotional roller coaster. My music is, I would say, like a mix of hip-hop beats with soulful melodies and I love to throw in any gospel influences I can. I try to make my lyrics be as direct as possible.
Coming to the Mile High City, do you have an altitude adjustment?
Oh my gosh! I’m so happy you reminded me. Every time I perform there, I am out of breath. And I am so hard on myself. I’m the biggest critic. And I keep on forgetting there’s altitude. I tend to not act any different but I really should take it more easy.
What song on your set list is your secret weapon, one that you know will win over a festival audience? What about your cover of INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart”?
Oh, in my headlining set, I do play the “Never Tear Us Apart” cover because it was such a huge part of this year for me [appearing on the Fifty Shades Freed trailer and soundtrack]. And it would feel like I’m hiding something if I didn’t sing it at my headline shows. I don’t know that I’m gonna sing it at Grandoozy but I do love to sing it when I’m in more intimate venues, for sure.
Part 1 of the interview series with artists appearing this weekend at Denver’s three-day event run by the co-creators of Bonnaroo and Outside Lands featured Jade Bird.
Bishop Briggs is scheduled to perform from 4:45 to 5:30 p.m. MT Friday (Sept. 14) on the Scissors stage at the three-day Grandoozy festival in Denver, where the headliners are Kendrick Lamar (Friday), Florence + the Machine (Saturday) and Stevie Wonder (Sunday). Single-day and three-day tickets are still available.
Michael Bialas is a journalist and photographer who enjoys writing about entertainment and sports for a number of online publications, including PopMatters and No Depression. Follow him on Twitter: @mjbialas