Baxter Dury and JGrrey Made Some Gnarly Stuff

The friends and collaborators talk “economy” nepo babies, chaotic childhoods, and I Thought I Was Better Than You.

Baxter Dury is a London-based musician and author, who’s collaborated with the likes of Sleaford Mods and Fred Again (and is the son of Ian Dury, frontman of Ian Dury & the Blockheads); JGrrey is a fellow London-based musician, who just released her latest single “Boys?”. JGrrey contributed to Baxter’s new record, I Thought I Was Better Than You, is out tomorrow via Heavenly Recordings, so to celebrate, the two hopped on a Zoom call to catch up about its recording, about being an “economy nepo baby,” and much more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Baxter Dury: I can say that I’m on my seventh zoom of the day.

JGrrey: Wow. So you’re in.

Baxter: I get a Zoom syndrome. Do you get a Zoom syndrome? 

JGrrey: I get really weird…

Baxter: I feel guilty. Why does Zoom make me feel like I’ve done something wrong?

JGrrey: I think it’s, you’re suddenly aware of how much attention you’re commanding, isn’t it? Especially when the camera will change to you speaking and everyone’s hanging on your word, as to whether you’re going to conclude or resolve or are you just going to talk rubbish. 

Baxter: I realize how many quirky and weird facial expressions I have, and I don’t like it. I’m narcissistic and like, Maybe this angle is better… Then it’s not a conversation, is it? If you can see yourself, it’s not a conversation.

JGrrey: It changes everything. It’s a performance.

Baxter: I don’t like it. Can we turn it off? 

JGrrey: Well, I quite enjoy seeing you, so we’ll keep it on for now.

Baxter: Oh, I like seeing you as well.

JGrrey: Yeah, you look lovely. Have you done something different with — oh, you know what it is? You’re not wearing a suit. I haven’t seen you not wearing a really smart suit and a vest for a while.

Baxter: In my promo, I was thinking that the valley between the character that I’ve created — as a sort of sleazy persona — and the realities of my couscous and avocado and early night is so vast now…

JGrrey: If people knew the snacks that you were eating in the studio…

Baxter: That was the incriminating point. That was what you’d call a hairline fracture, where my class myth was broken. You accused me of being really posh, because you saw me eating organic Japanese snacks. And you can be quite intimidating…

JGrrey: [Laughs.] I was thinking about this the other day, about how ridiculous it is that I slid in your DMs, really — which I’ve never done, by the way. I think you’re the first person I’ve ever thought to myself, I’ll reach out on social media on the off chance… Then I was thinking about all the sessions, and how you had a very specific way of working. It was really exciting, because you knew what you wanted. But yeah, the Japanese organic sweets threw me off. It was all a mirage past that.

Baxter: Yeah, sort of disappointing. Because since I wrote that album, there’s a whole thing about nepo babies. But then I thought, Shit, there’s nothing worse than a Mockney nepo baby. That combination of rubbish characteristics — that’s quite a good little character. 

JGrrey: [Laughs.] It is, it is.

Baxter: Just a horrible baby. But how have you been, anyway?

JGrrey: Yeah, I’m OK. I’m really excited about everything I’ve got going on. Really excited for your album to be out and my project to be out. 

Baxter: When is your when is your album out? 

JGrrey: Well, I wouldn’t call it an album. As soon as you start calling it — because it’d be my debut album, wouldn’t it? So, nah, it’s just a little project. I don’t want to put myself under the pressure of releasing a debut album just yet.

Baxter: Well, you avoid that, because that’s quite a heavyweight thing that [gets] overfocused on. But you’re being played on the radio, which is good, right?

JGrrey: BBC 6 and everything, yeah.

Baxter: That’s nice.

JGrrey: It’s really exciting.

Baxter: I did a big interview with Nemone, and she loves you. Absolutely obsessed. It was almost like, Can we get over this? 

JGrrey: [Laughs.] “Can we talk about me for a second?”

Baxter: She kept on going back about, “How did you meet her?” I couldn’t really explain that you’d contacted me via Instagram, because it didn’t make sense in the conversation. I just gave up and said I got in contact with your manager, which was a massive lie. 

I was explaining the album process to someone before and as I was going through it, I really lit up thinking, Oh, actually it was one of the most fun albums I’ve ever made. Just because of the whole unexpectedness of it, the simplicity of it. Paul [White, the record’s producer] was an incredibly ambient and lovely person to be around, so he made it very peaceful. And then everyone that rolled up sort of either invited themselves or just were there [spontaneously] — there wasn’t really anything with major management and all that charade that goes on. It was a very simple, very kind of private little thing. You would roll up, and then Eska was next door and she would roll up. Also it mirrored the whole area — it was quite a Deptford or Southeast London kind of experience, and I was out of my snug West London comfort zone.

JGrrey: That you were, that you were.

Baxter: And I think the album reflects that sort of thing, you know what I mean?

JGrrey: 100%. When I heard “[Pale While Nissan]” my mind was blown, because it was like a juxtaposition of, how can something so clean sounding be made by someone who works in such a — you’re very particular. I remember you saying, “No, don’t sing it like that, sing it like this.” And the way you were singing, it was a bit pitchy, if anything. But that’s what you wanted!

Baxter: Well, I don’t recognize that I’m pitchy…

JGrrey: No, but you wanted it to sound how you wanted it to sound! And then hearing the rest of the music you had, it was almost like a journey of, as you just said, all these different people coming in and out. It’s just really interesting to have been in the room but then also hear the project.

Baxter: Well, like you and your kind of confidence — which you do have a kind of sporadic confidence that will say something that’s quite direct and maybe not expected, in a nice, actually quite reassuring way. And that song “Pale White Nissan,” it was was something almost on a scrap pile, or a considered option, and both Paul and I had got a bit unconfident about it, because it’s quite nutty. And you being you, you just went — I can’t remember the terms that you were using, but they were quite Deptford. 

JGrrey: [Laughs.] 

Baxter: You were going, “This is slamming, banging, moving!” I got a bit excited and thought about it that night, whether it was slamming, banging or whatever.

JGrrey: I think I said something like,” Wow, this is fucking gnarly.”

Baxter: [Laughs.] Which is a really good word. And I did realize overnight that it was gnarly. So it’s a testament to your confidence, or your directness, which I think is a real skill in itself to have.

JGrrey: Well, shall I tell you why I had the capacity to be that direct? It was because that’s what I’d received from you. You said, “This is what I want. That’s not what I want.” So I thought, that’s the premise you’d already set. I was just holding myself to your standards, you know?

Baxter: Well, thank you very much. I think it’s more of a vibe thing with people. And it’s not always easy in those situations. You could ask somebody to work with you, and a lot of the time people are quite odd or awkward. You know what I mean? But I didn’t find that we were that awkward, and it was actually quite a nice moment.

JGrrey: Well, we ended up having these really big discussions, didn’t we? I don’t know why, but we just ended up going off on these tangents in between making music about life and where we grew up. And I found that you asked me really interesting questions — you asked me questions about myself, which a lot of the time if you’re in a session, no one’s going to ask you because you’re there essentially to sing a song, you know? So I think the fact that you took interest in and held space to ask me those questions, I then started asking you those questions. We had these really open conversations that I think just created a nice space then for the music to feel good and the energy in the room to be nice.

Baxter: I’m quite intrusive in that sense that I find it’s hard to like people unless I understand them a little bit. I think it’s a bit like a kind of an autism, almost. It’s a bit frank. I sort of immediately ask people where they’re from or inconsistencies about their life. And I don’t mean to — it’s not a manipulation, but it’s attached to what I want to happen in the music. It informs it. I’m genuinely interested. Until I kind of know somebody or understand them, I feel a bit uncomfortable with them.

JGrrey: Oh, 100%, definitely. 

Baxter: It’s sort of primal or something like that. But anyway, you came over two or three times didn’t you? And Paul’s studio is very simple, but he’s built it perfectly so he can operate it in a good way. I really like his kind of on-the-edge way of working. 

JGrrey: It’s very manic, yeah. It is on the edge. 

Baxter: Well, I’ve got a kind of manic energy, and he’s sort of yoga-ed that out of him or something. And they work quite well together. You can’t have two of those horizontal energies or two of those vertical energies. 

JGrrey: Yeah. 

Baxter: So what’s on your schedule now? Because every time I speak to you, you might be on a kind of weird mission somewhere.

JGrrey: Right. I had a big meeting this morning — a real life one. This is my first Zoom of the day, so you’re winning. But I’ve got a live gig coming up and I’ve got a Boiler Room, which I’m really excited about. So I’m in the boring kind of admin stages of rehearsal and talking about pre-production and what we’re going to do. But today I’m at home all day. It’s really sunny in South London. Are you in your lovely posh West London home?

Baxter: Yeah, exactly. [Turns the camera to the rest of the room.]

JGrrey: Oh, wow, gorgeous!

Baxter: Yeah, this is an amazing gaff, to be honest. It wasn’t always growing up. That always sounds a bit bullshit when you say that to people, but when I moved back in here five years ago — for anyone who’s reading, I live in West London, and this is an old family home owned by my dad. It got bought by a record company, but it was kind of like a shell with no curtains when we lived here. It’s always been in the family, but I managed to rent it back off the other bit of the family, and I could take my quarter off it so it wasn’t so expensive. But when we moved back in there, some of the people that lived in this block were here since I was a kid, and when they saw me roll up again, they all started to cross themselves as though the terror family was arriving back.

JGrrey: [Laughs.] “They’re back again!”

Baxter: It was so chaotic that the local policeman — he was called PC Honey, and he used to come and ring the door. I used to answer it at the age of 13. He goes, “PC Honey, can I come in?” And I go, “Oh, alright, come in.” And dad would be playing the drums at three in the morning, not giving a flying fuck. Honey would come in and go, “Are you alright, Bax?” And I’d go, “Yeah, I’m fine.” And then he would shout, “Ian, I can’t come into that room because you’re smoking cannabis! I will not come in there!” Anyway, this went on for three or four years. And then eventually dad made him a song called “PC Honey.” You can hear a recording of PC Honey at the [end] of it going, “Hey!” 

But that’s how chaotic it was here. The guy that ran the National Theatre lived downstairs, I think, and he went so mad he eventually came up with a hammer — and dad was in the bathroom down at the other end of the flat with a guy playing the didgeridoo. 

JGrrey: [Laughs.] Pure chaos. 

Baxter: It’s a sedate place now. You can’t perpetuate that life. But it’s been funny talking about this record, because I kind of mention things about famous dads and nepo babies before all that stuff gets mentioned. So it’s giving permission for people to ask. Not in a horrible way, but because it’s kind of interesting for them. It’s been quite interesting talking back about it.

JGrrey: I must say — and this is probably the first time I’ve said this to you — I think it’s beautiful the fact you’ve addressed and commented on it so much. I think it’s almost the the guts of the record. I really like that, and I think it makes for insightful, but also really beautiful listening.

Baxter: It’s also a bit of an unintentional trick of art imitating art imitating art, you know what I mean? But it was preempting the sort of witch hunt went on — but no one’s interested in me, because I’m a bit of an economy nepo baby. It’s a bit budget. And then I’ve got a face that people feel sorry for, so they go, “Actually, you probably didn’t have that much of a nice life anyway.” [Laughs.] But there was a few young ones that were a bit like, “Did you grow up [entitled]?” And you can’t explain to someone that you didn’t not not grow up entitled, or that you did grow up… It’s just an interesting conversation, because you can’t be defensive about it.

Interestingly enough, I don’t really know where you grew up. Did you grow up in in Southeast London? Or you grew up in a combination of places, didn’t you?

JGrrey: Yeah. It’s funny, someone said to me the other day, “Where were you born?” And I said, “Vauxhall.” And they said, “No one’s born in Vauxhall!” Well, I was born in Vauxhall, in South London. I grew up in foster care until I was six, seven years old, and I’ve lived all over the shop. I was in South London for a bit. I was in Harlesden, in Edgware, I think I was in Brighton for a little bit. I’ve lived in Manchester. I’ve really been around.

I’m 29 now and I think moving around so much and having such an unstable childhood, in that I didn’t really know what was going on — I’m sure you can relate — [it] really has made me the forward person I am today. I just like to get to the point. I like to know whether I’m enjoying myself. So I think that the shitty childhood I had is integral to how confident I am today, you know? But it’s an interesting one, having moved around so much, because then I often wonder, where am I actually from? Am I from South London? Who knows.

Baxter: But do you feel settled where you are now? Because when you came over to sing and you met Paul, who also is child of that area, that felt like the area you represented.

JGrrey: Yeah, definitely. I recently only just met my birth mum, the other month, really. 

Baxter: That was when I met you.

JGrrey: Yeah, it’s crazy timing. Yesterday I went over and took her a care package — just some bits and bobs, I went shopping — and that house that she’s in now was the house that she took me back to from the hospital. So seeing that, it’s crazy. 

Baxter: Did she explain much?

JGrrey: Well, you know, she’s not all there, as it were. She’s she’s lived a very hard life, and she’s definitely quite aloof. She’s not really that bothered by me — which is nice. I wouldn’t want her to be too much. You know, she sends me texts talking about, “Do you want to go for a drink?” And then she won’t text me back for a couple of weeks. And I like that. So it’s quite nice.

Baxter: Why is that easier? Just because it doesn’t make it all a big exaggerated…

JGrrey: Can you imagine — I turned up at her door after, what, 28 years? It would put me off if she’d been too keen. 

Baxter: Yeah. I didn’t mean to go down that road, but it was one of the things I was automatically fascinated by when you were there. I didn’t know if I put you on the spot at that time, because I homed into that, didn’t I? I think it is a sort of shared chaotic thing. My childhood — it was blessed by lots of amazing people, but it was also really chaotic and full of sometimes very drunk and very mental people. And only have I been allowed, as I’ve become a person in my own right, to say, Actually, you know, that wasn’t always right. But I do share that uncertainty.

JGrrey: Is there anything that you wonder about, about your childhood? For example, I often wonder: was I held often? Like, there’s not many photos of me as a child, so I’m always trying to picture myself receiving affection. And I can’t picture it, just because I know my circumstance. And I often wonder with regards to meal schedules… I don’t know!

Baxter: Well, we all learn as we go on that these little things that configure your very young years create the quirks as an adult. So if we can recognize them, then we can sort of tame some of our wilder responses that seem irrational, right? 

JGrrey: Yes, yes. 

Baxter: I wonder sometimes whether — we lived in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, like a hippie place. Dad had formed his first band and he was playing “Johnny B. Goode” as mum gave birth to me in the house. And not long after that he slung it, he ran off. And to mama, to walk three miles to the local shop with two babies… I wonder how much of that miserable experience — god, we’re really turning into therapy.

JGrrey: Yeah, I’ll send you an invoice after this.

Baxter: But it informs the music, though, doesn’t it? I guess the point is, when you turned up, I was immediately interested in that. And I’m explaining a bit why because, no one’s upbringing is perfect, but I’m interested in it because I use it in what I do — especially in this album. I’m really not frightened of it, and I really like it when other people talk about it, even if they sometimes feel uncomfortable. 

JGrrey: I mean, I think it’s integral to who you are. I have a saying that if you haven’t struggled, chances are we’re not going to get on. You have to have been through some horrific, traumatic shit for me to know that you are have the integrity now in your adult life. You know what I’m saying? It’s almost like a trauma bonding thing. 

Baxter: It’s a range of understanding, is what it is. It’s a range of things that you like people to understand.

JGrrey: Yeah.

Baxter: I was just talking to Paul, actually, and I think we should maybe make some new music at some point. What do you think about that? Would you like to do that?

JGrrey: Baxter, you know me. 

Baxter: We could all start from scratch and get in a room, as opposed to one person writing anything.

JGrrey: That would be really, really sick. We’ll get all the grown ups, all the managers to sort a date, and then we’ll get in and make some gnarly stuff.

Musician, writer and Renaissance man Baxter Dury returns with his seventh studio album, I Thought I Was Better Than You. Due for release June 2, 2023 through Heavenly Recordings, the album is produced by Paul White, celebrated for his work in Golden Rules and with the likes of Charli XCX and Danny Brown. Hotly-tipped new singer-songwriters Eska and JGrrey feature in addition to Baxter’s regular vocalist Madeline Hart.