PinkPantheress is hiding in plain sight — which is to say, on the internet.
The 20-year-old singer-songwriter-producer originally from Bath, England spent this year masking her face, much like the rest of us during quarantine, behind blocks of text on her TikTok, where she has accumulated more than one million followers. “Day 11 of posting a song every day bc i have nothing else to do,” she wrote in a text box that partially covered her mouth as she was seen recording audio in her second video from January.
PinkPantheress, who still choses not to reveal her real name due to privacy concerns, soundtracked the clip with a 12-second snippet of “Pain,” the full-length version of which she released independently that same month. The song describes how she’s feeling about an ex over a retro garage beat taken from “Flowers” by the Manchester-based dance outfit Sweet Female Attitude, with her happy-go-lucky, writer’s block-induced “La, la-la-la-la, la-la” chant closing out the song. It eventually earned the viral sensation her first top 40 hit on the Official U.K. Singles Chart.
A fan of The Pink Panther mystery-comedy franchise, PinkPantheress was actually watching a British TV game show when one of the answers to the questions caught her attention: “Pantheress.” “I was like, ‘That’s kind of funny. I’m gonna use that as my TikTok username.’ And then the ‘Pink’ part had to come because [just “Pantheress”] was already taken,” she tells Billboard from behind her blue square Zoom background about her online alias-turned-stage name. It’s very indicative of what persona she puts out to the rest of the world: mysterious, alluring, daring.
Now, 259 days after posting that second TikTok clip, PinkPantheress has 10 songs out as part of her debut mixtape to hell with it, which was released on Friday (Oct. 15) via Parlophone and Elektra Records.
Only spanning 18 minutes and 36 seconds, to hell with it unfurls the enigmatic up-and-comer’s frenetic energy — captured by her speed-up instrumentals as well as her thoroughly emo-yet-melodic sensibilities. With her dulcet shrill voice, PinkPantheress sings mostly about hypothetical situations, like unhealthily clinging onto exes, and even some real ones, like navigating through the turbulence of adolescence on “Nineteen.”
Her nostalgic sound, which she describes as “dark but dancey,” synthesizes U.K. drum and bass, 2-step garage and breakbeats that somehow finds itself in the middle of Y2K rave music and bedroom pop. The singer, who just made Billboard’s 21 Under 21 list, went from creating her own beats on Garage Band in her bedroom to collaborating with producers like Mura Musa (on the deceptively carefree guitar-driven song — and TikTok’s official breakout track of the summer — “Just For Me”), after signing to Parlophone Records in April and Elektra Records in June of this year. While initially worried that signing a record deal might force her to relinquish her of some creativity, PinkPantheress found expanding her one-woman operation gave her the liberty to focus on her true passion.
“I think my biggest interest when it comes to music making is within the topline writing — as opposed to the beat production and the singing aspect,” she explains. “I’m a big fan of writing lyrics, writing melodies, so I wasn’t too bothered with collaborating with other people. It’s only a good thing to get the help of a producer because I’m a terrible producer, which is why I have to sing on top of samples.”
On “Break It Off,” she samples Adam F’s ’90s drum and bass track “Circles.” Her latest single “I must apologise” borrows some DNA from Crystal Waters’ ’90s house classic “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless).” But sampling is more of a “challenge” to PinkPantheress rather than a crutch, as she asks herself each time, “Could I write anything that melodically makes just as much sense as the original?”
The music video for “Just For Me,” which she co-directed alongside her friend Lauzza, offers one of the first, full-body extended visuals of PinkPantheress, her microbraids tucked behind her ears and her hands clasped behind her back like an innocent school girl. Standing in front of a DJ, PinkPantheress leads a group of seemingly depressed teenagers into her helium-pitched breakup reflection that feels more like a dirge by their mostly black attire and somber expressions as she sings, “When you wipe your tears, do you wipe them just for me?”
Alternatively, real-life videos on Twitter of PinkPantheress’ songs playing in the club present a much different picture. Performing to hell with it live in front of an audience has definitely crossed her mind, as indicative of a TikTok video promoting the tape when she wrote, “Can’t wait to perform it at a 17-minute-long concert one day.” But when it comes to what exactly that “17 minute long concert” would be like, PinkPantheress doesn’t have a clue.
“I really didn’t think about the length of concerts,” she says. “There was part of me that was like, ‘I might make an extended version for live, to be kind of a more exclusive thing. I think that could be a cool idea. But the set-up’s just going to be me and a DJ, it’s not going to be a band or anything. I like to keep things kind of simple. But I guess an encore might be needed for a few songs.”
Fans might be led to believe that the widely discussed brevity of her songs — only three out of the 10 tracks on to hell with it extend past two minutes, with only one marginally over the 2:30-mark — stems from the time constraint of TikTok videos, which were previously capped at 60 seconds, but, as of July 1, now have a three-minuted extended maximum.
“When I write a song, I kind of get bored very easily of the same melody over again, so I kind of just end up going, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna end the song here.’ And funny enough, when I’m ending the song, I’m like, ‘This is like three minutes, right?’” she says with a laugh that in and of itself is noticeably clipped. “I’m surprised by how actually short it is myself, to be fair, because I’m not intending them necessarily to be that short.”
Her peers certainly don’t feel bored singing her melodies over and over again, as heard in Giveon’s gut-wrenching ballad cover of “Just For Me” for BBC Radio 1xtra Live Lounge and in Central Cee’s U.K. drill hit “Obsessed With You,” which heavily samples the same song and went all the way to No. 4 on the U.K. Singles Chart (the original “Just For Me” peaked at No. 27).
“It’s like being in school — sounds really weird actually, I don’t know why I’m using this analogy — and I’ve got loads of classmates,” she says of other artists’ reactions to her music. “It’s like Central Cee’s like a year above and he’s like, ‘Wow, you’re doing really good…’ I think it makes me feel like a lot of things are actually truly achievable when it comes to music. I feel like before, even when I had ‘Break It Off’ and ‘Pain’ out, I still felt very distanced between myself and a lot of the musicians I look up to.”
Some of those musicians she looks up to and wants to collaborate with include Kaytranada — “Honestly that’s like my dream, I’m not even joking,” she stresses — and Caroline Polacheck, adding: “I just think that she’s an amazing singer and amazing topline writer, so I think it’d be cool to see how our melodies would interact with each other.” PinkPantheress has already stricken GoldLink from her list after appearing on “Evian,” also featuring Rizloski and Rax, from his last album HARAM!, earning the rising star her first guest artist credit.
“It was really an amazing moment because I’ve been listening to GoldLink for years and years — so when I got a message from him, I was shocked,” she recalls. “He’s very culturally significant, I think, just because of his kind of interpretation, the way that he slides on dance beats is something that I hadn’t really heard of before I listened to him… I was really happy to be on that song.”
The school analogy PinkPantheress makes earlier about relating to other artists makes sense coming from a girl studying film at the University of the Arts London. But when asked if she’s still attending, the singer-songwriter coyly replies, “I think so” with a chuckle. “I’ve yet to confirm that for sure.”
She’s admitted to recording full-length records during her Zoom lectures. But much like Megan Thee Stallion, who’s currently studying health care administration at Texas Southern University — “If [Megan] can do it and be one of the biggest stars in the world, then I don’t think there’s anything stopping you,” she says — PinkPantheress believes aspiring musicians can pursue their education at the same time, even if it’s not their obvious priority.
“I bring in work late for uni,” she confesses. “But it’s like, at least I was doing something else that was worthwhile.”