PinkPantheress no longer cares what people think of her. When she released her lo-fi breakout tracks Break it Off and Pain on TikTok in early 2021, aged just 19, she did so anonymously, partly out of fear of being judged. Now, almost three years later, the 22-year-old is at the other end of the spectrum. “Opinions? How people perceive me? I just don’t care any more.”

It can be liberating for an artist to approach the pressures of being in the limelight with a nonchalance, but the musician is worried it may be turning into full-blown apathy. “How have I gone from caring so much to not caring at all?” she asks herself with a hint of concern. “Sometimes I sit in my room and I’m worried that I’ve lost the capacity to care. To some people it sounds ideal, but it can end up being bad for you.” How so? “I need to care because I need to present myself nicely sometimes. I’m trying to find the balance.”

We are at her record label’s office in east London, where we’re discussing her debut album Heaven Knows. She is dressed casually in muted colours: jeans, T-shirt, grey boots. Style-wise, she’s known for her handbag, often taking it on stage with her. A TikTok user posted a video of her performing with it, with the text: “When you have a concert at 8 but have to run errands at 9.” PinkPantheress labels her style as “young auntie”, but she’s still very much at the early stages of crafting her look. “I don’t think I’m very brandable. I think I dress weird. I think that I’m shy.”

PinkPantheress – who doesn’t use her real name – does read as shy. She gives minimal eye-contact, checks her phone often, yawns occasionally (she’s been sleeping a lot in preparation for a busy 2024, so I don’t take it personally). But her voice is bold and her delivery is very deadpan – worlds apart from her airy, sugary singing voice.

When it comes to music, PinkPantheress is much clearer about her identity. After breaking out on TikTok in 2021 with a series of viral hits, her rise has been rapid: she topped the BBC’s Sound of 2022 list; the remix of her track Boy’s a Liar, with the New York rapper Ice Spice, went platinum this February and peaked at No 3 in the US; and her song Angel was a promotional single for the Barbie soundtrack this summer. Heaven Knows marks perhaps the most important moment in her career: an opportunity to show that she is more than just a maker of hit singles. “I want people to think my music is pushing the boat out,” she says.

Her pick-and-mix approach to genre is typical of modern pop. The influence of drum’n’bass and 2-step garage runs vividly throughout her songs, and was what initially grabbed listeners. But Heaven Knows features more guitars, more strings, more gothic keys. There’s a sample of Gold by Spandau Ballet on Nice to Meet You, while Mosquito has a bossa nova vibe. “The theme is about love, loss and life. I wanted it to feel like, at any point, the listener could start having memories of a loved one or someone that they’ve lost,” she says of the album. “Overall, I wanted to make everyone feel a bit depleted and sad. That’s why I’m so glad it’s coming out during winter and close to Halloween.”

Melancholia is a pillar of PinkPantheress’s music. Woeful synths saturate her songs and lyrics of despair and sadness are in abundance. Her 2021 mixtape was titled To Hell With It and featured songs such as Nineteen, with its lyric: “Some days when I’m down, just a little bit, I drop myself to the floor / It’s not a problem if it hurts because I can’t feel ache any more”. The New Yorker called the record “a beguiling display of dreams and nightmares”.PinkPantheress was born in 2001 in Bath but raised in Kent. Her mother is Kenyan and works as a carer, while her father is English and works as a statistics professor. She was one of only a few Black people in her year at school, which was difficult, but she has always felt connected to her African heritage. “Because I’m mixed, I grew up with people telling me that I should feel confused about [who I am]. I identify more with my mum, probably because she’s a woman. I’ve never really lost sight of who I was.”

She moved to London, enrolling at University of the Arts to study film, but it wasn’t long before she dropped out. “The pandemic made it useless anyway,” she says. “I wanted to be a film editor but as soon as I realised that film is the hardest industry to get into, I just knew that it was going to be difficult. If I can’t be the best at something, I don’t want to do it. There were editors in my class that were 10 times better than me.”

She had always been a music lover from an early age. Her parents introduced her to songs by Queen and Michael Jackson, as well as African music. She had piano lessons growing up and was inspired by her sound-engineer brother, who made experimental music. “I got introduced to music in Canterbury. I had friends in the music scene and those were the ones that really opened up that world to me. They would take me to shows in London and introduce me to these [music-production] programs.” When her degree in film proved uninspiring, she revisited music, and began uploading songs to TikTok. “I remember thinking: ‘I have to do this. I owe it to myself.’ It sounds so dramatic, but there was such desperation.”

PinkPantheress … ‘When Pain started doing rounds my friend said it sounded like me, but I said it wasn’t. I lied to her.’ Photograph: Anthony Idahosa

She produced most of her early works, having taught herself how to make beats on GarageBand at 17. “In the beginning, I couldn’t really produce from scratch. So I just needed something to work off of,” she says of her frequent early use of samples. “There’s a Linkin Park sample that I once used. I wanted people to listen to them while listening to me. A synergy between two artists.”

Her music is an accumulation of all the stuff she grew up with. “I listen to a lot of K-pop, emo stuff. A lot of rap. I was taking one component of each of these things that I liked and then turning them into one [thing].” Today, her favourite artists include Steve Lacy, Kaytranada (he co-produced her song Do You Miss Me), Kendrick Lamar, Baby Keem, Chloe Bailey and Amaarae. She also cites Lily Allen’s signature sound as an inspiration. Creating a distinctive sound of her own, so that listeners can immediately identify her work, is something she has always aspired to: “That’s the only thing I wanted.”

In her early TikTok videos she would obscure her face, sometimes overlaying text such as “Day 2 of posting my song until someone notices.” On one hand, she wanted attention, but on the other she didn’t want anyone who knew her to discover what she was doing; she would even block her friends from her TikTok page. Privacy is important to her; she only began showing her face in TikTok videos in the summer of that year, and it’s why she continues to work under a pseudonym.

But PinkPantheress quickly hit upon a winning formula. Her dreamy vocals, compounded with breakbeat loops, struck a chord and her music began to flood the internet. Her song Just for Me released on 13 August 2021 was soon used in more than 2.2m videos on the app. It was hailed by TikTok as its official “breakout track of the summer”. Central Cee sampled it on Obsessed With You and Coldplay covered it in BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge. “When [single] Pain started doing rounds on TikTok, my friend said that it sounded like me, but I said it wasn’t. I lied to her,” she laughs. “Then I thought: ‘Why am I lying?’ She didn’t think it was that big a deal. I don’t think anyone did. Using music for TikTok wasn’t that much of a thing [back then].”

Some of music’s biggest names, including Lil Nas X and Olivia Rodrigo, have also broken out via TikTok. However, the app has been at the centre of criticism for the ways it has decentred originality and oriented music around short, sped-up earworms.

Still, PinkPantheress feels no qualms about her origin story. “I’ve never been too jaded by the mention of TikTok and how I came up. I always knew that I was more than just the app. From the jump, I wasn’t going to be a novelty artist,” she says. “It’s also refreshing for a British person to be doing it. I feel like Americans are always having these super-big moments. It’s rare for it to be someone from the UK.”

Becoming an overnight success, especially as someone who did it all herself from her bedroom at uni with no label backing, is almost unheard of. Not to mention that she’s a Black woman. The UK is notoriously unsupportive of Black female singers; as Laura Mvula said: “This narrative has been pushed that Black women don’t sell records.” When PinkPantheress’s music first started breaking through, many assumed she was white, but when she posted her face, her success proved that Black women can be in demand.

“I don’t think it’s worked for years,” says PinkPantheress, as we talk about the music industry. Her rise to the top, although rare, was no accident. She was watching American artists Lil Nas X and Doja Cat, and how they used internet fame to establish lasting music careers. “I don’t like long processes. There needed to be some quick, quick way for me to do this.” Her British sound allowed her to cut through the noise and, looking at the way that UK rap and drill has dominated social media for the past few years, PinkPantheress arrived at a time when the appetite for British music was on the up.

However, she still feels as if she has something to prove. “With every new height that I achieve, I feel like I have to do something that proves that I’m a serious artist,” she says. “Even with Boy’s a Liar: people know me for the song, but I feel like now I have to prove that I can write.”

A glittery dance-pop track with elements of chiptune and a Jersey club-style beat, Boy’s a Liar was first released in November 2022. The remix with Ice Spice catapulted the song to new heights – it is now both artists’ most-streamed song to date. “I didn’t expect it to be my biggest song,” PinkPanthress says.“I thought on an internet level it was going to be big. I didn’t expect it to be big on the radio.”

How does she feel about Boy’s a Liar and the remix? “They’re crap,” she says, unflinchingly. “The songs that are not my greatest are the ones that do better.” I Must Apologise, from the mixtape To Hell With It, is her personal favourite. From the new album, she has already made her mind up about what will do well and what won’t. I tell her I enjoyed the mellow R&B-esque Internet Baby, but she calls that “crap”, too. She does like her song Angel, for the Barbie movie. “It was so much fun. I was really excited to be asked. I loved the actual process of meeting the director. I got to meet Mark Ronson. I went on set.”

PinkPantheress is part of a new school of artists who understand the way algorithms work, the phenomenon of virality and the power of streaming. But it’s more than a numbers game for her. She may have gone from obscure, mythical avatar to 23m monthly listens on Spotify in no time, but that all stems from her deep love of music and her drive to be a pioneer. Her upcoming album may be an unexpected tonal shift, but it’s proof that PinkPantheress will continue to do things her own way. “I feel like music these days is so … ” she rolls her eyes and mimics retching. “When I put out songs, I always try to push people’s expectations of myself as an artist, but also, what they’ve heard in music today.”

This article was amended on 13 November 2023 to clarify some personal information.

Heaven Knows is out now.

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Kay Adams