This is not a golden era for women writing love songs about men. With the exception of Lana Del Rey, the last decade of female-fronted pop has been defined by revenge anthems and breakup bangers, with “dump him” a common refrain. But Suki Waterhouse isn’t sold.
“I find the whole ‘dump him’ thing very toxic,” she whispers into her oat milk latte in a quiet nook of Notting Hill’s Electric cinema in west London. “I get it, but it’s important not to underestimate how incredible it is to be with somebody. And also how yummy and wonderful masculinity can be when it’s the good kind, when it’s warm and protecting … ” She pauses, smiling knowingly. “Anyway, let’s not go on that tangent!”
This week, Waterhouse is releasing her debut album, I Can’t Let Go, through Sub Pop. Produced by Brad Cook, the man Pitchfork called “indie’s secret weapon” (he has worked on albums by Bon Iver and the War on Drugs), it is 10 tracks of sweeping Americana, with heart-on-sleeve lyrics that land somewhere between Taylor Swift’s simplicity and Del Rey’s fatalism (“I believe in old-fashioned things / Imagining us,” she sings on the lead single, Melrose Meltdown).
“So much of my life has been this weird blur,” says Waterhouse, running her hands through her hair – dishevelled but somehow still immaculate. I ask whether romance is the biggest force behind her songwriting. “It’s literally how I remember everything,” she says. “Who I was in love with at the time, how we broke up, and what happened after.”
Waterhouse has been in the public eye since she was 16, starting her career as a model in the late 2000s. For more than a decade she has been a fixture on runways and magazine covers, a bona fide “it girl”, regularly papped with her friends and fellow models Adwoa Aboah and Cara Delevingne. Then there’s the acting career, which has seen her appear in a mishmash of blockbuster romcoms (Love, Rosie), cult black comedies (Assassination Nation) and documentary-style TV series (the upcoming Daisy Jones & the Six). Throw in a photography exhibition here, an accessories brand there – not to mention a slew of high-profile relationships with the likes of Bradley Cooper, Diego Luna and, currently, the Batman himself, Robert Pattinson.
It is hard not to feel that this latest addition to her pop-cultural portfolio is a little … low stakes? “I’m really aware that it’s like: ‘Oh, you’ve done modelling, you’ve done acting, and now you’re gonna give me this album.’ I’m really wary of people just being like: ‘Fuck off!’” she admits. “I totally get it.”
Waterhouse turned 30 in January. The celebrations were low key – dinner with a friend followed by a “girly evening” in a hotel room with margaritas – but the milestone helped to quash some of her anxieties around releasing music. “I think I was carrying a lot of shame around myself for a long time,” she says.
As a model, Waterhouse is used to people looking at her, but not so used to being seen. For years she felt “muted” and “quiet”, struggling to know how to connect to herself and others. She tried to start bands at school in west London,, west London, after she got her first guitar around the age of 13, but no one would turn up for practice. Her father, a cosmetic surgeon, and mother, a cancer care nurse, didn’t gift her with the “knowledge of music”, either. Her love of music developed in tandem with modelling. It was an era when the two worlds were intertwined; when Kate Moss and Pete Doherty were constantly hanging out of windows. “Whatever was going on, I was prepared to take an hour-long bus ride and walk 30 minutes in a pair of seven-inch heels,” she says.
Even then her role was more observant, being unable to see a way into music for herself. “A lot of the last few years has been me coming out of a time where I was trying to escape the need to fill these voids, and starting to look at myself and my own sabotage,” she says. To that end she has been testing the waters at the rate of approximately one song a year since 2016, unsure if there would even be any appetite for them, although the comments under her YouTube videos are full of fans gushing over her “retro vibes” and “gorgeous voice”.
Rather than manifesting a sudden burst of confidence, I Can’t Let Go came together like a photo album: snapshots of different times, places and people. The breathy acoustic track Slip was written during a trip to Montreal, where she went to work with a chef-cum-musician on the recommendation of someone she met on a night out; the reverb-heavy ballad My Mind was written during the pandemic in her west London flat, where building work meant the windows were blacked out for months; Melrose Meltdown was inspired not by the trip she took with a friend to Bhutan (“We were drinking too much and feeling a bit shit”), but by a text she read on the plane home. “She was showing me some messages and I was moved by her alcoholic ex-boyfriend, who’s really quite a good poet in a way.”
The album has a rose-tinted energy, with restrained backdrops that marry 60s girl-group sentiments with dreamy modern pop and lyrics that would be at home on early 2010s Tumblr – there’s plenty of “crying on your milk-white sheets” and getting “faded into oblivion”. It’s very two drinks into an evening, when emotions are generous and arise as if out of nowhere.
“I definitely approached it thinking quite cinematically,” she says, citing Thelma & Louise and Fruits of My Labor by the country singer Lucinda Williams as inspirations for her goal of making something that “sounds good in the middle of the desert”. Fittingly for the subject matter, the space they were meant to record in fell through and they ended up in a wedding hall, with Cook and members of Bon Iver bringing Waterhouse’s demos to life in a bridesmaids’ room crowded with makeup lights and “Live, Laugh, Love” cushions.
“I think that struggle to connect is what this has all come from,” she says, “and this is how I want to tell people about myself: through music. For me it’s just the best way.”
I Can’t Let Go is out now on Sub Pop.