Who doesn’t remember Lucy Spraggan, the jolly local lass that was the odd one out on The X Factor in 2012? Marching to the beat of her own drum, the singer-songwriter auditioned with an original song that was both funny and poignant. Most of all, the song felt relatable and authentic. Now, more than a decade later, those are still two words that immediately spring to mind when chatting with Spraggan about her new album.
Even though she’s been consistently releasing new music every two years, something about her new album feels different. While songwriting has always been her strong suit, the songs on this record are a far cry from “Last Night”. Spraggan has matured, and so have her lyrics. “I think my songs have always been observations of my life. “Last Night” was very real to me, I did go out and get drunk. That’s what I did. Everything I’ve done since and all the music I release is an observation of how I am now and my life in that moment. I’m 32 in a couple of weeks, I don’t think that’s old, but I’m older than I was when I was writing songs at 12. Predictably, I’ve also gained more wisdom as I’ve gotten older as to who I am and what I want in life.”
Life currently is perhaps best captured in the title of her new record, Balance, which opens with a rewrite of “Last Night” that feels more fitting of a mature Spraggan. “These recent songs kind of have this messaging of being a lot more at peace with myself and identifying things about myself that I didn’t really know before. It’s been – I think they just call it living,” she grins. “The only difference is where some people write diaries, I just write music.”
Indeed, it’s as if Spraggan’s been able to tap into a previously untouched fragility, a strength to discuss deeply personal topics such as mental health and healing from the past. For example, in the title track “Balance”, she confronts the fact that perhaps needing help from time to time isn’t so bad. “If you could stand back / I used to say that / I thought I needed space to find my balance / But I might need a hand, and if you could be that / I might need some help to find my balance.”
Perhaps these songs are what help other people find their balance or the fact that Spraggan is openly talking about her own mental health struggles and more recently, her experience with sexual assault. When I ask her if that also means people feel safe or take the liberty to confide in her, she tells me she’s been used to that since forever. “I am quite an open soul in general,” she starts. “I feel like my energy is very open to people coming to tell me things. It happens a lot on tour, especially with things like sobriety, or things that people have been through. They come and tell me about them. But people that don’t even know I’m a musician for some reason seem to be telling me things. I could be sitting on a train and someone will tell me the deepest, darkest shit they’ve ever been through. I think that’s an energy thing, and it does reflect to my music. It’s always a privilege for people to feel safe, in a safe space around you. It’s a big compliment when people do that.”
Interesting about this album is that Spraggan also included songs that are less about creating a safe space, and more about exposing injustices that she’s witnessed. One of those is a deeply personal song about Caroline Flack, who took her own life in 2020. “It’s rare for me to comment in music on something that I’m not directly involved in,” Spraggan explains carefully. “I wrote this after, you know, knowing Caroline for being on the show [X Factor], and you know, she died, and I’ve thought there’s a huge injustice in that. I wrote about my experience of witnessing what had happened to her. That song – Caroline – it was just what I saw.” With a bridge in which Spraggan’s voice breaks while promising Caroline’s mum that “the kindness remains”, it’s sure to be a meaningful ballad that people hopefully take to heart.
Yet, Spraggan knows that you can’t prescribe meaning to music. “That’s the joy of it, someone lists to a song, and they hear something completely fucking different to what you wrote, anyway,” she tells me after explaining the thought process behind the track “Cocaine”. It’s an outlier on the album, what with the switched perspective. “I wrote it from the perspective of the partner of the person who goes out and gets waster, but the song itself – I actually wrote it about how I used to be.” Spraggan certainly doesn’t spare herself or her flaws, and chooses instead to showcase how she’s grown to either work on them or embrace them.
One aspect of that personal journey has been getting diagnosed with OCD. “It’s something [the working diagnosis] I’ve come away from, and I’m looking into all the other traits that I have. It’s interesting, people come up to me and say that song’s written about me – which is nice because that’s also about me. It’s nice to find this vein of similarity between us, you know?”
Still, music also offers her ample opportunity to reflect on how she’s gotten to where she is. ‘Music’s like a little time capsule,” she agrees, then points to her almost full sleeve. “It’s like having all these tattoos, I would never have them now. If it was me, I’d never walk into the tattoo shop now and say do this to my arm. That doesn’t deny the fact that I have a fuckload of tattoos all over my body, and it’s the same with music. It’s the same with life experience. All of those albums are a part of my collection of music, whereas all these tattoos are a collection of my existence. I think it’s a real privilege actually, to be able to listen to a song from ten years ago and go – look at the difference now. It’s like a transformation picture, or listening to a song and saying, I can’t believe I ever felt like that!”
Despite the fact that Lucy Spraggan’s current reality is a world away from the one that inspired “Beer Fear”, she says it actually makes her feel connected to her past self. “Some people would rather just deny that it ever happened, but I love having songs because it’s a living memory. Surely everyone has songs like that, where they go – Oh I listen to that and I remember the time I was in love with so and so, or I listened to that when I was 15, or listened to that and thought the world was going to end because my girlfriend was going on holiday, you know?”
When asked what memory or song she feels such a deep connection to, Spraggan immediately brings up Emily Sandé’s “Read All About It”, a song she had to sing during the X Factor UK. “That song absolutely triggers me, because life was so hectic then, and that song itself is connected really deeply to the X Factor for me. But I also have songs that I really deeply connect to being on tour, and then there’s the Pendulum album, which is when I went to Manchester Pride for the first time – no,” she interrupts herself with a fond smile. “It couldn’t have been my first time, but I remember being young, being gay, and being surrounded by rainbow flags and loads of other gay people and thinking this is my place, all whilst listening to that album on repeat.”
Mainstream LGBT representation and visibility have certainly grown in the past decade, but there’s still a lot of work to be done and victories to be had. For that reason, a lot of people will also flock to Spraggan’s music, because she is just unapologetically being herself and choosing to enjoy life in spite of its ups and downs. “I wish I could say that I write music altruistically, for everyone else. But actually, the truth is that music – I’ve always written it for me. And then I put it out, and people take it and they relate to it. And actually, I love that side of it. But it’s never been my goal to write for someone – my natural habitat in songwriting is to reflect and observe.”
One of the songs on her new album where this skill shines is “Bodies.” It’s one of Spraggan’s own favorites because she feels it really adds to the ongoing dialogue of body positivity – or even body neutrality. “I feel like talking about our relationships with our bodies is so important. There’s fun songs like the ones Meghan Trainor does. But then at the same time, it’s still about weight. In my song, I’m just talking about my relationship with my body and how to overcome those things.”
Similarly, there’s “The Cost of Living,” which she describes as “quite fun – an old school song of mine that’s more like spoken word. It frames quite a lot of our culture at the moment, I’m excited for people to hear it.”
When I tell her not everyone’s able to find an appropriate medium for emotions or thoughts that don’t have anywhere else to go, whether that’s spilling over into paint, words, or music, she’s quick to disagree. “I wrote a song yesterday, and then said to my girlfriend – it’s so fucking weird that people write songs. It’s weird people create paintings. Like, humans are wild, and I love it. I just love it. And I feel deep down that everyone has a song in them, my environment just enabled me to actually create it.”
She’s been steadily creating, which is something that the industry at large almost seems a little too eager to forget. Balance is Spraggan’s seventh album, and each one has reached the top 20 in the UK. She’s not too bothered by the sudden increase in attention this time around. “It makes me laugh that only now, when I had a top five album with my last album as well, there’s been quite a lot of attention and people ask about longevity and how to stay in the industry. It makes me laugh, because truly – you just hold ont something if you feel like that’s what you’re supposed to do, and you fucking do it. I’ve been doing it, regardless of what else has been thrown at me. I’ve not been a commercially well-received artist, and I don’t get radio play. I don’t have this connection with commercial or even regional radio like a lot of artists do, but I do have a very genuine connection with the people who come to my shows. And they are the people who absorb the music, and for me, that’s the most important. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to have this career.”
Because there’s one thing Spraggan is really outspoken about, and it’s the appalling way in which the music industry tends to deal with (mental) health issues. “I think it’s a shithole,” she immediately retorts. “I do really think that we are encouraging and glamorizing burnout and being mentally unwell in the industry. We watch people on stage who can barely sing, or barely walk or talk and we applaud them, saying how amazing it is that they’re up on stage. If you saw a fellow human being suffering like that in any other context, you’d say – fucking hell, that person needs help. And we have this weird idea that you just have to keep smashing through in the music industry. Add to that this other idea that the quality of music is only represented by how many people listen to it, and how many people buy it that week. Because if more people bought your album that week than they did a different album, you are literally rated out of ten for that. I just think that Van Gogh would not have made the quality of work that he did, if he had had to worry about which gallery his paintings would be in in 200 years,” she gestures.
“This industry kills and suppresses creativity and joy. It’s based on the idea that it’s a rat race, and I’m just absolutely not partaking in it anymore. Like I’ve completely stepped back from that. When you start out in the industry, you’re told that you can be nothing or you can be a superstar. You’re Beyoncé, or you can go back to work. When actually, there’s this really lovely middle ground where it’s profitable and fun and creative. And actually, I wish more young musicians would realize that you don’t have to be Ed Sheeran in order to have a career.”
It’s one of the things that Spraggan has also touched upon in her memoir which was published this July. “There was more of that in the first version of 120,000 words that I put forward, but only 70.000 made it into the book,” she jokes. “There was a period of time where I didn’t enjoy music or the music industry, so I consider it a real privilege to still be here and to be able to step back and realise why I wasn’t enjoying it. And that’s because I was writing songs so they’d be played on the radio. Now, I write songs because I like writing songs. Yeah, I’d want them to be played on the radio, that’s lovely – what a privilege that would be. But it’s also fine if they’re not.”
It’s been an interesting experience to write the book whilst also working on music, Spraggan adds. “The memoir is obviously quite chronological, and I’ve realized that my music is definitely more intersectional in that it intersects with parts of the book. I can read the story of my life and listen to the music I was producing at the time, they really do sit side by side, and definitely, the later parts of the book represent who I am now.”
What is more, writing the book has put a renewed spotlight on how different it is to put music to words and come up with melodies to describe feelings. In a way, the process of writing “Process” has also rekindled the joy of songwriting, as well as an appreciation of her own history. Funnily enough, it’s also something that popped up during the recording of Balance, which predominantly took place in Dublin, and has certainly left its sonic impression on the album. “It is very Irish – there’s the Irish pipe, an instrument that’s more than 100 years old, and a cello that’s also more than 100 years old on the recordings. The knowledge of the people playing them spanned over hundreds of years worth of musical knowledge, which is just so impressive. My family are all Scottish, and there’s strong binds between England, Ireland, Scotland – so it just came out sounding quite like, almost, tribal.”
And while she’s certainly been busy writing both a memoir and an album, she’s also happy to remain busy for the foreseeable future with touring her new music. Of course, Spraggan has learned she needs to “caveat the craziness with calm,” to maintain that hard-fought sense of balance. First order of business after this interview? Sitting down.