John Glacier: Look closer
This cover story is taken from Issue 126 of the monthly magazine. Order your copy now via the online store, or pick it up as an A1 cover print.
John Glacier arrives for our interview with her hair in two thick bubble braids, wearing a powder blue coat and gold earrings (“£1.99 from Pak’s!”) the size of which would make Pat Butcher’s eyes pop. People pretend not to watch her as she gets seated and settled, ordering a Passionfruit Collins. They don’t know her, but she stands out. They’re wondering if she’s someone that they should know.
If her current career trajectory is any measure, it won’t be long before those sidelong glances in Glacier’s direction turn into stares of genuine recognition. Three years ago, the 26-year-old rapper and producer was the London underground’s best-kept secret, releasing demos and unfinished song sketches sporadically on SoundCloud. Fast-forward to 2021 and the official release of her project, SHILOH: Lost for Words, and there’s a sense that Glacier won’t remain a hidden treasure for much longer.
The increased visibility – and unanimous praise for her work – doesn’t seem to faze Glacier. “It can change any moment, that’s why I don’t look into it too much,” she says, incisively cutting into the reality of the fickle music industry. “This was a selfish project. I made it for me. I couldn’t care less about how people took it.” She claps the back of one hand into the palm of the other, laughing as she emphasises: “I. Had. To. Say. This.”
Selfish” is perhaps an unfair way to describe an album that gives so much. Glacier’s lyricism is poetic, metaphorical, heavy on religious imagery. “Gabriel cover me/ Under angel wings/ Stuck on Calvary,” she raps on Platoon, twisting threads of the tale of Judas betraying Jesus into her own narrative. “I know you’d trade me in/ For a silver piece.” There’s a story being told across SHILOH’s 12 tracks… maybe: themes of depression, losing yourself in the night, the past impacting the future, longing for escape. Deep, tenebrous emotions spill out over beats that transport you away from that darkness to a smoke-filled dancefloor, or a hazy afters in your mate’s flat. There’s a lot to absorb. Is it Glacier’s story or is it projection? “There’s room for you to create your own world within it,” she says. “I write in a coded way. I’m not saying I don’t want to be understood, but I just know that people won’t understand what I’ve been through. I wanted other people to have a place to go to where they can feel heard or like they can recognise themselves. Mainly women.”
"I know people say ‘Oh, don’t make music for reward’, but I don’t have the privilege of saying that I don’t hope to get anything out of it"
Glacier grew up in Hackney, east London, as the second child of seven, where a 20-plus age gap spans between the eldest and youngest. In large families, older siblings can sometimes be expected to bear responsibility for the younger ones, but Glacier was clear from the outset: “They’re my siblings, not my yutes!” Her parents are originally from Trelawny, Jamaica, an area famous for producing an abundance of top athletes, including world record-holding sprinter Usain Bolt. They still have family up in Cockpit Country, and Glacier tells me she visits almost every year, hanging out at her uncle’s farm, which sits at the edge of a lush rainforest. She hopes to leave London and set up a studio there one day. “Me making it, is having the luxury to create,” she says, speaking of her ambition to escape the big city. “Once I have that space, I won’t need anything else. I don’t care about much, I’m a very simple person.”
As a teenager, Glacier was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS), an umbrella condition that affects many systems of the body at once. “Your brain functions differently, your joints are made differently, you dislocate easily, sometimes you’re in too much pain to do shit, some days you’re completely fine,” Glacier says, sort-of shrugging. “I’m not gonna lie, it’s hard. That’s why I was so happy when I found music. This is something I can do on my own, and on my own terms.”
Bodysuit: Poster Girl
Shoes: Paula Canovas Del Vas
Glacier began producing and recording vocals over her own beats in 2018. Most of those early tracks are stored on her laptop, but the rest she uploaded to SoundCloud, including deconstructed dancehall beats with names like Sounds from Saturday morning or A Child was Sad so I made this in front of her to make her laugh; a 24-second loop that sounds like two robots singing call-and-response in binary code. “It was like my little journal, I would just post random shit on there, let it out to what was like… five people at the time.” Her life was “a lot” during that period, though she declines to expand on the details. For a self-described loner who started writing poetry from a very young age, music was therapy – a mode of expression she chose because it was vocal and she desperately wanted to be heard, but also because it allowed her to say her piece and leave people to deal with the weight of her words separately, away from her. “I feel like when you speak to people, they don’t hear you anyway,” she says. “I’d rather just record it and actually get something out of what I’ve got to say, instead of having a conversation and getting nothing in return.”
From the start, Glacier realised that her outpourings were reaching the right people. Her listeners were few in number but crucial in terms of their influence on Glacier; they were people she looked up to and respected. She had fans within the independent record label Young, and their encouragement motivated her to keep working. She describes a moment at a Sampha DJ set where she freestyled “very, very dark shit” over an Aaliyah remix as an early career highlight; the Mercury Prize-winning artist is signed to Young, and is one of Glacier’s favourite artists.
Top: Stylist’s own
Of all those key listeners, much has been made of Glacier’s connection to London producer Vegyn, whose credits include A-listers like Frank Ocean, Travis Scott and Aminé. The pair were friends before they began working together; they would run into each other at parties around the capital and gravitate towards one another, hanging out at the back of the room, just “two weird people complaining that they’re playing the same music again”. It wasn’t until Vegyn came across Glacier’s SoundCloud account and began looking for the artist behind it that he realised he already knew her. Soon after, he signed her to his PLZ Make It Ruins label on a one-project deal and opened his studio to her. She spent the next couple of years recording at night after Vegyn had finished for the day, only stepping out into the light occasionally to steal the show on features like Origami with LYAM and Shygirl, and MANNA, a gorgeously sombre track from Dean Blunt’s Babyfather project.
While Glacier is grateful to Vegyn – she calls him “a massive help” – she is very clear that she is her own artist, or as she bluntly puts it, not Vegyn’s sidekick. “A producer that big doesn’t want to work with a random Black girl from Hackney if she doesn’t have anything to offer, that’s all I can say about that,” she asserts. But Vegyn’s involvement stretches far beyond a co-sign – that much is evident from his investment in the project. He produced half the tracks on SHILOH and co-produced the rest, working with Glacier’s “good producer mates” Holly, Psychedelic Ensemble and Tn_490 to conjure the misty atmosphere that carries Glacier’s stream-of-consciousness flows. Earlier this year, he even described being “eternally blessed to have met John” and rated the experience of working with her as “good or even better than making [Frank Ocean’s 2016 album] Endless”.
Jacket and Shoes: Off-White
Leggings: Stylist’s own
For Glacier, the production on the record was of lesser importance than being able to “purge” the emotions she was holding within her (“I could have been working with a busker outside Tesco, I needed to get this off my chest”), but she is equally effusive with praise for her collaborators. “I’ve been so fortunate to work with such amazing producers. In all honesty, the odds of that are insane. Every single beat on that record is amazing.” On the more uptempo tracks, bright synths flutter and oscillate over woozy basslines and skittering drums. The downbeat cuts thump and reverberate moodily, hitting towards the back of the skull. The production, in Glacier’s words, made the album sound like “a concrete project”.
With SHILOH now complete and released into the world, anticipation is building for what this exciting and instinctive new artist will do next. Recently she has been working with redLee, “one of my favourite producers at the moment”, and there are some single releases coming up soon. She’s also taken down a lot of her old demos from SoundCloud in the hope of releasing them anew, this time “bigger, more progressed versions”. There are also live shows in the works.
"I’m not saying I don’t want to be understood, but I just know that people won’t understand what I’ve been through"
In her more expansive vision for the future, she wishes to revolutionise the “boring” world of elevator music, hold music and ringtones (“you get in a lift and it’s like, ‘Did you know that John Glacier made this?’”). She also alludes to an upcoming project that will fulfill her desire to create soundscapes for video games, although she doesn’t play them anymore, her focus narrowed to just the path she’s on right now. “I’m not saying you can’t enjoy life until you’ve got stuff patterned,” she says. “But I’m one of those people who, until I’ve got certain stuff patterned in my life – mentally, financially, contracts, projects – there’s a lot of stuff that I’m holding back from. I don’t date for that reason. I don’t have time, I need to get to where I’m going. If you’re still around when I get there, I’ll see you then.”
Like most great artists, Glacier creates not for gain, but with compulsion. She is frank, however, about the motivations behind the almost austere conditions she is imposing on herself. The unpredictable nature of her disability has ruled her out of going to university and makes it infeasible for her to work a job with regular hours. A career in music is something she can’t afford to not take seriously. “I know people say, ‘Oh, don’t make music for reward,’” she says, “but I don’t have the privilege of saying that I don’t hope to get anything out of it.”
That isn’t to say that Glacier isn’t having any fun. “Making shit” is her main thing, but she also enjoys walking along the canal and hanging out with the ducks. Her current favourite song is Crazy by Gunna Dee. She’s been watching the Dynasty reboot on Netflix and likes to put EastEnders on while she’s eating. “I’m a pretty minimalistic person in terms of lifestyle,” she smiles.
The way Glacier spends her free time paints an endearingly goofy picture of someone often described as “elusive”. Characteristically, she’s blunt when speaking about her media-generated reputation. “Sometimes people will ask questions that try to mould you into what they want you to be,” she says, now up on her feet and weaving through tables, looking for somewhere she can vape without disrupting anyone. “No matter what answer you give, the questions are designed to create a new identity for you, or confirm their perception. People expect me to be standoffish, but I’m a fucking nerd.”
SHILOH: Lost for Words is out now via PLZ Make It Ruins