“I’m Lucy and my parents suck!” It’s Thursday night in Camden and Arabella Latham, or Baby Queen as she is better known, is on stage doing a little ad hoc, mid-gig therapy. In pigtails and a T-shirt bearing the image of a Care Bear smoking weed, Latham is whipping up catharsis. “My name is Claire and I’m a depressed psychology student!” howls another fan. Everyone whoops in response. Latham takes the mic: “I’m Bella and I’m a f***ing narcissist!” The words prove to be more battle cry than contrite confession, though, as Latham and the crowd grind into her acerbic single “Narcissist”.
The song is classic Baby Queen: a loud admission of unflattering feelings and a cultural critique rolled into one. Her genre is punk-minded pop, or pop-minded punk that calls to mind artists like Willow Smith and Billie Eilish. Tonight, on her hot pink guitar, Latham shreds through tracks about faking it on social media, losing your sex drive on antidepressants, and online dating. Each one has a brutal honesty that’s like a siren song to the crowd who evidently feel the exact same. The crowds are only growing bigger, thanks to Latham’s name on the BBC Sound of 2022 nominee list, two features on the soundtrack for Netflix’s hit show Heartstopper, and a forthcoming tour accompanying Gen Z it-girl Olivia Rodrigo.
The galvanising truth of Latham’s music has made her one of the most exciting acts coming up. And at the right time, too. The 24-year-old’s sad bangers very much fit into the recent swell of songwriting capturing the zeitgeist of what it means to be young in 2022. Off-stage, Latham is similarly candid. “To be honest, I’m always super honest,” she tells me when we meet before the show. “Especially after a tequila shot.” But while Latham may need some liquid courage from time to time, Baby Queen never does. “Baby Queen says the things that maybe I wouldn’t say. She’s very brave.” Latham laughs at herself after noticing she has slipped into the third person. “She’s the best f***ing b**** in the world. I’m glad to have her.”
Latham was born in South Africa, but Baby Queen is all London. Latham moved when she was 18. “I felt restricted,” she says. Personally and professionally. “My ambitions were bigger than that.” In London, she got a job at the vinyl store Rough Trade East but regularly found herself “broke” and stealing sandwiches from Tesco. “I had this very jaded, satirical view on what I was seeing around me. I was making fun of the things that annoyed me about society.” Those early instincts are all over the music, which presents her as a hardened observer of modern civilisation – albeit one with a bloodhound instinct for catchy hooks. It didn’t take Latham long to realise the more forthright she was about what she saw, the better her audience responded.
One of the more frustrating aspects of conversations around mental health is how quickly they can reduce our individual circumstances to stale cliché. Latham takes a different road. There is a specificity that surprises even herself, an ex-poet. “My writing used to be a lot more metaphorical and who knows if I go back down that route but right now it feels like Baby Queen is the one that says it exactly how it is, even if she says it with really smart words that are a bit confusing.” Still, there are some subjects Latham isn’t ready to talk about yet. One song – about her experiences of sexual harassment and abuse – has been on ice for the past three years. “I told my label that I just don’t feel like I’m there yet.”
Latham’s frankness about nearly everything offers listeners a sort of relief. Pop music has always leant towards aspirational messaging and loving yourself is great and all, but it’s also a fantasy – for a lot of people, at least. Latham included. Yes, she knows it’s wrong to photoshop her legs “until the doorway bends” but alas, here we are. “There’s loads of things happening around us that we never speak about, yet we’re all constantly struggling with it. So when you hear someone say it, maybe you can’t change it but you can recognise it and feel like you’re not insane.”
You’d be wrong to assume – as I did – that Latham’s music attracts a younger crowd; a scan of her Camden audience confirms that’s not true. Feeling like s*** doesn’t get old, even if you might. And it’s not just young artists like Rodrigo who have picked up on Latham’s talent. “I’ve just discovered Baby Queen today,” Courtney Love gushed on Instagram last year. “Lyrics SO good. Choruses SO good. Visuals SO good. Compositions, ok, not perfect but for a lone girl just starting? Better than anyone else’s lately. F*** YES.” The Hole frontwoman reached out to Latham personally. “There was a period of time when I was at her house on the weekends.” It was on one such weekend that Love gave Latham the best advice of her life. Emulating Love’s husky, American drawl, she recites it to me: “Don’t call yourself a pop star; call yourself a rock star. Rock stars get away with more and they stick around for longer.”
Latham took the advice to heart. “Pop stars are so f***ing boring. I can’t stand them. I actually f***ing hate them,” she says, clarifying the pop stars that she’s talking about are “what we’ve come to know as a pop star today”. She sighs, “There’s nothing more annoying to me than someone who has a massive reach singing about grinding on a d*** in the club. It’s vapid. Sorry I’ve got a very strong opinion.”
Strong opinions don’t always translate to creative clarity, though. And Latham is the first to admit that Baby Queen isn’t the same musician she was a few years ago. Really, she’s only just come out the other side of an identity crisis. “It was a complete meltdown,” says Latham, who is in the throes of writing her first album. “Initially I wanted to make a pop record, like my own 1989, but I felt really disconnected from the songs.” She attributes the existential reckoning to a playlist that Love made her. “It was full of Nineties rock. That completely f***ed me over,” she laughs. It helped Latham realise that “Baby Queen is not a pop star. She’s grungier than that. Dirtier”. And so Latham washed her hands of pop and “sacked off a literal whole album” to start afresh. One of her more recent releases – the sludgy underdog anthem “Wannabe”, which has Love’s imprint all over – is an indicator of what’s to come. “It’s gonna be this super left weird-ass rock album,” she grins.
Be it rock or pop, any record Latham puts out will be recognisably, undeniably her. The world according to Baby Queen. And a whole bunch of other people too, if her ever-growing Baby Kingdom is anything to go by. But Latham is quick to bat away the “role model” label. “I think I’ve made it very, very clear in the subject of what I’m writing about that I’m not someone you should aspire to want to be,” she says. But what she will admit to getting right are her core beliefs. “I think my overriding ideologies of freedom and life are good. I think I’ve got that down.” She laughs. “It’s the way I live my personal life that needs some work.”