Maisie Peters: ‘As a woman in music, it’s assumed that my songs are always about me’

The singer-songwriter talks to Olivia Petter about her latest single, the irony of the government blaming coronavirus on young people, and being fangirled by Taylor Swift

Thursday 01 October 2020 11:03
'I can’t imagine telling past me that she was going to go on tour with someone in One Direction'
'I can’t imagine telling past me that she was going to go on tour with someone in One Direction'

One night in lockdown, Maisie Peters spent the evening screaming. The 20-year-old had gone to the supermarket, left her phone at home, and returned to hundreds of messages. Taylor Swift had written one word – “heavenly” – below a video of Peters covering Swift’s song “Enchanted” from her bed. “Me and my sister were just shrieking around the house,” Peters recalls. “I didn’t know what to do with myself afterwards, I was just pacing and screaming. It was so exciting.”

A few weeks later, it happened again. “My ears have been blessed on this fine Tuesday,” the Grammy-winner replied to another of Peters’ covers, this time “Betty” from Swift’s feted new album Folklore. Peters saw the message when she was on the toilet. “I noticed my phone was blowing up. I was like, ‘Surely not again.’”

It’s not hard to see why Swift is a fan. Since launching her YouTube channel in 2015, Peters has become one of the most exciting singer-songwriters in the game. Her songs have amassed more than a quarter of a billion global streams, been featured in Hollywood films (Birds of Prey) and earned her legions of loyal fans. Her self-described “emo girl pop” blends sonorous vocals with synths and dreamy melodies. Meanwhile, her lyrics evoke a relatable kind of vulnerability: “You were my no sleep, cried for weeks, favourite ex,” she sings on “Favourite Ex”. “I’d rather you walk all over me than walk away,” she admits on “Worst of You”.

This was supposed to be a big year for Peters. Partly thanks to two of her singles being played on Love Island in 2019, her fanbase was growing exponentially, and she was going to support Niall Horan on his European tour. As has been the case for many musicians this year, the pandemic has ruined her plans. “It would have been super fun,” Peters says of the now-cancelled tour. “I can’t imagine telling past me that she was going to go on tour with someone in One Direction. So it’s a shame that it did not come through, but you know, things happen for a reason and opportunities come up again.”

Peters spent lockdown with her twin sister at their parents’ Sussex home. “It wasn’t awful,” she says. “I did a lot of writing and that was really useful. But I don’t really enjoy being in one place all the time, so it wasn’t ideal for me.” What does she make of the government blaming young people for the current spike in coronavirus infections? “It’s an unfair accusation to make when, at the same time, the government is pushing everyone to ‘eat out to help out’. Young people work predominantly in service industries, which they were keen to reopen. So there’s a stark irony to it all.”

Peters is sharp. We’ve met before, and she was just as engaging in person as she is over Zoom. She has a pixie-like face and speaks with the kind of self-awareness for which her generation is renowned. Take the time we talk about her growing fanbase. “I don’t find it overwhelming at all,” she insists. “I feel so comfortable and at ease with them because I feel like we’re all very similar.” Like Swift, who is renowned for engaging with her fans in unexpected ways, Peters makes a real effort with her listeners. “I’ve known a lot of them since I started making music when I was 14, so we kind of grew up together. I feel like they’re my friends – they just roast me all the time.” 

Peters’ fans have built a community together, launching WhatsApp groups and helping each other through difficult times. “Sometimes they do Zoom calls and I’ll just hop on to say hi,” she explains. “I always say to them that I can’t wait to be 70 and playing a greatest hits tour when we’re all banging around in care homes and being old together.” It sounds saccharine, but Peters’ earnestness is convincing. Does she worry about how her relationship with her fans might change as her profile grows? “Um, I think obviously when you get bigger, there’s more people and less time, which is just maths. But in a very British way I just feel like, ‘Oh it will be fine,’” she laughs. 

It’s an unfortunate truth that female songwriters are scrutinised in ways that men are not, particularly when, as is the case with Peters, the songs they write are about relationships. The automatic assumption – one that strips women of their right to creativity – is that they are anecdotal. “Songs that people think are about my life are actually not about my life at all, and in fact are about friends or TV shows or books,” says Peters, before describing herself as a “private person”. “I’m good at creating boundaries between my personal life and my work,” she continues. “As a woman in music, that’s less assumed.”

Attending the ‘Birds of Prey’ premiere in January

Just the other day, Peters was chatting with one of her housemates about dating, when they made a comment that inspired her. “She was like, ‘I don’t think he realised that it was in his hands to fix it.’ I asked her to repeat herself, so I could write it down. And now I’m going to the studio tomorrow to try and write that song.”  

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It’s almost impossible to know what the next few months will bring for the music industry. In the UK, coronavirus cases are on the rise, with rumours of a second lockdown pulsating throughout the country. It’s not clear when musicians will be able to resume live shows that don’t impose social distancing restrictions. “I would be lying to say I wasn’t worried,” says Peters. “Live music is obviously a huge part of what I do and a lot of my close friends work in that industry. I’d like to think that we’ll evolve and adapt to the global situation, but I think there’s only so much we can do. It’s just quite awful for everybody.” Ever the optimist, though, Peters is planning on doing a gig “of some form” from home. “I want to make it different from just a normal live stream and make it a spectacle and a thing to be proud of.”

Until then, Peters is busy writing more songs, promoting her latest single, “Maybe Don’t” – a bouncy pop track that she wrote pre-lockdown with JP Saxe – and teaching her 54-year-old dad to use TikTok. “He spent an hour on it the other day just watching people jumping off things,” she says. She’s also running her eponymous book club, which has amassed nearly 6,000 followers in just three months, featuring live Q&As with bestselling authors such as Naoise Dolan, Florence Given and Charly Cox.  

What she’s not doing, surprisingly, is performing any new material for her five housemates, all of whom are students at universities in London. “No one’s asked me to,” she says, laughing. “Although sometimes I’ll be playing my guitar in my room and they’ll knock on the door and be like, ‘Can we come in?’. It’s really sweet.” It’s the type of relationship you can imagine Peters wanting to build with her fans, bespeaking an intimacy that’s surely integral to her popularity. You only hope it keeps on growing as her profile does.

Maisie’s new single ‘Maybe Don’t’ (Feat. JP Saxe) is out now

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