British-born singer-songwriter Sarah Grace McLaughlin, better known as Bishop Briggs, attended Hong Kong International School for most of her adolescence. The performer, whose powerful set made waves at this year’s Coachella Music Festival, found that her fellow students’ obsession with American culture helped smooth the way for her eventual journey to Los Angeles. One television show in particular helped to acclimate her: the hit teen soap The O.C.
The woman whose soulful voice powered last summer’s gospel-inflected hit song “River” listened to the soundtracks that accompanied each season of the early-aughts drama. Much like The O.C.’s indie-music-obsessed character Seth Cohen, McLaughlin was brought up with a wide variety of musical influences. Her Scottish parents raised her on everything from Aretha Franklin and the Supremes to the driving rock of Led Zeppelin and The Beatles.
McLaughlin was 4 years old when she first took the stage. Along with her family, she had moved to Japan, where it is a rite of passage for Western visitors to sing at a karaoke bar. Her father would go in and belt out Frank Sinatra, while McLaughlin would often take on “The Greatest Love of All,” by Whitney Houston. McLaughlin also had a short stint performing in a children’s gospel choir, which helped inform her sound.
“[Choir is] where I was inspired by the vulnerability of the lyrics and the rawness of the vocals,” she says by phone, Scottish accent still firmly in place.
McLaughlin knew if she wanted to make her dream of creating music come true, she had to move to where she could regularly perform: Southern California. But McLaughlin didn’t upset the status quo upon her arrival. Instead, she got to work, performing several nights a week at any venue that would take her. She did that for five years — and encountered some ugliness.
“I don’t want to shine a light on the negative aspects and the negative people that I have met because there were people that did support me,” she says. “There is a super-dark side of LA that I experienced. I think it is important to focus on the good rather than the bad.”
McLaughlin’s relentless pursuit of her dream led to what she describes as a “surreal” 2016. She was coaxed into going first in a songwriter’s round — and her performance that night got the attention of A&R representative George Robertson, who was there to see another artist. A week later, he introduced McLaughlin to producers Mark Jackson and Ian Scott, who joined her in writing “River.”
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“This year has differed from every other year I was struggling in LA,” she says. “I am super thankful for [Robertson].”
In addition to her appearance at Coachella, McLaughlin opened for Coldplay for a few dates in the fall, and in April finally released a well-received EP of six of her compositions. Now, she is on a headlining tour of the country, including her upcoming sold-out show at Crescent Ballroom. A sextet of songs doesn’t quite fill a setlist, so audiences are getting an exciting glimpse of what’s next for McLaughlin.
“I want to have that connection with the people in front of me and have them take what they want to from the lyrics,” she says. “I like that it’s this little secret club that is hearing this unreleased music and getting this inside look into what the future of our music is.”
Bishop Briggs is scheduled to perform Tuesday, May 23, at Crescent Ballroom.