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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

GRL played through the tears at RedFest DXB to make emotional comeback after bandmate’s death

How girl group G.R.L. overcame the tragedy of losing bandmate Simone Battle to make their live debut as a four-piece in Dubai.
GRL perform on February 12, 2015, at RedFestDXB. Courtesy: Done Events
GRL perform on February 12, 2015, at RedFestDXB. Courtesy: Done Events

When singer Simone Battle was found dead in her West Hollywood apartment last September, no one was more shocked than her bandmates.

Riding a wave of success since their summer smash Ugly Heart, GRL – a fresh incarnation of hit girl group The Pussycat Dolls – looked poised to explode. Next on their tour schedule was an appearance at Bloomingdale’s Dubai Fashion Show.

But on September 5, just a few days before their planned Middle Eastern debut, the call came. Tragedy had struck. Few would have been surprised had Battle’s death by hanging, at the age of 25, signalled the end of GRL.

“It could have gone either way – it could have fallen apart,” says band member Lauren Bennett. “But it’s given us strength.”

Now, after months of collective and individual therapy, the girls have re-emerged, stronger and closer than ever. And whether by luck or design, there was only one place the remaining quartet could make their return to the stage: Dubai, to finally perform the gig that never happened.

“It’s pretty odd that it happened like that,” says Lauren, speaking the morning before GRL performed their first gig as a four-piece at RedFestDXB, last weekend.

“I woke up early this morning, and I went down to the beach, and I was thinking about all this – that this was where we left off, and I was just so grateful to be here. The fact that we’re here for our first thing back is a big blessing.”

“We get to pick up almost where we left off,” says bandmate Natasha Slayton. “We’ve always been really close, but something like this, it could have gone either way. But we did get a lot closer.”

As well as being their first live appearance since the tragedy, the Dubai show also featured the first live performance of their new single Lighthouse, which is a tribute to Battle.

For the band, the song is a collective catharsis, the end of a six-month period during which the girls questioned everything after Battle’s death – not just as bandmates, but as friends – as they tried to overcome the sense of self-blame they felt for not spotting signs of her depression.

“It was a big moment for all of us, something we’d never experienced,” says Paula Van Oppen. “We weren’t focused on work or what we were going to do [as a band], we were just focused on healing and being there for each other.”

Written in the form of an open letter to Battle, Lighthouse offered the girls a chance to share all the things they had never said to their friend.

One verse goes: “Whenever you’re down, I’ll lift you up / People going to hate, let them hate on us / I move in too strong, I click too deep / ‘Cause I got you, and you got me / So if you need me, just holler my name”.

The song was written and produced by the pop dream team of Dr Luke and Cirkut, whose track record of female hitmaking includes singers called Britney, Miley, Katy and Jessie.

More emotional is the music video, a moving collage of images from Battle’s life, alongside sombre black and white footage of the four remaining band members. The closing shot captures the four girls in tears during a collective embrace – a reaction they say was spontaneous.

“It’s hard to know how to act in front of a camera, how to perform – that’s just what happened,” says Lauren, 25, the transatlantic line-up’s sole Brit.

In an attempt to reach others suffering from the same sense of helplessness that struck Battle, the band have partnered with the US mental health charity, Give an Hour.

“We are trying to make a movement, a change in culture,” says Paula, also 25. “Just how we’ve been able to talk about it, that’s the biggest thing – talking about it, not being scared to feel how you’re feeling.”

Talking about what happened is understandably an important healing process for the girls. Before the Dubai interview, we were briefed not to mention Battle – but within two minutes the girls had brought her up themselves. Throughout, it was clear that each member was still struggling to find their own way to make peace with the tragedy.

Lauren lightens the mood by being loud and funny. Paula remains stern and stoical. The group’s oldest member, Natasha, a 26-year-old American, is polite and thoughtful. The youngest, Emmalyn Estrada, a 22-year-old Canadian of Filipino descent, remains largely silent, muttering a few words of agreement, but generally letting her bandmates do the talking.

There’s little doubt performing Lighthouse’s inspirational lyrics in front of an audience for the first time will have helped the girls’ healing process.

That morning in Dubai they joked that Natasha was the most likely to cry onstage – that night all four of the quartet broke down in tears at the song’s close.

“Truly this experience has stripped us down to our core, and we’re moving forward with our hearts,” adds Paula.

“It’s given us a lot of value to life – to value what we have and really try to make it a positive – to enjoy the blessing that we’re together still, and doing what we love.”

* Lighthouse is out now on iTunes.

rgarratt@thenational.ae

Updated: February 17, 2015 04:00 AM

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