Grace, I’d love it if you could chat me through when you first became captivated by music?
My first ballet exam was on my third birthday, so I’ve always been on stage and around music. When I was about 10 I got into musical theatre. At school I played Nancy in ‘Oliver!’ and my parents sat me down after the performance and said, “yeah… so, you can sing!” . I guess I’d never realised it wasn’t a ‘normal’ thing that everyone could do before.
I passed my 11+ and went to a grammar school and suddenly all my academic interest just went straight out the window. All I wanted to do was sing. I did talent shows, I’d sing on the street, I recorded covers on CDs to sell at local food festivals. I’m from a really little village that’s in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t know any musicians or ways of getting into the industry so I just said “Mum, please can you buy me a rubbish little keyboard – I’m going to teach myself to write songs”.
You got into songwriting quite early in your development as an artist. How did you know that was really important?
I didn’t know any other way to get taken seriously, because I was just singing covers. It became a full time job from the age of 16; I was doing pubs, restaurants and weddings – but I was singing covers and thought ‘okay, how do I go from this into an artist?’ I realised the only way was to have original songs, and my Auntie had sent me a link to BBC Introducing’s uploader and I saw I could upload my music onto there, but it had to be original material – so I just knew I had to teach myself and figure it out.
Did you find it easy enough to find the time to write? Were you naturally a committed and focused person?
Honestly, yes. I’ve always been mega determined to totally smash whatever I put my mind to. My parents went through it! Every night after school I would sit on my bedroom floor watching YouTube tutorials learning how to play the piano. It was disastrous to begin with – I could only use three fingers and I had written all the letters on the piano keys *laughs*. The first song I ever learnt on piano was Someone Like You by Adele. I decided, forget loading chords, I’m just going to throw myself in at the deep end and learn a full song. That’s always been my way of thinking – do the hardest thing first and then everything after that should come easier.
And I suppose you felt a sense of urgency!
Literally! A year later I was teaching myself classical pieces just from watching someone else do it. I was really, really committed to being able to accompany my voice in order to make my own music. You can come up with lyrics and melodies in your head, but unless you can make a backing track to go with it, it’s just you singing – and if you don’t have the people around you to help you with that, like I didn’t, then you’ve got to figure it out yourself!
Was The X Factor your first step into commercial spaces as an artist?
Actually no! I released an EP the year before I went on X factor. I had written six songs in my life, and five of them I decided to release, so it was literally my first ever songs I put out there. I took them to my local recording studio which is like 15 minutes away and just asked them ‘do you know any musicians that could get involved?’. I didn’t have a manager, so I literally had no idea what I was doing – and having released music properly now, you understand that without PR and marketing it’s likely going to go nowhere!
I know it’s annoying, but true that without a marketing engine it’s very hard to get your music heard.
It got like 1000 plays on one of the songs on Spotify, which was amazing to me at the time because I didn’t know who these people were or how they were finding me. It was just nice for me to get those songs out and actually know ‘this is me as an artist, this is what I’m starting to do’. One of the music shops near me in Blackburn was doing a competition that was strictly for songwriters, so you could only audition with original songs – that definitely helped ramp up my original song repertoire. Then I uploaded to BBC introducing and they passed me through the Lancashire station up to BBC Radio 6. That was before X Factor, so I had this very, very minor taste of being an artist, and knowing what it takes. I then had a DJ contact me on Twitter asking if I would write a top line over one of his tracks, which I wrote & recorded in my brother’s bedroom – and it ended up being played on BBC Radio 1. I was just this 17 year old, wondering what on earth was going on! This was all before X Factor.
“I then had a DJ contact me on Twitter asking if I would write a top line over one of his tracks, which I wrote & recorded in my brother’s bedroom – and it ended up being played on BBC Radio 1. I was just this 17 year old, wondering what on earth was going on!”
You then found management – how did you connect with them in the first place?
My now manager was actually on tour up North with one of his artists, and I was singing live on BBC introducing. Her guitar player was someone who lived near me and I’d worked with – so it was just a very small world moment. They heard me on the radio and followed me on Twitter, and it took me months to finally reach out to them. I was like: “Hiya, err… I kind of need managing because I don’t know what I’m doing”, and their reply was “what took you so long?!” I’ve been with them for six years now, which is crazy. They helped me get more songs together and produce more material. I was ready to put a second EP out when The X-Factor approached me and asked if I would come on. I had actually auditioned when I was 16 for X-factor, The Voice and Britain’s Got Talent, all in one year, and I didn’t get past the first producer rounds!
How did you keep going beyond getting ignored at those first auditions? I did Drama School auditions when I was 18 and found it brutal.
I think when you’re young you’re quite naive and you think like ‘God, this is going to be my opportunity’, and when it’s not you’re like ‘okay… well just pick yourself back up and try again’.
I was very persistent. Some people might have taken a hint *laughs* but I was like ‘no we’re gonna do this’. It wasn’t until 2017 when they said ‘look, you can audition with your original songs if you want’ that I felt it was a slight game changer because I knew no matter how far I got I could use the platform to show everyone who I am as an artist.
Yes, it is brilliant visibility. Coming out after that show, how did you feel and how did you establish exactly where to go next?
It was a very strange time as anyone can imagine. Everything happens almost overnight and I didn’t necessarily handle it the best. I auditioned for that show because I loved singing and performing, and wanted to get my songs out there – and I think I was so concentrated on being an artist that I forgot there is a reality TV side which comes with it – and that kind of tormented me a little bit. It felt like everybody knew who I was and wanted to weigh in on who I was as a person, even though obviously it was just a small percentage of the population, but I don’t think I was prepared for that or dealt with it very well. I got signed to Simon’s label Syco straight after the show, and I just didn’t really know what to do and who I was. Being signed to a major label who suddenly want hits from you and say “you can be this pop star, yeah?!” confused me a bit.
In the first year of being signed, I wrote a lot of songs that were great but not who I always was as an artist and it took me a long time to come full circle and convince my label that what I was doing beforehand is what I’m best at. Still, I think I wasn’t really mentally prepared to be in the public eye – I found it really, really hard. I love singing, I love performing, I love the idea of putting music out there, but I think everything else that comes with it is still so scary to me. People can say ‘well, it’s what you signed up for’ which is true in a way, but you don’t think of that when you dream of being a singer. Syco actually shut down in August, so I’m now independent which is really exciting in many ways because you get full creative control.
I think there’s that adjustment because suddenly other people feel like they have a perspective on who you are and it actually becomes part of your job doing social media and having essentially a public face.
Yeah, for sure. Social media scares the heck out of me and I’m not the best at it, but it’s part of the job I guess!
When did you write, I Met A Boy Online?
So I started writing it in April 2020, like less than a month into lockdown 1.0 and, I mean, I’ve been tragically single for so long it’s ridiculous *laughs* and dating Apps are just not for me. But we’re all bored in lockdown, so I tried out Bumble for about the fifth time in my life (I never learn). I realised that it’s still rubbish but that we could be in this for a really long time, so maybe I should just entertain myself that way! I met this lad and we had facetime dates and it was really weird because it’s this whole virtual dating experience. I was thinking I could be facetiming this person for a year and then have to meet them! So that’s how the inspiration for the song came about it, and I just started writing it at like 3am and it kind of fell out of my brain.
How are you structuring and planning your releases?
I can’t reveal too much, but I have these two 2021 singles so far – IMABO and Iris – and then I’m going to release an EP of completely new songs later this year!
You use piano a lot – do you also use Logic and self-produce or do you work with other producers?
Since being signed I started doing co-writes and having studio sessions with other writers in the room, so I stopped relying on myself to essentially finish songs by myself – and I think this lockdown has really changed my whole perspective on that. Zoom sessions aren’t the same and suddenly I have all this time to sit with my piano and come up with stuff. I’ve kind of forced myself to start writing by myself again and take control of production as well. I’ve always had Logic but now I’ve invested in new equipment and plugins. I also have some amazing friends I’ve been able to ask for help which has launched me into potentially being a proper producer one day.
That’s awesome and being able to do bits of everything allows you to set yourself up for having a long term career in an industry that doesn’t freely hand out long term careers.
The final question I want to ask you is, in some of your early interviews and songs, you spoke about people casting all of their doubts on you about success and making it in an industry that is difficult. I think that’s really relatable because society does do that. Are you in a place now where you’re able to have confidence and detach from other people’s opinions and if so, and how did you get to that?
I think I’m naturally a massive self doubter and I probably care way too much what other people think of me. I also think since X-Factor it’s sometimes been harder to be taken seriously as a writer and artist and not be viewed as a karaoke singer who went on the telly – I definitely still get that vibe from people within the industry. I went on that show as a songwriter and I still am. I hope I’ve proved myself in the industry that I can write and release a good song, but I definitely still struggle.
Yes it’s an everyday struggle – the problem with being ambitious is that you’re never gonna feel, ‘oh great I’ve achieved this now, I can chill and be proud’ because you just move onto the next.
Definitely. This is just never ending, there’s always something to do – but I love my job and I love learning, so always onto the next!
Grace’s new single, Iris, is out now on YouTube and all major streaming platforms.