Song writing can represent different things for different artists. It can be about catharsis, it can mean letting go, or it can be an escape. For 20-year-old, LA-born Gracie Abrams, it means everything. It's also been an evolution.
At first song writing was purely a way of letting her emotions out, with songs built around teenage journal entries, and often recorded solo, in her bedroom, and released via demos on Instagram or Soundcloud. More recently, having found a group of collaborators she trusts, it's become about really honing the songs until they're simultaneously as specific and as universal as possible.
“The details in my songs are super important to me,” Gracie said. “The more I can colour my songs with explicit detail the closer I feel to them.”
It was there in the delicate piano balladry of her debut single proper, “Mean It”, a song that zooms in on the end of a relationship, or the equally plaintive, gossamer light “I Miss You, I'm Sorry”, which forms the emotional apex of her debut project, Minor. Both showcase one side of Gracie's sound but are in no way the full picture, as reflected by the soft electro pulse of “21”, or the guitar-lead, psych-tinged “Friend”. Ask her, for example, what genre her music fits into and she's flummoxed, in a good way.
“My hope is that I get to the point where I've put out enough music that can exist in different boxes,” she said. "The freedom to exist and create without living within the confines of a specific genre matters a lot to me as a young person who’s constantly growing and changing. I think we’ve only more recently started seeing that happen generally, but specifically for female artists. The fact that expectations are shifting feels really exciting."
Gracie was raised in Los Angeles, in a house teeming with music. One of her early memories was driving to school listening to her parents' record collection, things like Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel and Elvis Costello. Later these influences would be joined by the likes of Bon Iver, Elliot Smith, Kate Bush, The 1975 and James Blake.
“I swam in the angst of The 1975 and that's when music started to feel really personal,” she shared. “Like it was mine and nobody else's.”
The angst was there from an early age, however, with early rock drum lessons when she was just 8-years-old augmented by angry passages from her journals.
“I always journaled growing up, and I still do every single day, and it's never not been something that felt like the centre of my life,” she explains. “When I was angry as a child I would take my journal and read it, like scream it over the drums, so that felt like me trying to make songs out of my diary entries. Obviously I soon worked out that that wasn't really possible for too long, so I ended up teaching myself guitar and I learned piano.”
Music co-existed alongside team sports - “I was on soccer teams and I played baseball in the boys league until I couldn't anymore because I got too old” - and eventually musical theatre. After breaking the same wrist twice in four months, her focus moved permanently from sports to theatre, which in turn influenced her nascent song writing via its focus on narrative. It wasn't the only influence, however.
“I found out who Phoebe Bridgers was around the same time, and she kickstarted my drive to even consider being an artist and consider what that really meant,” Gracie said, aware that before that she'd only ever really seen herself as being a songwriter for others, never an artist. “But when I discovered who Phoebe was when I started taking song writing really personally and imagining myself being the one to sing my own lyrics, as opposed to somebody else maybe doing it someday. Once that clicked it turned into an obsession a little.”
Slowly, with song writing properly taking off when Gracie was just 13, she started to record little snippets of songs, or voice memos, which were then uploaded to her Instagram and Soundcloud. In a very modern twist, she felt absolutely fine popping her music onto the internet, but had yet to perform a gig (she still hasn't). Such close proximity to her fans, at least via a pixelated screen, has had a huge effect on the music she's made so far. Perhaps more so than any more 'typical' influences.
"The relationship I have with the people that have followed me on Instagram this whole time is so weirdly important to me," she said. "I think maybe it’s because they’ve seen the progression of my music over the years on such a raw and personal level but it’s also because they tell me when they feel the same way I do. It makes me feel way more normal and way more understood and incredibly close to all of them.”
It was an early support network at a time when even her closest friends didn't know what was going on. “They didn't know, or if they did we didn't talk about it,” she said. “I don't know why. Maybe because I associated the song writing with writing in my diary and that's so singular and personal, so weirdly opening it up never felt like an instinct to me. It's funny because I understand the permanence of it so clearly, but the thought of posting a video is far more comforting than playing in front of people.”
Did she have any grand plans when she started putting music online? Was this always the end goal? “Never,” she laughed.
Even when those early conversations were taking place she knew she needed to take her time to figure out who she wanted to be. She also knew she needed to open up her music, having spent so long writing alone in her bedroom.
“Mean It” came quickly during an early session with producer Blake Slatkin, its simplicity something that Gracie connected with.
“It was the first song we made together and it felt like it happened in a second, just completely straight through. There's something about how the simplicity of the process matched the feeling I want the music to always have. It is what it is,” she said. “It's a simple song and I'd never want to be reaching for something that felt inauthentic. It felt like a good bridge between what is on my Instagram which is just me in my guitar in my room and the music we've made since then, which is more produced, but thoughtfully.”
It's a song about the painful dissolution of a relationship, written while Gracie was, at the time, in a happy relationship. “The idea of writing a break-up song amidst a happy time in my life felt funny to me,” she laughed.
Minor is all about feeling her way through her process, with her impulsive songwriting techniques and styles adapted to suit each song.
“Writing ‘Friend’ felt really different,” Gracie said. “Because I’m so used to writing entirely on acoustic guitar or piano before even getting into production, I typically keep the writing process and the production separate until they need to meet each other. But with ‘Friend’, I knew what I wanted the song to feel like in the end. And emotionally, it strikes a slightly new chord for me. It’s coming from an angrier place than usual, so I think that energy really contributed to the vocal delivery, too.”
Steeped in the music of artists who crafted proper albums to be enjoyed as albums, she's keen, at some point to be in a place where she can do the same. For now, however, it's about sharing as much as she can.
“I'm just writing all the time. I’m going to keep putting music out at a pace that feels right and comfortable,” she said, with her desire to be to showcase as many different emotions and sounds as possible before that first big musical statement. “I'm so excited to make my album. I just don't think it's been written yet.”
For now she's focused on building up to her first shows, making music that's honest and with people she can fully trust.
For Gracie, music has always been about “translating my journal”, but now she's opening up to the idea that these songs mean something to other people, too.
“It's comforting in a way to know that people are going through the same things as you,” she noted. She's ready to tell more of her stories, and you get the feeling more and more people will be listening.