I describe as “soul.” There’s some R&B and hip-hop stuff happening -- especially because I’ve been working with The Social Experiment -- and there’s this little bit of folk that kind of weaves in there. I play a little guitar and piano -- and write on them -- but I don’t record on guitar and piano, or play them live. I did, however, lay down the instrumentals for my song "Just Love" including the organ part; it’s kind of my claim to fame. [Laughs.] The “singer-songwriter thing” is what brings in a little of that folk element. I grew up singing gospel music so there’s a big gospel feel throughout my whole upcoming record.
You seem very cool and collected. How do you bring that energy to your live show?
I love performing live; it’s a huge part of what I love about being a musician. Growing up singing in church, it was a place where it felt like there were no expectations except for you to be yourself and lay it all out there. And especially growing up singing gospel music, people are wanting to feel comforted through music and your voice, so for me, being able to bring my music to a live stage is the reason that I sing. I think that the genres that kind of make up my sound and come to life even more so onstage, because of the way live instrumentalists pull out the energy of each song. I love fleshing out the music so that my audience can feel like they’re inside of it with me.
What do you wear to make you feel most comfortable onstage?
I love feeling strong before I go onstage. I like having a combination of a tomboy feel and a sexy [feminine] edge. I actually used to be a “heels-only” person onstage (because I’m really short) -- something with a thick heel, so it makes me feel really grounded -- because heels help give me a little height, a little more presence, a little more confidence. But [opening for Thirdstory at Brooklyn Warsaw on June 23] was the first time I wore slides onstage, and [they gave me] this amazing feeling of groundedness that I really dug. In general, I have to wear something that makes me feel confident so I can bring some of that energy onto the stage, and bring the feeling of being relaxed and being there to hang out [with my audience.]
Moving to NYC from Milwaukee must have been a huge transition for you. Did you feel like you had to change your sense of style to fit in on the east coast?
I didn’t feel like I had to change myself to fit in, but, rather, I was just exposed to style. It’s gotten a lot better since when I was growing up, but in Wisconsin, there wasn’t really a concept of style in my high school. I just wore hoodies and sweatpants everyday. Actually, I think I kind of wear that now -- just in a different way. [Laughs.] There, I felt like I had to wear certain things to fit into whatever the mold of “being cool” was at my high school, and then when I came to New York, I realized that people here could be themselves, 100%, and that’s what’s “cool” here. Not fitting in is cool, and that’s the coolest thing about New York as a city; the city is such a huge promoter of individuality. You see people on the subway rocking, I don’t know, a tutu or something and it’s rad. When I came here, I was really inspired to figure out what makes me feel like I’m expressing myself uniquely and in a way that helps me [identify as] my own artist. The style component was the direct tie-in that made me feel like I wasn’t just a singer, but a true artist.
So it sounds like moving to New York was a really transformative decision for you. Is that how you got started in music as a career?
I went to the Gallatin School at NYU right after high school, and got to create my own major of music, visual art, and music business. I definitely needed that time to grow up a little bit. College was a really important time of finding who I was. I feel like I am an old soul, but coming from Wisconsin, I needed to experience more and finally saw how much the world had to offer. I was in some bands in college, and then senior year, I sang on Oprah, which was totally random and crazy. She had this cheesy thing called “Oprah’s Karaoke Challenge” and she asked people to upload videos of them singing to her site for a chance to sing on her show. I had never done American Idol or The Voice or anything, so my friends told me to do the “Oprah thing.” I uploaded a video of myself to the site, and a week and a half later, BeBe Winans and an Oprah camera crew surprised me in the Astor Place subway station. BeBe Winans was singing, telling me that I was going to be on Oprah -- it was insane. They did the surprise thing very well. So I sang on her show, and that kind of launched me into music as a career.
Tell us about working with Chance the Rapper and The Social Experiment. How did that happen?
In May 2015, Nico [Segal, formerly known as Donnie Trumpet] released his debut album with The Social Experiment, Surf. I thought that what they were doing was so forward-thinking as far as what music and hip-hop -- and even genre-less music can be -- so I got really excited. It led me to listen to Chance's Acid Rap, and when I heard “Good Ass Intro,” I thought it was the best and it made me want to sing. I asked Binta [Niambi Brown, my manager,] if I could meet them, and if there would be a way to get them to produce my album. We put some feelers out, but we hit a lot of dead ends and couldn’t find a way to get into the studio with them.
A few months later, I get a text from a buddy of mine who’s a music publisher, saying that he was at a studio with some guys, and that he had played them some of my music and they thought it was dope. So he sent me an address and told me to go there in a few hours because they wanted to work with me -- he didn’t even tell me who the guys were. I show up and meet these guys named Nate and Nico, and I never put it together that it was Nate Fox and Nico Segal. There were a bunch of people in the room, it was a very vibey situation.
They asked me if I wanted to sing over [a beat] that they were working on, and they pulled up a track that instantly gave me the feeling that I had when I listened to Surf -- I just HAD to sing, I couldn’t help myself. That track had all the elements of my music with the gospel, soul, and R&B. So they sent me into the booth with some lyrics on a napkin, and I sang my heart out; I honestly hadn’t had that much fun singing in years. I felt like a kid again. I get out of the booth and everyone is excited, and I ask them, “Who are you guys? What do you do?” and that’s when Nico said “Oh, well I actually go by Donnie Trumpet.” I [was freaking out on the inside] but I kept it cool. Nico tells me that the lyrics I was singing were actually Chance’s lyrics, and that they were working on a new album for him. It was really cool that the feeling I got listening to their music is exactly what it felt like to work with them, without knowing that I was actually working with them.
A little bit later, I asked them if they would want to work on an album with me, and they said yes! About three weeks into recording it, Chance walked into the studio, heard a song I was working on, and asked if he could have it; it ended up becoming the first track on Coloring Book, “All We Got.” It was the craziest start of my year, to be part of that album.
The most amazing thing about working with [The Social Experiment] is that, when Nate and Nico set up their studio, they want artists to be able to come in and feel like they can be kids again. They take away all the expectation of needing to create music in a box. When you’re a kid and you’re singing, no one tries to tell them what kind of singer they are -- they just sing.
Working with the guys, they took me back to the feeling that I’m a singer, that I can share, that I can just be an artist, and they opened up my creative brain like crazy. It’s kind of appropriate that they’re called The Social “Experiment,” because that’s [what they do with their music.] For my album, we ended up making 50 almost-songs, and narrowed it down from there. It’s the most liberating feeling in the world working with them.
Your merch line is so fun! Tell us about the designing process and what we should expect from the collection.
I designed a new merch line with my stylist, Amy Narodovich, and Glen Infante, who runs [Cleveland-based streetwear brand] Ilthy. Amy has been a huge part of my style journey in the past year or two. She’s the friend who knows you better than you know yourself. She really helped me own who I am stylistically. The three of us sat down with Binta and decided that we wanted to make a merch line that was also kind of like streetwear -- we wanted people to be able to wear the line whether or not they came to my show. It’s more of a vibe or energy rather than [in-your-face] merch.
My nickname is “Space,” -- the Social Experiment guys actually nicknamed me that -- so that’s where the rocket ship comes from. The first song that we wrote together had all these space metaphors about love and how the depths of love are going into outer space -- this one is not on the album [laughs] -- but they thought it was funny, and because my name is Grace and it rhymes with “space,” they started calling me “Space” and it just stuck. Chance’s whole crew calls me “Space”; I’m pretty sure some of them don’t even know my real name at this point. It also kind of became a metaphor for me: taking space and time to create what I want to create and giving myself a full year to create the album. Also hearing space between vocal lines; that space in between each line is just as important as what I’m saying. It also goes back to honoring how much I care about my live show, and what kind of energy I’m bringing into each space I perform in and creating a sacred space at my show for my audience.
I’m a huge fan of Glen’s work, and it’s been such a dream working with him and Amy on the line. We’re hoping that we’ve created something that people want to wear and that it makes them feel confident.