It's hard not to constantly restate the obvious, but times are strange. We're all facing new kinds of stress, mainly concerns about physical health, mental health, and general well-being. There are also more specific, less critical problems that many of us are dealing with in the age of social distancing.
21-year-old Los Angeles-based artist Gracie Abrams is going through some of the things we're all going through—her work situation is interrupted after having to postpone her first-ever live shows, she's navigating new kinds of anxiety while trying to stay creative at home, and she's still mastering Zoom ettiquette.
We named Gracie Abrams an artist to watch in 2020, but at the time she only had one song released on all streaming platforms. After years of Instagram snippets and SoundCloud demos, she's finally starting to roll out the more refined music that will make up her first official project. Her new songs show clear progression from the acoustic, bare-bones bedroom takes that acted as Gracie's introduction, but she's holding on to the core of her no-frills songwriting.
In some ways, Gracie Abrams is in her element right now. She's used to maintaining some distance, finding ways to make fan connections without the in-person options, and keeping everything DIY while working from home. She just released a bedroom video for "I miss you, I'm sorry," and next up she's got a song called "Long Sleeves" coming on May 20. After that, it's her debut project in June.
Of course, we couldn't talk about it all in an IRL interview, so we caught up via Zoom on a nondescript, unidentifiable, same-as-every-other day sometime in May of 2020.
I feel like now every conversation has to start with the quarantine check-in.
I know. I honestly haven't been on too many Zooms like everyone else, but everyone I know needs to do that more. And then all my friends are still in school, so they're glued to it all day. I'm still learning the Zoom etiquette. Every single call has been starting with a 15-minute debrief on the emotional state in quarantine.
How does it affect your mental state? Have you been more anxious or less creative or anything?
Yeah, I think I'm feeling kind of new anxieties. I'm being forced to write about these new anxieties, which is uncomfortable for me because typically, whenever I'm writing about something—I don't know if this is normal or not—it's feelings that I'm used to. This is such a weird time that when I'm sitting down to write, it's not about a relationship or something, it’s about what I'm feeling without the ability to leave. It's different, and I feel like it's stunted my writing a little bit. It's just strange.
Have you discovered anything new or picked up any new habits while you’re stuck inside?
I have learned how to crack an egg with one hand.
Nice. I think I saw you mention that was a goal of yours.
Yes, that was a goal! That literally was a goal. Now I can do it. That doesn't help my music in any way, but it's helping me mentally.
Do you find any inspiration in this whole situation, or are you missing those life experiences that inform the music?
Well, even aside from the fact that we’re quarantining right now, this is a weird in-between space for me personally because I've just finished recording the entire first project. And in terms of life experience, I don't feel like I've run out of things to say from the past two or three years that really consumed the first project. But I definitely I'm finding myself looking more internally, like what can I pull from? What are things that I have been avoiding writing about? I’m now forcing myself to look at those things in a deeper way. It's definitely been a challenge.
Because your music is so personal, do you think about people listening to your songs when you're writing?
Yes, but not until “I miss you, I'm sorry” came out did I actually feel like I was seeing the response from people and the way that it was reminding them of their own experiences. I'm never really thinking about other people when I'm writing. I started writing when I was so little so it just feels like a natural response to any situation emotionally for me—it's just my outlet.
I guess in the back of my head, I always hope that someone else might be able to connect it to their own lives because that's what music is for me. When I put out “I miss you, I'm sorry,” I made a dumb YouTube video in my room, just a music video on Photo Booth. The comment section immediately looked different from any of the other videos I've posted. Out of nowhere, all of these people were writing messages to their exes or to their friends that they were missing. It became so personal, so immediately.
Since then I've thought about the rest of the music on the project and wondering if anyone's going to feel the same way with those. But it made me cry reading the comments. People chose to be so vulnerable all of a sudden and I just appreciated that because it made me feel like I could do it more myself.
Were you writing before music was even in the picture?
When I was eight years old I started journaling. I've been writing a lot now, but it's not songs. I've been journaling a lot because I figured it's an interesting moment to capture what's going on right now. Whether or not it makes it into the music, it's just for me emotionally to get it out. But it wasn't really until later in elementary school that I was like, "Oh, I love the music aspect of writing as well." And then in middle school I discovered that I was really falling in love with certain artists, and realized that music is really impactful and it's hitting a different chord.
Do you remember the first time you decided to share a song publicly? What was it?
I was in sixth grade. I covered a Phoebe Bridgers song and I posted on SoundCloud. I didn't even have Instagram at the time. I recorded it on my computer.
Is that still out there?
I hope not.
I don't know why I even started posting my music publicly. I didn't even really tell my friends about it when it was happening at the beginning.
A lot of your early music had a very DIY style—it was shared as Instagram video snippets and acoustic demos. Did you always know that it would evolve or did you ever think that was your final form?
No, I didn't really think of it as anything, honestly. I feel very intense stage fright, and the concept of performing in front of people freaks me out, and I just need to get around it. When I thought about posting videos initially, the degree of separation between myself and the people on the other side of the phone, that didn't freak me out. There's an element of control, and it's so easy to hit the button and then walk away. It was an extension of what the journaling had always been. I don't know why I even started posting my music publicly. I didn't even really tell my friends about it when it was happening at the beginning.
A lot of the artists that we talk to now, especially younger ones, seem to use fiction or other people's stories to write songs. Do you do that at all or is everything you write from firsthand experience?
It's not. I'm sometimes pulling from other people’s experiences. That's the kind of thing I looked for when I was living in New York. I feel like I spent the large majority of my time people-watching and I would—and this sounds so creepy—sit in a coffee shop and just write down quotes from conversations. Once I was at the park and I was sitting on a bench and there was a couple next to me that were in this really intense conversation. They were breaking up, talking about everything from when they started being friends to the end of their relationship. I was so inappropriately eavesdropping, but I couldn't help it.
I am so fascinated by the dynamic between two people and it's why, for example, Joni Mitchell and Phoebe Bridgers are two North Star artists for me. It's the lyrical content that is so captivating and it's done in a way that doesn't feel like it's ever been said before. Sometimes I feel like I exhaust my own relationships and I can't even imagine someone else wanting to hear about it anymore. So I definitely look for nuggets from other people.
I think I read that Tyler, The Creator is an influence.
He's an influence to me because of the way that he expresses himself as a human being and as an artist. But I think sonically, it's obviously not the same thing.
It's not that different from when I talk about Phoebe Bridgers as an influence. She is just so in her own lane and not phased by what any other artists are doing. She exists in her own space and the fearlessness with which Tyler has done everything forever, I'm just so inspired by him as a human being. No pun intended but as a creator, the way that he reaches people—as abstract as it may be sometimes—is also weirdly relatable because of how honest it feels.
I find a very rare authenticity in everything that Tyler, The Creator does, even beyond music. He's built a really, really cool world around everything he does. I can only hope to emulate a similar thing, not trying to be anything other than myself.
Joni [Mitchell] is an interesting one too. I don't hear newer artists talk about music from other generations as much lately. It's like everybody's so caught up in what's happening right now. Was that something you got into when you were younger?
My mom always played Joni Mitchell. Like every morning, making breakfast or driving to school it was always Carole King or Joni. Once I started paying attention to the lyrics it started feeling so unfair to everyone else because it's like, for me at least, I was so dissatisfied by so much after Joni. She's a poet, and no one is capable of saying anything the way she does.
It was definitely a childhood thing, but it hasn't gone away at all. It's really nice because it feels nostalgic but at the same time as I'm growing up and going through different relationships and feelings and experiences, it's like I'm always listening to her music for the first time again.
You obviously care a lot about writing. I saw a really sweet message that you posted about working on "I miss you, I'm sorry" with Sarah Aarons. There are a lot of misconceptions around writing songs with other people. Can you talk a little bit about what that process was like?
She's the first woman I ever co-wrote with, which was huge. I think it was my manager or her manager who made the connection. I had just moved back from New York, all my friends were at school and I didn't feel like I had a person there. We connected through texts and then I went to her house just to hang out. We spent the entire day just talking and ended up getting pretty deep about our lives. I don't really open up to people very quickly, but she was someone that knew how to listen and I felt like I wasn't crazy.
With co-writing, I agree, there are definitely misconceptions about how it works. I still don't do it very often, because I started writing completely alone all the time, but Sarah was a very rare case. She's such a genius, and I looked up to her for so long before we even got in the same room. The fact that we were able to build a relationship that allowed us to open up enough to write better together was a big deal. Writing "I miss you, I'm sorry" with her meant a lot to me because that was something I had been needing to say, and doing it with a close friend was special.
I'm lucky that the DIY, at-home vibe is having its own moment right now, because it's what is natural for me anyway.
What has it been like working with producers and building these songs out rather than being in total control and putting it out there as a more raw idea? Is that coming naturally for you?
It is, but I don't really work with that many producers either. My boyfriend Blake Slotkin is a producer and we basically did all of my project together. So that was a really easy, natural relationship where luckily I'm not intimidated and I'm not going to hold back.
If you have to force anything when you're making a song, then it's not worth it. I've thrown songs away because I felt like they didn't happen naturally. I can't really do the speed dating thing with producers. When I find something that works, just riding with that is the way that's worked best thus far. Obviously I'm still learning every single day and anytime I've been with a new producer, it's such a learning experience. Just having finished this first project, especially in quarantine, I'm having a lot of time to think about what it's going to look like moving forward.
Are you thinking about what to do instead of the concerts you had planned? Are you considering virtual concerts and other ways to make connections with fans?
Yeah, I think the fact that I have been posting videos on Instagram for years is kind of like a weird silver lining in this moment. Even with the "I miss you, I'm sorry" video, I think that would maybe be the expectation whether or not we were in this moment. I'm lucky that the DIY, at-home vibe is having its own moment right now, because it's what is natural for me anyway.
I'm talking to a bunch of people on Instagram all the time, which is nice because I feel like I'm getting what I would be getting in-person at shows. Sometimes seeing so many people going live on Instagram all the time is overwhelming and it makes me want to break my phone. I don't want to do anything that feels like overkill, but I think it's the new normal at the moment.
What do you have coming up? What are the next steps?
I have my project coming out within the next two months, one song before that and then my first project. I'm really nervous about it, but I'm excited. It is weird to finally have a body of work. I didn't feel like I was working towards that when I was making the music—it just happened really quickly, but I'm relieved.
What are you worried about? A negative response or just putting yourself out there even more?
Well, I'm not really worried about a negative response. I don't really care what people think about it, frankly, because I feel like I said everything I needed to at this point. I can listen to all the music and get that satisfaction, and that is really the only thing that matters to me because that's the only reason why I care about writing at all. So technically I have nothing to be scared about.
It just feels strange putting anything out right now. It feels weird to be thinking about plans in the future. I just feel lucky to be with my family and to be healthy and safe. I think my perspective on the project has changed a lot since this has all gone down. A lot of what I was thinking about when I looked at the project as a whole was how is it going to sound live? What's that going to be like going out and seeing real faces responding to the songs? Right now that isn't my mindset anymore.
A lot of what I was thinking about when I looked at the project as a whole was how is it going to sound live? What's that going to be like going out and seeing real faces responding to the songs? Right now that isn't my mindset anymore.
Did you think at all about changing things or delaying the album?
The reason I didn't want to change any of it is because I've personally found a lot of comfort any time new music has come out since this quarantine. I'm looking to other artists as a security blanket. Seriously, like anytime anyone's put anything out, I'm just grateful and I feel relieved. It's not that I have any expectation that everyone's going to relate to what I'm saying in a way that makes anything better. But with the release of what I'm writing, there's some closure with all of the moments that I'm writing about. With the music, I hope it will never be anything other than a really healthy outlet for me to move on emotionally. If I can do that, especially right now, it's like a therapy session.
I think we're starting to see where you're going with the last singles, but are there any surprises or anything that you're especially excited for people to hear?
There are some surprises with production. All of the songs were written on either acoustic guitar or piano, so the core of the songs aren't going to feel shocking at all. But I think that the production elements give it a body and a bit of variety that I haven't been able to even portray on my guitar in this room. On Instagram, people can't hear all the weird sounds that we're throwing in there.
Do you think that you'll ever go backwards and do an acoustic lo-fi album?
I've always wanted to put out a project of just voice memos, but I don't know when or if ever. I would not describe this project even as a real departure from what everybody that has heard. Even on the songs where there is more production, there are the organic sonic elements in all of those songs. I would never want it to be weird if tomorrow I were to post a song of just guitar and vocal and that's it. That's very much always going to feel like the core of it.
Did you try anything in the process of making this project that you heard and you were like, "That's not me, I'm never doing that again"?
Uh-huh, it is fun to explore and push the boundaries but then recognize where you need to pull back. There were a couple of songs that I thought would be on this project, but more music needed to come out before I could ever put out anything that sounds like those. There are definitely funny moments, and there are songs that feel like huge pop songs but I'm like, I can't even imagine ever singing this for the life of me, but they're so fun to make. Maybe I'll put out a pop song.
Is there anything else that you want to talk about or share?
I think the only other thing—if you don't know about No Kid Hungry, it's a really amazing organization and if you were curious, they've got a beautiful website, a lot of information. But other than that, no, I'm just excited for everyone to hear the project.