Perhaps one of the most exciting talents to come out of Australia in recent years is none other than Grace Pitts, better known as GRAACE.
With over 5 million listeners in 2020, 100 million streams in total, a wildly successful EP and a new one on the way, it’s clear that she’s shaping up to be quite the artist. And yet, it’s only during the past year and a half that she’s found herself, and consequently what it actually means to be GRAACE.
“I’m nervous! It’s been so long since I’ve released music that I really really care about, so it’s scary,” she tells me straight away when we chat over Zoom. It’s already nightfall in Sydney, where GRAACE is located, but that’s not stopping her hayfever from acting up throughout the interview. Rather than it being disruptive, it’s yet another display of GRAACE’s humanity – albeit perhaps not as graceful as one would like. She’s quick to supply me with an anecdote, how her allergies actually served as the source for an ongoing joke while she was in high school. “I came to school one time and my eyes were shut because I’m very allergic to cats as well. And we’d just rescued a cat, which I loved, but it just did me dirty. So I came to school and was like, “it’s allergy season” in a very nasal, congested voice. And that was the ongoing joke, I got that from year seven to like, year 12. If I said that to anyone that I went to high school with, they’d be like, yeah, we remember that.”
Apart from being known for her hay fever, GRAACE’s reputation as an avid music lover must have preceded her as well. “I started off playing piano when I was seven years old. My best friend’s mum was a piano teacher. Then that naturally sort of grew into me wanting to play guitar and singing, and that’s where it all begun,” she says with a smile.
Interestingly enough, her breakthrough hit “Numb” with Hayden James and her subsequent EP ‘Self-Sabotage’ was very much based on electronic pop sounds, rather than the acoustic instruments she’d grown up with. It’s perhaps indicative of the struggle GRAACE has faced with finding her musical identity. While it’s never been a question of imbuing her music with authenticity or honesty, how and where to express those is an entirely different story altogether.
Speaking about the shift in gears from ‘Self Sabotage’ to ‘Self Preservation’, GRAACE agrees that even the titles show how much she’s evolved. “I think the past three years my emotional intelligence and journey has been very immense. I was in a very different headspace, I didn’t really know what I was trying to do. I really love Self Sabotage, it was me just pouring my heart out. And I feel like this EP is still very much me pouring my heart out, but with kind of this break in between with me finding out who I was. I felt a little bit like a lost puppy when I released that EP [‘Self Sabotage’], but it’s like my little baby, you know?”
In a way, COVID-19 allowed her to actually press the brakes and reflect on how she’d been shaping her career up until that point. “I felt stuck for a long time. It almost feels like I was on autopilot, releasing poppier songs that I thought were more of the blueprint after I had success with songs that were more poppy and electronic. I was quite confused and didn’t know myself.” Part of that may have to do with the fact that she started out so young, and was put in situations that she wasn’t emotionally or mentally equipped for just yet. GRAACE explains, “being chucked on tour at a young age, I didn’t know – I didn’t have time to grow and learn who I was, what made me happy. I guess I was looking for those little highs by releasing a song that I guessed would stream kind of well. But it wasn’t until COVID literally pulled me to a halt that I realised I wasn’t happy with the music I was making. I was making it for other people to make them happy, but I wasn’t happy anymore.”
Having an artistic identity crisis is incredibly debilitating, and GRAACE admits that it took her a while to even pick up her guitar again or play the piano. “I felt for a long time that GRAACE wasn’t really me. It was so easy to detach myself from songs and put them out there and not really care. And now I’m so personally attached to every single word and lyric that I sing. And it’s – it’s an incredible feeling to feel like I’m back in my body and like back doing – releasing stuff that I really, really love.”
In fact, it’s invigorated her to reimagine her older material in a style that feels a little bit more true to who she is now. “I think with songs in particular like my song ‘Numb’ – obviously it’s an electronic song, whereas this new EP is folkier – reimagining it has been really cool. Picking up instruments again and starting a full live band has been incredible. Trying to reinvent these songs artistically by incorporating guitars and piano when they weren’t originally in those songs has been really fun,” she gushes in excitement.
A recurring word GRAACE uses when it comes to this new era is “fun”. Not necessarily because of the lyrical imagery, but because she’s actually been able to enjoy herself throughout the entire creative process. By taking ownership of her artistic development, and working with friends rather than strangers, GRAACE has also been able to address topics in her new music that she otherwise maybe never even would have touched. “For a while there, I was getting chucked into rooms, in collaborative songwriting rooms that – I didn’t really know them. And because of that, and me not knowing myself, I was making music that I wasn’t attached to. So that was a big thing for me, this EP working with people that I really trusted and loved, and that knew me so that they could pull me back if they thought that I was maybe veering off into a different direction. They were able to align with my vision,” she enthuses.
Her new single “Half Awake” is one that’s incredibly close to GRAACE’s heart. It addresses the lucid dreaming that she started experiencing after her father unexpectedly passed away when she was in her teens. It’s bold in its vulnerability, and hauntingly beautiful in how it touches on the grieving process. If she hadn’t gone to a cabin for a writing camp with friends, the song probably wouldn’t exist. “I have never been able to write about my dad, and death and loss and really intense things that I feel like I only talk about mostly with my close circle,” GRAACE explains. “Maybe I put stuff on my Instagram every now and then but nothing too crazy, where it’s really legit. I went into that session feeling so comfortable that morning, and I remember just spilling my guts. I was with the girl that plays the guitar on the song – an artist called Lola Scott – and I was sitting with her. She just started playing the riff, and we were just talking and talking and then it just like fell together so easily and I cried that whole morning before Half Awake. That experience in itself was very – it was a lot.”
The moment was made even more special when it seemed the supernatural intervened in the cabin once they listened back to the song. “There was no kitchen downstairs – no cutlery or metal things or tables or anything – and halfway through that song, something dropped on the floor, like very, very loudly in this dark cabin. To this day, we searched the whole floor, we still don’t know what it was,” GRAACE recalls. “It was very creepy. But yeah, that experience in itself, of the week with everyone that I wrote it with, was like a really special moment for me.”
Doing her dad’s memory and her loss justice is something that weighs heavily on GRAACE’s mind. Even though she finds writing to be therapeutic and cathartic, it was still scary to show her heart through the track – especially when it comes to her family. It’s not something that comes natural to her. “I was scared to show them. It’s so funny, because I can be so honest with a lot of my friends. And I’m excited to release it and have people have it in their possession. But there’s something about releasing, showing my family music that feels a bit scarier. Because I’ve kind of spent a lot of my teenage years not going to therapy, not really talking about our emotions between each other. And it was a very kind of isolating experience growing up as a teenager.” Her mother didn’t get to hear the song until about a month ago. “I was nervous to show her, and she cried, and I knew she was gonna cry, and I didn’t want her to cry. So I was like, fuck, I don’t want to cry. But she thought it was really, really beautiful. But yes, it’s scary to be open with them after, I guess just kind of isolating myself from my family for a while. I think we all isolated each other when we dealt with my dad’s loss.”
But even though GRAACE had mixed feelings about showing the song to her family, she never once doubted if she should include this song in her upcoming EP and release it. “Funnily enough, this is the one song that as soon as I wrote it and listened back, it stopped the room in silence. And that was the first time that’s ever happened to me. People were crying that I wasn’t even really close with. And it was just a kind of a moment where I was like, I really want to share this. Like if I was able to touch people that I guess I wasn’t very close with in the room, like, why wouldn’t I share that? And if it’s able to help one person feel comfortable in a space that’s very vulnerable, then why not put it out? I mean, I have a million voice memos that I haven’t put out that I, you know, will probably keep for myself, but I just. With “Half Awake”, I just knew that I really, really wanted to release it.”
Mostly, she’s excited to actually speak to people about the song and the issues it discusses. “I’ve gotten to the point as well, that for a long time, I kind of just was in the autopilot routine of releasing songs that I thought people just wanted to stream in the background. And now I don’t care if people don’t even like this song. I just care about the few people that I do touch that really freaking feel the song and really want to listen to and care about the project. And I’m just like, so happy for it to be small and intimate, and just to have communication and be able to talk about these things that a lot of people feel like they can’t talk about.”
GRAACE is speaking from experience, there. Because her father passed away while she was in high school, she felt rather isolated. Perhaps the song can be a vessel to open a conversation about loss, and normalise it, to ensure others do not have that same experience. “I felt like it wasn’t a normal thing to talk about. But so many people go through loss and through death, whether it’s losing a loved one, losing a partner, losing a relationship, losing different things, but there’s so many forms of loss that it’s just everyday life. So it’s very, really important for me to finally just speak about it, because I feel like it’s a big part of who I am and who I’ve become through loss.”
By transforming her grief into a song, GRAACE indeed shows how she has become the person she is today. It reminds me of the now iconic line from Marvel’s Wandavision. “What is grief, if not love persevering?” When I share this with GRAACE, she nods in agreement. “You always just want to like, you want to make them proud and you want to keep loving, you want to be strong. And it’s almost like you take little bits of things that you love about them. And then you like keep them in your heart. I don’t know. It’s really beautiful.”
In that regard, GRAACE wouldn’t have even become GRAACE if it wasn’t for her father. “He was the reason that I started music. I still have his Fender amp that he gave me in year seven. I have his Breedlove guitars that he gifted me for Christmas a month before he passed away, and that is like my baby. I love it so much, he surprised me with it. I think growing up and growing through a loss is realizing that you can see the positives in it. And I have all these little things that I know he’d be so proud of me. He only ever got to see me sing once in a concert. It was a little recital kind of thing when I was quite young, I think I was probably about 11 or 12 maybe 12. But I know he got to see everything once and I love that he always encouraged me to do music, even though it was the harder road. He knew that it brought me so much joy that he was like, just do it. Just like – just do it.”
She’s kept that same mindset central to how she approaches her career from here on out, even when it means exposing her vulnerabilities over and over again. “I think releasing this song, in particular, is massive for me, because it is the most vulnerable thing that I’ve ever released. But I also want to carry that on when I release an album. And I’ve almost made a little bit of an oath to myself that I’m like, okay, once we’ve released “Half Awake”, that’s a little milestone. Like, you’ve been very vulnerable. Just continue to do it. That’s what resonates with people. And for so long, I wasn’t being vulnerable. And for so long, I wasn’t being true to myself and my lyrics didn’t really mean much to me. But now that I’m releasing things that I really, really care about, people find them and like, care about my music again, which is so fucking cool. Because you can tell when things are authentic. And this EP is so authentic, a little bit intense even. But I love that, because when I listen to an artist, and I can see them being so vulnerable, it’s like the most beautiful thing ever. It’s so therapeutic. It’s so incredible to feel like you’re reading a journal, and I just kind of want to do that again.”
She’s also thought about how to reintroduce herself to her audience, making sure that they’re ready for this new and improved GRAACE. “I think with “Sentimental”, I made a very conscious effort to put that out first. So that people knew that I was kind of coming back to my grounds with, I guess the sounds of “Self-Sabotage”, and being really honest and vulnerable. I think this is going to maybe be a shock to people that I’ve really sung such an intense song, but I kind of like that. I like finally releasing something that people are going to be like – ‘oh, what? Like, I didn’t know that about you.’ I don’t know. I kind of like the surprise,” she smiles.
The video for “Half Awake” might also come as a surprise to some, as it’s almost a little bit like a short film rather than a traditional music video. It’s inspired by what lucid dreaming is like for GRAACE, how it’s both scary yet comforting at the same time. “I think that was something that I taught myself from a young age. It was a coping mechanism. I think that it was something that my brain gifted my young self while I was still very creative and very actively using that to escape, and I built this town in my head the night that my father passed away. It was a really big white elevator. And I specifically remember it because I can visit in my dreams.” She adds that she’s quite lucky it’s this vivid for her, as it gets harder to lucid dream once you get older. “I will never forget walking into the elevator, going up into the elevator and it opened – and my dad died from a sudden death – but then he was standing there. He’s like, “I’m sorry, we don’t have enough time”. Like, I don’t – you don’t get to say goodbye. Elevator’s shut, and I dropped down. And I had that dream for a long time where it was just an elevator on a hill. But throughout time I kept visiting that place. And I was able to literally build a town in my mind that I can picture right now. I was able to build a lake and I was able to build a whole village around this. That part of lucid dreaming is beautiful. My dad presents himself in so many different ways in it. Like, I have a soccer field in my mind. But then there are certain times where I can’t control my lucid dreaming when I experience things like sleep paralysis, and that’s terrifying. Sleep paralysis is really stuffed up. It’s that part of it that isn’t fun. When you lose control, I guess. But I guess I’ve spent the last I guess 10 years of my life that he’s been away, I feel like I haven’t been in control in general. So having that little part of that lucid dream that I can control feels nice.”
In the video, GRAACE can be seen experiencing her lucid dreams – including seeing her father on the beach. When asked whether or not that was a strange day of shooting, she snorts and nods. “There were a few moments there – we casted my like fake dad. He was like a method actor. So he was speaking to me like he was my dad. And I had to head off for a bit for myself, because it was – it wrung me out a lot. It was a lot to deal with.” But, she adds, “I felt safe, I felt like I was in a safe environment. And everyone was making me feel so comfortable. So it was really beautiful to I guess, let these people in.”
That feeling of safety probably also stems from the fact that she was able to work together with one of her friends – Christopher Quyen, and take creative ownership of something that’s so incredibly personal. “I said to him – we both love scary movies and this song is about sleep paralysis, and lucid dreaming. I just wanted to chat to him about it. He’d already heard the song, and already had pretty much written a treatment, because he was just so moved by it. He’s been a good friend for a very long time, and I just trusted him a lot. So I think putting that in his hands and trusting him to be able to, I guess, create a little dream for me, was really exciting. Because for a long time, that same thing – being put in the rooms with people that didn’t know me, I was being put with directors that didn’t know me and kind of just pushed into a visual direction that I didn’t really align with. But yeah, Chris just nailed it. And this is, by far my favorite music video that I’ve ever released. I love it. It’s like, I feel like it’s like a little bit of a movie. And I also don’t act, I’m a horrible actress. But it was fun to just kind of play that little version of, I guess a young Grace. It was fun,” she laughs.
Aside from the visual aspect, GRAACE has also fully embraced her own artistry when it comes to the live performances. It’s not just about translating the same emotions, the brutal honesty on her records to a live setting – but also about who gets to tell those stories with her. She’s made an active choice to uplift and include women creatives wherever she can. “I changed management early on in the year, and now I’ve got a day to day manager, who is a woman. On my EP’s creative shoot, it was just all women on the shoot, which – the energy was so calming, it was insane. We were all telling each other like, ‘oh, it’s great. Like, no one’s rushing each other, like, we’re just getting shit done,’ GRAACE grins. “Recently, Jess Gleeson, one of my good friends, she shot the cover of ‘Sentimental’. And it’s been really beautiful to make a conscious effort to build women up in this industry. It’s also a pretty small industry in Australia, there’s a lot of men accessible. But there’s not that many women in the industry that, you know, are just like working full time in this. Even my music director, who’s my drummer in my live band, she is one of the only female music directors that I know of in Australia. So it is so cool that she’s been able to be a part of this project and wants to love it as much as I do.”
Perhaps it’s a bit of a full-circle moment as well, for someone who grew up loving the Cheetah Girls. GRAACE can’t help but agree when I bring this up. “There’s the girl band, it’s there, I’m living my dreams!” It’s said half-jokingly, because there’s definitely some truth to the statement as well. “For so long, all I’ve wanted to have is a girl band. And for a long time, because I got chucked into tour very early on, we kind of had to pick up all the scraps very quickly to start a live show. I never had time to actually build the show. And I’ve never done it before. Oh, I’m so excited to debut the live show. It’s – oh, it’s so cool! And I’m obsessed. Like, my band is so hot. Everyone is so hot and talented. I’m like, this is so fabulous!”
While there have certainly been some growing pains involved in Grace Pitt’s journey to becoming GRAACE, it’s most definitely been worth it. Now, all she’s looking forward to is actually getting to tour – together with her all-female live band. She stresses how disheartening it has been to have seen how the creative industry has been treated, but that it only makes her more excited to get back to it next month – her first show of the year. “It’s insane, and I only played like one show last year as well. But I’m so excited to be playing live again, I’m so excited for the EP to come out, and I’m so excited to start writing my album in January. And that’s going to be an intense emotional journey, but I’m so ready for it.”
She tells me that she’s really focused on looking for the positives. “If you’re not looking for those at this point, then you’re just going to tear yourself down. So yes, I’ve dealt with very manic depression, but throughout it, I feel like I had to go through that uncomfortable change to come out of the other side and just be finally making music that I really liked.”
“I feel like I’m glad that I didn’t try to force it earlier than maybe I would have in the past. I probably would’ve tried to like write a pop album. And now I’m like, no – like, I’m so excited to write shit on my guitar and on my piano just being so vulnerable, maybe even having hay fever while I’m singing,” she jokes as she goes to blow her nose one last time. “I’m just excited to just get back out there, I feel like I’m a completely different person than I was before COVID, which I feel like is the case with a lot of people. We’ve had so much time to grow as a person, I’m so confident in who I am now, which feels really incredible. And it just makes me more excited to just go out there and bust my ass off.”
True to her name, she will probably do that with tons of grace, too.