STATE OF GRACE
Get Carter: there’s a powerful new female voice waiting to be heard. Grace Carter has found a way to channel darker times into sublime, personal music with a broad appeal, and, as she tells Wylde, honesty is the best policy. Interview by David Newton. Portraits by Etienne Gilfillan.
“You’re really angry… you’ve got a lot that you need to say.” Rising star Grace Carter is quoting her stepfather’s words as he handed her her first guitar seven years ago; an instrument that would prove to be, in his words, “A tool that you can use to get out what it is that you feel.”
I first experienced the raw power of Carter in the tear-strewn video for her debut single Silence; a piano-and-beats-driven gospel-ballad that lays down the law to an unspecified male, with lyrics such as: “Don’t blame me for the mess that you’ve been causing. I believe every word you didn’t say.” Coupled with the unflinching visuals that leave nowhere for this (then) 19-year-old to hide; the result is pretty intoxicating.
Grace Carter has popped into Wylde HQ for one of our chat-and-portrait sessions and I feel, upon meeting this open, cheerful young woman, that my first line of enquiry should be about the source of the aforementioned “anger”.
Wylde: Your current single Ashes contains the lyrics: “Hard to breathe with your hands round my throat… fighting for my survival.” Should we be worried about you?
Grace Carter: [laughing] No, you shouldn’t! A lot of my songs are written about my childhood. I grew up with a single mum; my dad wasn’t around… there was a lot of frustration. I didn’t grow up with the black side of my family, just the white side, so there were a lot of identity issues, and songwriting was the one thing that made me understand myself and the way I felt. I was really confused. As far as I was aware, as a kid, my dad didn’t love me; he didn’t care about me. He wasn’t there. I have met him since, and he’s not a bad person, but that situation was awful and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, to grow up without someone who should be there. You’re told in school that there’s a mum and a dad and a brother and a sister, and I didn’t have any of that. But I’m definitely grateful that I’ve been able to turn it into a good thing, because it could have gone in a completely different way and I could have ended up totally fucked up and awful. It’s all been very dark, and everything I write about is very dark.
Do you gravitate towards that side of life, lyrically?
Yes. When I’m sad I want to write songs; when I’m happy I want to be out with my friends!
But do you feel that there might be only a limited amount of bad experiences that can be turned into songs? What if you become really successful and the money rolls in and you buy a beautiful house and fall in love..?
I would be happy, but I think the way I was brought up and my childhood will always affect me and affect the decisions I make. There’ll always be confusion; there’ll always be something. Even if it’s not about my life, I’ll always take inspiration from the people around me. I’m a people person and I have very good friends and we talk a lot. I do think I will always find something to cry about!
But you seem such a happy person!
But that’s because I can get it out and that’s why I’m so grateful I’m able to do it. I’ve got relatives who keep it all in and they get to the point where they’re 50 years old and they’re exploding. My mum can listen to songs that I’ve written and feel the same things I’m feeling, because we’ve been through a lot of the same stuff. She can’t necessarily put her finger on what she’s feeling, then she hears a song I’ve written and be like: “That’s how I feel!”
Has she influenced your taste in music?
She’s a music fan, and the day she played me Nina Simone – I was really young, about eight years old – it was the first time I heard something and really listened. It was her voice. I was like: “Mum, who is this?” I’m getting goosebumps being back there now. [Simone] being on in the car is making me feel something, and usually, at eight years old, you’re just listening to anything, and not really connecting. But that’s a lot to do with how I was feeling as a kid… I felt a lot of pain. I felt she was coming from somewhere very honest. Every time we were in the car, I was like: “Can you put on Mr Bojangles?”
Has your mum given you any good life advice?
Yes, she’s taught me how to be strong, and how to be in control of my own destiny. She taught me to walk into a room full of men and stand there and be confident in myself and say what it is that I want. And to be comfortable enough to say: “No, actually, I don’t want to do that.” She’s a really strong woman.
Tell me more about your stepfather encouraging you…
When he came into my life I was 13 and it was a massive shock for me, because it had always been me and my mum. I’d never had a man around, ever, and I really didn’t like him, to be honest. But we connected on a level of music, and he introduced me to songwriting. He was a musician and had a home studio at his flat and he bought me the guitar and started recording me, which I will forever thank him for, because just being able to write songs is something that has helped me grow so much as a person. Every day after school all my friends were in the park next to my house, but I always preferred to go home and play on my guitar and write songs on my old Mac, which I’ve given to my godsister. The other day she sent me a video off it – I used to film them all on Photo Booth – and there’s like 250 videos of me, with my braces on, singing these songs. I was an only child and without people to play with at the house, it was the one thing that would distract me and make time fly.
And how did that lead to getting noticed?
My best friend at school was a girl called Georgia and one night she was at home, having dinner, and played her dad a video of mine that I had on SBTV [the hugely influential YouTube new music channel launched by Jamal Edwards] and her dad said he wanted to meet me… he was the head of Sony/ATV Publishing! I didn’t have any idea about anything and I walked into his office and thought: “Where am I? This is crazy!” That was when I was 17 and I signed with them and started writing with people, doing sessions, and that was my first experience of ever working with anyone.
Fast-forwarding to the video for Silence; it seems very intense.
That video was so hard to shoot. I didn’t mean to start crying; it just happened, it was such a painful thing to do. It was a really intense day. I had some stuff going on with my family and I just started crying, and [photographer/director] Nicole Nodland wouldn’t let me stop, so I just surrendered to it. When people see the video, they can see that it has an added depth to it. They can tell that this song isn’t just a pop song; it’s about something way deeper.
Who would you say you are speaking to with your music?
I just want to be an artist who is honest and true to herself. I hope to speak to my mum, to my cousin, my grandfather. I’m not saying to those actual people, but people who are like them. Everyone feels things, and I want the people who don’t necessarily have the tools to put out how they feel, to be able to connect to what it is that I’m saying. As long as I’m being honest and writing about experience – true experience – I wouldn’t narrow it down; I want to reach as many people as possible. That would be amazing.
I’d say the odds on Grace Carter reaching a huge amount of people – soon – are extremely high. Past unhappiness is art’s most fertile – and often lucrative – hunting ground, yet one strewn with traps for the unwary and unprepared. Carter stands apart from many of her musical peers in one crucial way: there’s steel covering the sensitivity. Honestly.
Hair: Schola Rose / Make-up: Bea Sweet / Grace wears her own clothes