It’s a typical Monday night in Nashville, and here we are at the Bluebird (or is it the In Do?). The place is bustling, a few punters aren’t really meant to be here, but the food looks good, and the waitresses are playing dodgem with the young and famous as they get the burgers through. They have an open mic night here, but not tonight. Tonight is for family and friends and well-wishers and the oddly curious and curiously odd. It’s the Kelly gang. But this time they are not bushrangers. And this is not the Glenrowan pub. It’s a family of friends, from Dad and Mum and Grandparents and uncles and aunts and nieces and nephews. All breaking their backs to get a glimpse of and time with the evening’s new star. Which is why the chiropractor is there, eyeing up new business. As well as singing a song or two...
But hang on, this is not the Bluebird Café, and nor is it Nashville. Just feels like it.
It’s the Portland Public House, in almost downtown but still chic Auckland suburbia, not far from Rugbymania, but far enough on this warm winter night for us to be transported abroad by singer-songwriter Grace Kelly, Auckland’s newest country princess not looking for a Monaco.
And tonight is release night for her new EP before., which was originally released before, but something happened after, called COVID and so Gracie (as everyone was calling her last night) had to twiddle her thumbs and presumably her chords during the lockdown. But tonight’s the night, as Rod Stewart would say.
I caught up with Grace last week to find out a little bit about her because she’s just 17, so by definition it can only be a little bit. Last year at high school, but music is what occupies her mind, every spare moment. Even when she was going to school here, but visiting her Dad in California, which she did on and off over six years, sticking all the time to the New Zealand curriculum. Lots of time zone difference opportunities to maintain her passion. And that’s where she got her first big break, being asked by the local Tourism Board CEO to write a song about San Jose. (Like, it’s my job to encourage young songwriters, so I’ll just throw Grace this little bone and she’ll chew away happily……oh, she’s actually written one. Here it is in my inbox…. OMG, it’s a pretty good bone, I’d better rescue it….) And so Grace got a call to say she (The Tourism Board CEO) wanted to use the song in a marketing campaign for San Jose and, like, wow...
So, what started as a voice memo became an opening song in an opening act for big country star Blake Shelton when he came to town. And that was just last September. Begin the roller coaster.
Grace has the creative urge of youth, it’s spontaneous and ubiquitous, there’s no such thing as writer's block at 17 years of age. And no process, it’s whatever happens inside her explosive head, such that her phone has, like, 50 voice memos crammed with ideas clamouring to come out and structured into a song. Her influences include Brandi Carlile (big tick from me), Dolly, Blake and of course Taylor Swift. (Be careful there Gracie, I’ve been to the Listening Room in Nashville and there are hundreds of wannabee Taylors lined up at the mic). But there’s a direct Taylor Swift connection in that she has sung with Liz Rose, a frequent co-writer of Taylor Swift songs, there’s a logic here, so I won’t be too hard…
What’s even more impressive is the line-up of musicians she has on her record, all Nashville Cats (and Kitten), which brings a maturity to her sound which you rarely see in a debut release. People like 2019 CMA Musician of the Year Jenee Fleenor on fiddle and mandolin (also plays for Blake Shelton), T Wild on guitar (Carly Simon), David Northrup on drums (Boz Scaggs), Jim Riley on drums (Rascal Flatts) and Steve King on keyboards (Keith Urban). Rounded out by producer, bass player and bandleader Bill Watson. What an experience for a young artist to direct and being directed by a group of Nashville’s finest.
It almost goes without saying that before. is a wee cracker of a debut, pure Nashville country with a touch of pop and just a sniff of dirt which would lead Grace away from Swift and close to Margo Price (guess where I want her to go...). And superbly embellished by the musicians and the production. What a dream debut!
So how does it sound in a live setting?
We have to wait a bit before Grace appears. But Dean Carter does a fine job in warming us up above the excited chatter of family and friends. Carter has been around and has a couple of albums under his belt from way back to the turn of the century. But then sore backs got in the way, and there is no shortage of those. There’ll be a few more tonight from the excited punters, and so Carter is singing but also eyeing up the crowd for new customers (just kidding, it’s just that he’s now too busy as a chiropractor to devote the time needed to keep his music career going). But his short set, a mixture of originals and covers (I liked the originals better) kept us in a state of waiting for Grace. And he has a fine voice that needs no further manipulation.
Grace is joined by guitarist Ben Jurisich and launches into her EP with Before and After. Naturally, it doesn’t sound as rich as the recorded music, but now we have an authentic perspective of the young lady’s voice, very nicely augmented by Jurisich’s subtlety on the strings. How it Feels is next and of course, the audience knows every word, especially Mum.
We’re not in the exact order of the EP, but nobody said it must be that way, so That Girl, who I Can’t Accept (of course I can) gets us deep into the album, and Grace can not only write, she doesn’t need an army of Nashville Cats to disguise the fact that she can also sing. A voice which is maybe 37 years old, or 27, but certainly not (for the most part), 17. It is, for the most part, an old, accomplished voice from a young, effervescent body, but just at times, it falters, and we are reminded of youth and the fact that this voice can even get better, with nurture, with practice and time.
One such moment is when she retires to the piano to pay homage to one of her heroes, none other than Elton John. This is a surprise, as is the choice of song, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Maybe she is feeling like Alice, not Grace, but somehow this is not quite right. Maybe the piano is too loud, the voice too far back, but only half-way through does she manage to project the song as a confident rather than tentative tribute.
I may have the order wrong, but we soon get back in control with Good Girl (which means bad girl, and even bossy girl according to aunty). And then an earlier song, not on the album, Talking to Silence which is pretty damn fabulous, before it’s party time and the band is augmented and we are into Chris Stapleton’s Tennessee Whiskey (which invites me to pour one as I write this). Then Mercy and a raucous finale which closes out the EP, the auspicious and serendipitous San Jose.
Ahh, yes, a great Monday night in Portland and Nashville and Auckland, and we celebrate the State of Grace Kelly. Great start, young lady, long road ahead, but if you nurture that voice, it won’t be the last time we celebrate.
Radio 13 thanks and credits Chris Zwaagdyk for all the images in this article.
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Released: 26 Mar 2020