Interview: Gracie Abrams ready to move beyond heartbreak, play live

Gracie Abrams

Gracie Abrams, courtesy Lauren Leekley.

If the idea of pouring out your feelings about a past relationship to your current boyfriend feels it would be awkward, that’s not the half of it for Los Angeles singer-songwriter Gracie Abrams.

Gracie Abrams at BottleRock Napa Valley
3 p.m., Friday, Sept. 3
Napa Valley Expo
Tickets: Sold out.

8 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 4
The Chapel
Tickets: $30-$39.

For her debut EP, 2020’s Minor, Abrams (who turns 22 in early September) partnered with Benny Blanco and Joel Little, best known for his work with Taylor Swift and Lorde. But she worked closest of all with her boyfriend of five years, producer Blake Slatkin.

The EP details her thoughts on the dissolution of a relationship with songs like “Stay,” about looking past all the cracks while hoping for a better future. She wrote the title track when she was 17, a minor, about not being able to visit her boyfriend across town. On “Friend” her voice swells with heartache, while “21” deals with marking a milestone birthday while breaking under heartache.

Abrams went through all of the songs with Slatkin.

“It’s maybe even more awkward, perhaps because he was my previous relationship. We had broken up and I was writing these songs in response to our breakup, which we then made a project about,” she said. “He and I have been together for five years now, and we broke up in the middle of that. We’d had a bunch of time together. … Our history, is what I’m saying, was strong enough to bear the weight of a creative process like this.

In the end, the process brought the two back together. She had written the songs, or parts of songs, alone, but then explained how each dealt with what the two had been through together, or apart.

“His is the most comfortable space that I’ve ever worked in before, and we kind of share the same brain sometimes,” Abrams said. “He was obviously patient and very lovely and gracious, and not making it anything other than a super comforting professional space. We’re together now, so I guess it worked out all right.

Abrams, who plays the Chapel and BottleRock on Sept. 3 and 4 (among her first-ever live concerts), is the daughter of director and producer J.J. Abrams and Hollywood executive Katie McGrath.

She’s been writing songs for years and has been garnering praise for her atmospheric, personal-to-the-bone pop songs. She’s got a growing cadre of fans, most of whom she has yet to see because the pandemic delayed her touring plans in 2020, as well as the praise and support from artists like Billie Eilish, Lorde and Olivia Rodrigo.

Gracie Abrams on playing her first shows in front of people:

Trust me, I am totally nervous. But I recently talked to my therapist about nerves and anxiety and excitement. I think the more that I realize that anxiety and excitement comes from the same place in your brain, I’m getting more comfortable just trying to switch it into excitement. I feel 100 percent both nervous and excited, but it feels like it’s been a long time coming for me with the relationships I have with the people that have been generous enough to listen to my music. … I feel very close to those people through my Instagram and actually, I’m excited to meet the friends I’ve never met before. It’ll be great, like a ridiculous kind of reunion situation.

Music was her first love, she said. She’d never considered film or TV work because her parents sheltered her and her brothers from the noise of their work.

“But even the slight knowledge that I had of it growing up as a kid made me want to have nothing to do with it at all,” she said. When I started falling in love with music independent of all other factors in my life, it was kind of a happy surprise, just because I actively tried to avoid anything that they were involved in. I—with love—wanted nothing to do with them.”

It started with journaling. When she was younger, Gracie Abrams didn’t feel comfortable talking about her emotions. She still doesn’t at times, actually, which makes the brutally laid-bare nature of her songs somewhat ironic. But she became addicted to writing about what she experienced.

“As a kid it was like the safest place that I felt that was entirely my own,” she said.

Then, when she was 8, her parents signed her up to learn rock drumming. It was fun to make loud noises, but she quickly learned that writing lyrics over them was not her forte. So she picked up the piano, and later, learned to play guitar. Though she hasn’t sat down at a drum set in years, the experience still gave her a perspective in terms of structuring and producing songs.

Because of her strict upbringing, Abrams wasn’t allowed to publicly post any of her songs for a while. When she was, her parents only allowed her to use SoundCloud. That was her introduction to music listeners, and it was how she first saw people interacting online.

“I used to sit at my desk and read all the comments at every section of every song,” she said. “It was a lot of years of just treating my social media kind of like my own streaming service, in a way.”

When her parents let her make her Instagram account public, her music career took off in earnest. But at the same time, all the attention felt overwhelming.

Gracie Abrams on using her idol Joni Mitchell as inspiration in the way she writes songs:

I don’t even think she needs a guitar to be compelling. Her voice is an instrument. Her words are the core of every song of hers. I just got a tattoo [four] weeks ago of her handwriting. It’s the one tattoo that I’ve really ever cared about getting my whole life. I think of her whenever I’m writing a song and I feel like I’m over-complicating things. I think, “How would she do this and make it compelling with the least amount of elements to the song?” It’s so easy with the technology that we have now to pile on different sounds and make the production massive. That can be so fun … but the reason I love music is because of Joni Mitchell. Anytime that I can just tap myself on the shoulder and try to channel her, I definitely try to.

“I can’t even totally imagine [what it’s like] for a parent of a child with a phone. Anything is available at all times. That must be terrifying,” she said. “To a degree, when I started getting messages from people that either were or claimed to be in the industry, or managers, or whatever, my parents were like, “Absolutely not. Hell no.”

Among those earlier admirers was Billie Eilish, who had yet to release her debut EP. Both were streaming their songs on SoundCloud at the time. Abrams said she was drawn to Eilish because of the latter’s style and realizing that she was doing something new.

Then there was the Instagram DM from Lorde, one of her idols, asking for a download of one of her songs that led to the two becoming good friends.

“She definitely is an artist in my life that I will forever feel like I owe everything to,” Abrams said, noting that Lorde had released Pure Heroine while she was in middle school. “Sonically and thematically, that album changed my life. “I remember being with my family in the living room and I refresh my Instagram and see that she followed me. I had a crazy physical reaction, like, sweating immediately.”

There were no conversations about signing with a label, but Abrams’ parents let her record demos. She always knew that she’d go to college before pursuing a music career. Her first manager, whom she met when she was 16, was an acquaintance through a mutual friend who had found her music on Instagram and was one of many who contacted her. She’d consulted her parents but was clear that she wanted to be the one to make that decision.

Abrams said she’s been “hyper-aware” of her privileged position since deciding to pursue music as a career and made it her goal to separate her success from her parents’ credentials through hard work.

“I think that probably no one thinks about it more than I do, which is definitely one of the reasons why I wanted to really do all of it on my own,” she said.

At the same time, she said she doesn’t want to frame her career around her own validation, either. She just wants to write songs that are honest, and ones she’s proud of.

“I don’t feel like it’s the most productive use of my time to enter a room thinking, ‘What do these people think of me?’” she said. “I just know that whenever I work with anybody, I want to be the hardest working, I want to be the kindest to everybody in every room. Hopefully, if they think of my family after the fact, it’s only as a result of being raised well.

In 2019, Abrams moved to New York to study international relations at Barnard College. Unlike her music to date, which is personal, she’s vocal on social media on issues of social justice and policy. That she gets from her parents, who are active contributors to Democrat candidates and causes. McGrath is also one of the founders of the Time’s Up advocacy group for women in Hollywood and is a major donor to the group’s Legal Defense Fund, which pays for legal fees for women who’ve faced harassment at work.

Gracie Abrams said she would also like to get involved in that cause.

“When I say that I’ve avoided what my parents have done career-wise, I definitely do not mean anything that my mom has done on that,” she said. “That’s something that I am incredibly passionate about. That I am proud of her for every single day, and that I am, more than anything, grateful for as a woman in our world today—having other women that are strong and brave enough to say that we’re sick of it and we’re over it. I’m beyond proud of her and all the women that have participated in working with Time’s Up and all the women that are on names that have been brave enough to use their voices as well. I don’t care about film and TV today, but I definitely am incredibly passionate about Time’s Up.

Abrams completed her first year before taking a break (she said she wants to finish her degree someday) to focus on music. During that time, she released her official first single, “Mean It.” Then she signed a record deal and got to work on Minor, a collection of seven guitar-led pop songs that shine the spotlight on sweet melodies and her breathy voice.

Gracie Abrams on being a fan of her father, but not a fan of his work:

The only thing that I can really speak to is, I had gotten a really bad concussion when I was like 15, over the summer. And when I was incredibly concussed, I tried watching “Lost.” I think that my concussion did not help my understanding of the plot whatsoever. But I love my dad and I love that I get to have parents who are truly passionate about what they do for work. I think that no doubt inspired the way that I think about working myself. Whatever makes them happy makes me happy.

This year, Abrams dueted with Benny Blanco on “Unlearn,” which appeared on his album, and in May released single “Mess It Up,” which came with a heartwarming video with her making—and then dropping—cakes all over her doorstep.

She’s also working on new music and said she’ll be debuting other new, personal songs when she plays in the Bay Area next week.

“I don’t think anyone will be surprised at the lyrical content, but I hope that people recognize the progression from Minor to the next thing,” she said. “I really love [the new material] with my whole heart. Especially off the back of last year, when writing felt challenging at certain times because of the way that the world was and the way that we were all responding to it.”

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