First Published September 2021
GRACE IN ALL SHE DOES
Just shy of a year ago now, I had the pleasure of hearing from classical-crossover artist GRACE FOLEY for the first time. A native of Killarney, Grace dropped me a line to let me know about her plans to release a Christmas EP – A Time For Christmas – on November 27th of 2020. Unfortunately we weren’t able to plan anything at the time, and between one thing and another it took us until last week to finally sit down for a chat. But I’ll tell you what, never has a first email from someone so guaranteed that they would be featured in OTRT at some stage.
As you’ll find out as our chat goes on, Grace is an exceptionally talented individual, with her gift for singing matched by her gift with words. I can’t remember too much else about the day I first heard from Grace, but I know for certain that all I did while reading her email was either laugh or smile at her sense of humour and her flair for storytelling.
When someone tells you about recording a song in their wardrobe and deadpans that it “was a new experience”, shares that, “Basically, I have been creatinga lot and narrowly avoiding lockdowns all year!”, and – and perhaps most importantly – reveals that she made sure her little dog kept her company and was part of things when she performed on RTE’s Today show with Dáthí O’ Sé and Maura Derrane via Skype…well come on, how can you not like that kinda person?!
So yes, it took a while to plan, but I finally had the privilege of catching up with Grace the day after she had the photoshoot for her album cover last week. And, as I knew she would, Grace lived up to all expectations.
Our chat got underway by talking about how the big shoot day had gone…
“It went really well! It’s a bit crazy to get to that stage, because the cover of your album – certainly in my case anyway – it’s the last hurdle, or the last thing on the to-do list. So it certainly feels very final now. I haven’t seen the pictures yet, so I can’t tell you too much anyway [laughs]. But when I finally see them, and finally see the name of the album on those photos, it’s going to feel way more real. It was the last big thing to be done, so it kind of feels a bit like we’re all there now!”
I get the impression with Grace that a lot of thought goes into everything she does, and that something as important as her album cover would definitely be no different. Did it feel like a bit of a project in itself?
“Yeah, it’s lots of mini-projects. Everything from writing my own songs, to choosing what musicians you want to have on it, onto the cover and the details on that. I definitely wouldn’t be the kind of person who would just say let’s use an old photograph and put a name on it, ya know [laughs].”
Before we moved on to Grace’s new single, I wondered if her album had a title yet, and if she had any idea on when this collection would be coming our way?
“I’m hoping to share the album in the very last week of November, but I haven’t got an exact date yet. I’m going to be releasing it in physical form first – actual cds – and then a couple of weeks later, kind of mid December, it will be available to download online. Just to be a bit different, it’s going to be gradually appearing [laughs]. I haven’t announced the name yet, so I’m gonna keep that a secret for a little longer. But a clue would be that it’s actually the second in a trilogy, and the first part of that was my EP, ‘Unleashed.’ So it’s kind of going to be another UN… [laughs]. And then there’ll be a third Un at some stage in the future to finish off. So there’ll be ‘Unleashed’, ‘Un’-something else, and ‘Un’-something else [laughs].”
Grace’s new single, Caught Up, which will be available on all platforms from October 1st, is also her own song. In talking about it recently, Grace remarked that it’s about, “…people appearing perfectly fine on the surface, but you never know what’s going on in someone’s mind.” Obviously a song that’s quite personal to her?
“It’s really very much related to mental health. I’ve often had panic attacks and that kind of thing. I also go out and wear make-up, and I know a lot of people do the same thing, you put a smile on your face, but you can’t really read what’s going on in everybody’s life, inside their mind and their heart. We can all wear a bit of a mask, so it’s like don’t judge anyone by their cover, because you never know what’s going on underneath that. It’s a circular song, if that makes any sense? There’s a line, ‘Caught up, all in circles on the inside’, that’s the opening line of the whole thing. It’s about going around and around inside yourself, appearing fine on the outside but churning away on the inside. I started putting some ideas for this song together pre-lockdown, and then I got some funding from the Arts Council, which I used on this song and on ‘Goodbye To Dublin’ which I released as part of my Christmas EP last year. Songs you had written yourself, that’s what the funding was for, and I started with this one. Then, because of the pandemic, I was thinking a lot about artists, musicians, and entertainers in general, we’re all very good at putting out great stuff, online concerts and everything. But I was thinking about these poor artists who were probably smiling away, but probably so upset on the inside. So the music video itself, and you’re the first person to hear this, is actually on an empty stage, in an empty theatre. It reflects the mental health of everyone in the entertainment industry. That’s the road I went with the video. It all ties in. It went from being very much my own story, to being one for every artist out there.”
And that video will be debuting on Grace’s YouTube channel on October 10th, which is actually World Mental Health Day.
Grace mentioned anxiety, and one of the things I love to talk to all artists about is what goes through their minds in the minutes and moments before they go on stage, because for a lot of people, that can be an anxious time. Does anxiety affect Grace’s performance in any way at all?
“In a very different way. I would say in the run-up to a concert it’s very hard to keep all of the anxiety in check. It’s not the performance adrenaline. It’s a daily, continuous adrenaline which is very different. Performance adrenaline comes just before you go on, but then it morphs into a nicer adrenaline [laughs]. The practise one keeps you on a little bit of a high over a couple of weeks! Depending on the type of performance, there can be a couple of wobbly weeks before it where you’re going, oh God…will it all be ok?! But that’s different from general anxiety. But yeah, there’s definitely performance anxiety that begins well before the concert, but then that day, it’s a slight excitement. And then just before I’m about to go on stage – and I’ve spoken to fellow artists about this and they’re the same – I’ll stand side-stage and say, ‘Why do I do this to myself?!’ I brought this on myself! Nobody forced me to do this! I don’t have to do this!’ [Laughs]. My legs are ready to run away [laughs]. But afterwards, I’d always say this is the best feeling in the world, and I’ll never question it again. But then the next time, it happens all over again! [Laughs]. I think artists, like a lot of people, can struggle with their mental health. It’s a rollercoaster anyway because artists can often be quite connected to their emotions, because you have to be to do what we do.”
As well as Grace’s forthcoming single Caught Up being an original, she’s also written Together Apart, and co-written Close The Door with Dave McCune. So it’s fair to say that her artistry extends beyond the beauty of her voice and into her songwriting as well. I asked Grace to tell me about that side of her and that side of her life…
“I still consider it a very new side to me. When I was finishing recording ‘Unleashed’ in the studio with Dave McCune in Dublin, somebody said something about how maybe someday I’d sing my own stuff, and I said I’d love to do that. I like to write, I said, but I’d never written a song. In school I always liked English, and I used to write poetry when I was younger, and I wrote a column for a local publication here in Killarney. Then Dave, who was right next to me in the studio at the time, said, ‘Well, I’ve written music myself, so if you ever want to team up, we’ll have a think about it. That stuck in the back of my mind, and I started writing down some ideas. In 2019, when the homelessness crisis in Ireland was becoming more and more apparent, well, like a lot of things when you’re an artist, you’re thinking is there anything I could do. And I was thinking maybe I could sing something. And a bit like with ‘Together Apart’ when the pandemic started, at both those times I thought well why don’t I get my own feelings down on paper? It was driven by a need to say something. ‘Close The Door’ is a song I’m very, very proud of, I wish it had gotten more airing at the time. It was weird, because when I started writing the lyrics to it I knew I wanted to give the proceeds to the Simon Community, but I hadn’t done my research on it. So I didn’t even realise at the time that ‘close the door’ was their slogan. I went to their website the next day, saw that, and I was like, oh my God, this is meant to be! [Laughs].”
“So I wrote the lyrics”, said Grace, “and Dave McCune wrote the melody, and I had some input on the melody too. We got the musicians into the studio in Dublin and they all gave us their time for free. We got the videographer from Tralee, he gave us his time as well. It’s a song I hope we can use again, because unfortunately it’s not a crisi that has gone anywhere. And ‘Together Apart’ was born from the same feeling, wanting to say something about something big that was happening in the world. That’s how it’s happened for me so far. The Christmas one, ‘Goodbye To Dublin’, I did try and sit down and write a song, but they all kind of flowed. There was another one, but it was terrible [laughs], I spent half an hour looking at it and thinking ahhh this doesn’t work [laughs]. So I think I need to be inspired! I think I’m one of those people. Some people have their writing time, I think I need to have inspiration. And at the moment inspiration is a bit low to the ground, I’m afraid, trying to create an album and raise a child at the same time [laughs]. I’m hoping that there’s some bits and pieces in Anna’s short life so far that I’ve written down about her, that maybe I’ll get to write a song about her someday. That’s the next thing that’s in my mind, but we’ll get this album out first!”
As well as some of her own originals, Grace also has a Bryan Adams classic – maybe THE Bryan Adams classic – on the record. So, what I needed to know is was this a particular weakness on Grace’s part, a guilty pleasure perhaps, or the flicker of a long-standing love affair from long before she met her husband, John? What was the story?
“[Laughs] I’d love to say it was something as romantic as that! [Laughs]. Every year for the last few years, when it comes up to Christmas time, I record a song for my parents for their Christmas present. And they very much love the classical-crossover stuff, especially my mom, the Italian and English mix. I heard Katherine Jenkins singing it and I thought it was a beautiful song but it kind of went out of my head. Then I came across the Bryan Adams version and I thought, I wonder if I could sing that? The Katherine Jenkins version was entirely in Italian, then I listened to his one and his is so passionate in English. I didn’t want to sing it in italian because it had been done, but it’s such a romantic song it really lends itself to the classical-crossover voice. So I said I’d try it in English and Italian, and I recorded it for them for Christmas. The minute they heard it they said I couldn’t keep it to myself, that I’d have to release it at some stage. So very selflessly of them, they gave away their present [laughs]. We developed it slightly more than the version we presented to them. We had decided pre-pandemic that I was going to release three singles last year; ‘Danny Boy’, ‘Everything I Do (I Do It For You)’, and ‘Silent Night.’ Little did I know what was going to happen. But I had started to have everything organised in January and February for the year, and that was one of the songs. Everybody probably thinks it’s about John, but with everything I’ve done over the years my parents have given me everything. So I wanted to say, everything I do, I do it for you, to them. The love of a child for their parents is the inspiration for that one.”
What other songs have become presents like that over the years?
“For my wedding, I actually did ‘In My Daughter’s Eyes’, and that’s on the album. That’s kind of blown my mind recently, because towards the end of the time I was looking at my options for the album and I was thinking right, how am I going to manage this. Then I think it was Brendan, down in the studio in Killarney, he said, ‘That song you recorded years ago’ – which I kind of put on my YouTube channel but I didn’t do a whole lot with, I got it mastered at the time and I didn’t even know why I did that! – but he said, ‘That’s a gorgeous song.’ And then, ya know what, after the year that it’s been and with Anna being born and everything, wouldn’t it be nice to have that on there? I had a lot of time away from my family, but I didn’t actually sing that song online during the year but I often thought about it because it reminded me of them. Then suddenly, it shifted, and that song had a new story and I thought I’ll have to think about its new meaning for me. I had a listen to it one day, John and I went out into the car, I wanted to listen to the running-order of the entire album before it went to mastering, so I was chopping and changing it. So we put that on, and I hadn’t listened to it in ages. I completely broke down in tears! It had a different meaning to when I recorded it for mam and dad because now it’s for her, for my daughter. And I’m so glad it’s on the album now. That song has gone on a bit of a journey. I think I wasn’t actually meant to release that properly until now. That song’s been around for a while. So, these Christmas presents, they grow legs! [Laughs].”
When Grace had first got in touch with me, she told me that contralto – how she sings – was “a classical style of singing, but with a dark edge…”
“Well, contralto is the lowest female voice in the classical world. That’s what I am. Sopranos are what you’d hear most often, and tenors you’d hear of a lot in the classical world. They’ve the highest voices. But contralto is the most rare voice type in the world. And over the years, be it in contemporary style or classical, everyone would say that it was very rich, like chocolate, like gold. So there’s lovely colours and lovely descriptions that come with it. And it is, it’s a classical voice, and a classical crossover voice with a dark edge, my voice just has a darker colour. No matter what I sing, be it a happy song or a romantic song, whatever it is, there is a darker sound to it. And that can bring a little bit of a melancholy to the way I sing because there is that…maybe slightly more lonesome sound to my voice. So it was never a decision to sing this way, it’s just the voice I was born with.”
So was it a big surprise for Grace to find out that her voice was one of the rarest kinds in the world? Or how does that happen?
“It was very unusual. And what’s even more unusual is that the first singing teacher that I ever had, Áine Nic Gabhainn , fourteen I think I was, and I didn’t have a clue about classical music or anything. She was listening to me for a bit and, ‘Well!’, she said – and she herself was a contralto, so she always knew how rare it was – and she said, ‘You’re probably one of the youngest I’ve come across to have such a developed lower range, you actually are a contralto.’ And sure I didn’t have a clue what that was! Mezzo is the middle, and contralto is the lowest, and even the mezzo in the college would say, God, you just have a different voice to the mezzo voice, which is Katherine Jenkins, let’s say for example. She wouldn’t sound all that different, but my voice quality would be darker. Even if I’m singing something now, there’s always someone in the room who just knows their stuff, and they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, a contralto!’ I just find it fascinating that somebody will always know what it is [laughs]. It’s kinda cool! It’s been tough too, because when I was younger it was always harder for me to sing the higher stuff, but that’s kind of settled now. It’s a privilege, I think, to have this voice.”
Grace has previously spoken about the tremendous support she’s received from three men in particular; Dave McCune (mentioned earlier in our chat), Brendan O’ Connor, and the great Liam O’ Connor. I asked Grace to explain the importance of kindness like that being shown towards an artist like herself who is on the upward climb in her career…
“I think everyone in this industry, and everyone in any job, you can just do your job, but there’s people out there who go that extra mile when they’re working with you. And especially Dave and Brendan, because I work with them very closely. One of the first people to find out I was pregnant was Dave McCune because I was going up to record with him when I was six weeks pregnant, and no-one knew. Suddenly, I became really unwell, and I didn’t want to cancel because I knew the pandemic was just getting worse and worse. So I said, ok, I’m gonna have to go, but it’s the middle of the pandemic and I look a bit grey so they’re gonna say why did you come in here sick?! [Laughs]. But he treated me so kindly, and he always did, we’ve always had that relationship. But even recently he’s gone that extra mile again, trying to finish off the album. Like, I don’t have a big budget, I’m an independent artist, I’ve had no work for so long. But he’s done so much extra work, especially in the last couple of weeks. I’m aware of how much more he did than he should have done for what he got paid [laughs]. And Brendan’s the same, and it’s not even mate’s rates because we’ve only worked together professionally, but we’ve become friends. During this whole time I’ve been recording some stuff in Dublin, and then Brendan too, I had to tell him quite early on as well that I was pregnant. And I was sayin’ to him, look, don’t let on anything cos’ I was tryin’ to get a bit done before Christmas. I hadn’t publicly announced it at that stage. They’ll both say things, Grace, maybe this isn’t really the way to go with this. But then they’ll both really listen, and it’s a lovely thing to feel so heard, especially when you are an up-and-coming artist. Neither of them care if they’re working with a famous person or an up-and-coming artist, they don’t care. They’ll give you the exact same amount of attention. They’re both very different men, and they’re in different parts of the country, but they’re both an absolute pleasure to work with. And it’s lovely in the industry as well that neither of them are ever like, ‘Oh, but you’ve gone to this other studio to do this…’, you know? They don’t work together on any of the songs, they’ve always worked independently on different tracks, but if I ever mention one to the other it’ll be, ‘Ah yeah, you did that song with Dave…’, or ‘You did that one with Brendan’, so I’m blessed.”
Grace continued, “And then with Liam O’ Connor, he came into my life when I was releasing Unleashed a few years ago. He’s such a phenomenal performer. Obviously living here in Killarney, so I was very ballsy, and I thought is there any chance he might come and play a song at the launch because he’s just so exciting, he’s amazing. We didn’t know each other at all, we probably might just have seen each other at a couple of events, we’d never spoken. But I got his number, gave him a quick text, thought he might say that he didn’t have time, but not only did he ring me back, he took me for a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee one day! We talked for about five or six hours, and he gave me loads of advice. He came along that night, gave a phenomenal performance, stayed around afterwards and had a couple of drinks with us. He came on this album as well, very same thing. He rang back straight away and said yeah, he’d do it, anything to help out. It’s kindness like that during a time when we’ve all been hit. Those men in those studios, they’re busy now, but they were very quiet for a long time. Liam the same. I’ll never forget their kindness.”
Before our time came to an end, I asked Grace about her column for the Classical Crossover magazine, the wonderfully – and aptly – titled Grace Notes…
“I’m quite a storyteller, I think I write columns differently to other people. They’re not just factual factual, I always have a bit of an emotional reaction to things in that. It’s kind of my perception of the world of the arts, different things about it, like online versus ‘live’ performance. That was an interesting one for me to even write. I don’t have a big plan when I’m writing, I just sit down and I start. It kind of helps me figure stuff out when I’m writing it. I write about the role of music in my own life, the role of music in the world, there’s a lot of me in my columns as well. Particularly in that one about online versus in-person performance, it was me thinking out loud. That’s kind of what the column is, it’s me thinking out loud! [Laughs]. I give my opinion on classical crossover music, and look at why people like it. I often ask questions in them, I don’t always get answers back from people, but I still ask the questions. I hope that will make people ask themselves questions about music. When you’re at a concert and you don’t know the artist, or you’ve never been an artist, or maybe you’re a performing artist yourself, if you read one of my columns I’d like to think that you’re not separated from that person on stage. That instead, you’ll be thinking, ‘I wonder are they like that girl that wrote that column? I wonder if they are feeling this way backstage? I wonder are they delighted to be back performing ‘live’ again? I wonder if they miss performing online?’ So yeah, it’s me thinking out loud, and I’m hoping that it will allow people who read it who aren’t performers, to kind of get into the mindset of a performer.”
~ CAUGHT UP, the brand NEW single from GRACE FOLEY will be available on all platforms from Friday, OCTOBER 1st. And keep an eye out for the accompanying video which will premiere on Grace’s YouTube channel on World Mental Health Day, October 10th.