Most will recognize Grace Sewell (stage name Grace) as the soulful voice of “You Don’t Own Me,” an updated cover of Lesley Gore’s girl power anthem of 1963. Sewell’s modern, hip-hop-y take on the vintage hit—which is currently doing the rounds on Suicide Squad’s movie trailer—showcasing the 19-year-old’s powerful phrasing in a way that aligns her with Adele’s and Amy Winehouse’s old school ways. Comparisons don’t seem to faze Grace at all, as the vocalist has learned to walk with giants. For example, her debut disc—which was partially recorded in the same studio in which Michael Jackson made Thriller—contains songs produced with the King of Pop’s Svengali, Quincy Jones. On the cusp of her recently released single, “Hell Of A Girl,” Sewell sits down to dish on her sophisticated sound, as well as the queens of pop who paved the way.
What’s the first album you ever bought that made an impact on you?
The first album I ever bought was the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Songs that stood out were “Superstar” and “Ex-Factor.” She’s super real and didn’t give a fuck. She was dealing with issues in her purest form. No filter. Nothing was watered down. It drew me in. My mom used to play Motown, Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick. My grandmother was a jazz singer, so she introduced me to Ella Fitzgerald.
Has a text ever made it into one of your songs?
Yes. A text inspired a track called “Church on Sunday”—that lyric, “Since you been telling me you was all mine, you’ve been keeping shit popping in my sideline” really started things up for that track. The song is about playing dudes. You know when you start seeing someone but you’re really not into them, so it’s almost like they’ve become a distraction you keep around rather than something real? Even though the care factor for them is, like, zero, they light up your day. It tells the story of this flirtatious period…the lyrics spell it out: “It’s not you, it’s me/I’m a bad person for this/I should probably go to church on Sunday.” This is the kind of thing that a dude would be talking about, but girls do that stuff, too. We aren’t as innocent as we seem.
Do you think it’s important to keep your pipes in check?
It’s two strips of fibre in your throat, so it’s so important to warm up. Before a performance, you can’t eat certain things. No dairy, no spicy foods, nothing citrus-y or acidic or caffeinated. There are a lot of rules. I check in with my vocal coach.
On social media, fans crown the word “Queen” on so many female vocalists, like Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Beyoncé. Who do you think should get the title?
Girls pull inspiration from popular culture. Singers end up being people they want to be or look like. All of those women you mentioned are powerful, but Queen B always kills it. She’s a good example who’s exceptional and an excellent performer.
Your song “Dirty Harry” talks about the pressure that young women face when they are constantly told to be virtuous and charming. Does that come from experience?
As a teen, at some point, your mom or brother or friends try to make you fit into a certain mould and tell you to keep your mouth shut and do what you’re supposed to do, which is be a good girl. I had a different set of values than most people growing up. My focus was making music, and that separated me. My parents were nurturing and they pushed me to follow those dreams.
The track “Boyfriend Jeans” sounds like an old school heartbreak track. What advice do you have for people who are dealing with a broken heart?
You get swept up with this whole fairy tale when you are a little girl and it feels like the end of the world if something ends. When I wrote that song, I was 16 and so devastated. Now, I look back and laugh.
On your song “Honey,” you name-drop Louis Vuitton and Donatella. Who is your favourite designer?
I love Stella McCartney. Her designs are quirky and really colourful. Usually I’m in black and androgynous, but she does shades that are tasteful.
You perform so many cover songs. In terms of soul singers, who would you love to cover?
Whitney Houston is one of the last legends in soul that we had who was commercially successful. She was a female Michael Jackson. I think I’d want to try “I Have Nothing”—it’s a classic—or “It’s Not Right, But It’s OK.”
Which vocalists have changed the world?
I grew up listening to big voices that had that power—Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Gladys Knight. They have a magic that makes them connect and cut through any production. All you hear when you listen to them are voices that provoke emotion.
If you had to join a girl group or a boy band, which would it be?
Spice Girls because girl power, of course. Or One Direction because Harry Styles is a babe.
What is the hardest song to perform?
A song on my album called “How To Love Me” gets me choked up on stage. I wrote it on my 18th birthday. A friend of mine was dating a jerk and it was Valentine’s Day and he invited her to lunch only to find it was with all of his boys. He invited her as an afterthought. Sometimes girls don’t see when a guy is an asshole. The song is about teaching people about what they are worth.
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced so far?
Trying to be real in an industry that can be really fake. I’m trying to make music that doesn’t sugar-coat reality. I don’t look like what a pop star usually looks like. In the music industry, there is this unrealistic ideal of beauty.
Have you ever had the urge to respond to comments online—social media or otherwise?
No. I get so many positive comments that the one negative one made by some internet troll who is hiding behind a computer screen doesn’t matter. So not worth it.
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