An Interview With Eclectic Jazz Musician Grace Kelly
“I have always let the music lead me,” says jazz songstress Grace Kelly, a saxophone player who wields her voice just as handily as she does her instrument. On self-penned tracks like the loungey “Trying to Figure It Out” from her 2016 album of the same name, you’ll hear her swiftly escalate into her upper register, and then dip low into a heart-aching croon that sounds very much like her saxophone. But no matter the song, you can hear both the tenderness of her young age—25—and the confidence of a musician with talent and candor well beyond her years.
With aqua accents in her long black hair and a bold, bright wardrobe, Kelly is an emotive performer who tells a story with her body just as much as her music, dancing along and inviting the audience in to see the joy or pain of the song as it plays across her face.
Kelly will be touring from coast to coast this fall, stopping for a string of shows in St. Louis October 4-7 at the city’s Jazz St. Louis. Below, Kelly tells us about her journey from child prodigy to professional musician, as an artist with an identity that’s still a rarity in the jazz world: a young, Asian-American woman. Purchase tickets to her upcoming Jazz St. Louis shows here.
How would you describe your style of music?
I would say “eclectic.” I like to call it “jazz and beyond” because I’m taking elements of jazz, but also pop, groove and blues. The live shows are certainly eclectic, electric and very dynamic, and my music really ranges everywhere from gospel jazz to really rocked-out stuff. The underlying thing, though, is my background in jazz, and it’s about constantly revamping it and creating something new within that foundation.
What first drew you to the saxophone in particular?
I think the sound of the saxophone is like the sound of the human voice: incredibly lyrical and beautiful. There are many things you can do with the instrument, whether you’re growling on it or wailing, that sound, to me, like a voice. And since I sing, too; I have that connection to the horn.
What has your journey in the music industry been like as a young, Asian-American woman?
There are very few women in jazz, and not enough women out there in general who are band leaders. There are even less of us who are Asian American. There are a lot of Asian-American and Asian folks in classical music, but I was always an oddball in that way. I’d be hanging out with 16 guys playing jazz back when I was in high school. But, for me, it was always so much about the music.
Growing up, I didn’t have a female role model, and there are still only a small handful. It’s been nice to meet more women musicians. I have always let the music lead me, and it’s been a beautiful thing to get messages from parents and people who find my music. I got a message from a parent who said, “We were watching The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, saw you, and immediately Googled you and became huge fans. Our daughter is adopted and Korean American, and she plays the clarinet. You’re such a big inspiration to her.” I’ve realized how important it is for a lot of young girls, and Asian-Americans girls, to have a role model. I take it very seriously and try be a great role model.
You recorded your first album, “Dreaming,” when you were 12, so I think it’s safe to call you a child prodigy. What was it like stepping into the limelight at such a young age, and what has it been like transitioning from child prodigy into a professional music career as an adult?
I feel very lucky to have found something I’ve passionately loved from an early age. My parents told me to find something you love to do so that you never feel like you’re working. It’s definitely been a journey. When I started out so young, I didn’t think of myself as an artist. I thought, “Oh, this is fun.” As I transitioned out of my teens and into my twenties, the thing I really wanted was for people to say, “I turned on a track today and I knew it was Grace.” I think that’s ultimately the thing—for someone to turn on my music and know it’s Grace Kelly. My transition continues to be finding my sound and who I 100 percent feel I am.
How has your music evolved over time?
I think it’s become a lot more focused. In my teens and even earlier than that, making a record was about picking songs I liked, but this last recording for me was more about, “What am I trying to say? If I’m going to make a full album, what’s the reason?” I came up with a storyline, and the album really celebrates the range of human emotion. From darkness and sadness, every track ends up at a place of redemption, happiness and light. There are a lot of layers to it.
Many of the songs with lyrics you’ve written yourself—“The Other One” and “Trying to Figure it Out,” as well as the songs you choose to cover—are about celebrating individuality and valuing one’s personal journey. Why is that an important theme to you?
The song “Trying to Figure it Out” was based on a conversation I had with my mom one day. She told me when things are getting tough, you’ve just gotta keep looking forward and there’s always a new door that opens. And then the other song, “The Other One,” which I wrote with a great songwriter, is all about celebrating one’s uniqueness. We had this tag line “I got my own thing, I got my own thing” that keeps coming up and I think it’s really important. And especially as an artist, it’s vital to really try to zoom in on that thing that makes you unique.
It’s a very noisy world out there, and the world needs more individuality—not more sameness. That was quite a journey for me on this album, after two years in New York with people saying to me, “You should do a hip-hop album! You should do this or that!” But I wanted to find what I actually wanted to put into the world. I was thinking, “What do I think is special about my music? What can I bring to everybody and to myself?” Ultimately, those songs are very personal.
What does it mean to you to be of a young, millennial generation of jazz artists? What do you borrow from those who came before you, and what do you do to push the genre forward?
As a musician, it’s really important to learn the history of jazz—it’s just like learning the language. The next chapter, as you say, is how to push it forward, because any fans of the music wouldn’t want to hear millennials playing jazz favorites the same way. My playlist ranges, with everything from John Mayer to Charlie Parker to Miles Davis. Hopefully the result is music that other millennials can react to and understand—then it’s not forced.
You have several shows in a row lined up at Jazz St. Louis Oct 4-7. What is it that has drawn you to dedicate four days of your tour to St. Louis?
I’m really excited to be in St. Louis for that amount of time—it’s such a musical, historical place. We’re really hoping that people will join us for some really fun music.
When you perform live, how do you want your audience to feel as they leave the show?
That’s a great question. I want them to be completely lifted up and have had a very emotional experience. At the end I want them to feel like they’re in a very blissful, beautiful state, but I also want them to feel a range of emotions. I’ve had people say, “I cried during your set, I laughed, and I was dancing.” I love that—how we can touch on all those things.
Purchase tickets to Grace Kelly’s upcoming show in at Jazz St. Louis here.
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