If you play an instrument, you write songs. That’s the belief emerging singer-songwriter Grace Sanders has held since she was a pre-teen, and one that’s led her to a recent surge in success. 23-year-old Sanders is among the bevy of emerging pop/folk/rock/jazz influenced female artists coming out of Perth’s on point indie scene right now; her catchy hooks and witty lyrics, though, unique to her. While she’s come a long way since her humble beginnings putting songs on Youtube (before it was a thing) for her friends, the general thread in Sanders’ musical life is clear: it’s self-defined.
Grace, you were actually born in Melbourne. When you moved here, what part of Perth did your family live in?
North Perth. It was called Waugh Street – I think it was number 48. It was on a slant. It’s a very Italian area, all our neighbours were like old Italian couples with grape vines and they would baby sit us sometimes and give us vegetables and fruit from their yards.
That’s a very Perth upbringing.
It’s super Perth. Sunny days in the backyard talking to the Italian people next door. I love that pocket of Perth. It’s a bit bougier around here – too bougie for my liking really. It lacks character, sometimes, the richer people get. The walls get higher. People stop talking to each other. We’re the only students on this street and it’s so funny, driving down in my beaten up Corolla. The prayer flags and the macramé planters really give us away, too.
You grew up in a house with a big family – lots of kids. Was that crazy?
Yeah, it was. But I didn’t really know anything else. We all moved in together when I was eight, and before that I had three and then four siblings. When my parents separated, it exploded to having nine of us in the house at mum’s place and six at dad’s. I became accustomed. It wasn’t until I started dating David and brought him around for family dinners that it occurred to me, like: “Oh, this is really different to your family dinners, huh?”.
I was kind of in this weird age gap where the next one down from me was seven years younger and the next one up was three years older. So growing up I struggled between not being able to be friends with the older kids and not wanting to hang out with the younger kids. I think that’s where my song writing came from. I was forced to observe a bit more. I was a bit isolated all the time, but within this crazy environment and with all these people around.
When did you start writing music?
I started writing the day after my first piano lesson. I always liked music – my mum tells stories about when I was in her womb, she’d go to a concert or listen to music and I’d be kicking along with the rhythm. So they put me into piano lessons around age five, and as soon as I had my first lesson I decided to write a song for my piano teacher. There were no lyrics. I didn’t start writing lyrics until a year or two later. And even then, I never told anyone about my lyrics. I still remember the first song I wrote. It just seemed to me, if you could play an instrument, you write songs. To this day I don’t really do covers because, I mean, someone’s done that. And I love that. But the whole point for me is to make something new.
The first song I ever wrote lyrics to, I was ten years old. It went like…
“There’s a fire burning and no one’s about,
There’s a Christmas tree with no presents around,
What happened here?
I hate to say it but, I can’t find a doorway out,
I’m looking up, I’m looking down.
What happened here?”
I was just copying Bernard Fanning.
He was one of your musical idols at the time?
Yeah. Missy Higgins, Bernard Fanning, Avril Lavigne – those sort of singer songwriters. Paul Kelly – and, that guy who sings “So Beautiful”? Pete Murray. I liked how they sang with an acoustic guitar. That was my early style.
Wo-oh, woah! Laughs.
Then you started a YouTube channel, right? That’s pretty early adoption.
Yeah. YouTube at the time wasn’t big yet. People were watching, but this was over a decade ago. The biggest videos had about a million views on them. But I got it because when I was 13, I finally got the confidence up to share my music. I did guitar lessons for a brief period, to learn basic chords, and then I taught myself after. Naturally, once I had a new instrument to write on, I moved to that. I found my strength. I liked writing with the guitar. I started showing my songs to my mates at lunchtime at school.
But they really liked it. They’d record it on their phones, but they wanted to be able to listen to it more often. So that was my reason for putting music on YouTube. I had just turned 14, I got my first proper guitar, called “Delilah”. In my first YouTube video I’m like: “This is my guitar Delilah!”. So lame… laughs. I was wearing a big cross – my parents are Christian and I was really Christian at the time. Plus I didn’t hit puberty ‘til really late. I hate it when I see these young Instagrammers and YouTubers now because, they look good. And I looked like a dick. But it’s funny and I love that I have that to look back on.
I got some traction online, but I was a bit inconsistent with it. I had some videos that got like 100,000 views which again, at the time, meant more than it does now. Anyway, I just wanted to put myself out there. And it’s been interesting to have it as a point of reference, in all seriousness. I’ve sucked for a long time – until I was maybe 18 or 19. I wasn’t someone who naturally had an awesome voice. I’m intuitively good at music, but I’m not a prodigy. I mean, look at Billie Eilish – she’s 17 and the stuff she’s doing is amazing. When I look at what I was doing at that age, I’m like, “it’s okay.”. You know? But it’s good to look back on that and see that I’ve improved, a lot.
It ended up getting me noticed by a talent agency called AIPA – the Australian Institute of Performing Arts. They do a lot of stuff in America, it’s very Disney, Nickelodeon kind of vibe. That was sort of my energy back then. I went and did song writing camps with them, and went to LA when I was 15. I worked at EMI and Capital Records making a little album with eleven other kids on the tour. We got the experience of going to meetings with Nickelodeon reps, we did a voice workshop with the Glee vocal coach. People like that. That part of the industry kind of wigged me out a bit. It was a competition of egos between the other teenagers, too, which was weird. My teen years are a bit muddled up, but I remember feeling very anxious. I think I was quite arrogant, but not from a position of being confident, more from being awkward and self-conscious. They wanted me to stay and do a TV show for Nickelodeon, and I just couldn’t. I remember being like: “I’m a singer. This isn’t me.”. They were probably thinking, “who is this kid!?” When I got back, I couldn’t sing. The experience made me really question whether I wanted to be a musician.
Anyway, after that I saw a speech therapist for eight months. I was really struggling to even make noise. It all kind of threw me off music. I didn’t get back into it until I was 18.
Do you regret taking that time off?
I don’t think I was ready. I was exposed to how cut-throat the industry was and it just spun me out. If I had kept going, I think I would’ve become totally self-destructive. I was sorting through a lot of issues for the latter half of my teenage years. I can’t imagine how my growth would have been affected if I didn’t just have that time to be messy, and to figure out why I even wanted to do music. Because, there’s a lot of things about the music industry that make you wonder why anyone would want to do music. It wrings you out, you know – like a wet flannel man.
Maybe if it meant that now I was “too late”, maybe then I’d regret it. But then again, the journey you take is the one you were meant to take. There’s no point in thinking otherwise. This is where I am supposed to be.
I can’t imagine you, knowing you now, having confidence issues.
Oh my god. I hated myself when I was younger. I had the worst self-esteem. I hated how I looked. I was self-conscious about my body. I would get home and work out two or three hours a day, throw up my meals, never go out with friends. I was socially insecure. People never knew that about my life – I came across as self-assured, as people suffering often do. My internal dialogue hasn’t always been something I share with others. It’s weird to think back on the lengths I would go to, to hide everything. It really clouds everything from age 15 to 18.
Did getting back into music help navigate those feelings?
Well, I never stopped writing. The thing would be, am I picking up my guitar once or twice a week or am I picking it up every day when I get home because I’ve got something to say? It was kind of like writing a diary with my songs. I connect with music when there’s something in the lyrical content that matches up with how I’m feeling. It gives me an incredible rush and release, and feeling of comfort, listening to somebody else explain a feeling that I have. You know you’re not alone. My intention when I was writing was that, yeah, I needed to write to process what was happening in my life, but there was always the possibility that if I ever had the confidence to release music – which is a process, to come to release songs that are raw – that somebody else could hear it and get that same feeling. Music is art that you give to someone else and they can interpret in completely their own way. It’s so personal. And I don’t get that from anything else in my life.
Do you remember the point where you just decided to let go and start releasing music?
Well, I got to the point where I just thought, “don’t be so narcistic, no one cares that much about what you’re doing.” At the end of the day, whoever hears it, if they don’t like it, they’ll be like: “Next.” The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t release something because you’re too afraid. I’m empowered by the fact that people don’t really give too much of a shit. So I think, just do it if you like it and enjoy it. Let it be what it’s supposed to be.
That’s funny, because in your lyrics there’s clearly some issues that you’re dealing with, but there’s a fun, relaxed nature to it. There’s a sense of polite rebellion. What are you hoping people experience when they listen to your music?
Well, I want them to connect with it in some way. Maybe they see themselves, or someone they know, in my words. I want people to realise that we’re all going through the same thing. I will never really write something that doesn’t have a specific story, so I’m hoping people pick up on that. I’ve thought about my lyrics so much – that’s the thing I care about the most in my songs. I just, I guess I hope it gives listeners some kind of release.
There’s also the physical feeling that you get from the rhythm and the beat in music, which releases you. And your music is very upbeat.
Well, the stuff I’ve released definitely is, yes. But actually I have a live recording coming out – my first one, not counting my YouTube bathroom videos. It’s with Jacqueline Pelczar again, who did my videos for “I Can’t Win” and “Flow Like Water”. She’s such a talented artist. I usually play this song when I get an encore, it’s a big vocal song. It’s a lot heavier in mood.
But yeah, I tend to coat my songs in sugar. One of the happiest songs in my set is called “Let Her Down”. It’s like: “bum, ba-na-na, bum-bum-bum, bah.” It’s super upbeat, it gets people dancing. But it’s all about a girl I know who’s really beautiful, but has no self-worth. She throws herself at people who don’t value her, and the song is about that. “They love her more reaching but never to hold.” They want you, but they don’t really want you.
I find it’s a good way to talk about real topics without becoming too convoluted or self-important. I find it easier to translate what I’m trying to say that way. And it’s left for the listener to discover the true meaning.
It’s kind of more accessible.
Yeah, and I like accessibility. Sometimes that “accessible” or “pop music” tag can be used as a pejorative, but I’ve never had an issue with it. I mean, I don’t write pop music in the way that maybe it’s imagined now, but in the way that The Beatles is pop music, or Michael Jackson is, or Stella Donnelly is, or Billy Eilish is… it’s such a broad tag. If pop means that it’s accessible to a broad variety of people, I don’t see why that’s a bad thing. If a lot of people can relate, obviously you’ve hit on something that’s important. Call me pop! My melody lines are pop. I love writing catchy hooks. For me that’s harder than writing something obscure. It’s easy to throw a bunch of paint at the wall but to see what sticks, not everyone can do that.
Speaking of Flow Like Water, can you talk to me about that?
It’s got the most views on Spotify, so I guess there must be something about it. But, it’s a really sad song now because the producer I made it with passed away recently. His name was Charlie Young, he was only 26, and he drowned on the first of this year. When – well, if – I play it now, it has such a different meaning than it used to. I used to think about me, but now I think about the collective grieving that happened when he died. The song is about the tendency I have, and maybe other people, to approach a difficult issue with a hard exterior. You come in with a particular energy. It’s about learning to approach problems by being more vulnerable and more flexible and to change and weave in different situations, rather than being stubborn. The song was me talking to myself about letting go of those ways – it wasn’t working for me, being so stubborn and hard and tough. But after Charlie died, I think of how that grieving process brings out so many unexpected emotions. Sometimes anger, or sometimes you’ll cry and you don’t know why. It’s now about me needing to accept that vulnerability. The narrative has changed, but it’s kind of the same lesson.
So you’re about to release your fourth single, coming off an EP you’re working on?
Yeah, yeah, guys, it’s coming. Laughs.
What can we expect from the single?
Well, actually, that’s going to be my first light hearted song. It’s a funny song about having a dry spell. I challenged myself to write something I’m not too attached to. And I want to do a kind of crazy video clip for it.
You’ve also had a really busy schedule of live shows. How’s that been?
I get a little over excited with booking live shows. And then I’m driving there, dreading it, until I get on stage and I get pumped. But I mean, I want to play every show that I possibly can. I figure it’s really good practice. One day, I might be successful enough that I go on tour, and I’ll be grateful that I got used to doing three gigs a weekend, and delivering the same songs with the same energy, every night. Over the past couple of years, I’ve learnt to check the ego, too. To go and do a live show and dread playing songs that you’ve played over and over that people keep asking for… if they’re asking for it, I should just play it. I’m here to entertain them. It’s not about me. I’m only as good as the enjoyment of the crowd.
When you’re on stage, how much are you trying to be present and how much are you just trying to get lost in the music?
I would describe being lost in the music and being present as the same thing. Especially as a songwriter, performing is disappearing into a song that’s very personal. The only thing I have room in my head to think about is that particular moment. It’s the only time in my life where I can be that focused, where all of my attention is just soaked up. I feel completely free and uninhibited. It’s the best feeling in the world. But then yeah, sometimes I make mistakes. Laughs. I get too lost.
What else is coming in 2019?
Live music video coming out. New single coming out. New video for the single coming out with a guy called Chris Beecroft. We’re doing something wild with an old VHS kind of vibe. I’ll do the EP. Got a couple of headline shows coming up. Honestly, I’m hoping to get into some festival circuits, but I just need a manager. I don’t know how to get to some of the places I want to go. At the moment, my tactic is just releasing as much content online as I possibly can, and playing as many shows as I can to get as good as I can, and hopefully it’ll all fall into place.
Also, you asked me about the point at which I got confident enough to start sharing music. I didn’t really answer properly – but I’m thinking about it now. The turning point for me as an artist, and it was quite recently, was when I decided to cut my hair off. That changed everything for me. It changed how I perceived myself. It gave me belief in my own ideas. Everyone I knew told me not to do it. I did it anyway thinking it probably wasn’t going to look good. But my hairdresser, Jessie Daoud, did such an amazing job of it, she made me feel so confident. And something shifted. It was like: “What have I been waiting for my whole life?”. That was eight months ago. I was doing music before that, obviously, but I started really doing my own thing after that. I came into myself. I got rid of all these preconceptions about how I had to be, and how I had to market myself. I had even just let go of wanting to be attractive. And since then I’ve just gone from strength to strength internally. I don’t question my ideas anymore, I just roll with it. I know what’s right for me.