The BBC Sound Of 2019 shortlisted singer/songwriter talks to Clare O'Shea about the female artists that inspire her
When I speak to Grace Carter it’s another hectic day for the West-London-born, Brighton-raised 21-year-old singer/songwriter. Amidst a string of TV and radio appearances, rehearsals for Texan festival SXSW and preparations for her upcoming UK headline tour, she’s maintaining a busy schedule: “Yeah it’s a lot - I’m adapting, it’s fun, but we are super busy.”
Later that evening Carter was heading to the 2019 Global Awards, to celebrate the stars of music and entertainment, but despite her busy schedule, fans can expect new music very soon, as Carter reveals: “At the moment I’m working on my debut album which is very exciting; it’s been a massive goal of mine for a very long time. I’m very happy I’m able to do it and I’m making the songs that I love and finally being able to put it together on a body of work.”
Her UK and European tour dates are selling out and when I ask if that was a surprise Carter thinks it’s a result of “when I did Sunday Brunch [UK television show] the other day. I feel like people are being introduced to my music for the first time, which is really cool. I’m very excited about that, because the last tour I did was the first experience I’ve had of people singing my lyrics back at me and reacting or crying and hugging their mates. I just love being in a room with people that love my music... it’s gonna be really good fun!”
This genuine audience interaction is clearly important to Carter, who views music as a form of expression and “therapy”. “That’s how I’ve always seen music, as a way of expressing myself and overcoming situations and emotions”, she explains. “And at the end of the day, feeling better after I’ve written a song.” Whilst growing up without her Father fuelled powerful tracks such as ‘Why Her Not Me’, Carter also struggled with her identity as a mixed-race child: “When I was nine my Mum thought I was growing up way too quickly in London and said, “Let’s move to Brighton and slow it down.” It was even harder, because it was the first time that I had gone to a place and people asked me if I was related to my Mum. - I have a white Mum and I didn’t grow up with the black side of my family - It was the first time that it was questioned whether I was my Mum’s child or not.”
Carter is down-to-earth and open, speaks passionately about the role her Mum and female artists have played in her life, both as an artist and a person and accordingly the songs she’s chosen are built on a theme that’s very close to her heart. “It’s International Women’s Day on Friday, so I’m going to give you a list of female artists that have inspired me or helped me get through things, or whose music I fell in love with growing up.” So we start with Carter’s first choice, Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’, a song that empowered Carter from a young age to be her authentic self.
“I heard Nina Simone for the first time with my Mum in the car when I was eight when we were driving to my Grandparents’ house. Me and my Mum are really close - she brought me up on her own and music was definitely something that we would bond on - we’d sit in the car and sing songs together or cry together [laughs]. Music was a big part of our relationship when I was growing up.
“She played Nina Simone on the radio and I literally burst into tears, because I’d never heard her voice. First of all, I thought she was a man because her tone was so unique, and I’d never heard anything like it. I was like “Who is this person?” and I cried because it was the first time that someone singing, a song, or hearing a voice, had affected me in an emotional way, where I’d felt the pain that she was singing with and I felt the words that she was saying. Whether she wrote them or not, she was singing them with so much passion and emotion that even an eight-year-old could resonate with it. So I will never forget, that was the first time I had ever cried from anything that wasn’t ridiculous kids’ stuff [laughs].
“With Nina Simone, and ‘Feeling Good’ especially, it was just how epic it was, and I think with my music now this song - the strings, the way that the piano is and everything about it - I love how epic it feels and I definitely like that sort of epic feeling in my songs as well. So I think she influenced me in that sense.
“I think also when I was really young, it was probably because I couldn’t sing yet, but people would always tell me I had a really unique voice. Whether that’s because they were just trying to be nice and say “You can’t sing!”, I don’t know, but I would always get “You have a really unique voice!” and when I heard Nina Simone and heard that she had a really unique voice it made me feel like “OK cool, it’s amazing to have a unique voice and you can - I can - do something that she can do.” That inspired me, that the word ‘unique’ was used for her, but people would also say it to me. Those are the artists I love, I think it’s so important to have your own identity and just make music that’s true to you and not try and fit into a box.
“I just actually got the record version of the album that my Mum had from my Uncle, so I’m definitely listening to that. I literally have pictures of her all over my house, I think she’s incredible.”
“The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a massive album for so many young black females - and males, to be honest - it’s a big album for anyone. My Mum definitely raised me listening to that album as an education I guess, on life, love, religion and all of the things the album talks about.
“I’m a massive fan of Lauryn Hill anyway and I loved her in The Fugees. I’m very emotional, as you can tell from my music, so I definitely drift towards emotional music because for me music is an outlet and a way of me expressing myself, whether I’m writing my own music or listening to someone else’s.
“The thing that’s going to be in common with all of these tracks is that they’re all artists that my Mum introduced me to. Whether that’s because she wanted me to listen to strong female voices I don’t know, but it seems to be that way, where a lot of the artists that I love now and loved growing up seem to be females that are singing from their heart.
“I think the thing with music and doing this, or any role where you’re in the public eye, you do become a role model for a lot of people - and I think in that point in Lauryn’s Hill career she was making an album that spoke to a lot of people and helped a lot of people and I really value that.
“It was between ‘Ex Factor’ and ‘Doo Wop’ - I think ‘Doo Wop’ is an amazing song too, it’s more up tempo and fun and it’s definitely one that me and my Mum would sing in the car, but ‘Ex Factor’ was one of the slower moments on the album and that’s kind of my vibe. I think it’s just a really beautifully written song and it definitely influences me in my songwriting.”
“I love this track so much and I remember when it came out. I was 11, so I would have just started secondary school and I think that was a time where I was finally figuring out my own music taste and drifting away from what my Mum listened to - not because it wasn’t great but because I just wanted to find my own thing. So this song came out and then I think Adele came out, and that was just a great time for female artists being open, honest and emotional in their music - and that was around the time that I started writing my first songs as well.
“Alicia Keys has always been an influence for me, whether it’s been musically or physically. When I was super young I grew up with the white side of my family, so I’d never really had many people to physically identify with. When I heard Alicia Keys for the first time and then when I saw her sat at a piano I was like, “I see myself in her” and I really related to her.
“So when she did this track there was just something so powerful about her, with having the collaboration with Jay Z. I think that now in my career and the music I’m making, that sort of collaboration is something I aspire to, because I think it is a classic, where two different genres come together and make something really powerful. Alicia Keys has always influenced me, but when I look at my music now that’s something I would love to do - have this power duet in this weird way. And I love Jay Z too, I love all of his music.
“I think finding Alicia Keys and her music really helped me realise that everything I wanted to do was a total possibility and could happen. There was someone that I really, really resonated with, doing what I wanted to do - and really winning at it, just being herself and being powerful and making honest music - and that’s what I want to do as well and who I am.”
“I think my Mum first played me Adele, but then she won the BBC Sound Of... poll and she was on playlists and I’d hear her on the radio, and I was mesmerised by her voice and her power. I was like “This is crazy, who is this person? I love her so much” [laughs]. I must have been 11, I was definitely at secondary school because I remember learning how to play ‘Someone Like You’ on the piano after she did her BRITS performance, where she was just on the stage with a grand piano. It was the best thing, because it wasn’t perfect, but it was so emotional and so real that everyone was just like “Who is this girl? She is amazing.” I think everyone remembers it.
“I remember learning this song on piano and growing up - when I started to write songs - learning other people’s songs on piano was my way of figuring out chords for when I wrote my own. She has been a massive influence and was one of the reasons I started writing songs was because I’d listened to her music. Although she was talking about relationships and I’d never been in one, I could relate what she was talking about back to my situation with my family and growing up without my Dad around. I saw a lot of myself in her songs, although they weren’t necessarily about the same thing.
“’Someone Like You’ is a classic and was definitely one of those songs that I listened to and was like “Oh, she’s singing my life right now, she’s singing everything that I’m feeling.” I guess now, it reminds me of my track ‘Why Her Not Me’ in a sense of what it’s about. It’s so relatable, all of us have felt that or been through something like that at whatever stage in our lives - and I think that’s what’s so powerful about music, it’s something that brings people together and we can all relate to. We’re all human beings at the end of the day, we all go through similar emotions, feel the same things - might have different situations but we all feel very similar things.
“I think with an artist like Adele, who’s just being herself and telling her story, of course people are going to relate to that and that’s why I relate to her. I remember when I wrote ‘Why Her Not Me’ and I went into my publishers and I played it to them, and two of the girls started crying because they’d just gone through a break-up and their boyfriends had moved on. The song definitely wasn’t about that for me, but the fact that people could relate to it in their own lives, and put their own stories and situations onto the song, I think that’s what made it powerful for me.
“That’s why I love ‘Someone Like You’, because she’s singing about her experience but all of us can relate to it. I share a lot in my music, but I also don’t want to share to the point where I take the song away from people and make it about my life. To me it is about that but in reality, I put my music out to share with people and for people to connect to; if it was just for me I’d sit in my room listening to it on my own all day! When it comes to the idea of sharing my music, it’s to help people and for people to connect with it.”
“I don’t even know what to say about Amy Winehouse, because I just think she’s amazing. She was a very real artist and was just being herself. I think there’s a common link between all of these artists. All of them gave me the confidence in myself as a person and, later on, in my music to be myself. To be honest and be open and write songs that are actually going to help me, and not write songs just for the sake of writing songs. Everything has a reason and a meaning and is important, and I think Amy Winehouse was the definition of honesty. Every song she wrote and every song she performed was brutally honest and very powerful.
“With ‘Back to Black’, again, it’s just relatable, the whole concept of the song is something that we’ve all felt. It was a song that I probably heard at secondary school and was about 10 or 11 years-old and had never been in a relationship, but still I could listen to her songs and feel something from them, despite the fact I had never experienced what she was talking about.
“It was the emotion that she was singing with that I connected to and that’s why I think she’s one of the most powerful artists that has been around in recent years. Just seeing a young woman who I could relate to being on the stage, and literally saying whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, and just being herself was so inspirational for a young female.
“I don’t know why I addressed these song choices towards female artists, it’s maybe because I was raised by females and my Mum would always listen to female artists and she wanted me to be empowered by females? Amy Winehouse - of course we all miss her because she brought so much amazing music to the world, but the good thing about her music is that we can still listen to it now. I’m very lucky that my Mum wanted to educate me in all of that.”
“Erykah Badu is just an amazing artist. She was around at the time of Lauryn Hill and India Arie - who’s one of my other choices - and they were making real R&B music. They were very artistic and beautiful and doing everything that they wanted to do
“I picked ‘Bag Lady’ because it’s one of the songs that me and my three bestest friends listen to. It’s the song that we put on when we’re all feeling sad and we listen to it for hours because we have so many positive, exciting and happy memories with it, this song is our jam! It’s just such a feel-good song and when I’m away, or if I’m on tour and in a new hotel room and I haven’t seen my friends or been able to speak to them for ages, if I put this song on it just makes me happy.
“The friends are in my ‘Saving Grace’ video. I’ve known one of them since the day she was born and the other since the beginning of secondary school, so we’ve all been really, really close. Also, we all grew up in Brighton, we’re all mixed race and we all grew up with white mothers. It was quite complicated growing up in Hove, which is the other part of Brighton and it was a very white area. We all always felt a bit different, we didn’t necessarily know a lot about our culture and where we were from and we addressed it towards each other.
“Music was a way of us expressing ourselves, coming together and learning about our culture and all of that stuff, so ‘Bag Lady’ reminds me of a really exciting time of discovery.”
“I think she’s one of the most underrated R&B artists, she’s amazing. I picked ‘Video’ because it’s one of those songs that’s empowering - it’s talking about what you look like and being defined by that. I think being in the music business and being an artist, a lot of the time things are based on what you look like and your appearance and this song for me is “That doesn’t matter, I am me, I love myself, let me live.”
“I’m not saying they’re negative, but I think for young girls there’s a lot of songs out there about being in a club and lots of different things like that. I think for young females growing up an artist like India Arie with a song like ‘Video’ - which is about loving yourself and not focusing about what’s on the outside but what’s on the inside - I think that’s a really influential thing for young women.
“I was really young when I heard this song for the first time and I was singing it in the playground and that’s kind of what you want as a parent. I think she makes really empowering music for young women and that’s why I love her, I just wish she was celebrated a bit more. We’re still not there, [regarding judging women by their appearance] and that fact that India Arie was speaking about all those things back then, I think she’s one of those artists that are here to inspire and empower, which I think is really important.”
“I just love Destiny’s Child! They’re so amazing, they were just three young females singing together about being women. I remember being young and in my front room with one of my best friends I was just talking about, doing dance routines to Destiny’s Child songs and singing ‘Survivor’. I think Destiny’s Child takes me back to being about seven years-old and singing it in my lounge and doing dance routines to it.
“Again, it’s empowering and feel-good. It’s obviously about a negative situation, but it’s flipped. It’s uplifting in the sense that it’s taking something negative and turning it into something positive and showing strength. The early ‘2000s, I just want it all to come back and all the artists that were around then. If you ask any female artist that’s coming up now, we all have very similar influences, because we were blessed with having such amazing music when we were younger, which influenced us to make the music we’re making now.
“I do relate this song to my own life for sure, 100 percent. I dealt with a lot of things as a child that I probably shouldn’t have had to deal with, like rejection and loss and heartbreak. Songs like this made me feel strong. I was really young, I was a child, and I was feeling grown-up emotions that I shouldn’t really have been feeling at that age, and I had to mature very quickly. Hearing music like this, which is about “Yeah I’ve been through this, but now I feel like this, I’m strong and I’m powerful and I’m independent”, that’s what influenced me. That’s what made me feel stronger.”
“Rihanna’s grown up in the music business and we’ve all seen her go from being a teenager to a grown woman. I have a lot of favourite Rihanna songs but I remember hearing ‘Stay’ when I was about 14 or 15 at school. I covered it on YouTube - I was still pretty young, I had braces and I was not cute! I really resonated with the song, the feeling of wanting someone and not getting them and them always leaving.
“That was the one thing I saw in the song and I saw myself in it; that frustration of always looking for this thing and it never coming to you, going around in circles and being helpless. That was a side of Rihanna that I don’t feel like I’d seen until that point, in her most vulnerable state and saying everything that she was feeling. Whether she wrote the song or not, that’s another thing that I want to say. Rihanna doesn’t really write her songs, but the way she sings them, with the conviction and power, it feels like it does come from her, she puts her life onto the song so beautifully.
“I heard this song and I thought “This is amazing, I want to write a song like this.” I’ve had the honour of working with the guy that wrote the song and he’s amazing. I think there’s so much strength in being vulnerable and in the video Rihanna really showed that. Seeing another woman being vulnerable, but also so strong at the same time is really important and it really influences me.
“Being a young black woman, her being herself gives so many people confidence to be themselves. Her loving herself and being true to herself allows and encourages so many young women to do the same. She has a platform and she uses it very positively - even the diversity [across her Fenty beauty make-up range], being so open and wanting to make somewhere for everyone. When it comes to my career, Rihanna got into music younger than me and however many years later she’s still got a career and I see that as an inspiration. I got signed when I was 18 years old and I’m 21 now and I want to be making an album when I’m 35 years old!"