The rising country star from Philadelphia tells Songwriting: “If you want a career, you have to create it for yourself”
nless you follow developments in country music closely, you probably haven’t heard of Grace Bernicker yet – but we’ve a feeling you will have soon. After all, it’s not every 23-year-old from Philadelphia who gets to record in Nashville, with a multi-platinum producer whose other clients include the likes of Justin Timberlake and N*SYNC.
Despite having just three self-released singles under her belt, this is clearly one young woman who’s managing to forge a career in music without major label backing, a huge marketing budget or a ton of hyperbolic media coverage. Which is why we called her up for a chat to find out how she does it…
Can you tell us a little about how you first got into writing songs and making music?
“Music’s been a part of my life almost as long as I can remember. I started singing aged 10, in the school choir, and by the time I was 12 I was starting to write my own songs, and I started to have voice lessons. We’d spend the first half of the lesson singing songs from musicals, then in the second half of the lesson we’d work on restylizing songs: taking a country song and adding a little soul to it, or taking a pop song and making it a blues song. That really taught me a lot about song structure, and how you can make a song your own.”
Was country always your main love?
“Not really, that came later. First, when I was very young, it was just pop, basically. Then through doing musical theatre I got into jazz… country came later. I’d moved to New York when I was 18, I’d been to acting school for a while, I’d done some musical theatre, but I realised that writing my own material was really what I wanted to do. So I moved back home to Philly, to do a degree in Communications and to concentrate on my own songwriting.
“My mom and I shared rides to work one summer, and she always had the local country station on in the car. I was writing a lot at the time, and I found that elements of that were creeping into my own songs more and more, so that’s where that started, really. I just love the story-telling aspect of country music. The lyrics are so important in country: every song tells a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. People like Carrie Underwood, Sugarland and Taylor Swift… those are the artists that inspired me to get into this.”
So how did a girl from Philadelphia, writing country songs in her bedroom, end up working with [the aforesaid multi-platinum songwriter and producer] Kenny Lamb?
“I don’t know, you could call that fate or you could call it sheer luck, I guess! What happened was, I was working with a voice coach in New York called Badiene Magaziner, and when I showed her some of my own songs, she said, ‘This is good… I want to show these songs to a friend of mine’. And of course, that friend turned out to be Kenny, and he called me up one day. I was just sitting in the caferia at college and I got this voice message… that was pretty awesome! I was on phone to my Mom straight away, like, ‘You won’t believe who’s just called me!’.”
TWO HEADS ARE DEFINITELY BETTER THAN ONE!
And now you and Kenny write together? How does that work?
“Well, Kenny’s in Tennessee and I’m in Philly, so we do all our writing via Skype. It actually works surprisingly well! I’ll come along with the lyrics, the story and probably the underlying bass melody, and then Kenny will sit there at the other end with his guitar and we’ll figure out the chords. I have a melody in my head but Kenny fleshes it out and makes it real. I guess you could say mostly I write the lyrics and Kenny writes the music, but it IS a two-way collaborative process. Kenny will make suggestions about a line here, a line there… and I won’t let him call the music ‘written’ until I’m completely happy with it. I’m quite a perfectionist, so whereas perhaps the first few times it was a little daunting writing with Kenny, now it’s me saying no, it’s not finished, we’ve got to keep working on it!”
“But I’ve learned so much from working with him, it’s been an amazing experience.”
Could you put your finger on anything in particular you’ve learned?[Thinks hard] “I guess… before I worked with Kenny, I had all these ideas about how a song ‘has to’ work. Like, you have two verses and then a bridge, and when you get to the bridge you have to have a big reveal, a realisation moment where the true nature of the lyric is revealed. But Kenny just says if it fits, go for it… you don’t have to be so rigid in terms of the structrure of the song, the pacing of the ideas. That’s one thing that’s helped my songs become a little more mature, I think.
Was it hard to adjust to someone else writing more of the music, when previously you’d done everything yourself?
“Not really, because I always wrote the lyrics first anyway: it’s all about the song for me. I mean, I’d get ideas for melodies and kind of store them away, of course I would, but for me it’s all about the lyrics. So getting someone else to flesh out the musical ideas behind my words… it wasn’t that big a step, really.”
“Now, I love collaborating – I’ve learned that two heads definitely are better than one! You can spark off each other’s imaginations and bounce ideas off each other, and I’d like to write with other people as well. But you definitely need to go into it with some ideas already formed, or like three-quarters formed: I don’t think you can just sit down and say, we’re going to write a song today. You need that initial inspiration.”
So where does that inspiration come from? And what about those days when it doesn’t?
“I find my best ideas just come to me, when I’m totally relaxed, sometimes just sitting in the hammock in my backyard. I write a lot of my songs in the backyard! I can’t just go, it’s 3pm time to write a song. But I carry a notebook with me to jot down ideas… well, it’s actually more of a folder, because there’s also songs I’ve written down on a napkin or the back of my school book or whatever! And I also use the voice recorder on my phone a lot – that’s great because you can capture the melody as well as the lyrics, just when you’re stuck at traffic lights or something!”
“As for days when inspiration doesn’t strike, well, you just can’t afford to let that happen. You have to stay positive, you have to FIND inspiration. One thing I do is, I try and find at least one positive thing that’s happened every day. You can’t start thinking negatively: I have this little motto for myself, ‘Always believe’, and I think that’s what you’ve got to do: believe in yourself.”
Is that why you’ve decided to self-release your material, rather than go knocking on record company doors?
“Well, partly… although that said, if any record labels do want to come knocking on MY door then, y’know, knock away and we’ll talk! But yeah, right now being independent works for me, it means I have the freedom to do whatever I want to do. I’ve had three singles out so far, which you can buy on Amazon, CDBaby and iTunes, or of course you can get them via www.gracebernicker.com!”
You recorded those singles in Nashville… what was that like?
“Nashville was just amazing… if you love country then it’s this beautiful city where country music is everything. There are so many amazing venues and cafés all over town. For example, one night we went to a place called The Bluebird Café, a legendary venue right outside of Nashville and had the privilege of listening to songs by four top notch songwriters. It really makes you want to push yourself and up your game – I remember sitting in the studio with Kenny, and I looked around me and I looked at Kenny and I was like, ‘I”m in Nashville, recording my songs, working with you… this is insane’, and he just burst out laughing at me! But it also puts opportunities in your path to network and meet other writers as well as people in the industry.”
YOU CAN’T EVER LET ANYONE TELL YOU YOU CAN’T DO THIS
So what’s the next step?
“I’d like to get an album out and do a proper national tour… that’s something I’m exploring right now. There’ll be a six-track EP coming soon, but for an album I’m going to need to either find a pretty major sponsor, or get signed to a label. Someone like [US country label] Big Machine would be ideal: they’re a small label but they work with big acts like Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts, and there seems to be a real family vibe about how they work. I think I’d be better working within that environment than with a Sony or someone, where you’re just a cog in the machine.”
“That’s where I’d like to be, really… to be a fully-fledged country artist, with an album out and a proper tour and all that. That’s the prize that I’m keeping my eye on right now.”
Well, there may be some way to go but you’re clearly heading in the right direction! So finally, what advice would you give to any other aspiring songwriters out there?
“Like I already said… always believe! You can’t ever let anyone tell you you can’t do this, or you’re not good enough… you’ve got to keep on believing, just go for it and make it happen for yourself. Networking’s important, social media’s important: I love Twitter! I love the randomness of it, the little insights you get into people’s lives, but it’s also a really good networking tool. It lets you connect with people, and you know, other people are out there connecting so you can’t get left behind! But equally… you can’t just sit on Twitter all day. You’ve got to spend plenty of time writing as well, you’ve got to practise A LOT.”
“Basically, what it all boils down to? If you want a career, you have to create it for yourself.”
Interview by Russell Deeks