Before the age of 18, Berklee alum Grace Kelly had already performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration and as a soloist with the legendary Boston Pops, who played one of her original compositions. Now twenty-seven years old, the multi-instrumentalist’s accolades include multiple ASCAP composer awards, International Songwriting Awards, and the prestigious John Lennon Songwriting Award; she was also a member of the house band for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” and she’s performed and recorded with legendary musicians such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis, Gloria Estefan, and Harry Connick Jr. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to chat with Grace, who shared how her impressive resume has shaped the way she views performing, creating, and innovating.
Grace will also be a featured guest in The 8-Bit Big Band’s sophomore concert at the Berklee Performance Center. A 33-member jazz/pops orchestra based in New York City, 8-Bit dedicates itself to celebrating and performing musical themes from beloved video games and on March 1st they’ll perform VGM’s greatest hits in a multimedia concert spectacular. Grace will perform with the orchestra’s creator, Charlie Rosen, as well as fellow saxophonist Leo P. It’ll be a fun-filled night fit for the whole family - get your tickets for this can’t-miss event HERE!
What was the best part about your experiences filming for these TV events?
I get a real adrenaline rush when I’m working in the TV show space, especially with intense filmings like that. Basically you have one day to do a full rehearsal, and then it’s showtime. It’s cool because there’s a lot of celebrities there, and there’s the adrenaline of going over it 24 hours before and then rolling tape! It’s the magic of television - you think things aren’t going to come together, and then they do.
What inspired you to pursue music?
My parents have always been playing great music around the house. It started out as a lot of Broadway, and they also played great oldies - Stevie Wonder, soul music, jazz music. My mom loved Stan Getz and played a lot of Jobim, and that’s how I fell in love with the saxophone. I think I was singing as soon as I could speak, but I was acting, singing, dancing, and playing classical piano at the age of six. Then I found the sax at ten years old...I always knew I wanted to play it, so I completely fell in love and was obsessed the moment I touched it.
You know, I didn’t expect to have a career in music, especially at an early age. But it’s something that’s my passion in life, and I’m very lucky and grateful that I’m able to have it as a full-time job. Everything in my career has really organically snowballed. I didn’t plan any of that - I don’t think you can! It’s been a great ride so far.
What did you learn from performing with huge names like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Harry Connick, and Wynton Marsalis?
There’s something really magical that happens when you’re with great artists in person, because you get to watch the way they perform. Especially with Marsalis I remember being nervous out of my mind, but then just doing it. There have been quite a few experiences like that. The greatest lesson in that moment is just to have the opportunity to step up and do it. Each person gives their own great advice, but the opportunity of playing with them in itself is one that’s really special. I highly encourage anyone who feels like they’re not ready but has an opportunity like that to just do it, because there’s nothing like stepping up to the hot plate. You will surprise yourself and rise to the occasion.
When did you start writing, and where do you find inspiration?
Writing was my first connection to music; as soon as I could sing I was making up songs. It’s been a very, very intuitive part of my expression. I still feel to this day that when I’m walking down the street and daydreaming, melodies are coming to my head. It’s really distracting! But it’s a very core piece of who I am. I’ve always loved how with songs, you have the lyrics to tell a story, and ultimately I think of myself as a storyteller - whether it’s picking up the sax, busting out some dance moves, or through songs. So songwriting has really helped me grow in that way, and there’s nothing that connects to the audience quite like lyrics. It’s been cool in my journey so far to be able to experiment with my expression through instrumental and vocal songs.
One of my most personal songs, which won the John Lennon Song of the Year last year, is called “Feels Like Home.” And the amount of messages I’ve gotten from people saying “This is me and my person’s love song;” “I got engaged to this;” “I just played this as a first dance at a couple’s wedding” is so cool to experience. The outpouring of these messages about very personal moments in one’s life has been really moving, and that is the power of a song. It’s the greatest gift.
As a songwriter, an artist, and a musician, my hope is that my music is reaching a lot of people. I want to reach a lot of people and touch them in a very personal way. Hearing from an audience, getting a personal DM, or an email of someone saying that - someone I don’t even know, someone across the world - it makes me feel like my message is getting out there and connecting other people.
What do you love most about performing?
I love connecting with my audience. There’s a moment in my show where I like to go out into the crowd with a wireless mic - sometimes it turns into a dance party! But in any case, it’s a moment I get to stare into somebody’s eyes, and they’re looking at me, and we are connected in that moment. As a performer, you’re kind of the host of the evening. It’s your job to read the room and to curate the feelings; you’re really front and center in being able to create whatever emotion you want to evoke. Whether it’s energy, or a song about pain or heartbreak, whether you want to get up and get people moving, dancing, and clapping - as a performer, you have the power to do that. I love the journey of learning how to be a better performer, how to challenge myself and continue learning on stage, getting cues from my audience, and adapting in the moment.
Nothing is going to teach stage performance like doing it. And there are also so many things that are going to go wrong that you couldn’t possibly prepare for by reading a book - you’ll only learn when you’re on stage and that thing happens! But I love connecting with folks, lighting them up and sharing smiles and joyous feelings with them. Music is a moment when there’s a group of people in a room and they get to release together. A lot of people don’t get that release in their everyday life - they might not have a moment to sit and pay attention to their feelings. For 90 minutes, that’s what I hope my performances do. I want them to feel something.
Obviously with such an extensive performing career, you’ve had a lot of experience - are there mistakes you’ve made that have taught you important lessons?
Oh yeah, of course! I’m learning every single day. Every single day I wake up and, even though I’ve had this career that’s been growing for over ten years, I feel like I’m back to square one because there’s something new I’m trying to stretch for. I think that’s the job of an artist: to continue pushing the box and innovating. As artists we’re also entrepreneurs, so there’s also a lot of problem-solving that goes into the mindset. This is a business as well, and some artists forget that, but if you want to be a successful musician you have to pay attention to these aspects of running your business and being a creative.
You know, I don’t think anything’s a mistake - it’s an opportunity to grow, learn, and then to refine. There’s been things that didn’t go the way I thought, but they might have actually resulted in way cooler things or things I never had expected. I’m thankful for all the things that have gone “wrong” or differently, because they’ve helped me get to where I am. As long as one keeps pushing forward, that’s what it’s about. It’s a mental headspace.
If you could go back to when you started making music, what advice would you give yourself?
To really enjoy the process and continue to focus on that. A lot of us, myself included, fall into these thought bubbles that will spiral and spiral and turn into worry - how come I’m not here in my career yet? We tend to start focusing on things that I don’t think are the things to focus on, because they cause stress or worry, or they’re out of your control. A lot of cats ask me how to start playing gigs or get your career going - you really have to focus on the craft, what you’re trying to say, and leaning into your own authenticity, and everything else is gonna come with time. I would tell myself to stop worrying. Keep executing, keep putting out material, songs, and content, and know that you’re gonna learn every step of the way. Opportunities will continue to come around, and there’s no rush, you know?
As a multi-instrumentalist, what advice do you have who are interested in different realms of music and looking to coagulate them as you’ve done?
I think no matter what, an artist has to zoom into their authenticity. I don’t do things because they’re popular - I’m inspired by a whole range of things, but it’s a journey of finding what speaks to me within those. Or if something’s popular, breaking down elements and being like “that’s cool, what about this really speaks to me?” I know that if I can authentically step into my artistry - if a song comes from my heart - it’s completely from me. I can’t half-fake it, and I certainly can’t get behind anything that I don’t believe in or feel.
If somebody is, in fact, interested in all these different avenues and comes from my background, I would say explore each of those things individually and have a lot of fun with it. Figure out your preferences. Acting, music, fashion - just start to curate all your tastes and experiment as much as possible. It’s through experimentation that you’re gonna find your voice. Nobody wants a copy of what’s been before, and that’s certainly never what’s going to be innovative and new. Taking these elements and making it one’s own is the journey I’m on.
I really encourage folks to dive deep and find the things that really tickle them, and also not to put themselves in a box. You don’t have to just be one kind of musician. If you have different instruments, dive into those things, because ultimately it’s your tastes that are going to make you yourself, and make you more unique compared to someone else who plays your instrument. You wanna play up and learn about the things that make you authentic and different and you.
How do you #getinthegroove?
I just like to be out there watching other artists, listening to music, going to shows, traveling, meeting people - just having experiences and moments to reflect and keep my head refreshed with new things. I’m always thinking about different concepts. As an artist one of our jobs is taking what other people have seen and spinning it differently, putting a new light on it. So I also really like to dissect things, dive into a concept and think about how it relates to me. And really, the headspace is about curiosity - it’s about “I like what they just did, I wonder how that’s done” or “what would happen if I put these two sounds together?” When your headspace is curiosity, the imagination and creativity that comes from it is pretty endless. I know that when I’m feeling stagnant, it’s usually because I’m not leading with curiosity.