Words by Tom Farmer- @tomfarmer5000 @TomFarmerJourno
'20 Questions' is a feature where writer Tom Farmer touches on 20 topics with some of the UK and Ireland’s most promising new acts. It’s a bit like Vogue’s 100 questions, but a lot shorter and a fair bit less glamorous. May contain strong language and shit banter.
This week’s guest on “20 Questions” is GracieSouz, the solo persona of creative polymath Grace Strickland de Souza. From directing countless theatre productions to modelling to amassing over 200,000 streams on Spotify with her band KIN; GracieSouz’s experimental-sounding debut solo EP “Better In Space” is another vibrant thread in the Sheffield-born artist’s rich creative tapestry.
After government restrictions made theatre productions and band rehearsals an unlikely prospect, GracieSouz retreated to her bedroom and began to write what eventually became four tracks of remarkable and thought-provoking electro-pop which form her debut EP. Produced by Alexander Comana, whom Gracie met whilst studying for an MA at the illustrious Goldsmiths University, the sound of the EP does not sound like it has strayed far from her fascination in drama and visual arts. Grace and I discussed the relationship between music and visual art, childhood heroes and drunk men in viking hats ruining gigs.
TF: Your creative CV is so versatile I don’t really know where to begin. When you were growing up, did you want to be an actor, director, composer, writer or model?
GS: At school, drama and music were the two main things for me. I went and studied drama at University so I think, in terms of career, that was probably what I was thinking about doing. I definitely had the dream of being an actor- I feel like most people have it! And then there’s the realisation that it’s actually really difficult. I think my second year of Uni, I remember thinking “I don't even know if I'm like that good at it and I don't know if I have the commitment”. In the background, music had always been there and I’ve always been messing around in my bedroom making music. I think there's something really nice about music and the freedom that you can do on your own terms, wherever you are.
TF: And how would you define yourself now?
GS: I'm a performance maker! Whether that be music, or whether that be theatre, or even live art and installations. I always try and interweave everything in my work. So even with this music project, I've done all of my own artwork and I've made all of the music videos myself. So that visual element that has become a part of this project as well. It’s so hard trying to put yourself in one box!
TF: For you, how similar is the creative process with your music, as opposed to your acting or directing?
I think there's definitely crossovers. In terms of the actual creation, it’s all (music and theatre) quite vulnerable and it all comes from you. The main difference is that, if you're doing theatre, you probably will go to a rehearsal room and maybe play around, which actually you do with music as well. But theatre’s more structured; physically getting up and putting it onto a page. With music, it doesn't necessarily feel there's as many elements that you have to rely on, which means you can just do it on your own terms. Even at the moment, theatres have obviously been closed, and lots of people in drama have been unable to work. With music, you can still make songs and distribute it yourself. So that's the main difference: having all of that control at your fingertips.
“Being a solo artist is terrifying as no one can tell you if you’re good or bad”
TF: This is your first non-single release as a solo artist! How did you adapt with the progression from band to solo and what have been the challenges?
GS: I'm finding it a lot more terrifying! It’s so much fun being in a band and I’m still doing both and I don’t want to change that. With the band stuff, it’s a lot of fun because you have other brains that you're working with who bring so much to the music. I suppose you have people to back you up, or tell you that the work is rubbish, which is obviously good. But also, it's quite a slow process- particularly the moment when you can't really meet up. The reason I started doing this solo project was sort of by accident. I hadn't seen one of my bandmates for like six months or something. I was like, “I don't want the music to stop, so what can I do?”. I ended up just sitting in my bedroom and writing what's turned into this EP. It’s been nice to have that freedom as a solo artist to do it on my terms and in my own time. But yeah, it does mean that it's a lot more terrifying, because no one can tell you whether it's good or bad.
TF: The EP has quite a different sound from your other projects. Do you find it easy to “switch on and off” when moving in between projects or does that come naturally?
GS: They obviously both come from me! And I think no matter what persona or band or wherever you are, you can't turn off yourself fully with whatever you do. There's definitely parts of me that are present in both. they're both quite personal in different ways. But I think it's slightly different. This feels slightly more electronic, which is why it didn't quite feel like a KIN EP when I was writing it, which is fine. One lends itself to the other in a lot of ways, just stylistically different.
TF: for your latest EP, how would YOU describe your sound?
GS: Again, putting yourself in a box is so hard! I think with the solo project, I would say it's alternative electropop- the heart of it is a pop record. On top of that, there's layers of cinematic sound and a slight avant-garde feel. But I think ultimately, at the deep root of it, it’s probably a pop record.
TF: The EP also explores some pretty personal themes, like self-doubt and identity. Do you feel exposed or worried how creative projects which are so personal are going to go down?
GS: I definitely feel exposed, but it comes in waves. When I'm writing, I don't necessarily think about an audience or the people who are going to be listening to it. If you thought about it so much, you'd either write something rubbish because you'd be trying to get in people's heads or you just wouldn't write it because it would terrify you so much. But there's obviously got to be some points where you think about how it will go down. Especially this week, I'm very aware of the fact that it’s release week and I didn't feel like I was that nervous about it until now. But I think you probably have to accept that putting yourself out there is terrifying. But also, that's kind of why we do it, right?
TF: You mentioned the political state of the UK in the summer of 2020. Are there any particular figures or moments that you remember thinking “I need to write a song about this”?
GS: There was one week in lockdown where I thought “Oh my God, everything has gone to shit!”. On the Monday, Dominic Cummings made his apology for “testing his eye sight” and then- on the Wednesday- the riots in America really started with Black Lives Matter and George Floyd. I remember just feeling “God, this is so overwhelming”. But I also remember not just thinking about that and the world as a whole, but also the state of myself. Lockdown had already been going on for months, so I suppose this record is really about womanhood, loneliness and isolation. Dreaming of escapism from everything.
“Putting yourself in a box is so hard”
TF: You mention film scores from your childhood as a key inspiration for your latest EP. Are there any particular films that stick out as key influences?
GS: I was so obsessed with soundtracks when I was younger- I used to carry around the Lord of the Rings soundtrack with me! Although I don't think that this record sounds like the Lord of the Rings sound at all, I think that that still probably helped to inspire and shape this record in a lot of ways in terms of thinking of it in a visual way and making people feel stuff. I suppose my taste has evolved from that to soundtracks that blend the lines of being soundtracks and also being minimal kinds of electronic or modern classical records.
TF: You are of course the latest in the list of talented creatives from Sheffield. From the Human League to the Arctic Monkeys, what is it about the city which lends itself to music?
GS: I've always got the vibe that when I was growing up there, Sheffield was always the place that was slightly missed out. When people came to tour, they'd go to Manchester and Leeds and miss out Sheffield. I used to end up going to Leeds all the time to see gigs! This slightly weird feeling within Sheffield has naturally seeped down into the music scene and has meant that people just want to create what they want, but they also want to shout about it to be noticed. I think that this makes for really interesting music, which then has been heard and has gone on to obviously break boundaries and be remembered.
TF: Back down South, you’re currently studying for an MA at Goldsmiths. What are you up to and has this come to life in your music?
GS: It’s a course in performance making, so actually blending theatre, live art, music, dance, -anything that you could count performance arts. The main thing that I've taken from it is lto be inspired by so many different people from different background because it's a very eclectic course. And I think that has made me not be afraid to just take on different elements and kind of jigsaw them together to try new things within my music. With this EP, the record was produced by Alexander Comana, who I met at Goldsmiths. He comes from an experimental and electronic music background, and I would have been confident enough to try that approach within my own work if it hadn't have been for meeting him.
TF: Would you rather play at Glastonbury or direct a play at the National Theatre?
GS: I would prefer to play at Glastonbury. I love the National Theatre, but it just does really straight plays. I'd probably prefer to play at Glastonbury and do a theatre show while I’m playing.? We’ll mould the two into one!
TF: I’ll let you off! Have you ever had a terrible gig or night of a play?
GS: Yes! I think any artists that said “no” would probably be lying! The thing that sticks out is a gig that arguably we weren't terrible- we were quite good. But there was just like a really drunk man in the audience dressed up as a Viking, just being really rowdy and shouting for the whole time. This was with the band and there's only three of us and we don't have a bassist. So, he was just shouting for the whole gig “where’s your bass player?”. Then came to the front and start dancing with these Viking horns. Yeah, I'd say that was quite bad.
TF: Have you got any unlikely influences, someone that would be too uncool to include in your Press Kit?
GS: I mean, we'll just say that there’s no uncool bands! Maybe old school pop? Growing up. I wasn't a cool kid; I was obsessed with like the Spice Girls and S Club 7. I wouldn't say necessarily a huge influence now, but I feel like everything shapes who you are. You know what, I did go and see the Spice Girls reunion tour. I went with my sisters and it was just as if we had reverted back to being kids to being kids, but with alcohol.
TF: What’s the first song you fell in love and had on repeat?
GS: I was obsessed with the Gareth Gates album, the first album I ever bought when I was 8. At the time, it was mind-blowing to me. Now when I think about it, I don't think it was good music at all. If we're going to shy away from the old school pop, an EP that I heard that stuck with me was by Lauren Auder. It was the first thing I had heard in a while and I thought “this is really great music!”.
TF: And what’s the last song that you listened to before u spoke to me?
GS: I just usually have one of those bad people who usually has Spotify playlists on in the background. It’s made me really bad at like naming artists. And then you don't listen to a full album, which I think really needs to change. So not really an answer: I'm just complaining about myself. And the fact that Spotify has ruined people's ability to name artists.
TF: Well, you’ve given me an answer for something, I guess. Would you rather have hands for feet or feet for hands?
GS: I'd rather have hands for feet. Yeah, I think that you could do more because you can walk on their hands. I can’t, but other people can! If I tried to do anything like play instruments with my feet? No. How would writing work?
TF: And what’s next for you?
GS: What's the plan for life or the next couple of months?!?
TF: Either’s fine.
GS: So obviously, the EP is coming out on the 16th (out now- go and stream it!) and then I I've got a few things planned with it. Hopefully, a little online festival in May. And then probably just writing. As I’ve said, the good thing about this project is that it sort of happened by accident. I've not really planned it, so I haven't got anywhere I want to specifically go next with it. With my band, we're currently we've just started writing our first EP, so I'm going to be doing that as well and hopefully some more gigs with them.
“I used to carry around the Lord of the Rings soundtrack with me!”
TF: Without sounding too much like a careers advisor, where do you see yourself in five years?
GS: in five years, I’ll be playing Glastonbury whilst also doing a theatre show on the side! Seriously, I don't know- I just hope that I'm still working. Hopefully making a bit more money than I am now because that would be helpful. But yeah, I think maybe still making and creating, but not in a pandemic!
TF: That’d be nice, yep. Finally, what’s one lesson you’ve taken from the last year?
GS: I want to say “Just be yourself”, but I mean that in terms of a lot of different facets. Just realising that you can do things on your own terms that you don't need to necessarily rush through life: just do it at your own pace. Take time to do things that actually makes you happy, whether that be the relationships with people or whether that be like the projects that you want to be doing. Just be yourself and do what you want to do.