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Grace Blackford Is Finally Where She’s Meant To Be

Written by on August 11, 2021

Chicago-based vocalist, lyricist and composer Grace Blackford found her place in performing live music.

From a young age, Grace Blackford knew she was supposed to be a musician. Focusing on themes of nostalgia, longing and homesickness in her lyrics, Blackford’s sound is rooted in jazz with touches of pop and R&B. Her July 16 single “Distance” was featured on Vocalo’s July 2021 In Rotation playlist.

Recently, we spoke with Grace, who broke down her creative process, cat adoption and the community she found in Chicago music.

Image courtesy of the artist. Photographer: Jacob Perry.

“I think you get what you give in the Chicago scene. It’s authentic and if you aren’t being 100% real, people sense it.”

Grace Blackford

Tell us a bit about your origin story — what drew you toward a path in music? 

My dad sings and plays piano alongside writing his own music. His musical presence really inspired me to record a snippet of a Christian song on a cassette tape. When I showed my dad the tape, he wrote chords to the song and then convinced me to sing it in church. A few years later, my mom signed me up for voice lessons despite my reluctance. I was quite nervous to perform in front of others, but once I began performing I found that music is my outlet.

How would you describe your musical style?

I studied jazz in college, so I would say my sound has a jazz influence. However, it taps into R&B, neo-soul territory. My education taught me about jazz harmony and developed my ear, yet my wide variety of musical preferences have led me to write songs that span several genres, serving as a musical melting pot.

Take us through your creative process of writing a song like your single “Distance.” Where do you like to record or write? What kind of headspace do you have to be in to really sit down and start writing? Where does your inspiration typically come from?

Sometimes songs come to me very quickly. When inspiration sparks, I’ll make sure to stop whatever I’m doing and sit at the piano or record a voice note if I’m not home. If I haven’t written in a while, I’ll force myself to sit down and fiddle around — yet, I will always be a little more critical of those ideas. “Distance” was kind of a combination of both the spontaneous and the casual. The chord pattern and general mood of the song entered my head right away, but the lyrics took some time to perfect. My initial inspiration for a song is something that is born from my deep feelings and fantasies and a burning desire to express them. No matter what, it becomes crucial that these emotions are always explored by me completely alone before I show my idea to others.

Describe your experience in the Chicago music scene. Have you found a strong sense of community?

I think there is a strong sense of community and over time I’ve opened myself up, but it’s definitely taken a while for me due to my own insecurities. It’s so important to put yourself out there, because no one is going to do it for you. At times I’ve felt terrified by the sense of independence, but I’m getting better and continuing to learn! I think you get what you give in the Chicago scene. It’s authentic and if you aren’t being 100% real, people sense it. Once you shake the self-doubt and believe in what you’re doing, the community is there to lift you up.

What is the best thing about being a musician in Chicago? The worst thing? 

The best part is meeting other creatives and getting the opportunity to collaborate with them. There is so much talent in this city. The worst thing is probably driving to gigs. Whether I’m playing in the ‘burbs [or] Chicago, I always experience the worst traffic, potholes, etc. and I get pretty bad road rage. 

What’s your ideal Saturday in the city?

Shopping in Wicker Park and Kizuki Ramen [& Izakaya] for lunch, head over to the Art Institute, then Millennium Park for a free summer series concert and a picnic.

Image courtesy of the artist. Photographer: Jacob Perry.

Who are your biggest inspirations? How do they influence your sound?

Ella Fitzgerald is the first vocalist who truly rocked my world. Her velvet voice changed my life, and I definitely tried to mimic her vibrato and tone when I first started exploring jazz in high school. More recent or modern inspirations are Nai Palm of Hiatus Kaiyote and Snoh Aalegra. Nai is such an insane vocalist and songwriter and encourages me to explore. Snoh has such a strong, sexy, low-key energy to her music and I definitely have tried to create something similar on several of my more recent songs.

Who was your favorite musical artist growing up?

I had many, but my most favorite was probably Regina Spektor. I’ve loved her ever since I saw the music video for “Fidelity” when I was in middle school. I finally saw her in concert in Chicago in 2016 and the moment she stepped on stage, I cried my eyes out.

Tell us the story of your adopted cat, Tigurza.

I’m involved in the foster program at my local shelter. I got an email from the foster coordinator with a photo of Tigurza and fell in love upon seeing her little face. At 17 years old, she was called a “long-term foster” — which can sound a little intimidating if you’re not sure about adopting yet, but my fiancé and I didn’t think twice before going to pick her up. As soon as we let her out of her carrier, we knew we were going to keep her forever. A few weeks later, we decided to officially adopt her. She’s now 18 and still thriving!  She is hilarious and we adore her.

What’s your favorite song to perform live?

Probably “Guilty,” which is on my second EP called Alterations, a collaboration project with my producer Zeke Akeem. People always bob their heads to this one!

You recently played your first live show in a while, in collaboration with Sofar Sounds at Lakeview’s Maison Marcel. Before your Sofar Sounds show, how long has it been since you performed in front of a live audience? How did you feel when you were performing — what was going through your mind?

I played for a really small live audience at the Orland Park Library in March of 2020 just as everything was beginning to shut down. There weren’t many people there and it felt apocalyptic and weird, so not counting that, my last real live show experience was at Martyr’s, December of 2019! Performing for a live, engaged audience at the Sofar Show was a salve for my soul. I felt so calm and centered. Throughout the performance, I kept thinking about how grateful I was. Finally, I was back where I’m meant to be.

Stay up to date with Grace Blackford on Instagram, and stream her music below on Spotify.

Edited for length and clarity by Genevieve Kyle

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