Interview with Musical Duo Gracie and Rachel

Gracie and Rachel, California born and raised, are two best friends who met in high school and now live and make music together in Brooklyn. Gracie plays piano and leads vocals while Rachel plays violin to create their unique orchestral-pop sound. Set to release their debut album on June 23rd (available here for pre-order), they've already been written up on NPR Music as having a "terrific tension" in their sound while Baeble Music described it as "beautiful and unsettling", and NoiseTrade called it "penetrating" and "heartfelt". Clearly, these women are creating something powerful and special. I was able to interview the duo and get a glimpse into their creative process and background as well as learn more about what's next for them.     

First off, can you tell us when Gracie and Rachel started and what the journey from then to now has looked like?

Gracie: Rachel and I met in our hometown of Berkeley, California in a high school dance class, and we courted each other in a long distance musical relationship as she went off to study violin at the Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, and I left to pursue songwriting at Berklee College of Music in Boston. During those years away at college, we continued to write together, sending each other voice memos and daily inspirations that kept our relationship alive from afar. We would have video chat rehearsals to prepare for shows we would play back home on breaks from school and the bond just kept getting stronger. After we graduated, we decided we wanted to move somewhere together to make this music come to life more palpably, and we chose Brooklyn as our new home. We built a loft out in Bushwick to be both our studio and home and that’s where we are now! It’s pretty amazing to get to say, “Meet you for rehearsal in the living room in five.” When inspiration strikes we get to share it with one another right then and there. It can feel like a lot to be so involved with one another, but it’s ultimately what we thrive on.

When did each of you discover your love of music and that you wanted to be musicians? What did your musical training, formal and/or informal, look like?

Gracie: I think more than being a musician, I discovered I wanted to be a storyteller. I had been playing piano since I was seven, but it wasn’t until I was fourteen that I realized I wanted to write my own music and tell stories with my voice. There are a number of firsts I could recall that inspired a deep desire to write music, but in terms of performing, I remember at a summer camp I went to, there was a girl who sang her own songs and played piano at the same time, and she was so inspiring to all the young girls around us. The camp skits were always very boy-centric, so it was really exciting and empowering for me to see this girl command such fierce attention with her instruments. I remember thinking to myself, “I want to be empowered like her!” 

Rachel: I began playing violin around the age of six. It was a classic jealous sister situation; my brother played the violin so I insisted on picking one up too! I remember thinking to myself early on, before anything sounded even decent, that the instrument could offer such a beautiful, wholesome sound and that I wanted to do everything I could to honor that. My training was fairly traditional and deeply rooted in the classical tradition. I’m so thankful for that discipline and technical framework, but meeting Gracie really opened up a compositional portal in myself that I may not have otherwise explored. For as long as I can remember music has been a serious love of mine and, almost daily, I rediscover that love and am continually inspired by so, so many kinds of sounds. 

In your group bio, you discuss a duality of light and dark, classical and pop, and this is also noted in the recent NPR review of your video premiere for "Only A Child" - was this duality accidental? Something you two grew into? Or deliberate and accentuated for the sake of the music?

Gracie: I think it’s a little bit of everything. Rachel comes from a stricter classical background while I come from more contemporary practices. Some of the first pieces I learned to play were Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, and I think those really embody a combined energy that Gracie and Rachel works to create; there’s an eerie, cinematic fusing of classical and contemporary worlds there. Sometimes we say Rachel gives me structure and I give her freedom but, in our writing as of late, I would say I often give her a basic form of a song skeleton and she gives me total liberation from that form. As far as visually, Rachel typically wears all black and her room is darker, while my general color palette is much lighter. When we started to realize our sonic and aesthetic differences were things we were playing with in our music, we began to really dance with the idea of light and dark, what it could mean socially, politically, sonically, poetically. Our album explores duality in a variety of ways, so visually we decided that all our music videos for the record would be in black and white, sometimes using our bodies to represent the light and the dark. Whether it’s internal struggles or external conquering, we’re exploring dual forces as a way of having a conversation between two or more entities.

Tell us about the process of song-writing and music-making together - do you do everything collaboratively? Do you have any special rituals?

Rachel: The process is sort of never the same, yet completely routine at the same time. We bring song seeds to one another, even just a word or a phrase of inspiration, and we give the other the space and time to absorb the idea. If it blossoms then, hooray! If it doesn’t stick it’s really no sweat because we often find those “lost” gems emerging in another piece one way or another. The lyricism is all Gracie. She is a master poet - no one says it like she does - and I think we’ve come to an unspoken understanding where I hear her stories and try to narrate them through these musical microcosms that gradually build upon one another. 

You two have played shows throughout the US - can you tell us about a few of your favorite shows and what made them so special?

Rachel: It’s been so great getting to explore the states and bring our music to so many different people and places. I think we both find the opportunity to play in the San Francisco Bay Area very special. It’s where we grew up, and putting on a show for family and friends is a really singular and special experience. One night at a show in SF, everyone in the front row was singing along to the lyrics and just feeling the music so strongly with us, and it was such a powerful and humbling feeling. 

Gracie: We played in Toronto opening up for Jane Siberry just after the election, and I was really terrified. I remember asking Jane, “Can I say how glad we are to be in Canada?” I wasn’t sure how people would respond to Americans at that point. We got on stage, played our first song, and I said, “I just want to say I’m sorry for what the US has done.” The whole crowd roared and laughed and embraced us. I felt cradled and understood. The best moments like those are when you just click with the audience and they’re feeling you in some tense but special ways. Other times that are special are when things don’t go your way and it’s just palpable and forces unexpected things out of you. One night as we were setting up for a show in New York, Rachel’s pedal board for her violin wasn’t working, and we were forced to do a really stripped down set. We were so anxious, feeling like this was going to be such a disappointing performance, but when showtime came around, we played together in such a uniquely raw way. It felt like our bones were there and strong, and we were reminded of why we do this at the core - it’s a piano, a violin and a voice, and we really played our hearts out with those three things and had the best time.

I love your recently released "It's Time", which nods heavily to women's empowerment and autonomy - can you tell us more about the song and what inspired you ladies to write it?

Gracie: Thank you! So glad you enjoy. “It’s Time” was written from a place of feeling tired of being controlled. The song expresses an adamant readiness to stand up and demand independence from that control. The song asks us to have critical conversations with ourselves and with others about this control. It stresses the importance of getting loud and the detriment of staying quiet. It challenges the idea that there are only the options we are dealt in which we must choose from. It's time to ask more questions, give more answers, and say them all a whole lot louder. It's time.

Who are some of your musical influences, and who are three artists you all are listening to now?

Gracie: For influences, Erik Satie, my parents, and the Spice Girls. Listening now to Agnes Obel, Nils Frahm, and Gracie and Rachel voice memos on repeat. 

Rachel: Oh brother, can I have more than three?! I’d say for general influences I grew up listening to and playing a lot of unaccompanied Bach, Vivaldi, and Beethoven and still have deep appreciation for these composers and sound sources. Currently, I find myself under the influence of a wide range of genres. Lots of 17th century choral music, dark experimental minimalist stuff like Sarah Neufeld, Arvo Part, Anohni, and Max Richter are big favorites. On top of this, I’m especially inspired by badass lady producers, such as Holly Herndon and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith these days. So there’s “three” for you! 

Who are three womyn in each of your lives that have inspired you creatively and otherwise?

Gracie: My mom has inspired me in ways that seep through my veins every day. She’s full of humor, grace, and determination, and she commands a room in such an uplifting and effortless way. She taught me how to be a performer with equal humility and confidence. She’s kind, quick-witted, and my best friend, and she reminds me to stay passionate, creative, and funny. Ani DiFranco is someone else who inspired me from a young age to be loud and empowered, and unapologetically so. I saw her when I was about 17 performing at a small venue in the Bay Area and she just owned the room with such willpower that made me feel I could do anything. She sticks it to the man, and she isn’t afraid of doing so. It’s her calling. Recently, Ani signed on with our management team, so we’ve had the good fortune of getting to see her perform more and hang with her on a few occasions, and seeing how she continues to push boundaries, keep screaming and singing her face off, with no signs of stopping, is just endlessly inspiring to me as a songwriter and performer. Thirdly, I’d have to say Rachel Ruggles is someone who has inspired me in such deeply profound ways. She understands where I’m coming from with an idea and just takes it to a level I so intended in my heart, but never even had to articulate in words to her. She’s dedicated to her instrument in such special ways, and damn can the girl perform! It’s hard to take your eyes off of her on stage; she’s so fierce and motivated, and she just wants your ears and heart to feel fiery, raw, angry, and yet compassionate. It’s empowering on a daily basis to work with someone like her.

Rachel: Wow, I feel so honored for my Gracie Coates shoutout and am genuinely inspired by her for such similar reasons. Her ability to realize a vision and articulate her ideas, musically, politically, and socially are a continual daily inspiration to me. She has mastered the art of embracing her domain and is so honest and generous with her emotions; I think it’s an incredibly valuable tool to be able to relate to oneself like that and it ultimately invites others to feel trusted and supported by her. I experience so much comfort and innovation just by living under the same roof as her. Gloria Steinem is definitely someone I revere and look up to in so many ways. She is someone who has dedicated her life to saying what needs to be said in nurturing and proactive ways. She is effortlessly graceful and captivates audiences with her cathartic energy. Gracie and I have had the honor of opening for her at a BETTY show at City Winery NYC and the opportunity to see her speak a few times, and her words always linger inside me encouraging me to not play by the rules, to dig for deeper truths. From a more creative artistic standpoint, I’d have to say Agnes Obel has been a huge inspiration to me. She is a pianist, vocalist, and producer, and she has truly dignified her own world of sounds. Her subtle shifts in melody and phrasing are so moving and her integration of cinematic strings and pop speaks so closely to what we envision in our music. We’ve had the privilege of seeing Agnes slay live, and she really puts on such a magical, cohesive show. If you are wanting to get lost in some beautiful entrancing music, give her an ear! Aventine is our current favorite.

What can we look forward to from you two? What does the future hold for Gracie and Rachel?

Gracie: We’ll never tell! Our debut record is coming out on June 23rd, and we really can’t wait to share it with the world. This music is full of self-discovery, empowerment, and perseverance, and we believe it tells a little bit of everyone’s story in there. The future, we hope, holds lots of touring, meeting people through our music who share in a desire to make the world a more mindful place, and making more sounds that excite, challenge, and inspire us. We also hope the future holds less bigotry and more women in charge. 

What does feminism mean to each of you?

Rachel: It’s about making conscience and critical efforts to call BS and stand up for all on a daily basis. It means working to practice patience and kindness and using your voice to fuel positive and affirmative action. 

Gracie: It means working together, being heard, and never compromising.