Grace Mitchell (photo: Robert Alleyne)
It’s 6:30pm on Sunday and Grace Mitchell is, through no fault of her own, late to her soundcheck at The Independent. Mitchell is in town for a couple of days, opening for St. Lucia, and has agreed to give The Bay Bridged behind-the-scenes insight into her preparation process and to talk about her music. The previous evening, she ran through another abbreviated routine at The Fillmore (because headliner St. Lucia had gone longer than usual), and later posed for us in the legendary theater’s poster room. Tonight is off to a rough start: It’s pouring rain and her Uber driver dropped her off a mile away from the venue by accident.
So her bandmates, drummer JR Kurtz and guitarist Diego Cuevas, pass the time by ensuring sound is up to par and backing tracks operational. As they continue to wait, the two run through some surf rock and jazz riffs. Fifteen minutes later, the 18-year-old Los Angeles denizen walks in and unzips her raincoat. She climbs onto the stage and surveys the room before finally starting to quickly warm up her vocal chords, at first simply humming along to an R&B groove. She only runs through one song, “NoLo,” from start to finish, before calling it good and sitting down with us for 15 minutes to talk about her Oregon roots, her musical inspirations, and what led her to Southern California last August. Mitchell grew up in tiny, rural Cottage Grove, Oregon — most famous for some pivotal scenes from National Lampoon’s Animal House — before moving north to Eugene for high school, and again to Portland afterward to pursue a music career.
“I’d been travelling back and forth (to Los Angeles) from Oregon for a long time and it was about making the move down there officially,” Mitchell says. “For a while it seemed like a nice little niche thing that I was from Oregon, (but) it’s not totally necessary to make it a part of my image anymore. I really love L.A. and that’s where my community is.”
Mitchell started writing songs in her tweens, began performing small shows in Cottage Grove at 10, and learned several instruments in middle and high school. Her parents took her interest seriously, and her mother began chaperoning her on writing workshops in L.A.
“I really enjoyed being on stage and the performing aspect of it all,” Mitchell says. “I try to play as much as possible on piano and try to apply what I know from guitar to piano. It translates easily. That and any other instruments that are needed of me in the studio or on-stage. It’s funny; I’m pretty mediocre for how long I’ve been playing. I should probably be a lot better than I am.”
After singing to Republic Records in 2013, she released debut EP Design the following year. A cover of Hall & Oates’ “Maneater,” was picked up to the soundtrack for the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and opened numerous doors. Over time, her style morphed from traditional pop to integrate elements of hip-hop, R&B and electronica.
“It’s a progression; I’m evolving my sound every day,” she says. “I’m heavily influenced by early ‘90s to early ‘00s pop music. Whatever I’m interested in that particular week or month is what I try to incorporate in my sound.”
The combination of those elements with her low, raspy vocals have drawn comparisons to the likes of Lorde. The five songs on her most recent EP, 2015’s Raceday, further expand her tastes: A downbeat, hip-hop heavy title track and stuttering staccato of “Jitter;” electro-pop burner “Breaking Hearts,” which will appeal to Charli XCX and Chvrches faithful; pulsating “Bae,” with a refrain sung in French, and future pop-radio standout “NoLo.” Mitchell collaborated with Mark Foster of Foster the People on the record after meeting him through their shared publisher.
“I had a session with him and we immediately hit it off,” she says. “Now we’re really, really close and have a similar style of making music. But we counter each other in a really cool way. Melodically, he makes a lot of choices that I wouldn’t organically (make).
“It’s cool to see what happens when there’s that little bit of tension,” she laughs. “We fight all the time.”
Mitchell is currently working on a full-length debut with a targeted summer release, and fans can expect more partnerships with Foster. She has a bunch more material she’s very proud of that has so far gone unheard. Despite her young age, Mitchell has already been a part of the music industry for five years. Just don’t think that age is a part of her story.
“That’s totally irrelevant,” she says.
Photos by Robert Alleyne