BY GREG OLWELL | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE | PHOTOS COURTESY OF FENDER, GRACE VANDERWAAL
Hardly anyone knew what to expect when a 12-year-old girl with a cute bob haircut, a Luna ukulele, and bright yellow pants stepped in front of the mic on the popular NBC television show America’s Got Talent in June 2016. But when Grace VanderWaal began strumming and singing her song, “I Don’t Know My Name,” the stunned audience and judges knew that we were watching the birth of a star.
She went on to win season 11 of the show, and its $100,000 prize, with a series of rousing, unaffected performances of her original songs that showed off her prodigious songwriting skills and powerful stage presence. The victory led to her debut EP, Perfectly Imperfect in 2016 and a full-length album, Just the Beginning, in late 2017. Since then the Suffern, New York, resident has released a few singles, guested on other artists’ albums, headed up her debut tour in early 2018, and opened for the rock band Imagine Dragons during their summer tour. Indeed, it seems that the musician, who turns 15 on January 15, is just beginning to show us what she’s capable of.
I spoke with Grace on the phone while she was shooting her movie debut, Stargirl, in New Mexico. The Disney film, which comes out later this year and is based on the bestselling young-adult novel published in 2000, casts VanderWaal in the title role of a quirky, ukulele-playing high schooler named Stargirl who challenges her school’s status quo with her nonconformity. It’s a role that seems like it was waiting for Grace’s star to rise.
And, with the recent launch of her two signature Fender ukuleles, now seems like the perfect time to talk to the amiable, funny, and sincere artist who is inspiring thousands of girls and young women to play ukulele, sing, and to tell their own stories by writing songs.
How did you start playing ukulele?
We had someone from Brazil stay with us and I looked up to her and thought she was really cool. She played ukulele and I loved the look and the sound of it, and the second I started playing it, I picked it up really fast and loved it.
What inspires you about the instrument?
Something about the instrument and I click, from the moment I first started playing it. I love writing songs on the ukulele.
My dad wants me to play the guitar—more than anything—but I’m not that good at the guitar. I’ve tried to write songs by myself on guitar, but it’s nothing like the ukulele. I have no idea why.
That’s kind of a dad move. How did you start learning to play?
I started watching YouTube tutorials for learning songs and after a while I started recognizing the chords, so I didn’t need the video any more. So then I started going to websites like ukulele-tabs.com and learning songs.
Which ukulele sites or channels did you find useful when you were learning to play?
There is this one YouTube channel I used to watch all of the time, the Ukulele Teacher, and it’s this guy with this Australian accent [John Atkins]. I loved his tutorials so much.
So, then you started writing your own songs. Tell me about the moment that inspired you to write your first song.
When I first started to write songs on the ukulele, they were mostly jingles or joke songs and parodies. But slowly they started progressing and developing and becoming more serious and close to me. I realized that it felt really, really good to let this out and I never looked back.
Whose music inspired you at the time?
I was a huge Twenty One Pilots fan, so I loved learning their songs. There wasn’t anyone who I tried to write like; I would just learn regular ukulele songs, like [starts singing the Plain White T’s] “Hey There, Delilah,” “Rhythm of Love,” and cute little ukulele songs like that.
How does the instrument help you write songs? Or to perform?
The ukulele has such a special feeling. It’s a really happy, cute-sounding instrument, so it’s fun to play with the darker side of it and what it could be.
As for performing, I love performing with the ukulele because it’s so easy to move around with. I’ve never been asked that question, but now that I think about it, it’s a pretty great performing instrument because you can move around, run around, and it sounds pretty good.
Tell me a little bit more about exploring the dark side of the instrument.
Too many people limit the ukulele to cute love songs or happy songs, but I think one of funnest parts of the instrument is playing with what it can be depending on what you’re saying or what you’re feeling. The ukulele can really follow whatever you’re saying or feeling in your song. I think that is really cool because it can complement dark words or dark lyrics so nicely, because it’s been kind of limited to happy songs.
What is your songwriting process like?
I’m a pretty fast writer. If something isn’t coming out of me naturally, or flowing out of me, I usually walk away from it and assume that it’s not the right one. I’ve tried to work through things that aren’t working out and they never sound right to me. When I listen to them, I can hear the time that it took and I think that a song sounds better when it sounds like it needed to come out of you. So, I’m a very fast writer and I find chords and say what’s on my mind, then force it to rhyme, and build it up from there.
So, it comes out as an explosive bit of creativity.
Do you have any advice for anyone who might want to start writing songs or learn to play music?
Learning to play an instrument is a little more structured, but writing a song—it’s just you. Everyone is different and everyone has written songs that sound different, because everyone is different. The main thing is to not overthink it. Don’t think about what it sounds like or what you want it to sound like, or the artist you’re trying to resemble. Just write and be yourself. It definitely will suck in the beginning—I guarantee that you won’t write a great song in the beginning—but when it comes to writing, practice. Writing is different from some things, like dance, where you just have it. With writing you need to have a little something there, but with practice you will get better and you will learn to control what you want to sound like.
You could play just about any ukulele you want, what drew you to work with Fender on your new signature line?
Fender is this huge well-known brand, so that was cool. But what made a difference is that they really listened to my ideas. They genuinely wanted to hear what I thought and what I wanted and they actually listened.
What do you want in an instrument?
Okay, my actual career is to play the ukulele, but I know nothing about strings or wood or any of that. [Laughs.] But, I knew that I wanted it to be a color and that I definitely wanted it to be pretty. I always wanted a colored ukulele, but I felt like only the brown ones—the real wood ones—sounded really great. So, I told them that I’d love to have colored ukulele that also sounded really good.
And then, there are all of these little gold flakes around the soundhole—and this might sound cheesy, but it’s like part of my past, with the golden buzzer [from America’s Got Talent]. It’s super corny, but corny is OK.
Do you favor a certain size ukulele and has that changed as you’ve grown?
I really like sopranos, but I have a problem with them because they tend to fall out of tune, which makes sopranos a little hard to use for concerts. I feel that concert-sized ukes are the sweet spot for me because they’re still small and recognizable as a ukulele, but they tend to have such a great sound. They’re also really good for, um, concerts!
You are starring in a new movie, Stargirl, and you sound like a natural fit for the role.
I’m in New Mexico right now, I film pretty much every day. I heard about the role and it sounded like my dream role. I had a Skype call with the director, Julia Hart, and she told me about her dreams, and her dreams were so similar to my dreams and, well, now I’m filming it.
Acting is such a different creative pursuit. How is it similar to performing onstage?
Acting is insanely similar to making music, it reminds me of producing music so much. It’s been going really well. Though we’re filming almost every day, the schedule isn’t too demanding—and there is always food for me, which is really cool. It’s kind of awesome.
How is acting different from making music music?
The main thing that would make it different is that when you’re acting, you’re pretending. But I’m not an actor and I don’t know how to act, so I’ve been trying to connect with the lines in my personal way. It’s the same with singing—you need to connect with the lyrics and if you don’t, it’s going to be a bad performance. That’s another thing about working with Julia [Hart]: I can talk to her if I don’t connect with a line or feel like the character would say a line, and we can change it. It makes it more like it’s coming from me.
Are you writing any songs for the movie?
Not at the moment. There’s a soundtrack, though.
My daughter is a fan of yours and I asked her if she had any questions for you. “What made you want to audition for America’s Got Talent?”
Good question! Surprisingly, people don’t really ask me that question. Me and my mom thought it would be fun to wait in one of those long lines, like you see on TV. We thought it would be fun to see all of the crazy people and the super-talented people. We seriously did it for that reason and that reason only: We wanted to wait in the line.
I’d been playing the ukulele for only a few months and going to open-mic nights, so I decided that I would play ukulele and sing a song. We got there thinking that we’d be in line for a long time, so we brought this huge suitcase full of sandwiches and stuff to wait in this huge line, but then it ended up being like a 15-minute line! We asked why it went by so fast and it was because it wasn’t a filming city, so the auditions were quicker because the cameras weren’t there.
So, you went for the experience and then ended up on TV. How did it happen?
The audition was at a college and they brought me into a classroom with a group. I should remember this, but I think I sang “Ex’s and Oh’s” from Elle King. Then we all went out into the hallway and they called me back into the room and asked for my resume. I never gave them a resume, though. They asked me to sing another song, so I sang another song. Then they asked me to sing another song, so I sang another song. And they kept asking me to sing songs until I told them that I didn’t have any more, but that I do have an original song, so I sang that. I think it was “I Don’t Know My Name.” Then, they sent me to another building, with the executives, and they asked me to sing specific songs that I had already played in the classroom. So I sang the songs and finished. I went out into the hallway and started freaking out because it was genuinely, completely unexpected.
Did the show happen soon after?
It was a very long time. Maybe a couple of months later we got an email saying that they were thinking about me, then like a day later they asked me to fly out to L.A. to audition.
It must have been really emotional. All of a sudden you had to balance school, family, and now, a career.
Yeah, I definitely didn’t know what I was in for, but it seems like fate at this point.
Can we expect any new music from you soon?
I just produced three new songs here in New Mexico during my days off. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this about my own songs, but I really, really like them. I really want to release a single, have the movie come out, then release another album. That’s my dream plan.
Even on your day off you’re in the studio recording. Does it make it hard to balance everything?
I really enjoy working—a lot. I don’t even like to call it work because that sounds weird. Going to a movie set or making music is something that I’d probably rather do anyways. I get food all of the time and a trailer, or I could be in public school and trying to get a job at the grocery store, but instead I get to make music, make friends, and be in a movie.
Just last night, I was in this cheerleading outfit, standing outside in the middle of this football field and it was so cold out. I was freezing and I couldn’t feel my toes any more and my shoes felt too small, and even when I could think that this is the worst, I feel like this is the coolest job in the world. I get to do it.