Five years ago, if you were a kid in the middle of America with dreams of a record deal and a Rolling Stone cover, the best way to get attention was to sit in front of a web cam, sing your heart out, and upload a video to YouTube. Lots and lots of performers found success this way—the most obvious being Justin Bieber, who rose to fame (and infamy) when Usher came across the 12-year-old's cover of "U Got It Bad." (And of course before that it was MySpace. Hi Lily Allen!)
These days, though, an aspiring singer with lofty goals and an internet connection is far more likely to get noticed by dropping tracks on a much different machine. Over the last few years, SoundCloud has helped spark the careers of nearly every new act worth listening to, the latest is 17-year-old Grace Mitchell. In August, at a time when other kids her age were staving off senioritis with end-of-summer keggers, the Oregon native uploaded “Broken Over You” and “Your Design," two equally stunning debut tracks that immediately lit up Hype Machine. Her voice sounds like a cross between a folksier Lorde and a more earnest BANKS—two artists who also benefited from SoundCloud buzz—meanwhile her lyrics are extraordinarily self-aware and expertly poignant.
On "Broken Over You," a vulnerable heartbreaker of a tune, she sings, "Is it like love when you look inside? / Even if it's not then I wish you'd lie," a sentiment so eloquently gut wrenching that it's hard to grasp the words were written by someone a few months older than Jaden Smith. Sometimes, when you're listening to music written by someone so young, you're keenly aware of it. The expression "wise beyond her years" is a terrible cliché, but there's no more appropriate way to describe the husky-voiced Mitchell.
It wasn't long before record labels took notice: Republic (home to Ariana and Lorde) locked her down, soft-launching the teenager last Christmas with a soulful, synth-heavy cover of the Hall & Oates classic, "Maneater," for the soundtrack of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (Probably the best thing to come out of that Ben Stiller film.) Last month, she dropped her debut EP Flawless, a four-song record that's just that. She's currently hitting the studio to finish up her first album—with a few dream collabs "already underway"—so we hopped on the phone to find out how she's balancing all that next-big-thing pressure with being just a regular teen.
Noisey: You're still in high school, right?
Grace Mitchell: I'm doing school on my own terms. I was attending a regular high school for awhile, but now I'm homeschooled. I used to travel down to LA for about a week every month and it became really complicated.
I can imagine. What year are you?
I'm a senior.
So while your classmates were obsessing over the SATs, you were recording some of the biggest songs to hit Hype Machine all year. How did all of this start for you?
I started traveling to LA when I was 13, working in the studio and meeting a whole bunch of people. It's been happening for awhile. It's been a process—really methodical. I don't want to put anything that isn't perfect or totally me.
Who have you been working with on this music?
I work with different producers, songwriters, and other artists, but the EP was mainly me and a guy named Morgan Taylor Reid.
How old were you when you started writing songs?
I've been writing songs for a long time. I wrote my first song when I was eight, and I started being really interested in music around 12 or 13. I was a little bit of a misfit in school.
So you must have a million songs written then?
I have tons of material that I've accumulated over the years.
You also play a bunch of instruments, right?
I play keyboard, drum pad, guitar… I had my first guitar lesson when I was eight. I probably should be far better.
What's your writing process like, given that you live with your parents in Portland?
When I'm in Oregon, I have my own studio. I spend the majority of my day being immersed in music and working on my craft.
How else do you spend your time?
I do yoga every day. I like to explore and adventure.
Do you ever get to just chill with your friends like other 17-year-olds are doing?
Not really. All of my friends live in Eugene and when this took off, I moved Portland. And I spend so much time in LA.
What kind of music did you listen to when you were a kid?
I grew up listening to whatever my older cousins would tell me to be interested in. They're really cool. Biggest influences were singer-songwriters that were cutting-edge at the time, like Tori Amos, Paula Cole, Alanis Morissette, and Fiona Apple.
The Portland music scene's pretty great. Were you able to go to shows when you were a kid?
I went to a lot of shows growing up. I lived in a really small town in my early teenage years. From 12 to 14, I liked a lot of bluegrass and folky shows in my small town. That has a huge influence on my writing style. I still go to as many concerts as I can, and I love to perform myself.
Do you really?
Yeah, I had a show on Halloween opening up for St. Lucia, which was really, really cool. It was really surreal, just an amazing experience. I love performing, it's my favorite. I feel very comfortable on stage.
Your Oregon roots seem pretty important to you. Do you want to stick around, or is an LA move imminent?
I would really like to move to LA. I used to not like it as much, I've been a Pacific Northwestern girl all my life, but I really really love LA.
What do your parents think about all this?
They're super supportive. I'm very, very lucky. I think they probably predicted it. They always felt that singer-songwriter would be my career.
So what can we expect your debut album sound like?
People should expect the album to be an evolution. The EP is very pop, the album will be a little more abstract and a little more indie pop. Expect it to be different from anything I've done.