I first heard Grace Weber sing while on a train to Philadelphia, or so I thought.
In reality, I first heard Grace sing in early May 2016, hours after Chance The Rapper’s long-awaited Coloring Book was accidentally uploaded to Datpiff. The Milwaukee singer added powerful vocals and accrued a writing credit on “All We Got.”
Grace Weber was a central part of my daily music rotation and I had no idea.
Fast forward to this past September, I’m sitting solitary, once again on a train to Philly, listening to an advance of Grace’s forthcoming debut album. While listening, I did some digging on my phone and found that she got her musical start in a Milwaukee church choir and that gospel music runs through her veins. She also runs a nonprofit in Milwaukee with her manager, Binta Brown, called The Music Lab. The goal of the lab is to bring high school aged kids from all over Milwaukee together through music, giving them a sense of community and preparing them for potential careers in the industry.
Let's just say, her one-sheet does not do her any justice.
From the first few notes of her album, I am overcome by the sensation of something familiar yet entirely new—“some special universe shit,” as Grace described over the phone. Two weeks after hearing her album in-full for the first time, we're speaking on the phone and I’m taken by the same feeling: I must have met Grace before.
Through our conversation, Grace and I find out that we have a few fateful things in common, most notably the train, which is where Grace first heard of The Social Experiment. In August 2015, three months after the Chicago musical collective released Surf, Grace met Nate Fox and Nico Segal in their studio—except she didn’t know it was them.
In what I’ve come to understand as 'typical Grace Weber fashion,' she arrived at their studio focused on capturing and delivering a vibe. She walked in, shook hands, and when offered the chance to sing on a beat, jumped into the booth and sung her heart out.
“The minute I heard [the beat], it was like, I couldn’t help but sing. I was so inspired and so moved by the sounds coming out of the speakers I felt like a little kid again, just feeling so crazy excited about music,” Grace gushes over the phone. “I honestly hadn’t felt that excited to sing on a new track since, I mean, maybe even since I was in my gospel choir in middle school.”
Once Grace realized she was in the studio with The Social Experiment, she described it as a very affirming and organic moment, having wanted to work with them since that first listening session on the train back in May. As for the guys—Nate Fox, Nico Segal, and Peter Cottontale—they all shared the same first impression of Grace: a resounding “Wow!” Nico was particularly taken aback by her voice, telling me, “She’s like an instrument, like a horn player! She can do the whole spectrum of emotions with her voice.”
Affirmation, excitement, and discovery colored the group’s work together. Following that August session, Grace had her heart set on doing a full album with Nate, Nico, and Peter, which they started on in March 2016. That also happens to be when Grace first met Chance The Rapper and “All We Got” came into existence.
“Chance walked in while we were working on a new song for my project, heard us building up this song, and then we played him a few other songs we were working on as well,” she tells me.
Immediately, Chance fell in love with the tune and, according to Grace, sent her an “updated version” of the song featuring his raps and Kanye’s cyborg vocalizations. “Long story short, the guys told [me] Chance wanted this to be the first song on Coloring Book,” she says.
Every moment working with The Social Experiment was serendipitous. The currently unreleased “Mercy,” as Grace explains, was a happy accident, the product of the microphone resting in her lap and recording without her knowledge. Thinking she was on break, she began humming a Patty Griffin song in what Nico describes as a “rambly and mumbly fashion,” immediately catching his ear. In the scope of a few hours, he and Nate crafted an entire beat around the sample of Grace’s hazy vocals and lax guitar playing.
The Social Experiment was able to help Grace develop and make whole her own “Grace genre,” which she describes as the intersection of soul, R&B, hip-hop, folk, and gospel. The “Grace genre,” according to the 29-year-old, is an intention and a journey, and it’s her desire for listeners to heal by listening to and finding themselves in her stories.
While The Social Experiment pushed Grace, in turn, she pushed The Social Experiment, who had never exclusively worked with a female singer. As Nate explains, they’ve "all become more confident in songwriting and have more of an awareness of structure and how people listen to songs.” He stresses the emphasis placed on making each song feel fresh and familiar all at once.
Working with Grace also gave Nate a better understanding of melodies, harmonies, and how to mix vocals. Having always struggled to fully mesh the production with the singing, working so closely with Grace allowed him to clear that hurdle.
“I would sit down and do a lot of listening and adjusting for the conceptual purposes of songwriting,” says Peter, recalling their studio sessions together in Milwaukee. Together their work was based on the expansion of ideas—Peter praises Grace for being “creative within her concepts and her harmony and melody”—which allowed for them to riff off of each other during sessions.
Nico was most attached to the folky quality of Grace’s voice, having grown up listening to the likes of Joni Mitchell. “I really owned that style with her when it came out of her naturally,” he boasts. “As a producer, it was a great weight off of our shoulders because she’s so talented! Working with Grace, her vocals and her ideas on stacking them with harmonies, it was really unique. That was the greatest joy in working with her: getting those crazy vocals.”
For Grace, her greatest joy throughout the creative process was in finding her “long-lost brothers,” a sentiment Nico echoes:
“I remember the first few times working with her, how gracious she was for that feeling, and for being able to be herself and natural and organic. Whereas a lot of producers like forcing boxes based on image or past work, we really just make music. She really appreciated that. Now, she has this free world to create with. She came in as this insanely talented beam, and we just helped direct the beam upward. That’s what the journey has been: directing the beam upward.”
Where exactly did that beam point? To studio sessions that ran into 5 a.m., and started back up at 7 a.m. Grace would start humming over some of Nico’s piano chords and after transitioning to singing “happy thoughts,” they would speed up and loop her vocals. “[That's] when it became something,” Nate proclaims.
Universe shit, I bet.
The beam cast a trusting and whimsical atmosphere over every studio session. “Nate had this vision for his studio,” Grace explains. “He wanted it to be a place where artists could come and feel like they could create like kids again with no rules or definitions or boundaries.” There was one rule, however: “I had to know I was singing from my heart, singing the words, being honest with the story, and committing emotionally to the song.”
What’s “special universe shit” without a few rituals? Grace liked to kick off studio days with a 30-minute listening session in the hopes of capturing a guttural reaction. There were meditation practices where Grace imagined pink bubbles of light floating out of her hands, cleansing rituals with sage, and stone crystals to help her harness her creative energy. “A lot of hippie shit,” she admits, “but it really helped me let go of worries and just be present.”
That’s all Grace and The Social Experiment ask of their fans—to be present with their music. Grace wants her music to be a source of comfort, to be the stories listeners didn't know they needed, and the ones they always come back to. Grace wants to show as much of her humanity as possible in her music and, as she tells me, “I want people to experience unexpected moments.”
Stepping off the train in Philly, the album fading out in my headphones, Grace accomplished everything she set out to do, and more. After just one listen, I felt like I knew her, and after scores of subsequent listens, I’m starting to learn more about myself.
Everyone I asked said that Grace's music was akin to some sort of water amusement park ride. Why? Because of that special universe shit.
"More Than Friends," the first single from Grace's forthcoming album, due out early 2018, will be available for stream and digital purchase on Friday, November 3.