Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Q&A with Grace McLean

If you're a musical theater fan, you might know Grace McLean from her performances in musicals like Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812Bedbugs!!!, and Brooklynite. She'll make her Broadway debut in the fall in Natasha, Pierre, reprising her role as Marya D. She also has a career as a singer/songwriter, fronting the band Grace McLean and Them Apples. On Friday, April 1, she and her band close out Lincoln Center's 2016 American Songbook series. Last year, they opened the series after winning Prudential's Invest in the Future of American Song contest. She's releasing a new single in conjunction with the American Songbook concert and her first full-length album is out next year.
In college at NYU (after attending Orange County High School of the Arts in California), McLean studied musical theater, then Shakespeare at the classical studio, and then experimental theater in Amsterdam. "I think all of those things have really influenced the way that I work and have given me permission to be myself in the work that I do," she says. Read on to find out more about her influences, the pop opera that she's working on, and why she gives out goodie bags at her concerts.


Q: What can audiences expect from your upcoming American Songbook concert?
A: I have little goodie bags that I bring for my audience because I like everybody to be pleased with me when I perform, so [last year] I made them do little magic tricks and write down their wishes and blow bubbles. There's going to be more of that this year. I like to call these kinds of shows that I do Grace McLean lives in concert as opposed to live. Just add a little s there because it's alive. It's vibrant. I'm going to have my core band, Grace McLean and Them Apples--bass, percussion, and me and my looper. We're going to do some reimagining of some old American standards that we're maybe going to mash up with some American pop songs. I'm talking Beyoncé and, like, Duke Ellington. I'm going to do a bunch of original stuff. I'm going to do some things from the musical that I'm writing about Hildegard von Bingen, who's this 12th century mystic who was a really powerful, amazing, medieval woman who I'm obsessed with. I'm going to tell some stories. We're going to learn some lessons together. We're going to make some big old wishes come true in a big musical, costumed way. 

Q: How did the name Grace McLean and Them Apples come about?
A: I thought it was funny. We were trying to name the band for my boyfriend at the time. We were looking for a name and a somebody. I think my roommates and I were trying to make each other laugh so "them apples" was out there, but also "these guys," which we also thought was funny. But Them Apples I just thought was so funny and cute and I just liked the idea of when you have your name and the people behind you. And I like it because, "How do you like them apples?" You probably will because they're quite good.

Q: When doing a show like this, how do you come up with the set list?
A: I definitely think of the arc of the evening and how the whole thing is going to work because I want to take everybody on a little journey. Months ago, I started making a list of anything and everything that I want to play and then I have to whittle it down because I don't have three hours to play to people. I just think about the different stories that I want to tell and how I can weave all of those things together, not only in terms of the arc of the set, but also how and when to get audience involvement, and it's not in a scary way. I give everybody a goodie bag and there are different points in the show where we'll do something together that relates to the song that's coming up next just so there's a communal context for everything. And then I also think about how I'm going to surprise people. At my 54 Below show, I had a flash mob of dancers for one song. Last year at the American Songbook, I had a whole horn section that came on at the end, so I'm going to have something like that this year as well. You've gone along for this whole concert, you think you know where you are, and then there's one other big, fun thing that happens that kind of comes out of nowhere.

Q: You've done a lot of musical theater. How do you balance your musical theater career with your singer/songwriter career?
A: It's working out pretty well. They're kind of riding side by side so far, which makes me quite happy. When I have a musical theater gig, that's where I'm focused and that's where my energy is going and when I don't, that's when I have more time for my music, which is pretty great because right now I'm waiting for Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet to start at the end of the summer, so I have a lot of time to put out these singles and get ready for the album next year. And the two kind of feed each other. It's great to be able to work on other people's projects as an individual in the whole cog and hone your one specific part and then it's great to be able to take that back when I'm looking at all of my work and being the director of things, making a whole album or a whole song or a whole evening.

Q: Have you learned anything about yourself as a singer/songwriter from the musicals that you've done?
A: I've really learned about succinct, clear storytelling. Sometimes as a songwriter, I really like to be quite personal and poetic and metaphorical and I think that works for songs sometimes, but then sometimes it's like, "How can I be as simple and clear about this moment and make it about one moment as opposed to five within a song? How can I stretch this one feeling over this whole arc and be very clear and have everybody understand really simply what's going on?" Working in musical theater, that has to be done. When I'm writing a song, sometimes that's a whole play. But inside of a whole play, every song has to be its own little moment and there's a little bit of different clarity of storytelling that's necessary. And it's been a good thing to learn that it's ok to do that. 

Q: When did you discover your sound?
A: It's always being discovered. I've been working with this looping station since 2012, which is a little box that records my voice live and then I layer harmonies on top of it or beats or whatever and it's sort of like a little one-man band situation. That's really shaped the direction that the band has gone. But before I had that, it was very pop singer-songwritery. I think you could hear Nellie McKay Regina Spektor. Since I got the looper, it's gotten a little more dance-y or fun and a little bit darker maybe. I'm also influenced by Joanna Newsom and her really idiosyncratic, long-form poetic storytelling. I love the lady storytellers. But also I want to be Robert Plant. I like a good scream sometimes.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about the pop opera that you're developing?
A: Also in college, I studied medieval art, just because I liked it and you can do those things in college. So I came to know this woman Hildegard von Bingen through her artwork. Once I graduated, I kept buying all these books about medieval history and she kept coming up and I was like I want to know everything I can about this woman and I started delving into her and her story. And she's just such an important woman that not a lot of people know about. You know about her if you're in the classical music world. In addition to the crazy artwork that she made, she wrote songs and poetry. She basically wrote the first opera in the west, predating others by like 400 years. She wrote the first mystery play. When you go to theater school, they say theater in Europe started in the church. She did that 100 years before anyone else was doing it. She just had a crazy, amazing, creative, abundant life. But what I'm writing is about the first 40 years of her life where we don't know that much about her because she was locked in a cell with another woman called Jutta von Sponheim. Jutta was an anchoress, which means she decided she was far too holy for this world, so she was going to live her life inside of her own tomb. 

Hildegard was given to the church at the age of eight. You're supposed to give 10% of your income to the church. She was the tenth child, so her family was like, "Just take our kid." And the church was like, "Great. Jutta needs a handmaiden. Go live in this cell with her." So they did. It was these two ladies in a tomb. There was one window through which they could participate in mass and get food and basically your open grave is in there and you just meditate on that and just hang out in there because your body is tied to this world, but as a nun, you're engaged to Christ and death is the best possible thing because you're going to be united with your bridegroom. And we know that Jutta really loved hurting herself, self-mortification, because that sort of pain and denial of the body brings you closer to spirituality. So Hildegard grows up around and becomes a women around this other lady who eventually died when Hildegard was in her early 40s. And Hildegard comes out and then she lives this totally explosive, individual life with this individual voice at a time when individuality doesn't exist. Nobody signs their name on anything. You don't know who anybody is. Especially if you're a woman. I'm interested in what happens in this period of time for 30-some years when these two ladies were together just being quiet and crazy and in darkness. I read this quote somewhere that I loved that Hildegard's life was one splendid vision of dying. And Jutta's was too, but Jutta's life leads her to a literal death and Hildegard's leads her to a life of creativity and celebration of death in life. 

Q: Where are you in the process?
A: I was just at the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed Musicals in February and we finished the first draft of it. I have a concert on May 5 at Greenwich House for their Uncharted series to perform all the music as it is now to see what it sounds like all in context.

Q: If you could have anyone come see your American Songbook concert, who would it be?
A: Hildegard! My mom and dad are coming, so that's good.



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