Thirteen-year-old Grace VanderWaal is just getting started. Since winning America’s Got Talent, the singer has released one EP, Perfectly Imperfect, and is working on a debut full-length album. In the new music video for her song, “Moonlight,” Grace takes to the streets and rooftops of New York City for cinematic celebrations. Over plucked ukulele strings, she sings a tale of a friend on the brink of a breakdown, of the memories they built, and the desire to recapture the magic.
Earlier this week, I chatted with Grace about the feelings behind her songs, how happiness is key, and how her vision of success has changed since winning last year.
NILINA MASON-CAMPBELL: How did the song come to you? Did a lyric appear at first and grow from there? How did it begin?
GRACE VANDERWAAL: Well, actually, in chronological order of the song, we kept sticking on this pre-chorus that we wanted and I was really attached to this pre-chorus, but we ultimately decided it sounded better without it.
So you left the beginning behind completely?
How long did the song take to write?
A day. A few hours.
That “dancing in the moonlight” line is so specific and visual, very cinematic. At what point did that come up?
The whole song just naturally happened. It’s a visual song, that’s what makes it good. It’s almost like watching a movie in your mind when you hear it. I think it’s a kind of story effect, about walking down memory lane and thinking about just last year and feeling so magical.
In your behind the scenes videos you mentioned that it’s also connected to depression. Did that come from real life?
Absolutely. It’s something a lot of people are afraid to talk about and they shouldn’t [be afraid] because it’s a real thing and it happens to the best of us—it happens to a lot of people—and the song was heavily inspired by that.
Was it inspired by your personal experience specifically? Or was it a friend that was dealing with it?
In that video, you mentioned reaching out if you have a friend that’s going through it. Have you found ways that are good with dealing with it? Is it just talking about it since some people don’t? What are ways that you have found to get through the low times?
Honestly, it’s a really hard process. If someone’s going through that, they’re not thinking clearly. They’re kind of in their own world. If you try to talk to them, they’ll probably get angry at you, but you just have to try to get them involved and understand what’s happening. They are the one who decides if they get better or not.
What kind of stories and storylines do you find yourself drawn to as a listener or reader?
Really anything that clicks, you know? I feel like songs are like people—you have chemistry with certain people and for some reason you just click. And it’s the same thing for songs. I’m never looking for an exact thing for a song, sometimes a song will click and something about it really touches me.
Which songs are clicking with you right now?
I don’t have any songs that are clicking with me right now. Oh wait, actually I do! “Liability” by Lorde. Beautiful song.
Have you been listening to the whole album?
No, I’ve been picking it apart.
Before the album came out, I loved “Liability.” I didn’t love “Greenlight,” but I loved “Liability,” because it was speaking to me, like, this is my experience.
I love “Greenlight” too. I love Lorde’s stuff. She’s such a genius.
She is. Once I heard it as a whole album, that’s when I finally started liking “Greenlight.” It’s part of the trajectory of the whole album.
I feel like she’s the definition of a true artist in music. She doesn’t just make songs to try to get on the radio or make a hit. She knows how to create that suspension in a song and that tension and release of what makes your stomach flutter in a song.
For real. Speaking of stomachs and hearts fluttering, in her song “The Louvre,” her line “Megaphone to my chest, Broadcast the boom boom boom boom”—the way she describes that, I’m just like, oh my god. She finds ways to delve into things in new ways. When it comes to your own song-writing, do you play around with saying things in ways that haven’t been done before? How do you approach writing in the sense of artistry and what your words are going to be?
I never think, oh, let’s make sure this has never been said before. I always try to find something that perfectly explains that feeling. Sometimes the thing I’m singing about is never even happening to me, but something’s happening with that feeling, so I almost create a story that portrays that same feeling. So anything that is that feeling, and gives—I’m going to repeat “feeling” a million times right now—anything that has the feeling of what I’m feeling is what I try to do.
Do you have a specific example of that?
No, you just gotta let it happen naturally I think.
Speaking of chemistry, did you end up meeting up with Millie Bobby Brown?
No, I never did!
Are you serious?
I know, I know. She’s so busy, she’s so talented, she’s working so hard. I think they’re finishing up filming the second season of Stranger Things. She’s actually in Atlanta for that right now, which is just so cool. It’s so awesome. She’s one of my biggest role models.
I’ve been waiting for the squad to happen, but you’re all across the country with Maddie in LA, Millie in Atlanta, you in New York.
It’s hard because we’re all kind of scattered around and we’re all working kids, so we all have pretty busy schedules. It’s gonna happen, but when you’re in this kind of world working, it’s a little different than just saying, “Wanna hang out Saturday?” It’s more planning ahead and all of that, but it’s one thousand percent going to happen in the future, I just don’t know when.
Is that something you’ve had to adapt to—since your career has taken off—having to schedule things so far in advance rather than on a whim?
Well, I mean I still have the same friends, so it’s still that way, like “Wanna hang out Saturday?” But when you start making friends in the same situation as you, it’s amazing. It’s nice to have someone you can relate to, and be the same age as you, and you both know what you’re going through, but it is very, very different.
So your treehouse with Treehouse Masters—I am so jealous! I even told my mom.
I know. I’m so excited for everyone to see it.
What about treehouses appeal to you?
What is there not to appeal? Like, it’s so amazing and so nice. I mean, you could have a fort on the ground, but how boring is that? Why not be in the trees?
It’s so whimsical, so I was wondering if you consider yourself a whimsical person? I feel like ukuleles are whimsical. How would you describe yourself?
How can I? People ask me this question all the time, but how am I supposed to? I don’t know.
Well, what do you value most? Obviously artistry, creativity, is whimsy a value of yours?
Right, right. Probably just staying true and being happy, you know?
What keeps you happiest? Is it music? Or do you have other activities that keep you enjoying life?
Whatever floats your boat. I mean, everyone has different methods and different likes. I try not to make a strict schedule. If I want to do something, I’ll do that. If I wanna not do something, I won’t do that.
What do you like to do outside of music?
Honestly, I’m not that special. I ride my bike, I go downtown, I read a book, I go on my laptop. There’s tons of things to do.
In my head, I hear riding bikes, making music, you got a treehouse, that just seems like an adventure that keeps unfolding like a dream life.
Life is just an adventure that keeps unfolding just, like, every day.
What was the process for the video? Did you help come up with the concept?
Yes! I did. One of the careers that I’ve always wanted is to be a music video director because whenever I listen to songs, I can just watch the movie in my mind of the music video, how I imagine it to be. So usually the second I finish a song, I’m able to watch the video in my mind and that’s how it came about.
Have there been one or two particular songs by another artist where you’re like I wish I could’ve done their video?
Yes! Absolutely! That’s actually why I wanted to be a music video director. In my life, even before I wrote songs, I remember I would always listen to songs, and I would watch the video in my mind, and then I’d watch the real video, and I was so disappointed—like, I wish I could have directed that video.
Now that you’re involved in your own videos, do you see yourself maybe doing music videos for other artists on the side? I look at James Franco, who does so many projects all at once, and there are a lot of artists that do that, too.
Yeah. I don’t know. My main concern is kind of the album.
Where are you with the album now? Is it completed?
The songs are almost there. We’re still working on it and then there’s a lot of producing that needs to be done, and we’re still kind of narrowing down all our favorites of the songs. Honestly, once we have the song that we know we want—because I wrote a lot of songs for the album, so it’s hard to find 11 or 12 of them that we want to put on—but once we have that idea of what we want, all that’s left is producing.
What’s your timeline for it?
Our goal is around September, but we’re not 100% positive. Because, you know, there may be little bumps on the road.
When you say you wrote a lot of songs, how many do you have?
I’d say over 50.
I know, I know. It was every single day.
So when you’re writing every day, is that you ‘I’m sitting here, I’m writing my album’ and you’re going in for sessions, or was it just going about your normal life, yet songs were coming to you every day?
No, no, no, no, no. The first one. My writing has improved and my writing process has changed so drastically because [now] it’s kind of like writing on command, and it’s more like, “I’m going to write a song right now. Let’s do this,” you know?
How did you develop that skill of being able to write on command?
Many awkward moments.
It’s hard, especially sessions…my first sessions. Because I’ve never done this before, it’s kind of weird to go into a room with usually a 30-year-old man and just be like “Oh, let me open up about my life to you and write a super personal song!”
Going through that, how did it become not-awkward?
You just get used to it. It’s like anything. You start to master it and get used to it. It just becomes something that you know how to do.
So can you apply that kind of skill—writing on command—to other aspects of your life, like, say, homework—that you can just turn on?
[Laughs] I wish it did!
What are your goals with this album? You had a lot of milestones last summer and you’ve done the EP. What do you hope to achieve with this album personally?
I don’t know. I mean, I guess there’s not really a goal, an outcome of the album…to release more music into the world and maybe go on a small tour. It’d be really amazing if it goes well enough, hopefully. But there’s no, like, ‘Oh, I’m doing this album because…” you know?
You reached a peak of success with the show; what does success look like to you now? Is it being able to tour and see people in the audience singing along with your songs? What does success look like for you?
Right. My idea of success has changed so drastically. And, really, my idea of success now is just to be happy. It’s not to be world famous, it’s not to win a Grammy. It’s just to be happy, whether I’m at a coffee shop or I’m at the Grammys. I think too many people think of fame and fortune as being happy and successful when that’s so, so far from the truth. And if people thought I just fell off the face of the Earth and I just disappeared, as long as I’m happy, I’m 1000% fine with that.
You said that your idea of success has changed. What made it change?
Kind of just honestly maturing and knowing more about the industry. I’ve had to think about my life more than ever, which is a lot of pressure, but thinking about it so much and learning so much has really changed my outlook, because once it’s already happening, that’s when you kind of realize that fame and fortune doesn’t equal happiness. Happiness equals happiness. ♦