Gracie Martin is a singer/songwriter/producer/one-woman force based in Philadelphia. Her debut EP Unconscious was released earlier this year, and is a dreamy alternative-folk landscape, mixing spacey electronic elements with effervescent melodies and 60s girl-group-esque harmonies. Through the five songs on the EP, she explores societal expectations of femininity and navigates her own identity despite the fetishized and vilified stereotypes that abound. Her production is fresh and minimalistic, and her delicately pounding beats and unsettling atmospheric elements stretch her folky vocal and ukulele into darker territory. Read on to discover what inspires her, what she hopes her listeners gain from her work, and what her favorite childhood TV show is (hint: it’s my favorite too!).
Listen to “Siren Song” as you read!
What was the inspiration for Unconscious?
So I decided to start working on my debut EP in the early 2016 but had been writing music since I was about 12 or 11. Long story short, I had always wanted to make music but had a kind of impostor syndrome/self-sabotage impulse in me that kept my songs to myself for that whole time. By the time I started making Unconscious it felt like waking up to a reality that I had been denying for over a decade. But the reality is so fantastical and beyond my wildest dreams that it was hard to believe that was my true nature. Like Harry Potter finding out he’s a wizard lol.
I was pursuing acting and theatre and secretly writing dozens of songs without even meaning to. So putting out my first project was this task of curating and developing all this material I had been generating privately and figuring how to communicate it externally. I figured out the songs I wanted to be on it first, three were first conceived during my freshman year of acting school in 2011 and two were written within the months I decided to make the EP like 5 years later. But I had no idea what the concept was beyond “HI I WRITE SONGS HERE THEY ARE.”
Around that time I read Women Who Run with the Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes and that was a profound inspiration. It uses mythology and folklore to explore deep parts of the human psyche in general, but specifically the wild feminine part of the soul. In the final chapter of the book she talks about the underground forest which is this metaphor for the unconscious mind. That was my introduction to thinking about the power of the unconscious mind and the creative magic people can possess without being awake to it. Reading that book was a beautiful moment of clarity about the project and served as a guide for the rest of the process.
Your production is so inventive–what is your creative process like? Do you write with the eventual sound in mind, or does it evolve as you go?
It’s a mix of both. I knew I was interested in creating music that lived in a Venn diagram space between acoustic and electronic and married my love of musicians like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan with my obsession with modern pop. But each song had its own journey to get to the version that’s on the EP.
The songs that I wrote more unconsciously while I was still in acting school had a lot of different iterations before I started recording the EP. Free Pt. 1 I originally wrote when I was 19, on a soprano ukulele and it was this super fast, cutesy, bluegrass kind of feel. Very in the style of Jenny Owen Youngs. It evolved a lot over the years and then I made a version that was just me singing it over a stock hip hop beat on GarageBand and really liked the way it changed the feel. So I sent that to Sam Borello who ended up being my co-producer on that track and Not That Smart. From then on it was a collaborative process where we tried out different sounds and I eventually decided to add the “I’ll Fly Away” counter melody.
Siren Song was totally different from that though. I had had bits and pieces of the melody and lyrics in my head for weeks and then just huddled by my space heater and banged out the demo in one sitting. I only had GarageBand, a usb mic and a ukulele but created the whole sonic world by just making and distorting a lot of mouth sounds. I was so in love with that demo it was one of the reasons I finally decided to put the EP out. So the challenge there was keeping my initial vision of the song alive while making the full recording that’s on the EP. A lot of the delay vocals and the little scream in the last chorus are the exact same recordings I made on GarageBand because there was just something special about that initial demo.
This EP highlights some of the difficulties women face–everything from being compared to archetypal villains like sirens to simply walking home at night. What do you hope your listeners gain from hearing about these issues?
I hope they feel seen and heard in a complex ways. But that definitely means a different thing for each song. And while I am a cis-woman and write about myself, I strive to make my music specific enough to tell my story but open enough to invite all gender identities into what I’m chewing on. More so than simply speaking to other women about the issues we face, I’m interested in examining the way femininity is and has been vilified in our culture. Women face that of course, but non-binary folks and men are also greatly affected by this ancient fear of the feminine. I hope Unconscious creates conversation about these issues but even more so, I hope it invites people to look inward at their relationship to femininity not just in relation to women but as an elemental force that needs to be nurtured for communities to flourish.
As a woman in the music industry, have you faced any particular challenges or barriers?
Hmm I’m sure I have in ways that I don’t even know about haha. But consciously the toughest barrier pertaining to my gender identity is my own fear. I knew I was interested in self-producing for a while but was paralyzed by feeling like I didn’t belong in that world. I had this imaginary gang of gear bros always laughing at me in the back of my mind when I was learning how to record and mix. Even though no gear bros actually have laughed at me (to my face at least), the music industry is so male dominated (just like most industries) that it was easy to convince myself I didn’t belong. It’s one of the most annoying things about living in a world that prizes the masculine over the feminine; that you internalize these messages and oppress yourself even if no one is actually telling you you can’t do something.
Who are some artists that inspire you? Who have you been listening to lately?
I have so many it’s really out of control. I mean Amy Winehouse was a huge influence, especially because I started writing songs for guitar during the height of her success. I treated her and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan like songwriting masterclasses.
When I was trying to overcome my imposter syndrome about being a self-producer, I was super inspired by Grimes. Still am. She’s an outstanding artist and visionary and served as this reminder to me that my fears about starting this project were not things I had to listen to. Also Laura Marling, who was a big songwriting influence when I was a teenager, recently made a podcast about women in the music industry called Reversal of the Muse which was similarly a huge source of validation in moving forward in the face of my anxiety about how male dominated the industry is.
Ugh there is just too much good music!! Lately I’ve been living and breathing for SZA along with most of the world. Also Jenny Hval, Lianne La Havas, Mitski, Tank and the Bangas, St. Vincent, Kehlani…
Peanut Butter: Creamy or Chunky? Chunky, baby 😉
Wine: White or Red? Red (Franzia Sunset Blush if I’m on one)
CD or Vinyl? Vinyl!
Favorite animal? Can’t decide between dogs and dinosaurs
Favorite childhood TV show? Buffy the Vampire Slayer
If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why? I’d want to be able to speak any language. I love to travel and I really wish I was better at picking up and working on other languages. Getting to know people from other cultures is one of my favorite things, I wish I could communicate with and learn new things from everyone without having to put the time into studying the languages.