Earrings, SHAY. Gold Gucci link necklace, Rory Rockmore. Dress + Jumpsuit, Colin Locasio. Rings, black ring SHAY. Boots, Angel Chen.
Grace Vanderwaal is on the brink of a brand new era. In addition to shrinking her signature bob and bangs in favor of an edgy pixie cut, the 17-year-old musician is exploring the many facets of who she is — without limits. “I just really wanted everything to be free,” she tells me over the phone. “I want to express freedom in every single sense of the word: in my music and in my style and other projects that I’m doing, and just express happiness. I feel like I would always listen to hype music that I loved, but I never made. So it was a goal of mine to emulate what I went to as an outlet to feel free. I wanted to be that.”
To those who remember Vanderwaal as a ukulele-strumming 12-year-old on America’s Got Talent, this new era might be a bit jarring. But realistically, she can’t be expected to stay a child forever. It’s the most natural thing in the world for Vanderwaal — and others who entered the industry at a young age — to grow and evolve past the thing they came to be known for.
Jewelry, SHAY. Entire look, Ichiyo. Scarf, The House of Phil.
Hat, Baja East. Earrings, My Daughter is Better Than Yours. Ring + Bracelets, SHAY. Jumpsuit, Colin Locasio. Dress + Shoes, Angel Chen.
“People just become people and develop their own ways of thinking beyond their parents or outside influences,” the singer says. “You become a strong person who decides who you want to be. And it’s not like I made like, very big life decisions. I don’t know, probably in two years I’m gonna look back and be like, ‘Oh my god, that was when I was doing all of that.’”
We can certainly all relate to the experience of cringing at your younger self, but as Vanderwaal points out, today’s youth are being pressured to decide who they are at an early age — and stick with it. “I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on kids growing up with social media now to not go through phases, which I think is the dumbest worst thing in the world,” she tells me, “because you kind of have to go through phases and just experiment and have fun to find out who you actually are.”
So, who is Grace Vanderwaal in 2021? As always, she’s a dynamic singer-songwriter whose powerful voice allows her lyrics to hit that much harder. But now, Vanderwaal is dipping her toes into the world of alternative pop; and most importantly, she’s following her artistic instincts.
Entire look, Colin Locasio. Jewelry, SHAY.
“I think expression is most important to me now,” she says when I ask about how her songwriting has evolved over time. “Before, I really wanted to just sound really deep. I would say something that felt really good to say and to be like ‘Okay, how can I make this into something.’ Now, if imagery or metaphors or that way of speaking comes up, that’s incredible. If that’s naturally what my soul needs to clear out, love it. If that isn’t happening, love it. My priorities I guess are a little different now.”
Her latest release, “Repeat”, is fueled by an addictive baseline and Vanderwaal’s raw, growling vocals. “I wish that I would have had a reality show camera, because it was the coolest process that felt so good,” she says of writing the track with producer Mike Elizondo. “It was after a really long day, we were so tired and over it, we had been writing stupid ballads all day that were just turning into nothing. And he picks up the bass and starts playing that baseline and it was literally like a movie. I grabbed this microphone that was plugged into Logic and started riffing on the lyrics, and we were like, ‘Wow, that’s a really good song.’ And then we literally just wrote it and recorded it.’
Despite the bass-heavy track and the fact that Vanderwaal wields a bass guitar in her music video for her previous single, “Don’t Assume What You Don’t Know”, she admits that she doesn’t actually know how to play the instrument. “I’m happy that I was believable, but I don’t know how to play the bass,” she says. “Myth shattered.”
Earrings, My Daughter is Better Than Yours. Necklace + Ring, SHAY. Jacket, Angel Chen. Bodysuit, Alexandra Sipa. Chain purse, CHANEL. Boots, Jeffrey Campbell.
But collaborating with people whose skill set differs from her own allows her creativity to thrive, Vanderwaal says. “I like other people to be able to play instruments with me or for me and all that stuff. And even be able to talk out loud and have a conversation with someone before writing and tell a story. Even saying it out loud to another human being I feel like it’s such a better experience.”
Of course, the past year of isolation has thrown a wrench in Vanderwaal’s creative process. But personally, she says, it has been a time of “discovery and transformation.” “I basically took a break,” she explains. “It’s hard because I value everything in person, like in-person meetings, that’s where we’ll have the best ideas. In-person concerts, that’s when I’m most free. That is my thing, giving concerts and singing for people and collaborating and like jam sessions and making music. These are all outlets that I need, and I couldn’t have any of them. And I hate social media and everything was social media during this time,” she adds with a laugh.
When I ask Vanderwaal how she spent her time in quarantine, she provides a refreshingly relatable answer: “I ate a lot of chili, I watched a lot of America’s Next Top Model, found out that I love that show. Me and my dog are hella spiritually connected. Like, literally, merged brains.”
It’s safe to say that Vanderwaal’s career is back in full swing. Not only is she releasing new music, she’ll also be reprising her title role in the sequel to Disney+’s Stargirl — her first-ever acting experience. The inspirational teen romance is based on Jerry Spinelli’s YA novel, but Vanderwaal says the second film will stray from the book series. Stargirl’s allure is her unyielding confidence and mystique, but Vanderwaal says her high school experience was quite different.
“It was really, really hard filming the first movie because I was a lot like Stargirl but not really,” she says. “I didn’t really fit in. I was just super insecure. I literally hated every single day of school. And so actually for the first film, we had to go to a school and there were a bunch of extras, and it was extremely hard to try to act like Stargirl, like actually extroverted. Being in that setting felt so…oh my god just bad.” Like the first film, the Stargirl sequel will also include original music by Vanderwaal.
From talent competitions to movie soundtracks to pop-punk anthems, it seems that Vanderwaal can do it all — and that’s very much her plan. “I want to do an album of every single genre before I like, die,” she says with a raspy laugh that, by the end of our interview, I’m very familiar with.
Earrings, SHAY. Dress, Christian Wijnants. Gloves, Larucci. Shoes, Jeffrey Campbell.
CONNECT WITH GRACE
photos | Amber Asaly @amberasaly
fashion | Phil Gomez @styledbyphil
photo assistant | Jeo Tay @plantyfeelz
fashion assistant | Melissa Gomez @melissag.mez
story | Catherine Santino @csantino