SAN FRANCISCO — Two acts, one of which took place before Grace Carter had any say over her own life, shaped Carter’s core essence. The first was when the future English singer-songwriter’s birth father walked out on her and her mother. This caused Carter to grow up with heaps of self-doubt, insecurity and the lingering question of “why.”
The second moment came when her stepfather gave a 13-year-old Grace Carter a guitar, thinking that the “angry” teen would benefit from having music as an outlet.
“I had a lot of frustration, and I had lot of unanswered questions,” Carter said recently while on a tour stop at the Fillmore, where she was opening for Irish musician Dermot Kennedy. “I didn’t have anyone to give me the answers that I needed. Obviously, the relationship that I had with my mom was very, very strong, but she didn’t necessarily have the answers, either. It was a long time with my just not understanding why I was in the situation I was in, and trying to make sense of it.”
A lot has happened for 21-year-old Grace Carter over the past 18 months. She has graduated from performing at small artist showcases to learning from diva Dua Lipa and recording with Kanye West collaborator Mike Dean. She’s made a name for herself with her tear-jerking R&B balladry. It never led to a film-ready reunion and reconciliation with her birth father, but her music has only strengthened the bonds with her mother and stepdad. Now, Carter is poised to turn the instrument that got her past her biggest sorrow into something much bigger.
Grace Carter grew up in London until she was 9, when her mother moved the two of them to the seaside town of Brighton. As a child she sang along to her mother’s Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys records.
She joined a school choir, but it wasn’t until her stepfather entered the picture, when she was 13, that she started finding herself. At the time, the introduction of someone new in her life was challenging. But her stepfather, himself a musician who had gone through a similar abandonment as a child, made an effort to connect with Carter through music.
“For me, that was a pretty daunting prospect just because I’ve never had a man around before, ever,” Carter said. “And any man that I had this idea of–especially the main one–wasn’t a great representation of what a dad should be, and that frightened me a lot. But he came in, and he kind of saw that in me. He had experienced a similar thing as a child, and his outlet was music. He was, like, ‘This might help you, too. Here’s a guitar.’”
Before she had that guitar, Carter didn’t know how to get her feelings out. She coped through anger. She physically exorcised some of her frustration through tennis, but that didn’t let her talk about how she was feeling. That changed when she started writing songs, almost immediately.
“That’s the first time I was able to sit in a room and talk about things that I was feeling and release it from myself; process it,” she said.
From that first moment she emerged from her room with a completed song (her stepfather challenged her to write one right away), she knew that writing and singing felt more right than anything else. Songwriting became her passion, and she spent more time alone in her room, rather than talking about her feelings with her friends.
“I’ve been very emotionally quite mature,” she said. “I’ve kind of carried a lot from a very young age. I’d feel things, and being the person I am, I had to understand why I felt those things. I took on a lot as a young kid, emotionally.
Within six months of writing her first song, Grace Carter was performing showcases in the community, surprising many of her classmates who had no idea she sang. Carter didn’t usually talk about her favorite activity because inevitably she would have to say what her songs were about.
“Being 13 years old, sitting in a room and writing things about why my dad had left was kind of not something that a lot of people [can] relate to, but at that time nothing I really spoke about with my friends,” she said. “That was nerve-wracking to share that with people.”
Carter waited until the final term of her final year in high school to perform in school, at a student fashion show. She described these early songs as “not very good,” but thinks she was able to connect with audiences because they could sense how much the songs meant to her and the intensity with which she sang.
A friend in school had a father whose father was an executive at a record label, and heard one of her songs. He asked to meet Carter, and signed her at 17 years old. By that point, Carter didn’t enjoy school and already knew she had no interest in going to college. Every day, she was more interested in going home to write and record. When she could, she’d excuse herself from class to go to the bathroom, recording voice memos along the way.
“As soon as I found an outlet that helped me so much, and [knew] that I could potentially do that as my job, it was like, ‘OK, this definitely something I want to try to pursue,’” she said.
After she was signed, Grace Carter began writing with collaborators—friends and producers—for the fist time. Rather than present her songs, they nourished the ideas already bouncing inside her head.
She was working with Mike Dean when she received a call in which she learned that her birth father had left her and her mother for another woman, and had another daughter. Dean helped Carter craft the heartbreaking question “why her; not me?” into a song.
“Why Her Not Me” is about the sense of jealousy and abandonment Carter felt at finding out this news; that her dad was capable of having a family—just not one with her in it.
“Because I’m so close to people I write with, I can say things and not be judged,” she said. “I write ideas on my own, but I like to collaborate with people I work with and just talk things through. They’re like my therapists, but it’s for free, and it’s really, really good.”
Since releasing her first single, “Silence,” last year, Carter has followed that up with a steady stream of songs capped off with an EP last summer. Saving Grace included four piano-flecked R&B songs like the title track, written about her mother and other strong women in her life; the gut punch of heartbreak on “Silhouette” and “Half of You;” and the Mike Dean-produced “Ashes,” the first collaboration between her and the producer. She’s on pace to release her full-length debut album in 2019.
Because life isn’t a movie, her birth father hearing her songs hasn’t brought the two of them closer together, but her relationship with her mother and stepdad are stronger than ever. When she was younger, Carter never thought that by the time she was 21, she would be able to talk about her family’s history without crying.
“We’ve all together turned a negative situation into a great one,” she said. “Something that made me so, so sad; I flipped and talked about it to the point where I’ve gotten over it, and now I’m helping other people get through it.”
Although her mother and stepdad are separated, her family is still close, she said.
“Our relationship–me and my mom and my stepdad–has just completely flourished from the fact that we’ve kind of all collectively supported each other,” she said. “He’s the only dad I’ve ever had, and we’re super close.”