by: Thomas D. Mooney
We recently caught up with Grace Askew, a sixth generation Memphian singer-songwriter, who has for the last few years, has been sharing her visions of the south. The southern gothic feel and vibe creeps into all aspects of her music, her voice, and songwriting. And it’s not always sunflowers and sunshine. It’s as she says, goes into the “back roads and shacks.”
It’s not everyday that you come across a female singer who gets compared to Tom Waits. But with Askew, it makes sense. It’s not that Askew sounds like Waits, but it feels like he could have been her grandfather teaching her all his tricks with word play and diction. The art of telling a story.
Askew though, as we discuss, isn’t just a Waits, Cat Power, and Joni Mitchell (on some songs, it feels like she may just start singing Mitchell’s “Blue” and then go back into her own song) fan and mimicker. She’s found her own voice, style, and feel. While all those influences you can hear in her voice, it’s not the only thing you hear.
New Slang: Well first off, you’re one of the only, if not the only, female artist I’ve read reviews over who has been compared to Tom Waits numerous times. What’s your thoughts on that?
Grace Askew: [Laughs] Well, I still listen to Tom Waits. When I first discovered him, I just felt I could instantly relate to him. And I guess, just after listening to him for a while, I kind of–I guess with every artist, you tried to mimic someone at first–and then, I eventually found my own voice through Tom Waits. I guess that’s kind of how people think I’ve sounded like him. I also love his southern gothic, kind of between the cracks songwriting.
NS: Glad you brought that up. That’s something that I was wanting to talk to you about. The whole southern gothic thing. I think you can really tell that’s influenced you. Personally, I’ve always loved music that is dark in that way. I really don’t know what it is exactly, but for you, what is it that makes your gravitate towards that sound?
GA: I think it’s because I’m a southerner through and through. I’m a sixth generation Memphian. It’s kind of toward the darker side of my cultural identity. It goes towards the back roads, the shacks, and things I’m not used to being around growing up. I grew up I guess, in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. And this kind of writing, when I discovered it, I was just wowed. There’s always been something so mysterious about it. I’ve just been attracted to that.
NS: Yeah. Another person who is really southern gothic and someone you get compared to often is Cat Power. I’m assuming you are a fan of hers as well.
GA: Yeah, she’s my first female influence. I was about 17, my older sister was living in New York City, and told me, “Oh, you have to hear this girl.” She put her on and that voice just blew me away. That is a voice I could relate to. At the time, I guess Britney Spears was popular and all that stuff. I had never heard a woman sing like that. Yeah, that’s who I related to, and it goes to that whole mimic thing until I eventually found my own sound.
NS: Your voice, I think it really fits perfectly into the southern gothic feel. It’s so sultry and it’s so smoky. Where were you when you really thought you could become a singer-songwriter?
GA: I guess it was in high school. I really wasn’t interested in what my classmates were doing. I was always drawn towards music and music really became my best friend. If I ever was invited to a party or something on the weekend, I would rather just stayed at home and lock myself in my closest and record on my computer all these songs I had written. It just became something I was obsessed with. And that’s when I really thought, I had found something that I was really compassionate about. I didn’t care about anything else other than music, I should probably do this for the rest of my life.
NS: I guess with every artist, when they first start out, you have those moments where you feel you don’t belong. You have those doubts about if your songwriting is good enough, if your voice is. You’ve been doing this for a while now though. But, do you still feel that time to time?
GA: Oh yeah. I definitely still have those moments. Those really low blows where you think “God, is this really worth it?” Just any rejection that I’m getting. It’s really daunting sometimes. But then, you have to remember there are reasons why you’ve been given this gift. And God isn’t going to give you more than you can handle.
NS: Are you going to be having a new album out soon? When’s the next one?
GA: I think I’m going to probably shoot for January 2013. I think I’m going to take a little break. I’ve released four years in a row. Just take this as a little breather and really take my time with this next album.
NS: What do you like more, the presenting the songs and going out on tour or the writing, developing and recording of the songs?
GA: I definitely like the touring more. It really makes the studio time better. The travelling, it’s where you get the songs. For me, that’s where I do.
NS: Your songs, they all are connected, but still, you still feel the differences between them. Like one of your songs, I feel that’s really Waitsesque is “At the Brass Rail.” Can you talk a little about that song in particular?
GA: I was actually in Texas when I wrote that song. I was travelling down the highway and entering this town before Dallas heading west on 35. I saw this neon flickering sign, and as I got closer, it was the sketchiest looking motel I had seen in my life. It was called The Brass Rail. I thought who the hell would stay at that motel? So I checked myself in and wrote that song [laughs]. And I had been listening to Tom Waits all day also so that helps.