Grace McKagan Bares the Growth and Pains on First Solo Singles

There was never a plan to go solo. Grace McKagan was still connected to The Pink Slips, the punk band she had formed when she was 15, but when she wrote “Surrender,” everything shifted. Now 23, McKagan is some place else. Punk is forever her core, but it’s now blossomed around the moody swoon of Nancy Sinatra, some alt-pop bursts of Lesley Gore, and the palpable pits of The Kills.

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“Surrender” is smoldering. Written with her guitarist, and boyfriend, Blues Williams and Pink Slips producer and Awolnation drummer Isaac Carpenter, who also played with The Exies and Grace’s father Guns N’ Rose’s Duff McKagan, “Surrender” ultimately maneuvers around finding one’s self through all the messed up moments in life in its anthemic I won’t back down, I won’t surrender. It’s pulsating—the butterfly-filled video, representing McKagan’s metamorphosis into (yes) womanhood and as a solo artist—and pierces through some muddier punk rhythms, addictively played on repeat.

“That song was super personal,” says McKagan. “It was about a really tough time I was going through due to external issues that affected how I was feeling about myself, my self confidence, and my self worth, so that’s why it was super powerful and uplifting for me to write about, lyrically. I was just expressing how I was feeling at the time, and ‘I won’t surrender, slick sweet samurai,’ were affirmations about how I wanted to see myself.”

McKagan also released “So Lucky,” a chunkier rockabilly-fueled romp that finds her playing the sultry flight attendant in its video, directed by Kristen Jan Wong. Both singles open a new chapter for McKagan, now in a space of more introspection, and exploration. Love has also been most inspiring to the Los Angeles-based artist. “I always love writing a love song, because it’s easiest for me right now,” she says. “I think love always inspires people or comforts them, to some degree.”

So much has changed from The Pink Slips to now. “I was 15, so I’d hoped to have changed and grown in some degree, personally, and as an artist,  and just maturing,” she says. “For me right now, I have a more diverse collection of artists that I look up to. As we mature, our lyrical content matured as well as our musical taste.”

Still in love with punk, it’s something Mckagan identified with that at the time, in her teens, because it was angsty and insecure. “I really identify with the underdog, and I think everybody, when they’re 15, feels like an underdog in some respects, but as I’ve grown, I found new genres that I really identify with like rockabilly or ’60s music,” says McKagan. “Those genres inspire things now that I wasn’t aware of when I was 15.”

Back home in LA, Mckagan says the past year has been a blessing since she was able to move into a new house and set up a home studio, in lieu of no touring due to the pandemic.

“It’s been a great time to reflect on everything,” says McKagan. “For me personally, I want to focus on discovering new artists that inspire me, lyrically, sonically, visually, so having more time to focus on all of that has been nice.”

As a songwriter, McKagan pulls from everywhere—conversations with friends or words and phrases in a film—meshed with her own experiences and imagination.

Grace McKagan (Photo: Kristen Jan Wong)

“It’s really just a super organic and innocent process for us,” says McKagan. “We usually have a few demos that Blues writes on his iPad, and then we’ll go over to Isaac’s house and build on from there. I like to write songs about stories I hear. We recently wrote a demo around a friend of a friend who was house sitting for this guy who is a mega millionaire and likes to make porn, then runs away to Texas because he has money problems. I love stories like that. It’s like a movie.”

Other songs like “So Lucky,” was a dramatized version of a true event that happened when her keyboard player made out with a flight attendant while on tour in 2018. “I was like, ‘what if we just ran with this fantasy and just thought about the mile high club,’” says McKagan. “It depends. I like to write about funny or really gritty things.”

She never goes into a song thinking she needs to tell a particular story. “I am a very emotional person, and I’m in tune with my emotions and sensitive to other people’s emotions,” says McKagan. “In a group setting, if somebody is being quiet or acting a certain way, it affects my mood, and I will pick up that energy up. When I’m writing, I like to tap into other people’s insecurities or doubts and feel isolated along with them.”

Now solo for the first time, McKagan says everything happened at the right time. Experimenting with different sounds and writing—constantly—McKagan is ready to give new music to the world. 

“Pink Slips was a specific group of people at a specific time, but that chapter had closed,” says McKagan. “I was becoming more of my authentic self, and being a 23 year old, my sound was changing, and I’m changing as a person. I’m just looking forward to really honing in on my truest self again on tour, because when I’m on tour, I feel the best, and I’m creative, and I thrive.”

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