You don’t really hear many covers of Ani DiFranco’s songs, precisely because her songs don’t really need to be covered… nor should they be. Often unadorned without layers of studio production or gloss, the unbridled passion and emotion that DiFranco presents in her music doesn’t need the polish, which often happens with reimagined and reinterpreted versions.
Celebrated Berkeley, CA chamber pop band Gracie and Rachel attempt the often ill-advised feat on a much-adored and embraced song in DiFranco’s oeuvre: the wrenchingly depressing but gorgeous masterpiece “Grey” (from 2001’s double album Revelling/Reckoning). Surprisingly, they add just a hint of added color to conjure a very capable and honorable version… and with good reason: they have an intimate relationship with the song, having performed it with their idol herself a number of times on stage.
“It’s a song we sang on tour with Ani a great deal,” says the duo. “It always made us feel so powerfully understood in our time out on the road, floating from venue to venue, night after night, in a sea of people and lights.”
The original – a sombre hymn about numbness of an inadequate existence where nothing is satisfying (“the sky is grey, the sand is grey, and the ocean is grey / and I feel right at home in this stunning monochrome”) is wrought with vulnerability and acceptance of that fate, DiFranco’s vocals rich with immutable sadness. “In the midst of a sometimes grey fog of existence, we could find comfort in dreams of the shore,” they add.
Gracie and Rachel’s cover embraces that cold emotion and imbues a swath of additional instrumentation, adjusting DiFranco’s stark and naked original with more atmosphere, texture and space. “‘Grey’ is a song that makes us feel both isolated and embraced in one,” they explain. “We can float in its darker, more ethereal qualities, while also feeling grounded by its voyeuristic optimism and hopeful longing.”
The strings by violinist Rachel Ruggles and keyboard soundscapes by Gracie Coates envelop the raw lyrics like a mist, adding not quite warmth but a haze, befitting of the atmosphere of the song, easily envisioning a desolate beach on an overcast day.
A standalone single that follows the release of their adored second album Hello Weakness, You Make Me Strong, “Grey” was recorded not only to celebrate their admiration and respect for DiFranco (who signed them to her label, Righteous Babe) but also to benefit Women’s Audio Mission, a non-profit which was created to incorporate more girls and women into the world of creative technology within the media. The first week of proceeds raised from its sale on Bandcamp will be donated to the organization.
Giving back to the women-focused community is a trait that DiFranco helped instill in Gracie and Rachel. This feeling of community is just one of the many things their mentor and friend impressed upon them. “Being on the road with Ani, it’s hard not to feel empowered in some way, shape or form,” they express.
Like many women in music, the oppressive nature of the often male-dominated industry left them feeling diminished and reduced by men on the touring circuit and in the studio. Spending time with DiFranco, however, exposed them to her command of the situation and ability to maneuver not only capably but assuredly, leveling the often imbalanced gender playing field. “We’d show up to soundcheck and be blown away by how confidently she commands her sound, her fierce energy radiating the room. She is researched and intentional, which are two things that, in tandem, don’t allow for much error.”
Inspired by DiFranco’s tight precision and assured control, Gracie and Rachel are learning by her example and planning to execute similar moves within the male-dominated music industry. “We’d walk away from every show a little more assured in how to talk about our sound and how to translate that sound ourselves without having to rely so much on others to do so for us,” they say. “We’ve been really motivated in these ways to take back the control in this industry where we can.”
While the cliche says imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Gracie and Rachel aren’t mere copycats to DiFranco’s style. Injecting enough of the confidence that they’ve absorbed into “Grey,” they transform it into an extension of its original… Different enough to be unique but analogous enough to be a worthy tribute… and more importantly, confident and assured in their place as musicians.