Former The Voice contestant Grace Askew recently caught up with us at American Songwriter to discuss her new album, Scaredy Cat. The sixth generation Memphian made sure to discuss what inspires her signature “Bluntry” (blues + country) style, why “janky” is a compliment, and some of the many people who have influenced her songwriting journey.
How would you describe Scaredy Cat?
Janky…which is a Delta word for rough around the edges, but in a good way. It’s raw, rough, raunchy, and Memphis.
How would you compare it to your last album?
Compared to my 2011 release, Grace Askew & The Black Market Goods, this new album is much less polished and perfected. My tempo blatantly pushes and pulls, my voice cracks and creaks, the growl of distant motorcycles passing by can be heard…it’s just unapologetic and unapologetically me.
Of the songs you sang on The Voice, which one did you feel the most personal connection to and why?
I felt the most personal connection to the last song and the choice that ultimately sent me home – Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” This is one of the first Memphis recordings that truly made me understand my roots and made me want to do music full time and ultimately, I wanted to sing it to represent my hometown. Unfortunately, the Voice producers edited my interview down to where they had me saying it was a Tina Turner song, since more of the masses know her name. It was a pretty disappointing moment, but at least I got to sing one of my all-time favorite songs on national television.
What’s a Blake Shelton song you like?
I actually couldn’t tell you since I don’t listen to the radio. Haven’t in a while.
How often do you play for fun, just for yourself? What sort of stuff do you play when you do?
When I’m playing for fun, I’m usually hashing out new song ideas, or picking on some of my favorite covers from folks like Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Mississippi John Hurt, or Tom Waits.
How did you learn how to play guitar?
I started taking lessons at age 13 at this house in East Memphis, it was called The Vance Guitar Academy.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Tom Waits has always been one of my top inspirations; I just can’t get enough of his oddity and his quirky genius. Weird, imperfect, and dark has always interested me more. Female inspirations include Lucinda Williams and Cat Power.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
The first song I ever wrote (that I can remember) was something about “You’ll still be stuck in that same tree.” It was about how I will have moved on, gotten better, found my bliss, and whatever boy I was referring to at the time will have found himself still stuck in the same predicament. I still find myself liking to write songs of empowerment…especially when it comes to the end of a relationship.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
“Now I Know What Amelia Know” – I’ve only gotten through to the first verse, but it’s going to be about my grandmother, Amelia, who passed a few years ago. I rented a little place above her for years in Midtown Memphis, and every day I’d see her sitting beautifully by the window reading her bible, she was so at peace with life. I’m finally getting to the point where I can write and sing about her and openly express my own walk with God.
What’s the best song you ever wrote?
I’m not very easily satisfied with myself, but if you put a gun to my head… I’d say I’m quite proud of a song off my 2010 release, Until They Lay Me Down to Rest, called “At the Brass Rail.” It’s about a sketchy motel I passed while rambling down a back road in Texas one rainy day. The characters came to me in a dream – I’m just amazed at the strange places my subconscious takes me sometimes.
How do you go about writing songs?
I have no set routine, but about seven times out of ten, I’ve got a melody and lyric in mind and write/play them at the same time…I’m never working with either separately.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
I like for the lyrics to come to my fingertips in very natural way, where nothing feels forced or fitted to a mold. Stream-of-consciousness writing always helps me really get going and once I start moving the pen it’s like all of those things I’ve been holding inside decide to make their surprise appearance and take me by storm. It’s such an addictive rush for me…to just let go and let the imagination flow.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
The darkest places of the heart and mind, the characters I meet on the road, stark landscapes, the stories of a stranger, the things people decide to show and hide about themselves, the way someone laughs or smiles or cries, nature, solace, driving and watching the world flying past my window – everything really. I love writers who can find interest and humor in the most mundane things.
What’s a song on Scaredy Cat you’re particularly proud of and why?
I’m really proud of the whole album obviously, but in particular I’d say the opening track, “Wild Heart.” Every time I play it or listen back to it, the words and feel throw me right back to a time in my life when I felt so free and full of adventure and so wildly in love. It was a really happy time of my life, but the lesson at the end is that my heart cannot tamed. Not this tumbleweed, I got to keep on rollin…
What’s a lyric or verse from Scaredy Cat you’re a fan of?
“But I could not stay, I had to leave…you see you can’t hold down this tumbleweed/ Yeah you’d a wild one honey, you’d a wild one honey, but I’ve got that wild heart.”
Are there any words you love or hate?
I tend to – of course – love any words involving Southern culture – janky, delta, y’all, ain’t, etc. Words I hate are really anything that doesn’t have much soul to it, or makes someone sound really white.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
“Only Human” on the new album has made several men cry so far. I’d say that’s a clear indicator of the song’s ability to move just about anything with ears.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
Every now and then I’ll write a mini memoir of something in my life that I want to remember in acute detail, like a description of a particular person or a place and time. The last one I wrote was about my Nazi-strict piano teacher growing up, Mrs. Ginski.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Jesse Sykes (Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter)
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
Jesse Sykes – “Troubled Soul.” It’s got every element I could ever want in a song: simplicity, mystery, sensuality, strength, catchiness, power, beauty. Perfection.