Grace Weber may not have released her debut album yet, but the Milwaukee-raised songwriter has already reached peaks that artists aim for their entire careers.
You might recognize her angelic harmonies inflected at the beginning of Chance The Rapper’s Grammy-winning “Coloring Book.” Her chipmunk-soul sampled vocals on “All We Got” add a layer of warmth underneath Kanye’s vocoded croons, revealing the remnants of a track that almost ended up on her own project. Up to this point, Weber’s contributions have remained relatively low-key. She’s been part of the magic behind The Social Experiment’s classic yet timeless soulful sound and lended her melodies to artists like Francis & The Lights.
But in 2018, after years of finding her creative voice and surrounding herself with people who support her vision, she stands prepared to make her solo mark. While in Milwaukee to work on her youth arts initiative “The Music Lab,” she caught up with us over the phone about her new album and working with Chance & The Social Experiment. Get in tune with Grace Weber in our Artist of the Week feature below:
You were born and raised in Milwaukee. Do you still live out there?
I actually live in New York, but I do this program for high school students in Milwaukee called “The Music Lab,” so I just flew in for that yesterday.
What were your main goals behind creating The Music Lab?
It’s a program that my manager Binta and I started a year ago. We had two goals. One was music education–a lot of the art and music programs in Milwaukee have been getting cut, and we wanted to step in and provide a supplement for kids that don’t have access to music or art programs. Also to get the chance to be celebrated for who they are and get a platform where they can be recognized for what they feel like makes them special. … And then another goal is trying to help create more youth community in Milwaukee. Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country, and we wanted to use this as an opportunity to bring kids from all different backgrounds together. It’s been [a] really cool experience; the students that come through are so inspiring and so talented. We’ve seen students who on day one are sitting in the corner alone, and by the second or third lab, they’re the student who’s in the middle of the circle, encouraging other kids. It’s been really amazing to see what happens when you recognize a light in somebody.
Growing up in the Central City Youth Gospel Choir of Milwaukee, did that experience inspire you to start a program like The Music Lab?
Yeah, definitely. When I was in middle and high school, I had a lot of teachers who said to me ‘you are good enough. You have a talent, and you should use it.’ And so, when Binta and I started this program, I really wanted to give back that idea. I had people who were there for me who helped me develop my craft as a singer and my songwriting, and the idea of being an artist. My visual art teacher in high school helped me understand how important it is to tap into your own vulnerabilities … so that you can play a role in helping other people tap into that too–play a role in sharing things that would be hard to process if not for art. We wanted to be those teachers for these kids. … I wanted to give back to the city that’s given me so much and make it come full circle.
So I want to get into your forthcoming album. Is there a title for it yet?
Not yet. I have a couple titles kicking around in my head, and I’m just kinda waiting for the right moment to pick what feels right.
You’ve been collaborating with Peter Cottontale, Nate Fox and Nico Segal of The Social Experiment. Is the record entirely produced by them?
Yup. The whole project was produced by them top to bottom. We also had Garren Langford work on some of the tracks as well.
When did you start working with them on “Coloring Book”?
I heard “Surf” with my manager and we were like ‘oh my god dude. This is so exciting. It has this feeling of being really forward thinking but classic and timeless at the same time. … I just was like ‘I have to work with these guys. How can I meet them?’ We didn’t really find them, so we just put it out into the universe. Then, a couple months later, a buddy of mine texted me in LA and said he was hanging with these producers who thought my voice was dope. I showed up at the studio, and I didn’t put two-and-two together at all that it was The Social Experiment guys.
They pulled up this beat, and I just had this feeling that I had to sing on it. I got in the booth, sang my heart out and I felt more connected to music than I had felt in years. That’s when I asked, ‘who are you guys? Like, are you guys in a band?’ They were like, ‘oh, we’re The Social Experiment. We’re working with this guy Chance The Rapper on this project,’ and in my head I was thinking holy shit these are the guys I’ve been trying to meet.
How did that transition to them producing your album?
I asked them after that session if they wanted to produce my whole album, and they were down. We started the project in March 2016 and that’s when Chance was in the throws of finishing “Coloring Book.” He came to the studio during one of the sessions for my album and asked if he could use one of my tracks to be the first track on “Coloring Book.” That ended up being “All We Got.”
The Social Experiment and I spent the next year-and-a-half working on my project. We made 50 beats and half-songs, and I whittled that down into about 20 completed songs while they were on tour with Chance. Then, we finished everything together.
Could you describe a little more how “All We Got” came to be?
The theme of the whole album making process was just to follow your creativity, and we didn’t put any rules on it. … With “All We Got,” Nico laid down a chord progression and then Nate got inspired by that and started working in Fruityloops and put some drums on it. Nico put that really cool trumpet part right at the beginning, and I added some background harmonies. Then, I started writing this chorus that they took and pitched-up to make it sound like a sample.
We were at the point about to turn it into a complete song when Chance came in. Then that weekend, they went over to Kanye’s studio and at some point they pulled up “All We Got.” Three days later, I was back in the studio with Nate and Nico and they wanted to play me something. They were like, ‘remember that song we were working on? We added some stuff.’ All of a sudden, I hear this knew drum part which I found out later were Kanye’s drums. Then I hear Chance’s voice, and I’m like ‘oh shit Chance is on this?’ Then I hear Kanye’s voice and I’m like ‘wait, what the fuck, is that Kanye West on this track right now?’ They told me Chance wanted this to be the first song on Coloring Book, and I thought that would be amazing. That was kind of the journey of “All We Got.”
Could we expect to see you and Chance working together more in the future?
We’re in the process of figuring that out right now. But I feel super blessed that he wants to be involved with my project. It’s super cool.
Your process in the studio sounds like it happens really organically. Have you always worked that way?
I honestly haven’t. Working that way on this project is what allowed me to find the artist that I really am and always wanted to be. Before I met Nate, Nico and Peter, I collaborated with people with a more rigid structure. It was like I was trying to fit into a box, and that sort of held me back because it didn’t allow me to explore my creativity and discover what my sound really sounds like. With [The Social Experiment], we never talked about genres or what kind of song we were gonna make. The only parameter we had was what BPM we were gonna work with that day. I got this chance to try a bunch of stuff and see what happens if my voice is pitched-up or if we put it through a prismizer. My voice became this instrument–this tool that I was painting with. All of a sudden, because I stepped out of what I was supposed to be doing, I discovered the possibilities of what I could do.
My manager Binta also had a huge role in that. She was the first person from the music side and the business side of things who said ‘you should be who you really are.’ … It was incredible, and I couldn’t feel more grateful to this beautiful family in my life who gave me the freedom to be myself–which I think is the greatest gift that anybody could give you.
How did surrounding yourself with these people play a role in allowing you to make this debut album?
You know when you find your group of friends that make you feel like you can actually relax and be yourself–the feeling of letting your walls down and knowing that they’re not gonna judge you? This whole extended family and environment breeds confidence, love and fun. It definitely was the perfect environment to make this debut that I’ve always been searching for. It was the first time for me since I was in choir that I felt like I didn’t have to be anybody else except myself.
How does being the focal point of a project feel different from working as a writer or collaborator on something?
It still felt like a beautiful team effort, but the cool thing is that at the end of the day, nobody else could finish this project except for me. I had to be confident knowing no one else could finish these songs. They wanted me to really take on the leadership role and decide what direction we were going in. I think in the beginning, I didn’t really know how to be that leader. It took me a few months, but everybody around me encouraged me to step into my strengths. When I was ready to do that, it was sort of the final step toward coming into my own.