Mercy (feat. Vic Mensa)
More Than Friends
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For Grace Weber, the most powerful moments in music have come from abandoning all expectation.
“I think if you’re trying to create something that sounds like what’s really happening inside your heart and your soul, you’ve got to ignore all the rules and be as open as possible,” says the Milwaukee-bred, Brooklyn-based artist. “You’ve got to just have fun and play from your heart like you’re a little kid again, and then put all the pieces together from there.”
Compounded with Weber’s ineffable talent—including the soul-igniting vocal presence she first developed by singing in a gospel choir all throughout her childhood—that joyfully uninhibited approach has brought a whirlwind of success in recent years. In 2016, Weber penned the opening track on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book (“All We Got” feat. Kanye West & Chicago Children’s Choir), then saw the groundbreaking mixtape go on to win Best Rap Album at the 2017 Grammy Awards. And at the end of 2017, Weber independently released her single “More Than Friends,” a sweetly hypnotic track whose breakout success quickly led Weber to a deal with Capitol Records.
Produced by Nate Fox and Nico Segal of The Social Experiment and Carter Lang (SZA), Weber’s Capitol Records debut features lead single “Mercy”: a hazy piece of slow-burning R&B, featuring a verse from Chicago rapper Vic Mensa. With its layered beats and gospel melodies, the song sprang from a flash of spontaneity in one of the earliest album sessions. “We were in the studio and taking a break, so I picked up the guitar and started playing a Patty Griffin song,” Weber recalls. As her playing drifted into improvisation, Fox surreptitiously started recording and, within an hour, built an entire beat around a sample of Weber’s stark guitar work.
From there, Weber began writing what would become the lyrics to “Mercy,” spinning an intimate narrative about the risk in vulnerability. “It’s about being able to have a difficult conversation with someone and trust that they’re going to accept you,” Weber says. “It’s asking, ‘Are you going to be able to show me mercy, or are we going to keep each other at a distance?’ The song is about compassion and call to really hear each other and to give each other, strangers and friends, love and space to grow.”
The serendipity that sparked “Mercy” has guided every aspect of Weber’s album-making process, a journey first set in motion soon after her she first heard The Social Experiment’s 2015 record Surf. “When I heard Surf I thought, ‘I have to work with these guys,’” says Weber. “It felt so forward-thinking but also so timeless; it hit right to the core of what I love about music and who I am as a singer.” But despite her determination to team up with The Social Experiment, every possible connection turned up nothing. Then, on a trip to L.A. several months later, Weber got a call from a friend who invited her to a nearby studio to meet up with some producers.
“I showed up and met these guys Nate and Nico but had no clue who they were,” says Weber. “They asked me to sing on a track, so I hopped into the booth with a napkin with some lyrics scribbled on it. Right away it was like my voice was jumping out of my body—I hadn’t felt that free as a singer since I was 12-years-old in the gospel choir. And then I get out of the booth and it turns out these are the guys I’d been trying to meet for months. It was just this crazy, magical moment.”
By early 2016, Weber had joined forces with The Social Experiment to start working on her upcoming full-length effort. Executive-produced by Nate Fox, Nico Segal, and Binta Brown, the album elegantly meshes elements of R&B and hip-hop while letting Weber’s gospel roots shine through each song. “Singing in church taught me that it’s not about your specific voice—it’s about what you’re channeling for the community of people who are all experiencing this music,” says Weber, who joined the Central City Youth Gospel Choir of Milwaukee at age 12.” It’s about everyone sharing this very emotional space together, which is an idea that I definitely brought to this album.”
Born into an exceptionally musical family (her grandparents had ten children, and encouraged each one to take up an instrument), Weber started writing songs her senior year of high school. After high school Weber headed to New York University to study music and studio art, soon joining a series of bands and taking the stage at iconic clubs like The Bitter End. During her senior year at NYU, she sang on The Oprah Winfrey Show after winning a contest called Oprah’s Karaoke Challenge, a feat that drew the attention of major record labels. But after a potential deal fell through, Weber found herself at a breaking point. “I’d been putting so much pressure on myself and my music, I was so afraid of failing,” she says. “I went through a depression and when I started to come out of it I realized, ‘Music isn’t supposed to feel like that—music is love and family.’ I just wanted to get back to what it felt like to be a kid in the choir, when I hadn’t learned self-consciousness yet and I was so open and real and free with my singing.”
Inspired by artists such as Frank Ocean, Whitney Houston, Joni Mitchell and India Arie, over the next few years Weber devoted herself to reclaiming the true nature of her creative spirit, eventually leading her right into the doors of Nate and Nico’s LA studio on that fateful August day.
“Working with Nate, Nico, and Peter (Cottontale), every element of the song was created at once, which allowed for this cool experience of being affected by the sounds they were coming up with and letting that shape the stories I was telling,” says Weber. “I’m a painter too and it reminded me of the way I paint—just super-fluid, with no fear of an idea not working.” (The process was so free-and-easy, in fact, that when Chance the Rapper dropped by the studio while Weber was working on “All We Got,” he immediately asked to lift the song for Coloring Book—a request she happily obliged.)
Once Weber and her collaborators had amassed about 50 song sketches, she took off for Wisconsin and spent two months finishing up the album in a cabin on Lake Michigan. “I really focused on fleshing everything out and trying to push the poetry in my lyrics,” she says. “Because the album’s so personal, it was important for me to take that time to be by myself and let the songs grow into what they needed to become.”
Along with putting the final touches on her album, Weber has recently toured South America with Chance, and North America with PJ Morton while continuing her work with The Music Lab, Inc. (a Milwaukee-based nonprofit she co-founded with her manager to offer free music education to local kids). And as she gears up to share her new music with the world, one of her greatest hopes is to instill others with the same sense of possibility she found in creating each song. “Making this album, we decided that we were going to let it take us on a journey, instead of trying to force anything,” says Weber. “I’d love for people to come away feeling like they’ve been taken on a journey too, whatever that might mean for them. Hopefully it’ll help them to uncover deeper parts of themselves that they maybe hadn’t understood before—all the little contradictions that make us the complicated and beautiful people we are.”