From her childhood days of singing songs from High School Musical and Hannah Montana, singer-songwriter Grace VanderWaal has always had a passion for performing. After being inspired by her Brazilian au pair to pick up the ukulele, VanderWaal hit it big at the age of 11 by competing on, and eventually winning, America’s Got Talent. The ukulele, paired with her emotional vocals, is what initially made VanderWaal stand out on the show, and it quickly became her trademark. However, she still discovered early that the “glamorous life” as a working kid in the industry was still one filled with its own downsides, and learned that young fame comes with a toll.
VanderWaal has now been in the game long enough to equip herself with the tools to understand her situation – and herself – better. From that comes new, introspective music starting with the single “Lion’s Den.” It has also allowed her to tackle other major opportunities, including her recent casting alongside headlining names like Adam Driver and Aubrey Plaza in the Francis Ford Coppola-directed film Megalopolis. VanderWaal talked all about “Lion’s Den,” her songwriting process, and finding herself as a young star for The Untitled Magazine’s “REBEL” Issue.
Read the full interview from “The REBEL Issue” below.
You’ve had such an incredible creative journey, writing and performing from such a young age. Can you tell us about the earliest experiences with music that you can remember?
I always loved music and singing when I was a little girl, but it was nothing crazy. I loved listening to High School Musical and singing to it. I would say that those are my earliest memories, singing High School Musical… I was their biggest fan, I watched the movies all the time. And Hannah Montana.
What was your impetus for taking your career seriously? Was it being on America’s Got Talent, or before then? What do you think your “moment” was?
I actually wasn’t doing anything before America’s Got Talent, it was so incredibly unexpected and not planned at all. I was only 11 years old. I got a ukulele and I just started messing around. No one took it seriously. My first performance – I don’t even know if I’d call it a “performance” – was at this open mic night at a small coffee shop like 30 minutes away from my town. I sang there, and I was shaking like a leaf, even though there were only about five rock ‘n roll country guys in there watching me.
I stuck out like a sore thumb – this little girl, this little bowl cut, coming up to stage with her ukulele. Then me and my mom thought it’d be fun to mess around and go see what this America’s Got Talent thing was in our town. We were like, “Let’s go, let’s just have a good time.” It all just snowballed into this crazy career that I now have. It was so crazy. It all happened so unexpectedly.
Did you play other instruments? Why did you decide to pick up a ukulele instead of a guitar or something else?
We had an au pair named Gabriela from Brazil stay with us while she was in between families. It was all very bizarre, a weird twist of fate. I looked up to her a lot, I thought she was so pretty and so cool. I was 11, and she was probably in her early twenties, so I thought she was the coolest person to ever walk the earth. I remember she had a ukulele and she’d always mess around on it. She taught me a few chords, and I just loved it so much.
My parents said no when I asked them to buy me one because I don’t really hold hobbies that well. They thought that they were going to buy me this instrument and it would eventually end up at the bottom of a toy bin. But I got birthday money from my grandma, like $50, and I went out and bought myself my own. So that’s how I ended up with the ukulele.
Regarding your more current work, what would you say your creative process is for your songwriting? You’ve mentioned that you find creating the sound for each of your songs to be a torturous process. Why is that?
Well, sometimes. Sometimes things just fall into place beautifully, and that’s the best thing ever. But there have definitely been some songs where I’ve been really, really passionate about every dimension of the music. I think they’re all so important in their own ways. It’s something I value a lot about music, the different aspects involved, like writing the words and the melody, and figuring out the cadences of the words, and working on the production.
I love production. I love making music around words. I think it’s just as important as what you’re saying because it’s an incredible thing to instill an emotion in someone and be able to say, “The way that this song makes you feel, this is how I feel.” That’s real-life black magic. I think it’s insane that you’re able to do that through music, so it’s very important to me that the production of my songs delivers exactly what the words are saying as well.
Tell me about your new single, “Lion’s Den”? You performed that at your PacSun event in New York City, right?
Yeah! That was my first time ever singing it live, too.
Incredible. What inspired the lyrics, and what is the song’s backstory?
I was very depressed. I’m very much someone who learns through experience, which is a terrible quality because I tend not to listen to advice. I have to go through the pain myself to learn the value of the words people tell me and then be like, “Oh shit, everyone was right.” I found myself coping in a terrible way. I think that this is really common with young performers too, because you grow up having these incredibly overwhelming, adrenaline-filled experiences. It’s like skydiving. It’s hard to come to a stop where everything drops.
I think I was chasing that rush. I was partying a lot, and then I would go home and feel terrible, but I would then feel like, “Oh, well, I feel bad now. I guess I have to do that again!” I found myself in this really tortuous cycle. I was actually in New York City when I first started writing “Lion’s Den,” and I had a producing session the next day. Writing has always been an escape for me. I was sitting there, tortured by these thoughts, and eventually I just thought, “Okay, let’s write a song to get this out of my system because I can’t take this in my head anymore.”
I wrote the first verse, and then I went into that session and right away, I told them, “I did write this little thing last night,” and then we finished the song together. I actually didn’t like the song either, or at least, I didn’t want to deal with people being like, “Oh, she’s changed. She’s young. What does she know about that?” But everyone on my team said, “No, this, this is special. You should release this.”
Would you say that sometimes you have to be pushed to put out the things into the world that you’re most sensitive about?
Absolutely. My team knows that I want to be more openly vulnerable and share my artistry in the most unfiltered way possible, but that’s really scary. They understand me so much and they said, “This is scary, but this is exactly what you were saying you wanted to do.”
I can imagine. It’s hard to be vulnerable. When you get that personal fear of baring it all, how do you cope with it?
I think that it’s kind of bizarre to think about the truth of it. I share my deepest, darkest secrets with the whole world for a living. I’ve been doing this so long, and I’m very grateful that I started out young because it taught me how to separate the moment I write a song – my words – from the actual piece itself, once it’s done.
A lot of your recent music is more introspective and darker in tone than what you were initially known for. What sparked your move in that direction?
It wasn’t strategically planned. It’s crazy to look back on my singles and my music – they so perfectly capture whatever I was going through at the time. Even “Repeat,” [one of my newer songs], it’s like an upbeat, manic feeling of “no one can hold me back.” I feel like “Repeat” almost lined up with “Lion’s Den” in that way because “Repeat” is like, “I found an escape! I’m free! I love it! This is a thrill! I love going out! This is who I am!” while “Lion’s Den” is dropped down and dark. I think I genuinely don’t like to strategize the way I express myself artistically at all. My music just follows whatever I’m going through.
I feel like post-pandemic, and definitely during the pandemic too, people got a little bit darker.
And I’m entering adulthood. I’m in a very introspective moment of my life where I’m reflecting a lot and learning how to take care of myself and cope with the hurt that I had in the past in a healthy way.
When you say “hurt,” you were hurt by what, exactly? Personal relationships?
I had the most magical childhood. You would look at my childhood and see every little girl’s dream, but I think we all know at this point that a glamorous life as a working kid is more of a fantasy. The reality is much darker, and I definitely went through a lot of trauma that is now surfacing. When you start getting older, you realize, “I’m different now because of what I went through, for better and worse.”
Did you find it difficult to become so famous at such a young age?
Oh, absolutely. And it put such an incredible strain on my family and my personal relationships, and they had no idea what was going on! They got pulled along for the ride, and I’ve also felt a lot of guilt about that because my mom didn’t sign up to be on the road for months, and she didn’t know what she was doing, just like I didn’t. I think that we were scared, and overwhelmed, and happy, and sad, and grateful, but also angry and resentful. It was a crazy mix of emotions throughout that time.
What do you think was your biggest takeaway from being on America’s Got Talent?
It fully shaped who I am now. I learned a lot of really great things. I got a lot of good advice during that time, and it really prepared me for the world that I was about to enter. It taught me early of the importance of not being taken advantage of and to watch out for the manipulation that comes with being a famous kid. It was almost gaslighting. People told me, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. We have your best interests at heart, and you need to do this for us.” I discovered that you don’t need to do anything, and the importance of saying, “No, that’s not the case, that’s not true, and I don’t need to do anything, and I’m not going to do anything I don’t want to do.”
Let’s talk about your new EP. You have this exciting new release coming up. What are the themes you’re addressing with it?
It’s all very reflective, which I didn’t even mean to do, but it’s where my mind is at right now. I’m looking back at what I’ve been through and learning to grow as a person, and making mistakes too. I put extra care into my writing and lyrics for this EP. I’m really proud of the lyrics. It’s all very vulnerable, similar to “Lion’s Den.” Very scary. These are songs that a couple of years ago, I would’ve written and kept to myself and never shared.
How do you feel your songwriting style has evolved since the first EP you released back in 2016?
Oh my god, I don’t even know where to begin! With songwriting, there are so many different things that can make it great. There are so many different styles, and I think that I’ve grown to understand the value of simply expressing myself in a satisfying way and being like, “Yes, this is exactly what I’m trying to say.” When before, I was hung up on sounding artistic and deep with metaphors and forcing it, instead of letting the imagery and the metaphors sew themselves into the story that I was already writing.
You’ve also been acting! You recently made your debut in Disney+’s Stargirl and its upcoming sequel. What inspired your move into acting?
Stargirl happened in that time where I couldn’t even process it and I was like, “What’s happening?” I’d heard about the role for years, and it was finally brought to me in a serious way. I’m young, I don’t know if I’m going to have this forever. What’s so scary about this career is that nothing is really guaranteed. I just felt like there might not be another chance in my life where I can say I did a movie, so I might as well say fuck it and go for it and have the experience.
It was now or never, to a certain degree?
Was it intimidating to go from singing and performing to acting in a film?
Oh yeah. I did not think that decision through at all because I was just like, “Yeah, screw it, I’ll do it.” Then on the first day of shooting that I had a line, the first day that I was actually saying something to the camera, I started freaking out. In my head I was thinking, “What did I do? What have I done? I agreed to a movie, but I don’t even know if I can act!”
How did you get through it?
Julia Hart, the director, actually talked me down. She gave me a little pep talk. At that point, I feel like my mentality became, “Well, you’re in it. The contract is signed.” I might as well try my best and see what happens because freaking out about it isn’t going to change the fact that I’m in it, and I said yes. There was nothing left for me to do but try my best, you know?
They booked you specifically because they wanted you, so you had to go for it.
It all worked out so well. I had such an incredible experience making that movie, and I made friends that I’ll have for the rest of my life. It was such a great experience.
Did you find working on a movie to be a very different experience as far as the personal relationships you developed versus when you’re performing as a musician?
They’re completely different worlds. It’s a fully different vibe and they’re both fun and artistically satisfying in different ways.
What can you tell me about what you have coming up? Do you have any other performances planned or other projects that you’re looking forward to?
I’m really excited about my music. I really, really am. And I love touring. I love being on the road. It’s my favorite part of this whole life. I definitely want to get out on the road as soon as I can after that EP drops.
Do you think that’s going to happen this year?
Hopefully! We’ll see.
I’m sure your fans are desperate.
I know, I feel so bad! It’s like, “Come on, Grace!”
Did the pandemic affect your music process at all?
It was hard because I wasn’t professionally going into the studio during the whole pandemic, but I actually feel like it was during that time that I really got into production and fell in love with it and found a passion in producing music. So I’m actually really happy that that time forced me to do that.
It was so nice talking with you, and I can’t wait to hear the EP and see more of you on the silver screen!
Interview and photography by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine
To read our print feature on Grace VanderWaal, pick up your copy of “The REBEL Issue” here.
Styling by Cannon
Make-up by Georgina Billington
Hair by William Schaedler
Stylist assisted by Skylar Hill and Delaney Brennan
Photographed on location at The Untitled Space