Malia Grace is a singer/songwriter from Austin, Texas. Her first EP, Malia Grace, dropped in October and has been receiving rave reviews, including one here on Talk Nerdy With Us. Malia began singing as a child and has never stopped. She was recruited into the University of Texas Austin’s Vocal Performance program where she began to study opera before realizing that she and opera didn’t exactly mesh. This dynamic woman then set about writing, performing and recording her own songs. We at Talk Nerdy were lucky enough to grab some time with her this week in order gain a little more insight into her songs, her songwriting, her performances and her life.
I honestly really loved your EP. You have an incredible voice! I thought, oh my gosh the emotion that was poured into your songs was so deep. I suspect you are younger than I am, but found the emotion to be almost ageless.
Oh, thank you!
When I listened to your words all I could think was, this is so amazing. You’re putting out there what real people feel and honestly I cannot believe that anyone listening to your music would not be able to identify with it.
Oh, man, that is just soooo….
So I have to know, are you happy with how the EP turned out? Are you happy with what you produced?
It’s beyond what I expected, quite frankly. I’m pretty pleased. I don’t really think I could be happier with a first album. It took me so long to get this first album out because I’m such a perfectionist and I’m, you know, I’m extremely pleased and I’m grateful and, and I’m kind of sad that it’s done. (Laughs). But I’m very proud and now looking forward to the next album. A lot of people are starting to inquire about the next album and I’m like, that’s what you want, you want people to want more.
It really is. I had somebody go to our local record store the other day and buy out all my CDs. Then they contacted me and asked me if I could get them some more. I asked, ‘what are you doing with all these CDs?’ and they said they were giving them out as Christmas gifts!
It was really cool. It’s a, a huge compliment and a blessing.
That’s so funny; I’d already decided that when my sister comes out this weekend that I’m buying the EP for her and having her download while she’s at my house. I know she’ll like it too.
Thank you! You have to let me know what she thinks.
I understand that you started being interested in music really early in life and that your parents were concerned that you couldn’t hear until you discovered music. I’m curious, is there anyone else in your family that is musically inclined?
You know my mom has a beautiful voice and my dad loves music, he did musicals in high school and he’s a very avid music fan. I think if he could hit pitches he’d be a good singer as well. (Laughs) I grew up with the love of music engrained in me. My dad played music constantly and still does. When I’m at home he’ll have it on the house speakers…he always has to have house speakers! I’m like can we turn the music off, please? (Laughs) So there’s his love for music and then my sister, she’s seven years older than I am, when growing up she sang and she has an incredible voice too and she was a huge inspiration. My grandma’s an organist and pianist and my grandpa has an amazing voice. There’s a lot of musical talent in my family, but nobody who has really pursued it as a career.
Doesn’t sound like anybody but you have tried writing music.
Yeah, no, nobody has, that’s true. My mom was a journalist and so was my dad. My mom was also a Miss Georgia, so my whole life when I would talk to people and they would ask questions, she would say, ‘Malia you really need to make sure you’re conversing with them and you’re not just answering the questions. So for me it is very engrained, my mom is one of the most social people, she is someone who goes out and every stranger is her best friend. So I have to thank her for that.
My dad is a writer. He’s an incredible writer of novels and what not and I’d say that inspired me as far as writing music as well. He’ll tell this story that one time; I think I was 12 or 13. He didn’t know I played the piano, I kinda learned without them knowing. I just taught myself and he sat me down and said ‘Malia let me teach you how to play a song, I’m going to write this quick song’ and after I listened I went ‘ummm, let me show you how it’s done’. (Laughs) He’s like, ‘you play piano’? And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I taught myself at school. When I’m not at home I play piano, sorry’. (Laughs) That was the moment he was like, ‘my daughter’s a songwriter’.
That is so awesome! It was almost like the music just couldn’t stay inside you. I love that.
No, it couldn’t. I was an obnoxious kid, I mean, I did not speak, I only sang! In class the teacher would be like, ‘Malia shut up’ and I’d sing (singing now) ‘my teacher wants me to shut up, but I’m not going to cuz I’m a singing star’. Yeah. Horrible kid, horrible child, just…no friends. (Laughs) So, no friends at all, but now, now, all the people who bullied me for that when I went to school are like, ‘Hey Malia, I’m going to come to your show’, and I’m like, “uh, no’. So those guys can’t tell me it didn’t pay off.
That’s funny, I think it’s going to continue to pay off and you might find you have a few more friends out there that you didn’t know you had.
Yeah, (laughs) it’s kinda funny how like the littlest bit of good reaction to music or something in the industry, people will suddenly come out of the weeds. I’ve had like three exes contact me saying, ‘we should go to dinner’. They’re like Malia’s like Beyoncé and I should just ride this. I should just ride this gravy train….uh, no.
It’s really kind of sad for people…
It really is! I used to think people were full of it when they told about things like that and then I had it happen and I was like, ‘Oh, how weird. That’s sad, that’s too bad’.
I think people just need to find their passion, like you did, in order to be happy.
Exactly! I feel bad for people who don’t really know what that is. I can’t imagine not knowing what my passion is, that would be horrible.
There is something really empowering about finding that passion.
Oh, completely. It runs my life right now.
So, you taught yourself piano, what other instruments did you teach yourself or did you learn?
I did take some guitar lessons and tried to teach myself guitar, but when I found piano, I really transferred over to piano because, there was just something, there was a disconnect between me and the guitar. I can’t really describe it. Even now when I try to write on guitar, there might be a few nice-ish things that come off of it. I think I have one song, maybe one or two songs that I did write on the guitar that I kept, but I did end up transferring them to piano. There’s just for some reason, writing on piano just makes my brain work. Writing on guitar there’s just this strange disconnect. I say I write terrible pop-country when I write on guitar, so I usually throw those out.
I bet they’re still pretty good. I’m thinking you’re way harder on yourself than anyone else is.
I’ve been told to go easier on myself. My band always says you need to be less hard on yourself. I’m like, ‘I’m fine’, and they say that whole rehearsal you just tore yourself apart. That’s kinda how I feel, but I’m working on it.
It can be a strength, people who push themselves like you do, do tend to rise faster because they’re not waiting for anyone else to give them a push.
It is a strength, but you have to find a way to give yourself some grace as well. That’s what I’m working on. I am young, I’m 24, so I’m kind of just working on bettering myself and showing myself grace.
That’ll come; it’s clichéd, but with age does come wisdom.
Yeah, even in the last year I’ve gotten better at it. I’m like, oops, sorry; I screwed up and then move on. (laughs)
At about 12 or 13 you kinda showed your dad how to write a song. Was that the first song you wrote, or had you been writing already?
I think I started in the months before that and when I was young I used to write little ditties. I found some pieces of paper with something about angels and I wrote little ditties. My first complete song I did write around 12 or 13. I don’t really remember the first song I ever wrote, but I do remember the first song I wrote on piano and I have a recording of it. It’s actually really, really good. Like sometimes I listen to it and think, ‘a twelve or thirteen year old wrote this?’ I don’t really….when I write music…I don’t know how to explain this….but it doesn’t seem like I wrote it. When I listen back to it I think, ‘man, she’s pretty…she’s okay…she’s okay. Then I’m like, ‘I wrote that? Ooookaaay.’ I think I’m like possessed when I write or something…I don’t know. It’s weird. (Laughs).
I guess some people might call it a muse and say that their muse takes over. There are writers, novelists that have had a similar experience where they sit down and write and the words come flowing out of them to the point where they’re not even sure where they came from.
It’s kind of a subconscious thing where your brain works without you even noticing. I always look at it as a kind of….I’m pretty into my faith and I’ll often look at it as like a holy spirit type of thing. Not like God’s writing for me or anything, but that something is coming over me, allowing me to do this thing that I do.
My next question, which we’ve kind of already talked about, is do you consciously decide to write a song or is there just something inside of you at times that can only be expressed through your music?
I will say that there are times that I sit down and try to write and um, I will say that it’s rare that it turns out very well.
But that is kind of all about discipline and sometimes that just as important to art.
Yeah, I have to; I have to, especially these days. I play three five-hour gigs a week that are cover gigs and my creativity is so diminished that I have to pretty much force myself to get to a creative state.
That leads into my next question. Do you have, do you follow a creative process or does inspiration hit and you just go? Do you need to get yourself into a certain mind space?
I can’t write if I’m anxious and I’m anxious a lot of the time. I pretty much have to write….like I can’t, if I’m rushed about anything in my life, if I have a lot of deadlines then I struggle to write. I kinda need a fair amount of nothing going on. Even if it’s just for an hour or two where I know there’s no pressure. I can still write under pressure and some cool stuff happens, but I do a lot better writing if I don’t have time restraints or anything. Usually once I start to write a song it’s done in like 30 – 35 minutes on average. So if I can get myself into that space where I have two hours of nothing, I can probably get a song out of it. Now, whether or not that song is amazing, who knows?
I’ve always wondered when songwriting, the melody or the lyrics….does one of them always come first, do you trade-off or is it simultaneous?
Lyrics never come first. Typically they come together, you know, once you have the first verse then you have the melody for the second verse, right? So, I guess you could argue that the melody comes before the lyrics, if anything actually comes first. Everything, the piano music, the chord structure, the lyrics, the melody, even the harmonies in my head all kind of come at the same time.
I think you have an incredible gift. To be able to put that all together in your head is amazing. I’m sure there are other musicians who approach it differently, but it seems like you have a brain for music.
Oh, I don’t know, but thank you, I’ll take it.
You wrote a lot about love and relationships for your EP. Do you typically draw your inspiration from your own life, your own experience?
Yeah, life is um…I’m actually, despite my being very friendly, very introverted, extremely introverted and I recharge a lot and don’t actually share a lot with other people as far as my emotions, so when I need to share something, it usually comes out in a song. I’m also very empathetic so what people feel around me, I’m feeling pretty strongly. Almost as if I’m in their shoes. I struggle when loved ones or friends are having a hard time because I then have a hard time and I feel their pain. I also am writing from different peoples’ points of view. There is stuff of mine that’s autobiographical but a lot of it is very exaggerated or I could have taken a sentence that a friend said and made it into a whole story line.
I can be very overwhelming to feel what other people are feeling.
It is, it’s a blessing and a curse really.
I do think though, that you being able to have this insight into other people’s feelings….emotions whether it’s joy, pain or frustration, whatever, through your empathy, I think, I think that’s a great gift. Having the ability to pick these things up and then turn around and express them musically, so that you can share that experience with hundreds, thousands, millions of other people.
I hope one day I can do it with more.
You’ll grow, you’ve got time and you’ll grow. I’ve read that you studied classical voice for a little bit in college and it wasn’t really your thing. I’m wondering if it was the words or maybe the structure. Classical singing is very structured.
It was the structure. I loved singing classically and there was a choir, no, not a choir, an ensemble that I sang with for two years that was like 8 of us or maybe 6 of us, I don’t know. I think maybe 6 of us and I loved every minute of it because we got to be more creative with it. The director was a friend of mine and this kind of a structure came out of it a little bit, but overall, opera for me, which is what I was recruited for, was….the structure just drove me crazy. I felt that they didn’t want a unique voice…I felt like I was just fitting a mold and I wanted to improvise on songs. I wanted to sing a gospel song and take the melody and stay true to the original form, but then also throw in my own intricacies that were my personal voice. I luckily had a teacher who was very supportive. He totally understood but still is convinced that I’m going to come back to opera someday. I’m pretty convinced that I’m not. (laughing) You know, I just….I love classical music but what I was recruited for was opera and I don’t like opera very much. I can’t even sit through an act; it’s just not for me. It’s too structured, I don’t know, the sound of opera is not for me.
It’s very formal; it’s a very formal type of music. Even more so than classical arrangements which are strictly symphonic.
Right! I love listening to symphonic music. I sit in my car and listen to classical music all the time but I can’t listen to opera for even like two minutes. I try really hard because I have a lot of friends who are in it and I want to support them. I want to say, and this sounds so bad, that I can’t tell the difference between the voices, I don’t know why. Its like, ‘what are you doing? Why do you all sound the same? What’s happening?’ (giggles)
It’s that art form, it’s very, very structured and that’s where I think you start to get the ‘you all sound the same’ from. The fact is that they are all rigidly singing almost exactly the same way even if it’s at a different register.
I’m glad you asked me that question. I never really thought about why it was that it wasn’t for me, but now I think I’m getting it. Thank you.
In terms of writing songs do you see yourself ever collaborating with somebody else?
Yeah, yeah. I would love to collaborate with other people. I mean, what I really want to do is write and co-write with people for others to perform. That’s always kind of been my end goal. I still would like to perform, but I really want to write, co-write with other people and I’ve always…I just love the Civil Wars and Allison Krause, their album. I would love to make an album with a man and have our…his harmonies and mine…just meld perfectly. That would be, that would amazing.
That is a beautiful album.
That album is probably one of my favorites of all time, if not my favorite. I would love to collaborate with someone, but I would like to write the music, I don’t want to do covers. Just get together and write an album and really speak together.
So, you get to choose anybody to write and collaborate with right now. Who do you choose?
Right now…oh my gosh…no pressure! (Laughs). I am a big fan of James Bay and Ed Sheeran. Have you heard much of James Bay’s stuff?
No, but when we hang up I’m going to look him up.
(Laughs) You’ve gotta go look him up, he…I went to South By…I went to see Leon Bridges who’s very soulful, right? And afterwards was James Bay, and no offense to Leon Bridges but James Bay blew him out of the water. I was like, ‘OK, I’m in love. Who is the musical person? We need to be best friends.’ He is unbelievable and he is blowing up…in the last year he’s gone from relatively unknown to being on Burberry ads. He’s extremely soulful, extremely soulful and I would love to write with him….or Ed Sheeran. James Bay just feels more accessible because I saw him in a small church. (Laughs).
I think you were really lucky to grow up in Austin, because it’s the music capital of the world and I know you got to play at SXSW this last year. It must have been so cool to be playing in your hometown at such a big event.
Yeah, it was quite cool…..gosh, I just ran out of words! It was a very interesting experience and I’m hoping to be able to do it again this next year and I hope to have a different venue.
Last year the venue was a lot of fun. It was perfect for your first show, but it was definitely…you know it was a songwriter’s showcase and I was up there with my whole band and we’re like soul music. Everybody else was up there with just a guitar so I think it was a little jolting for people because they kind of expected me to be the typical singer/songwriter and I kind of was like, ‘oh no, sorry.’ I like to make people dance and cry and it’s a little bit more pumped up.
I’d like to perform with a full band this year and have people drinking beer, not that I want them to party, I just want them to….I don’t know what I’m trying to say. I want them to loosen up a bit and not feel like they have to sit and be so strict about listening. You know at my shows now people come and they dance, and bop their heads and they’re having a couple of martinis. I want it to be more like that. I want it to be a place where people can feel comfortable and safe and not formal, like what we were talking about. I have this thing about formality, I just don’t want people to feel like there are any….don’t come to the show with being sober and quiet in mind, come to the show open to whatever comes over you. Whether that’s sitting and listening and really paying close attention or whether that’s getting your boogie on, you know. Maybe it inspires you to make out with your date…I don’t know. (Laughs).
I know you play a lot around the Austin area and have some regular gigs, which is really good, but how about outside of Austin? Has anyone started to approach you from other places?
I’m playing in Dallas in December a couple of times. People don’t really approach me, I’m still pretty small. The most interest I get seems to be from New York. That seems to be a hub that responds really well to me, better than Austin by far actually. For whatever reason, no, I can’t quite judge it yet, but I haven’t quite gotten the response that I want to get out of Austin but there’s still plenty of time. I’m a little bit different from most of our music so I think some people aren’t sure what to do with me? I’m a little bit too….I’m not indie and I’m not folk and that’s what our main music is.
You kind of skate on the edge of pop-rock with soul.
Yes, it is soulful blues rock and I think Austin isn’t quite sure what to do with it. I’m not sure…we’ll see how Dallas receives it when I go there. So far it’s just me building and me doing all the work and reaching out and hoping and praying that someone will want me to play at their venue. There’s a lot of interest from private parties. A lot of people want me to play weddings and parties, which is cool.
It is a way to get your music out there and to become a recognizable voice for people and who knows what could grow from that base. I’m from Chicago and I think your music would do very well here.
I want to put it on a tour at some point….hopefully.
Cool. I’ll definitely be in the audience when you make your stop here.
Heck yeah, I’ll let you know when it happens. You’ll be my first call. (Laughs).
If you had to choose one message that you wanted people to take away from your music, what would that message be?
Just be okay with you. (Laughs) Be okay with you. It’s okay to feel things; it’s okay to feel crappy about yourself. We live in a society where…you know, there’s always been this idea of stoicism in men that I never liked and now it’s kind of transferred over to every gender. And you’re supposed to feel guilty for loving people, for hurting….you’re supposed to feel guilty for everything in our culture, apparently. For having a little too much stomach fat…you it’s…stop feeling guilty and just be you. Let yourself feel and think what you want think. Don’t let other people define you.
That’s a great message, I love that. We, our American society, have definitely become a society of very hyper-critical people…
Insanely so, it’s crazy.
And so many people are judging each other based on very insignificant traits. If everyone would give each other a chance, I think they’d find some pretty cool people out there.
Even if you get yourself to the point where you’re “perfect”, you’ve done everything you could. You’re skinny, you’ve got great abs, you’re tan, and you’re all these things, right? You’ve got a good job…well you know, they’re still going to criticize you. That’s how our society works.
If you’ve got all that, you will be criticized for having all that! People will manage to make all the ideals you’ve achieved seem worthless.
It’s horrible; it’s really bothersome to me.
People are supposed to be different.
That’s kind of the cool thing about us, right? We weren’t intended to be all the same. If there was just one person a billion or multiple billions of times over, it would be a very boring world. We would make no advances; we would have died out by now.
One last question, we’re almost done and this is a fun one. As you know, we are Talk Nerdy With Us and we all consider ourselves major nerds. So can you tell me something that you’ve done lately or two months ago, five years ago, whatever that you consider nerdy?
I’m pretty nerdy, but it’s one of those things I kind of keep hidden under my blonde hair and stuff and then guys start dating me and they’re like, oh, ok…good bye. (Laughs).
Whenever I, if I’m out and I’m…if a guy comes up to me and he’s interested in me but it’s not going well, I will put two fingers up and wave them across their face saying ‘these are not the droids you’re looking for’. (Laughs) It’s happened quite a few times, it’s especially likely to happen if I’m drinking….then I’m just like, ‘nope, these are not the droids you’re looking for.’ They usually react with blank stares like, ‘what just happened, what was that’, or it excites them further and they’re like, ‘oh, this girl is awesome!’ So, that’s my nerdy all time thing and if my glasses are on and I see something cute I make them go in and out and go, ‘ooga, ooga, ooga.’ (Laughs) My friends will be like, ‘stop, stop he doesn’t like it’ and I’m like, ‘he likes it, he likes it, he likes me.’