With quarantining in effect, many musicians are experimenting with recording in their bedrooms for the first time. But Grace Dawson is no stranger to doing things herself. Over the past few years, Dawson has taught herself to produce beats on Logic and has uploaded songs to Soundcloud under the name Grace Monaco. Now, the singer-songwriter from Lancaster, England is preparing for the release of her debut EP, Pedigree.
Dawson studied piano growing up, and fondly remembers listening to her dad’s Beach Boys CDs. By age 10, she was writing songs on the piano, trying to emulate her favorite pop artists, like Katy Perry. In Year 6 (when Grace was 11) she released her very first EP. “I just burned a bunch of CDs and passed it around to my classmates,” said Dawson. “I had two originals on there and a few covers.”
She carried on writing songs throughout her teenage years, but Dawson reached a turning point in Year 10, when she realized that she wanted to commit to music full-time. “My music teacher played a classical piece by Chopin — the famous name for it is the “Raindrop” prelude [Prelude Op. 28, No. 15] and it was the most beautiful piece,” she said. “I know it’s weird listening to a classical piece and not a modern pop song, but it was listening to that that made me want to go into music and I really wanted a lifetime career out of this. “
Dawson is now studying music production in college and releasing her own songs under the moniker Grace Monaco. When she began college, Dawson played keys and sang with a band, but she struggled to find a group of people as dedicated to playing music as she was. “On quite a few occasions [we would have] gigs and someone would drop out the day before,” she said. “I feel like if you’re in a city, it’s a lot easier to find dedicated people. But as a college student, nobody around me was dedicated at all to performing in a band so I was like, I’m going to have to do this myself. I’m going to have to find a way to perform just myself.’”
The music scene in her hometown of Lancaster is significantly smaller than in the nearby city of Manchester. Dawson says that while she’d like to move to Manchester eventually, her upbringing in Lancaster pushed her to become more self-sufficient as a musician. Without a consistent band to back her up, Dawson downloaded the digital audio workstation Logic on her laptop and began teaching herself to produce beats from YouTube tutorials.
Some of her intinitial influences included the Weeknd and Melanie Martinez, says Dawson, who describes Grace Monaco’s style as a blend of ‘80s, R&B, and British pop. These days, Dawson has also been finding inspiration in the colorful animated world of Studio Ghibli films. “That sort of ‘80s Japanese ambient pop, I really love,” she said. “I’m trying now to incorporate more orchestral instruments into my music as well as solid electronic [parts].”
In July 2019, Dawson dropped her first release as Grace Monaco, a tongue-in-cheek music video that she directed for a song called “Karen.” At the time, the Karen meme was blossoming on the internet — Tweets and Facebook posts satirized white suburban moms with angular bobs and a desire to “speak to the manager.” In the music video, Dawson wears a blonde cropped wig and large sunglasses singing, “If you don’t like your appetizer, don’t ask for my supervisor.”
Dawson dropped the music video, but was reluctant to release “Karen” as a single. “I had a real fear — not about anything in particular, but just putting it out there,” she said. “It sounds easy, just releasing music, but there’s a mental barrier to get across. Often your music feels like it’s your baby, and you don’t want to put it out into the world. Because as soon as you do that it’s not just yours and you don’t have control over it.”
In the next few months, Dawson began uploading several other singles to her Souncloud page: “Hot And Cold” and “Red Wine.” She says that recording under the name Grace Monaco has eased some of her fears about releasing music. “I feel like it makes it so much more powerful, as a solo artist. When you release music you’re going into a character rather than just playing yourself,” she said. “It means you can be a lot more experimental and you’re not afraid to be something else. And also protect yourself in a way, to keep yourself separate from your artistic persona.”
She was inspired to use the name Grace Monaco after watching the 2014 film “Grace of Monaco,” which stars Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly. “I really like that ‘50s glamor,” said Dawson.
On May 8, Grace Monaco released the music video for “Pedigree,” the title track from her upcoming EP. The EP Pedigree also features the songs “Karen,” “Hot And Cold,” and “Red Wine.”
Dawson wrote “Pedigree” about “grammar boys.” What is a grammar boy? I didn’t know either, so I had her fill me in on this English classification: “They’re better educated, but can be a bit soft and a bit snobby. They’re complete mummy’s boys.” The song’s name — “Pedigree” — references a grammar boy’s posh upbringing, and the music video plays up the dog comparisons with a floppy-eared onesie and doghouse.
“Pedigree” is the most recent song on the EP that Dawson has written, and she also considers it to be the strongest of the bunch. Like with “Karen,” Dawson directed and edited the “Pedigree” music video herself.
From recording and producing her own songs in Logic to conceptualizing her own music videos and designing album artwork in Adobe Illustrator, Dawson has taken charge of every step in making her Pedigree EP. “But that’s not to say that people aren’t helping me along the way,” she said. “My really good friend Luke, he is a cameraman so he films everything. He filmed ‘Karen’ and ‘Pedigree’ and he also taught me how to use Premier.”
“I get a big kick out of doing everything myself to be honest,” she continued. “I just find it really fun, being creative and DIY. I feel like that is going to be the biggest movement in the coming years: becoming a DIY musician. I would much rather live in an age where there’s loads of people doing what they love because they have access to it, than just a limited amount of people.”
Like all artists struggling to navigate the post-pandemic world, Dawson has had to put shows on hold, but she says that she’s still finding ways to connect with others from home. “Before lockdown happened, I had a few festivals I was going to play at. I was disappointed when those got cancelled. But I have to say, I think I’ve reached more people now than ever doing livestreams [on Facebook and Instagram].”
She says that she’s finding new energy to create these days, in a time when people could use some inspiration from artists. “I feel like before lockdown, everyone was sort of on a treadmill a bit. But now that we’ve stopped and we’re not rushing around everywhere, people have turned to artists and musicians and creatives. I think the arts are responsible for people’s mental well-being — obviously not fully responsible. But I think it’s really important and people have really discovered that now.”