Amanda Grace didn’t realize how powerful her music could be until her nephew, Bryce, was diagnosed with leukemia. Singing brought him comfort.
In 2010, after Bryce’s death, Grace recorded and released Trains, Cars + A Trip to Mars, a children’s album. When Bryce’s father, her brother-in-law, died suddenly, Grace memorialized the loss on her next album, Embrace, in 2012. A Kickstarter-funded album, Keeping Hearts, followed in 2014.
Grace has quite the set of pipes. Her new album, Better Life, incorporates folk, rock, pop, and a rap cameo from Los Angeles rapper Prime Blaq. No matter what the instrumentals, Grace’s lyrics spread messages of hope, reassurance, and encouragement.
A self-described “country kid,” the Winona-based Grace grew up playing piano and created an imaginary radio station dubbed “Any Kind of Music.” She studied communications and music at Winona State.
We spoke to her ahead of her album release show at the Warming House on Wednesday.
City Pages: When did you start recording your music?
Amanda Grace: I was in a really heavy rock alternative rock band when I was in college. We started a little CD, but with people going different directions and moving on past the college years, it was pretty hard to keep that band together. It wasn’t until I was married and had my first child that I was compelled to come back to focusing on the singer-songwriter thing as a career or at least as an intention. That was when my sister’s son was diagnosed with leukemia. I was the last person he wanted to see before he died. That experience I thought about a long time and decided to make a children’s CD. That was the initial spark that brought me back.
CP: How did your music help or comfort your nephew before he passed away?
AG: That was me bringing my guitar in. He died as I was singing. At the moment, I remember thinking, “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to sing. I have no songs in my head.” I just kind of sang, “You’re in heaven, you’re in heaven, you’re in heaven. You’re surrounded by love.” He was battling so hard to stay alive for his mom. I just know he was. It was really hard to see.
CP: And his father, your brother-in-law, died shortly thereafter?
AG: My sister and Tim had been high-school sweethearts. They had five boys and they lived in a farm in Goodhue. Bryce was the third son. Tim died 17 months after Bryce. He had a very sudden brain aneurysm. The medical examiner said there was nothing they could have done. There was no indication of any warning signs, either. I believe the boys just got to come in and say goodbye, but that was it.
CP: That’s a lot of loss in a very short time.
AG: Yes. Embrace was my next project and I did a few songs in there for my sister and her boys, just dedicated to them and to that loss.
CP: Is the songwriting process different if you’re writing for a children’s audience versus and adult audience?
AG: I don’t actually think a lot about the songwriting process like some people do. I sort of let it happen. If I have time, I’ll sit down and noodle around with some chords. If something really sticks with me, I’ll work on it, but I’m not really intentional about my songwriting. I would like to be more in the future. In my dreams, I would love to go to a songwriting retreat where you have three days to sit there and eat really good food and drink wine and write songs, but that’s just not my life right now. I sort of focus on what I want to say, whether it’s for an adult or a kid. I’ve found a lot of adults really like my kids’ music, which makes me laugh in a good way. I think it’s great and it surprises me every time. Somebody came to my CD release in Winona from Mankato and the last song they requested was “Candy Planet.” What are you going to say? No? It makes me giggle.
CP: Each song on Better Life is a distinct genre. Why did you decide to buck tradition and use a variety of sounds?
AG: I just take each song on a case-by-case basis. I’m the same way with all my other albums. The farther I go on this, I realize each song is different, should be different. I had two different producers on this CD, too. There are some artists that have the time and they can get away and do a full album and maybe it all sounds the same, but for me, being self-managed, I decided: “I want to focus on each song. I want to put all the vocals that I can on it. I want to create a dramatic moment on every song.” I didn’t want to rush any of them. I wanted to really take hours and hours on my vocals and make it the best that I could. I honestly don’t even think of genres. Maybe some of us are meant to be odd and I’m okay with that. It keeps people guessing, that’s for sure.
CP: What kinds of venues can you play at in Winona?
AG: Everyone’s favorite is Ed’s No-Name Bar. There are a couple coffeeshops you can play at. There’s Midwest Music Store. I actually float out more now. I’m trying to tour regionally where I’ll go to the Cities, do a library show, a kids’ show, a coffeeshop, a bar, and then go home. I’m all over the place.
CP: You're a ChildFund artist. What does that involve?
AG: The artist becomes a partner with ChildFund, a large group that helps feed kids from all over the world. They help support your tours and you help get the word out about them. I get hired for a show, I ask them if they’re okay with it, and I put up a picture of each of the kids that we’re trying to feed and I’ll take three minutes after a song break and just talk about it. It helps get the word out for them and they reimburse me for every CD I give away. It’s really cool. I feel like I’ve been waiting for something like this for a long time. I’ve done countless fundraisers and they’re great, except that the artists use up their weekends for paying gigs – and I’ve done them all for free. The cool thing is this I can do [ChildFund] while I’m gigging. My husband and I have three sponsored kids. You get letters from them and stuff.
CP: That’s really cool that you’re using your music to give back.
AG: Yeah, well, we can’t solve all the world’s problems, but I’m trying to tackle something. Everyone’s struggling to live, pay their bills, do their best. I’m hopeful that I can make a difference.
With: Joyanne Parker
Where: The Warming House
When: 8 p.m. Wed. Dec. 6
Tickets: $10; more info here.