American-born folk singer Grace has tapped a noncynical streak in her French audience.
Last fall at the Comptoir de L'Arc, a popular lunch cafe off the Champs-Élysées, one song played over and over in a loop. The wait staff requested it, though it was – of all things – in English. In jaunty tones, it rang out a message of hope, but also laid down a challenge for individuals to do better in the world: "Stand up for justice, oh let it be me...."Skip to next paragraph
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It was the debut song of a tall, slightly dramatic-looking artist who goes by the name of Grace, born in the United States to musicians (her father is folk singer Jonathan Edwards), but whose art draws from a life lived in Africa, Europe, India, and the Caribbean, as well as the States.
Grace taps those locales in what she calls the musical "momentum of being a traveler." Her debut hit, "Imagine One Day," asks the fortunate to walk in the shoes of the destitute – and it traveled to No. 1 on iTunes here last fall and is still in the Top 10 radio plays in France this spring.
But what may set the artist apart is an approach or attitude of affirmation and gratitude – underscored with loads of earnestness.
Normally, the French don't go for overt optimism, in art or anything. But her sincerity seems to appeal. Grace's concerts open with a prayer of blessing for the audience, for past and future generations. They end with an almost militant refrain, aimed at hard-pressed souls, about recovery from personal lows – "I know you can, I know you will!" If Barack Obama is a postcynical president, Grace is a postcynical singer with an American passport, now being discovered in Paris.
At the L'Alhambra theater here last fall, for example – a day after white America voted in a black president – the quite white Grace had black Africans up and dancing to her new gospel number, "Lord, I'm thankful."
Her hit "Imagine" might be Idealism 101: "Decide if you are going to live selfishly or in a giving way ... it's up to you," she says, almost sweetly, in an interview (to hear "Imagine" click here). And French reviewers have mostly returned the positive vibes. "This American in Paris sings with deep soul ... a joyful bohemia," noted L'Express. Figaro's weekly supplement called her sound "one of the revelations" of the season. She's compared in part to the Nigerian-Romanian singer Ayo, also based in Paris.
Born on one of her father's tours, Grace hasn't had a speedy emergence on any musical scene. She grew up around guitars and singing. She remembers at age 7 in Kenya writing a song after seeing some rugged poverty, and decided to devote her life to improving such scenes. But only in recent years did the notes come together enough to find her muse and build a band.
Home has been everywhere: Kenya, California, Illinois, Senegal, Ethiopia, India, Belgium, and Jamaica. In travels she's lived with local families – Sufis in California, Rastafarians in Jamaica. She designed clothes with a family in India. Paris, now, is at the center, "like lettuce in a sandwich." She gravitates back here since "even a bird must put its feet on the ground sometimes."