Joyful bohemian

American-born folk singer Grace has tapped a noncynical streak in her French audience.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Performing a blend of soul and reggae, folk and blues, singer Grace is a rarity: a spiritual French phenomenon with an American passport.
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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...."

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.

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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."

As a musical type, she's a crossover in a crossover age. French media call it familiar but different – not quite world music, pop, or rock. "I think it is a blend of soul, reggae, folk, and blues," she says over an artichoke at a Bastille brasserie. "But sometimes I'm not sure."

Whatever it is, the sound was unique enough for the president of Mercury France to sign her after hearing one song. That's saying something in an industry looking every which way for sustainability; only four acts were signed last year. Mercury has since merged with Universal.

"The point about Grace is that she crosses a lot of lines," says Mercury official Quentin Pestre. "She's familiar with traveling in India, knows the people in Kenya, finds a familiarity with Paris."

Song themes run from the freedom of the open road to the relationship that doesn't have to fail, chasing away the dark and letting in the light, looking at the world not through your eyes but through your heart, a hope that doesn't die. Songs reach to the world of child soldiers, and alert about the dispossessed.

"I didn't like everything, but what I liked I really liked," says a British music executive who traveled from London to the L'Alhambra show. "She's different. We would say, 'She's got something we look for.' "

Keeping momentum is a discipline. It is an artistic project aimed at "light" and "wholeness" – backed by a bottom-line industry on hard times even before the economic crisis. But this spring Grace is on the road even more – a daily beat of media interviews, playing record stores and theaters, getting out there. Band leader and lead guitarist Jérôme Degey, and backup singers Philippe Aglae and Caroline Loial, are well known in Paris, and the group has become something of a family. "We've grown up a lot since the fall," Grace says.

Trying to make it, to be heard in France, is different from the US. There are fewer aspiring musicians per city block here. With exceptions, it is less glamorous. Both niche music and niche audiences (folk, rap) are less clear-cut. And the pace is more relaxed. "In the States, you either make it quickly, or you are out," says Grace. "Here, there's more time."

Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley, Tina Turner, and her parents are musical influences. Her mother has recorded under the name Carolina Edwards, and more recently as "Serah," and Grace thinks a lifetime of hearing her mother sing hymns has had an effect. She thinks "Björk is amazing," and takes from West African "griots" – traditional songs preserved by musical families, some of whom she lived with.

Mahatma Ghandi, Krishnamurti, Mary Baker Eddy, the poet Rumi are spiritual inspirations – though Grace says she is not a member or promoter of any single tradition. She finds truth "in many places."

She dislikes "preachiness," though says a search for truth is crucial: "The world is influencing people in so many different ways, that for us not to seek a truth is delaying something, and I feel that as a world, we don't have a lot of time to lose. People feel so disempowered; it is time they felt they can make a difference. I think the Obama election is part of this." She quotes from her Sufi family in San Francisco: "Muslims have a saying that if you take one step toward God, He takes two steps toward you."

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