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Joyful bohemian

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

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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."

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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."