Grace Savage can do it all: she’s a singer, actor, writer and, perhaps most notably, a beatboxer. In fact, she’s a four-time UK beatbox champion. Not only that, but her one-woman show based on her journey towards beatbox champion has played in Edinburgh and London whilst she’s also appeared in a play with the National Theatre.
The Devon-born Savage (aptly-named) is a young and inspirational figure not just because of her talent, but because she’s managed to craft a name for herself in a heavily male-dominated industry. Alongside all her accolades she’s also been lucky enough to talk on the world-famous TED Talks stage, but more on that later.
We caught up with Grace to talk about her start in the world of beatboxing, female representation, and what she’s bringing to the table with her latest music.
Adam Maidment, Musicngear: So, can you tell us a bit about how you got started in beatboxing? When did you realise it was something you wanted to do?
Grace Savage: I started beatboxing when I was about 15 years old. I saw a guy called Rahzel, who is one of the pioneering names of the early 00’s beatboxing scene, at a gig in Exeter and it just blew my mind. It was the first time I got to see beatboxing and it was amazing!
I’m from a tiny little town in Devon but there just so happened to be a lot of beatboxers in that town, so from then on I just started learning from them. There was also a website called HumanBeatbox.com, this is before YouTube was big, and it was where people went for tutorials or to learn sounds.
Is there ever any pressure in being the “poster girl” for the beatboxing industry, having become the first female UK Beatbox champion?
G.S: I never really see myself as a role model, I’m just there doing something I love and if that so inspires other people then so be it. However, it’s becoming more apparent as I’m getting older that there’s an importance in having people to look up to.
I probably wouldn’t have even started if I hadn’t known Bellatrix, who is my beatbox partner. We both grew up in the same little town and I saw her beatboxing first. Seeing her do it definitely inspired me so, yeah, I’m definitely up for being a poster girl – I’ll take on that label!
How did it feel to appear on the TEDx stage and to be able to share your story?
G.S: I was initially booked to just do a 10-minute beatbox set as part of a brain break for the audience from all the deep, intense talks they had on - I was the light-relief.
They mentioned that if I also wanted to do a talk then I could. I had a little think about it and thought that I’m probably never going to be asked to do a TED Talk again in my life so, I went for it even though the thought absolutely petrified me.
The part of your talk where you beatbox to misogynist rap songs against comments from trolls was really powerful. You’ve spoken quite openly about having tough skin with these comments, how did you manage to be able to get to that point?
G.S: The internet can be a dark place. I’m quite thick-skinned anyway, I grew up with two older brothers who were just little shits to me all the time so I learnt how to deal with that quite early on. As I said in the TED Talk, I generally could just brush the comments over my shoulder and they made me laugh but I understand that not everyone is as thick-skinned.
It wasn’t until I saw a comment from one of the beatboxers I knew in the community that it really upset me. You think we’re all on the same team but if people within the scene are thinking that we don’t deserve to win or aren’t good enough then, yeah, that’s kind of upsetting.
Did you ever manage to speak to the people who made the comment and get a response from them about why they did it?
G.S: We ended up in a bit of a YouTube comments battle, as you do, and he was like “oh, I’m only trolling” as if it didn’t mean anything. Well, no, actually someone is reading that and taking it on so, yes it does mean something – you’ve affected how someone feels. But, no, we’ve not spoken in person.
There were two other guys who we had battled against who had made some similar comments and they came up to me and apologised about a year later – I totally respect them for that.
If men are having three quarters of the pie and women are having only a quarter, by trying to make that a half/half split then it’s obviously going to feel like we’re eating into their slice. But, yeah, we kinda have to do that for now before it becomes equal because otherwise we’re going to be waiting another hundred years.
Did anyone who had their comments featured in your talk ever get in touch with you?
G.S: There was one guy who had his comments featured on the TED Talk and it turned out he was the Asian beatbox champion. He messaged me on Instagram and was like ‘woah, people are saying I’m mentioned in your TED Talk and it’s not positive.’ I didn’t realise he was a beatboxer, I just looked at the comments and featured them. He explained that when he was younger he used to troll on videos because he thought it was funny but now he realises that it’s not and apologised.
I wasn’t intending to shame anyone, I was just putting them out there to show the type of comments the videos got.
People have commented saying ‘don’t you want to be booked because you’re good and not just because you’re a woman?’. Well, of course I do – nobody ever wants to be given a job or given a position just because of their gender or the colour of their skin
Alongside being a beatboxer, you’re also a musician. For anyone who’s new to your music, how would you describe the sound?
G.S: Um, I would say it’s electronic-pop I guess – It’s really hard to describe your music because I just make it and let other people do the describing! Yeah, electronic pop: catchy choruses with a sort of dark and rhythmic vibe.
Don’t just make music because it sounds like everything else or because it’s on trend
You recently released a single ‘Running Under Water’. Can you explain a bit about the track and its story?
G.S: I already had the verses written and it was initially going to be about my brother who suffers from bipolar disorder and was struggling. I wanted to write a song for him as he feels he’s always battling the world but then, it sort of developed into more of a romantic story and it’s actually one of the only songs I’ve got that’s based on something fictional.
It’s this idea of falling in love with someone who’s got depression, it’s that part where your teetering on the edge of whether to go with this person because it could be a lot to take on. It can be quite an emotionally draining thing for people to be able to deal with sometimes, and being the one who “looks after” someone with depression is perhaps a side that isn’t heard much in music.
You were recently nominated for "Best Female Solo Act" and "Best Songwriter" at the Unsigned Music Awards 2018. Do you enjoy being an independent artist? Are there any particular benefits to it?
G.S: I’ve never not been independent, it’s all I know. From what I’ve read or from what I’ve seen, I think my preference would be to stay independent but, of course, if someone offered me a million dollars then I might have to change my mind. People are starting to learn that even if you get tempted with money and a big team, there’s always extra pressure and you could still get dropped in a year. Also, you’re normally in debt if you’re not making money and earning it back for the label. It sounds like quite a high-pressure business that I wouldn’t really want to be a part of.
I have a management team and a booking agent but they’re not breathing down my neck, giving me deadlines – I can take my time and have a lot more freedom with things. I’m a bit of a control freak too, so I like being able to be in charge of my own career.
People have commented saying "don’t you want to be booked because you’re good and not just because you’re a woman?". Well, of course I do – nobody ever wants to be given a job or given a position just because of their gender or the colour of their skin
So, as an independent artist what is the process for you in terms of finding producers and songwriters to work with?
G.S: I think every artist is different, some artists are put in a room with a different producer every week to try and find their sound whereas my approach has been quite different. I’ve been writing with Ben Cartwright for the last six years, I guess that makes him my writing partner now. I’m very comfortable working within our small team as we know how each other work.
I have started to branch out a little bit more now, I’ve been working with a producer called James Yuille. I went to a session with him recently and I was a little bit nervous as I’m so used to working with the same people but, it turned out, he’d been a touring musician for ages and he hadn’t done that many writing sessions either. We were both a bit tentative going into it but we had a really good session and have been writing together quite a lot recently. So, yeah, I’m slowly expanding.
If I find someone that I like working with then I tend to stick with them. When you have success, half of it is down to their hard work. A lot of songwriters and producers have to do stuff for free in the beginning, so if my career starts to go up then I want to bring them with me.
We did some research recently that found that in all solo acts on the line-up of six leading music festivals, only 25% were female. Have you ever experienced anything similar to this? Have you been the only one or two of females on a line-up?
G.S: I’ve never actively looked at the line-ups of the shows I’ve performed at in that way really, but it is becoming a lot more obvious. There’s an account called BookMoreWomen and they basically put up festival posters that just show the women performers on the line-up. When you see something visually like that, it really hits home.
If every festival i was to ever be booked on sent me the poster and it only had the female acts listed then it’d be something to think about, for sure.
You don’t want to get to the point where bookers think they have to put X amount of female artists on just for the point of having an equal split but it doesn’t feel right that festivals have such difficulty in having equal, or more even, representation. It’s not like there’s a draught of female artists, is there?
G.S: I think these whole Equalising Music and Key Change initiatives that are trying to push festivals to have a 50/50 split by 2020 are amazing. I’ve shared them on Facebook and had a few comments back where people have commented saying ‘don’t you want to be booked because you’re good and not just because you’re a woman?’. Well, of course I do – nobody ever wants to be given a job or given a position just because of their gender or the colour of their skin, but I do think that it’s a necessary evil.
Equality for the privileged feels like oppression and I totally get that. So, if men are having three quarters of the pie and women are having only a quarter, by trying to make that a half/half split then it’s obviously going to feel like we’re eating into their slice. But, yeah, we kinda have to do that for now before it becomes equal because otherwise we’re going to be waiting another hundred years.
It might feel like drastic action to some people and a lot of people are going to disagree with it, but I truly feel there are so many talented women out there that these initiatives are going to help and not just because they’re women but because they’re talented. The amount of female writers on PRS is ridiculous, it’s something like 16%, so these initiatives will make it farer for them.
Yeah, there’s a lot of work to be done but hopefully we’re on the right track to making a change.
G.S: It takes years and years for people to catch their big break. They say it takes ten years of hard work to become an overnight success, so if people start in their late-teens then they won’t be making it until their late-twenties. As you get to the point of touring and promoting, that might be the point where women start to think about settling down or having a family so, presumably, there will be more men that will be able to continue with this hectic lifestyle.
I’m not talking about this from any facts at all, but I’m sure that might have something to do with it as well.
Absolutely. Lastly, what piece of advice would you have for anyone wanting to get into the industry?
G.S: I would say that you have to be willing to make sacrifices, you’re going to have to work your arse off. Don’t be in it for fame or fortune as the likelihood is that you’re going to be poor – there’s a small percentage of people that make lots of money from it, so definitely be in it for the love and the passion.
Don’t just make music because it sounds like everything else or because it’s on trend – there’s too many people doing that. You’re also going to have to do a lot of gigs for free in the beginning. For about a year, I was on jobseekers allowance whilst I was doing open mic nights and putting on a one-woman show. The more work you do, eventually it pays off – work brings more work, basically.
And, just be nice to everyone you meet because people will book you again. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, nobody wants to work with someone with a huge ego.