Nyah Grace bridges two worlds with her R&B prowess, her talent taking her from Oregon’s open expanse to London’s bustling city streets. Miki Hellenbach talks art, life and everything in between with Nyah as she steps onto the scene with her debut record, Honey-Coloured.
The push and pull of growing up in a small Oregon farm town while building a singing career in the U.K. is a constant conundrum for 18-year-old Nyah Grace. About her stunning collaboration “My Sista Told Me” with U.K. legend Corinne Bailey Rae she says, “It’s funny because my actual sister will all the time be like, “oh, what did I tell you?” Then all of her friends will text her (Nyah’s real life sister), and be like, “what did you tell Nyah?” Everyone thinks it’s about my actual sister.” While she strives for legitimacy in her aspirations even alongside musical queens, she still deals with goofy small-town familial banter.
The dichotomy of the two worlds in which she exists parallels the two styles she incorporates musically: one is a more classic smooth jazzy soul, and the other is more modern R&B. On an album filled with both, she seamlessly floats in and out of each like a veteran, but according to Nyah, she’s still figuring it out, not unlike her moving in and out of fast-paced urban adulthood and slowed down rural youth.
Grace’s music is as bold as it is warm. It makes you feel good as much as it makes you either reminisce about the confusion of young love or reflect on the relationship you are currently trying to navigate. She sings about patience on a song like “Think” with lyrics, “took time to get that healin’ babe, took time to get that feelin’ babe,” while later singing about the lack thereof in a song like “Summer Lovin” with lines like, “change in the atmosphere just wish that you were here.” The magic in her delivery lies entirely in the contrast that she explores, while never straying from what is pure about her.
Honey-Coloured is a triumph of musicianship and tone with not a song even to consider skipping. Nyah Grace has a long way to go, but this is quite a start. We talked on the phone about everything from tractor driving to mouth trumpet.
Read the full interview below, slightly edited for content and clarity.
Miki: How you doin? Where you at right now?
Nyah: I’m in Oregon. I’m about to go combining. My family runs a farm. So in the summer, I have to work on a tractor. It’s so much fun. It’s quite the contrast from how I appear.
Yeah, no kidding! Anyway, congrats on the album.
Thank you! It’s crazy cuz I started it pretty much two years ago when I was 16. Now I’m 18, and it took so long to do it. So now that it’s out, I never thought I’d be in the place where I actually got to listen to it. It’s just so weird.
So I’m sure I’m not the first person to realize this, but you’re not British, huh?
I wish! I mean yeah, a lot of people think that. I get a lot of dm’s about that cuz I’m in Oregon for quarantine. I’ve actually lost out on a lot of gigs and collaborations during this time cuz people think I’m in the U.K., but I totally wish I was British. I wish I had an accent. My manager is British. My sound and getting on radio works best over there. So I started going when I was 15 and just fell in love with it. I would go back for more and more writing sessions, go to the studio, work on the album, ride the tube, and stuff. All the while I was 16 and 17 growing up in this environment. So it became my normal, and being in Oregon home for quarantine has been the weirdest thing. I think London is the only place now where I could see myself living.
Is that the reason for the British spelling of Honey-Coloured?
Yes. The controversial spelling… Americans or my friends on Instagram are like, “yo, you spelled it wrong.”
You got the grammar police after you?
Right. (The title) was actually an internal debate for me for a while. The funny part is when I was there, and COVID wasn’t a thing, and I was gigging all the time, it was like my schtick to be like, “I’m in the works with my album (and title), but I can’t figure out how to spell it blah blah blah.” No one ever laughed or thought it was funny, but I liked that it was my thing. But I eventually decided on the “u” because I thought it was prettier, and I feel like I have to fully commit to the U.K. or the US. My biggest dream is to live there, so I thought, why not just manifest it? Fake it til I make it and make people think I’m British.
So did you grow up in a music-filled home at all? How’d you start singing?
Not really. The biggest tie I have to music is my great aunt on my Dad’s side. She was a background singer for most of her life. She was on the song “Don’t Disturb This Groove.” She did a show for like 9 bucks in the ’80s, and I’ve got the flyer for it in my room. I wasn’t massively close with her, but that’s where I like to think I got my soul and my talent from. But as far as my parents, my mom was one of those parents who forced their kids to take piano, and I hated it. So I quit cuz I couldn’t learn sheet music. I remember being six and asking my mom if she could find singing lessons. Then from there, I just listened to new people, and my sound evolved. From six on, I was in singing recitals. Then when I was 11, I started playing piano again, but I was playing chords instead, and my singing teacher said, “I think you should transition to singing while you play cuz it could help you in the long run.” Then I started guitar. Have you ever seen those girls with ukuleles? That’s how I sounded. I was very, “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” Which is really weird cuz I wasn’t like jazzy or soulful til I was like 14. But that’s how it all started, and I started listening to different people like Billie Holiday and Corinne Bailey Rae.
So, all your music discovery was on your own?
Honestly, it was on my own or from my singing teachers. I had three amazing singing teachers that would be like, “this would sound good for your voice.” Looking back on it, I think they unintentionally molded my sound. They’d see what my voice naturally did and would recommend things off that, and I went to jazz camp when I was 14. That’s how I was introduced to Billie Holiday. The jazz teacher was like, “I want you to sing, “It Had To Be You,” and I’d never heard that song. I fell in love with it and the way she sang.
You clearly blend two styles to me. Jazzy neo-Soul and a more modern pop r&b? On the album, did you consciously try to show your versatility in both, and did you think about making sure the transitions into each style blended seamlessly?
The first song I ever released was “Black Coffee,” which was super jazzy, very acoustic, very stripped down. The reason that I released it was Caffe Nero wanted to play it in their stores after my manager sent them a demo. So I had to quickly do a cut of that song and then release it. I was really nervous because I knew I didn’t want to be just acoustic jazz you know like brushes and acoustic guitar, but that was how I started out. Then I feel like it was kind of conscious bringing in the whole modern part of it because I always wanted to have a more modern sound. But I still always wanted to be original and stick to my soul vibe. How it started was I got Logic, learned it, and would do really shitty demos with Apple drum loops. The two producers that I worked with for this album Michael Graves and Steve Chrisanthou, I showed them a demo for “And I Love Him,” and it had that almost sort of 80’s beat with all the pads and synths and background vocals. That was the first one I think that was a bit more R&B and modern, and we were like, “I kind of dig this,” and from there, it sort of took a turn. I think through the process of doing this album I was also trying to find my sound.
Who are three jazzy neo-soul artists you think inspire your sound the most and three modern R&B?
I think D’Angelo. He uses a flanger on that song, “Spanish Joint.” I remember being like, “I want that sound on my voice.” I think it was on “Magnolia” and a little bit on “So Fine” cuz I just love that sound. His chord progression and everything really influenced my sound. Billie Holiday is huge for jazz vocal performance and how she pronounces stuff. I don’t think I intended to sound like her, but I think listening to her influenced me. Then I know she’s not jazz, but I grew up listening to Judy Garland.
Yeah?! I was obsessed with Meet Me In St. Louis as a kid. I would listen to the soundtrack all the time. Ok… so modern R&B, I love Mahalia. She’s an incredible artist and her production style I’ve admired a lot. I love that chill vibe where you don’t have to think too much about what it’s doing; it just makes you feel good. I love Raveena. That’s an amazing natural R&B sound where it’s so dreamy it feels like you’re in a cloud. I love Mac Ayres. I think he’s got amazing musicianship. He’s crazy talented with keys and guitar and everything, and I also love his writing style. Those are my main three.
Cool! Is Honey-Coloured more about the actual color or about the energy of someone or something?
It’s funny cuz I’m half black so as a joke I say I named it Honey-Coloured cuz I am. But as far as the song, I wrote it as a bit of a complicated relationship, but it’s also sort of a magical relationship. I remember I was up in my bed writing on the guitar, and I was working with Steve. We had finished for the day, and we’d done the track, but I didn’t have the chorus lyrics yet, and I did “Honey-Coloured,” then I added Stardust. I feel like Honey-Coloured is just an energy, and “Honey-Coloured” and Stardust are kind of opposites cuz Honey is kind of warm and Stardust is kind of far out and magical and kind of a different realm.
On “I Don’t Really,” you sing about personal relationships and career balance. Can you describe the type of push and pull you’ve experienced thus far?
So I wrote this when I was 17 with Michael Graves. I brought in the demo I’d done by myself on Logic and he was like, “oh, you’ve met someone,” and I was like, “I totally haven’t,” and I was totally single and had never been in a relationship when I wrote the song. But I think in a way it’s always been a personal thing balancing my career with my friendships. I’ve been a million miles away from my friends while doing my own thing and trying to find myself. It’s such a weird thing that I’m doing being from a small town. People don’t always understand that. For a lot of things, I just haven’t had the time for them. It’s a thing a lot of artists might struggle with. I remember listening to a podcast with Mahalia, and she was like, “being an artist and having friends who don’t do what you do is really tough with keeping the connections.” I can only imagine what this would be like for a relationship.
Why is “Sunday” the ultimate day of “real love” as you express in the song?
Well, I can tell you why I use it in like every song. “Sunday” is the best day of the week to sing. Monday doesn’t sing as well, Saturday doesn’t sing as well, but there’s something about Sunday that mixes with the voice. But as far as why is it the ultimate day of love? It was this idea of someone being there with you on a “Sunday.” Sundays traditionally are so pure. If you’re religious, you go to church. It’s always a family day. Then there’s Sunday morning with someone drinking coffee. I think it’s the only day of the week that has a strong emotional feeling. Like no one gives a crap about Monday or every other day. Friday and Saturday are good for going out, but…it’s just everyone’s favorite day of the week, I think. Just no one wants to admit it.
For “And I Love Him,” I’ve been thinking a lot about the self-involved nature of loving someone who doesn’t love you back. Why is it hard to let go of that entitlement even if you see they love someone else?
With me personally, I think I can attach to people in a very strong way. Not very quickly. But I just think it’s shit seeing someone you like with someone else. I did write that about a specific situation where a boy that I liked wasn’t really making a move then I realized he just didn’t like me. But it’s hard to admit to ourselves that we’re not what people want sometimes. We want to think highly of ourselves. No one wants to be stuck up, but I don’t ever wanna be not someone’s first choice.
I hear a theme in your music of you being intrigued by the sort of grey area of early love. Waiting for a call. Not being able to tell if they really like you enough to stay. The chase. Then at times taunting your “lover” like “you’re lucky to have this” kind of thing. What do you like about that dichotomy, and why is it fun to write songs about?
That whole, “take time cuz my lovin ain’t free,” line was really sassy for me. It’s on “I Don’t Really.” I hadn’t got into a relationship until the album was done. So up until that point, I was single my whole life and experienced that whole thing of liking people who don’t like you back a lot. So that was always a personal thing. So anytime I was like, “you’d be so lucky to have this,” I think it’s just a self-respect everyone should have for themselves. It’s easy to confuse narcissism with confidence. I also do wanna sing and say things like, “look at a bad bitch you should be so lucky to have this” but in my nature, I’m such a shy and quiet person. I would never dare say that to someone’s face.
Well, maybe it’s good to be able to say it in the music.
It is! I like kind of putting up that front of being a bunch of these different personalities. And whether it’s something you’d really say or something you’d really believe in, it’s really fun to be on stage and be like, “take time cuz my lovin ain’t free.”
Let’s talk songwriting process. Are you a write before studio or write in-studio person?
I think a lot of artists are good at hearing something and being inspired, but I need to be involved with the chords and production of the song. I want it to feel like mine. But I think for the most part with the best songs on the album, it was coming in with a clear head, not expecting to make anything special. Then I’d start something, the producer would start something like some chords, and then we’d kind of build off of it together. Then I’d take it home and do most of the lyrics. Then come back the next day and put it together.
Is Corinne Bailey Rae the sister figure you sing about in “My Sista Told Me” that you co-wrote? Also, how did y’all meet?
So that whole connection was Steve Chrisanthou, who worked on my album and produced her whole first and second albums. So they’re really close friends and he was basically like, “We should have a writing session with you guys.” I was really nervous the whole time. We wrote the beginning of the chorus of “My Sista Told Me” with totally different lyrics in October of 2018. Then October 2019, he’s like, “I think you should meet with Corinne again.” So she came back and was pregnant, and it had been a year since we touched it. Then we decided to totally switch it up and have that kind of rap verse, then changed 90 percent of the lyrics except the main hook. Then about the whole sister thing. Originally it was Corinne’s idea to say cousin just for a kind of verse, and it wasn’t gonna be the hook. Then I just liked the way that “Sista” sang. It’s just supposed to be about womanhood and sisterhood. We aren’t crazy close, but she was really great at being there and mentoring the two times we did get to meet. She helped me with a lot of things I’m struggling with like being so young and doing this because she obviously has so much experience. But I feel like the “Sista” in the song is a lot of people. I feel like it’s my mom, my actual sister. It’s all of the people who have ever given me advice and I feel like it’s just celebrating women.
What’s the final thought you were trying to leave everyone with on the album’s final track, “The Trumpet Song,” and is that a real trumpet or mouth trumpet?
It’s me doing mouth trumpet. Believe it or not, with a telephone vocal over it. When I wrote it when I was 15, I sent it to a friend, and I was like, “I’m imagining a trumpet player here.” So I just did some shitty trumpet impression, and he was like, “oh, that actually sounds alright.” So every time I gigged with that song, I would do my mouth trumpet, and it was like a cool surprise. People weren’t expecting it, so in the audience, they’d be like, “ohhhh.” Then in the studio, Michael was just like, “that’d be really cool if you did the trumpet bit on the record.” So I just did it. It’s not like I’m a good mouth trumpeter, but for that song, it worked. And I think for the thought I was tryna leave… I always knew I wanted that to be the last song on the album because it was the first song I ever wrote for the album, not knowing I was writing it for an album. It was one I wrote in my basement, and it just meant a lot to me. It just embodies my whole journey. It shows how far I’ve come cuz when I wrote it I never imagined it would sound like how it does on the record. I would never have dreamed of branching out to that sound. I wanted something really homey at the end. Something that was like a breath of fresh air that was different from everything they’ve heard. When choosing the order, I was trying to imagine someone playing it at a dinner party just as background sound and how a dinner party would go. Start with “Honey-Coloured,” people arriving, and then “The Trumpet Song” was just the end of the night drinking wine by the fireplace, and all the stuff in the middle is kind of how the night goes. I think I say at the end of the song to Michael, “can I get that one more time on the vocal?” For that, I was just thinking like “one more time” like they could replay the record. It’s subconscious so they can be like, “oh yeah, I do wanna hear that one more time.”
Listen to her debut album Honey-Coloured on Spotify below: