Q&A: Grace Kelly
Jazz saxophonist Grace Kelly gave her first performance at age 12, was tutored by jazz masters, and now commands a career that is helping move jazz into the future. Whether she’s making pop-up videos or TV appearances, experimenting with EDM or playing with her quartet, Kelly sees all of her endeavors as “jazz and beyond.” She’ll be bringing her singular talents to the Smith Center on Sept. 8-9. She spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen by phone from her hometown of New York before her next round of touring.
How have you been spending your summer? It looks like you've been playing dates close to home and recording on the West Coast.
It's been a really busy summer. We spent all of May in Europe—Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden. We hit it pretty hard. I was actually out like five weeks. Came home and we’ve been doing dates on the East Coast. A lot of back and forth—West Coast, East Coast. Then I've been in the studio for a lot of it and kind of juggling a bunch of different projects at once, and then things gear up on the touring end again this month and get really busy in September. So I kind of used the time that I was home to get back to the studio and get back into creative writing mode, which was great because it’s like a concentrated period of time.
Yeah, that's a lot of activity to have to divide your time for and then try to figure out a way to get back in the zone for creative thought. It must be a process.
Yeah, but I think I actually prefer … it’s so hard to me sometimes when I’m touring to be writing and recording. At the end of the gig we’re tired and then we’re up the next day at like 7 a.m. I prefer to have pockets of intense periods so I can focus on touring and just staying healthy and going on the best show I can and then knowing, “Alright, I've got these two weeks at home. I'm going to bust out a bunch of stuff,” because I feel like with creativity, if you give yourself this deadline and timeline, stuff just has to come out.
Right. But then you agree to score a short film and then all of a sudden that week, with everything else you’re doing, you wind up having to go to the screening or an awards show.
That’s true, yeah, And the things that happen in my life every day—I was just saying this to somebody—most every hour I have to be like, “What hat am I wearing right now?” There are so many exciting things happening and brewing, and so many different projects, and yet like the other night one of the short films that I scored (The Bird Who Could Fly), which is making the rounds in all the film fests, premiered in New York. Then it’s like, alright, I need to leave this writing for now, go meet some people. I’ve also been producing an upcoming show that’s happening at the Berklee Performing Center in September. I’m reaching out to all the artists for that, which is a producer’s role. But then at the end of the day I kind of think having to keep my mind bouncing back and forth from thing to thing is really healthy because one feeds into another. And if I’m just like, “Oh, now I just have to play a show?” that feels really easy.
Well, you’re used to that by now. You've had a continuous line as a musician since your early education, so it's always about compartmentalizing and trying to see how much you accomplish in so much time. It doesn’t look like you ever took a rest.
I get my energy and excitement from doing what I do, and from collaborating with people and I’m one of those people that just get jittery if I have a couple days off. I want to be back into creating. Of course everybody needs some rest, so I do on the weekends. I give myself some more sleep and revamp a little bit, but the thing about our industry and about being a creative, and if you really like scoping out your own path, it’s a constant hustle to be reinventing and thinking and staying ahead of the game. And I think that’s part of the fun of it. Our world today is like content, content, content, and putting out content. I don’t buy the idea anymore of working a whole year on an album and then being active for that album for just a few months and then going back into the hole. I think it’s actually the opposite, that artists should always be putting out stuff, just seeing how it’s hitting their audience, discovering more through that and just have all these things brewing, because you never know what's going to hit a certain demographic, all these different projects with different artists and audiences. Then at some point it all comes together. I have audience members who come and see me and say, “I saw you on the TV show Bosch, the Amazon show.” (Kelly appeared as herself performing, and contributed “Blues For Harry Bosch” to the soundtrack.) I’ve had some that say, “I’ve seen you on The Late Show. I’ve had some that say, “I’ve seen you in the video for Too Many Zooz.” I just did a collaboration with the band Postmodern Jukebox, which has a huge Internet following, so people might know me from that. It’s all super groovy.
I saw your video with the dancing sax player from Too Many Zooz.
Leo Pellegrino! BuzzFeed picked it up yesterday and they love it. He’s touring like a madman, and that clip was only … I mean, we just got together and met for the first time and we just jammed and danced and talked for four hours. Then that clip we filmed literally five minutes before he had to run to rehearsal. We kind of left it just being like, “Hey, let's post this for the fun of it.” People totally freaked out, and now we’re scheduled for the end of August to do a bunch more videos together. Between his schedule and mine there are only like three days in that month that we could both do (laughs).
You’re healthy enough to dance like that, so you’re taking care of yourself. But how did you guys figure out the choreography so fast? There isn’t a step out of sync.
The wildest thing about that is like … we were busy hanging out for four hours trading secrets, and then we just kind of busted out some moves and then we would be like, “Wait, that looks so cool! Let’s do that one together!” And then he showed me the one where you cross your legs and shake your hip, and then we’re just like, “Let's put three of them together.” I mean, we were in a rush when we did that last clip, so we did probably like three takes, and then the last one was like. “Let's put that up!” and he was literally like, “I have to run.” We were just sharing secrets of some of our favorite moves and then practiced them a bit together. We’re kind of like coming from dance experiences, and so it was easier to be able to kind of share notes on it and then do it together.
I was getting the impression from comments on social media that you’ve been recording this summer.
That’s literally been this month (July) and June. As soon as I got back from the touring Europe I went straight to the studio with this with this new band of mine, which is all like electronic dance music, called GKC Union. It's been a concentrated June and July of writing, producing. Our first single (“California”) is actually coming out Aug. 15th and we’ve just been creating our catalog of stuff.
So your focus is going to shift to GKC Union after your current tour as Grace Kelly with your current band?
Yeah. Right now, because that’s such a new band, we've just been putting a ton of time into it. I’m still with the Grace Kelly Quartet. We’re still touring the last CD. I’m not really in the place yet to think about the next Grace Kelly Quartet album because so many balls are up in the air. The focus will be a lot more on GKC Union. The cool thing about the Grace Kelly Quartet is, because we've been a band for a while now, I can bring in new songs and arrangements and we just pop them in the set. When we were together for a month in May it was amazing. We were all working in the same house, constantly working on music. It was so great. I could see, for the Grace Kelly Quartet, new videos and singles coming out. I don’t know when the next full-length album will be, but things are always brewing. It just doesn’t have exact dates.
You’ve called your music “jazz and beyond.” It seems like all of these things are tied together for the purpose of taking the music in new directions.
I'm so glad it’s translating like that, because the thing about me and jazz is ever since I was 12 years old I was singing, acting and dancing. I actually was really into Broadway, and at my very first concert I tap danced and played the saxophone at the same time. A lot of people don’t know that. I started to do very traditional albums with some of my mentors like Phil Woods and Lee Konitz, and I kind of made this year about getting back to that core me, which is pushing performance art as much as I can and merging the musical styles and being as authentic to that 12-year-old Grace as I can be, which always embodied a lot of music, entertainment. There’s so many styles of jazz. So that’s why I think it’s really important that … I call mine “jazz and beyond,” because there’s elements of singing, playing, entertaining and there’s pop music influences, jazz, groove. And it’s a show that we want the audience to be involved in and to be up and dancing with us and having a great time. It’s not like scratch-your-head-and-close-your-eyes kind of jazz. The cats in my band are super-rocking, and like to keep it youthful and fresh, and just super dynamic.