Life as a teenager can often be a balancing act with schoolwork, social life and plans for the future acting as spinning plates. This is especially true for Ava Grace, an 18-year-old senior at Oakdale High, who has managed to balance the typical trappings of high school along with the unique challenge of fronting two bands and a solo act.
A pianist and vocalist with a fondness for the ukulele, Grace began her journey as a performer when she was just 14 years old, playing cover songs at restaurants and cafes in Oakdale and Modesto. It was at one of these performances that she was discovered by Earl Mathews, a 20-year blues veteran from Modesto, who recognized Grace’s talent and approached her with the idea of forming a band. Within a couple of months, the seven-piece group known as Gravel & Grace was born.
By late 2019, a little over a year after their first practice sessions, the band was on tour in the South, playing their brand of music throughout Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. It wasn’t long after that their self-titled debut album “Gravel & Grace: Bringing the Blues” was released.
Grace’s musical career was taking off, but she still wanted to flex her musical muscle so she formed the Ava Grace trio with two other members of Gravel & Grace – Josh Broom and Will Melendez — to bring a more traditional sound to smaller venues in the 209.
With two bands bearing her name, Grace’s need to perform was being met on two fronts and it seemed like 2020 would be another highwater mark for the Oakdale native. That was, of course, before the COVID-19 pandemic put all her best laid plans on hold.
Rather than stew in disappointment, Grace instead seized the opportunity to once again expand her musical horizons and began working on a solo project. With help from bandmate Josh Broom, Grace produced her first solo single “Senior SZN,” a lament about the loss of experiences that often define the final year of high school.
209 Magazine reporter Frankie Tovar sat down with the Oakdale musical phenom to learn more about her past and plans for the future.
Q: You’ve been performing since you were 14 years old, but how did you first start playing music and when did you start wanting to become a musician?
AG: “We had this big grand piano in the front living room that I just started playing when I was a really young child and kind of taught myself. Then eventually, because I had been singing in school choir and singing at home and playing the piano so much, my dad took me when I was 12 or 13 to record a little CD just for him to have in his car.”
Q: When it comes to your sound, who would you say you’re most inspired by?
AG: “When I first started out, I think my singing style was really influenced by the older, classic R&B and blues singers — Etta James and Aretha (Franklin), even Nora jones and her soothing voice…even a little bit of Janis Joplin in trying to get some growls in there. I think I just took all the things I liked and tried to put them together into one in terms of singing.”
Q: And what about the themes of your songs? What do you tend to write about?
AG: “Anyone who knows me really well could probably pick out a number of my songs and say, ‘Oh this is about her experience with that person.’ It’s not super ambiguous, but I try to leave them vague enough so they can be interpreted by different people to mean different things to them.”
Q: You were able to go on tour with Gravel & Grace and play in a few different states in the South. What was that experience like?
AG: “Considering the fact that we do play music that is heavily inspired by soul and jazz and that whole style of music that originated in the South, to be playing it there was really special. It’s an entirely different experience to be in the birth place of that kind of music and to go to those special blues clubs where those amazing musicians have played that we admire so much, and to be able to channel that energy into ourselves."
Q: Gravel & Grace isn’t your only band, there’s also the Ava Grace Trio and now your solo project. How do the three compare and contrast from each other?
AG: “Gravel & Grace tends to bring modern elements to soulful, older music. It brings a modern twist to an older sound whereas the trio does exactly the opposite – it brings an older sound to newer music. My solo project is an odd combination of all the music I like to listen to. I’m not one for sticking to a genre and I never have been and that might be a bit of a crutch for me at some point. A lot of people try to make you stick to a genre and I’ve had a lot of people try to give me that advice, but I don’t like to do it. I like playing a number of things.”
Q: What are your plans for the future when it comes to your musical career?
AG: “For me, especially as a person who’s currently been looking for colleges and looking for the future in terms of just regular adult life, I’m not 100% set on specifically where I want my music career to go yet. I’m open to a number of possibilities and I’m so content with what I have now. I’ve never been a person who was searching for fame necessarily…my goal isn’t necessarily to gain popularity. I think it’s more to gain community and to provide other people with something that they love and to be able to express myself and make an alright living doing that.”
Grace’s solo single Senior SZN and Gravel & Grace’s self-titled album can currently be found on all major streaming platforms. For more information about future performances and releases follow @avagracemusic on Facebook and Instagram.