You might not have heard the name Henry Grace, but if you like raw, emotional lyricism, American folk, and Bruce Springsteen and Bon Iver were your first loves, then it’s time to get to know this newcomer. He’s just released his debut album today, Alive in America, an autobiographical record of his battle with depression and move to America from the UK.
Born and raised in London, Henry suffered with depression, and at 21, after hitting rock bottom, he moved to California in order to get treatment. In LA he not only shook off his demons: he got into Berkeley to study literature, started to pursue music, and quickly began to sell out venues as his sound transitioned from British folk singer to Americana songwriter. After fives years in the states, and two EP’s later, he returned to London, where he continued to write and tour relentlessly, advocate for mental health awareness, and put together a record. The album was recorded live over 5 days at Rockfield Studios in early 2021. Engineered by Josh Tyrell (Van Morrison) and mixed by Oliver McKiernan (Echobelly), Alive in America is rough around the edges, almost harsh at times, like the landscape he is drawing from, and is littered with cinematic imagery resonant of the Coen brothers.
Henry Grace sat down with Wonderland to discuss the album and why he thinks talking about mental health is so important. Scroll below for the full interview…
Hey Henry, how are you doing?
I’m ok, thanks! Happy to finally be releasing the album.
How would you describe the vibe of the album, for people who haven’t heard your music before?
Stark and cinematic. There’s a lot of imagery about rural Midwest America, because I used that landscape to channel what I was trying to say. I used that landscape as my medium. I think the result is that sonically it sounds quite wide and open, but also a little bit barren and desolate, because that part of America is quite empty and a bit rundown. In terms of the actual production of the album, it’s represented in the album cover: it’s meant to look, feel and sound quite unpolished. I wasn’t going in there to try and create this big, full, pop-sounding production.
Where did that Midwestern influence come from?
I think it was from my time in America, I spent five and a half years there. It’s also inspired by music that I listened to, like Bon Iver and Springsteen.
Before you moved to America you were battling with depression, and you’ve said that you credit America with saving your life. Could you talk more about that? That experience seems to be really central to your music.
Yeah, it’s definitely central to the album. The songs reference my time there, but also some of the stuff I was going through. Before I moved to America, when I was 21, I dropped out of university, I was living at home and I was in a really, really dark place. And then I went there to get help and treatment. And really within the space of a few months, I’d managed to figure my stuff out. Then I just decided that I wanted to stay. I found a way to live there, I enrolled myself in a community college, lived in LA for two and a half years and then got into Berkeley, and transferred there for the final two years. I moved back here in 2018, and I view those five years in America as the best years of my life, but also when I really kind of got my life back.
Did LA influence your music too? What was your experience of the music scene there?
I just had really lovely friends who pushed me to do gigs. When I got there, the friends that I made were the ones who really pushed me to start booking shows. Then they really turned up to them and they brought all their friends, and it meant that I was able to start booking more and more shows and book bigger shows and that was something I loved. People were so enthusiastic for what I was doing. And I’d never really experienced that in the UK.
Do you think that your experience with depression and mental health struggles made you a better artist and musician in a way?
I think that they’re pretty inseparable to an extent because they’re both parts of who I am. I do think that coming out the other side of something like that, you learn a lot about yourself. That maybe informs my song-writing more, getting that kind of sense of self-awareness. But then at the same time music massively helped me and it still does, it’s an outlet for that stuff.
Which song from the album are you most proud of and can you talk us through your writing process for it?
“Junkyard Junkie”. It was at a time when I’d moved back home, from America, and I was coming back to a place that I’d obviously really struggled with when I was younger, and I was slightly doubting myself. I just remember sitting down and writing that song. It felt very true in that moment to how I was feeling, and it’s very satisfying, from an artist’s perspective, to be able to convey exactly what you want to convey in a moment.
Is writing cathartic for you?
Yeah, massively. And also, lyrically, that’s really what I pay the most attention to. I think the lyrics in this album are what I’m most proud of. I produced it and I really wanted to make it sound like one voice. There are no backing vocals in the whole album because I wanted to create the sense of someone alone in the middle of nowhere. If you look at the album art, you’ve got that caravan in the middle of nowhere. And as soon as you start adding backing vocals, that whole feeling would completely disappear. But also I really wanted to just really focus on the lyrics and what is actually being said. So all the instrumentation, apart from the guitar and the voice, is really meant to support what is just being said in the songs. The album art photograph is by a photographer in LA called Pamela Littky. When I was writing the album I had this idea in my head of what I wanted it to sound like, and also how I was going to present the whole thing. I wanted it to be this kind of rundown America. I started looking online for photos to inspire me, and all the photos I really liked were by the same person. I ended up getting in touch with her, and we chatted and she ended up generously giving me some of her photos as to use for the artwork. So she was a very big inspiration, visually, for the album.
That sense of expansive emptiness really comes through in lines like “is anyone alive in America? Is anyone even out there?”
Yeah, I would say in terms of emotions, the main feelings in the album are distance, and loneliness. If you’ve seen the film Into The Wild, it’s that kind of vibe. It’s very much one man’s voice cutting through the void.
That really comes across. And since moving back to the UK, as well as touring and making this album, you’ve done a lot of advocating for mental health awareness, which you briefly mentioned earlier. Could you talk more about that?
I think that it’s so important for people to talk about mental health, usually others can relate and it makes you realize you’re not alone. I also think it’s really important to hear stories of people going through a really difficult time then actually getting better because I think that we don’t hear that enough. I would have really benefited when I was younger, if I’d heard someone say, “I went through it, and it was really difficult, but then I managed to get better and completely turn my life around, and I’m happy now”. At the time I wouldn’t have thought that was really possible, I might have thought I’d learn to cope with it one day, but I never thought I’d really turn it around. So that’s ultimately why I do what I do, just to try and offer a bit of hope.
So do you think you are one of those people – have you turned it around and are you happy now?
Yeah. I mean obviously I have bad days and last year I had moments where I struggled, just like everyone did with the pandemic and everything going on, it was a hard year. But am I ever going to be like I was? No. That’s something that was dealt with and that ultimately I ended up being grateful for, because it made me who I am today.
Henry Grace will be doing a show at The Half Moon in Putney on January 19th, 8 PM.