Pop singer Gracey had always had a rasp in her voice – a distinctive, leonine quality that brought her songs of heartache and unrequited love to vivid life.
But then something went wrong.
This time last year, she was in Los Angeles writing new music when her larynx locked up.
“I didn’t speak the entire trip unless I was in a writing session and I still lost my voice,” says the 22-year-old.
“I remember being with my manager at breakfast, and nothing she could say could make it better. And I just cried my eyes out because I was like, ‘I’m gonna have to get surgery.'”
The Brighton-born singer, whose full name is Grace Barker, was quickly diagnosed with vocal nodules – small hard growths on the vocal cords – and went under the surgeon’s knife.
For the next two months she was forbidden from speaking and singing. For a natural chatterbox, it was an intensely uncomfortable experience.
“I mean, I was such a mess,” she says. “I’m someone that would just talk for days – but imagine if you’re at the dinner table and everyone’s cracking jokes and you can’t join in because you’re trying to write out a joke on your whiteboard – and then you’re dyslexic, so no-one can read it.
“So I think I was just freaked out. I was not myself for those months at all.”
Weighing on her mind was the fact that, just weeks before undergoing surgery, Gracey had released her debut single Different Things. Instead of capitalising on the buzz, she was now moving back into her parents’ house “so my mum could look after me in my childhood bedroom”.
Luckily, the single did the talking for her.
A deliciously miserable pop ballad, it treads the same water as Imogen Heap’s Hide And Seek – with Gracey’s voice fed through a vocoder to emphasise the growing distance between her and her lover.
“We want different things,” sighs the singer. “I just wanted to love you – but you made it [expletive] hard to.”
Warning: This song contains explicit language.
Released last March, the song ended up on several end-of-year lists – not bad for a song that was initially dashed off as a demo for Little Mix.
“They were looking for songs, so we wrote it as a pitch and it started quite upbeat,” recalls Gracey.
“I’d written the chorus quite quickly and sometimes, just to check the lyrics will fit, you’ll slow it down and sing it over a piano. So we did that and instantly the vibe changed.
“From then, the lyrics kind of just poured out of me – everything I hadn’t said to myself in years and years just came out.”
‘Intelligent in a different way’
Based on one of her first teenage relationships (“I just didn’t really know what I wanted”) the song was obviously too personal, and too downbeat, to give to Britain’s premier girl band, so Gracey held it back for herself.
Releasing it last March fulfilled an ambition that originally surfaced at the age of seven, when she wrote a song called Pinky Finger.
“One of my best friends can still recite it,” she laughs. “It goes ‘Pinky finger with a cherry on top / Smile together and never, ever stop.'” (the melody, to be fair, wouldn’t sound out of place on an S Club 7 single).
At the time, Grace’s family were living in Haywards Heath, “a standard little town in the south,” and while her two older brothers were both academic, she was “intelligent in a different way – in the words of my mother”.
It wasn’t until she turned 16 that she learned she was dyslexic. Until then, she’d assumed her inability to finish exams was due to a lack of preparation. But in some respects, she says, the condition helped to shape her musical abilities.
“I think, weirdly, it pushed me to be more creative because I had to do things in different ways. Like, if I was reading books when I was younger, I’d just make up the story from the pictures.”
Although she idolised Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry, she couldn’t envision herself as a pop star – so when she won a place at London’s prestigious Brit School, she chose to study musical theatre instead of popular music.
“I just didn’t think music was ever going to be an option,” she says, “but also, I didn’t like the idea of having music homework because music was my thing.”
So while she was cast as a succession of “drunk old women” in school productions, she was secretly demo-ing pop songs into her phone in the bathroom at home.
“I didn’t have enough storage for a full song,” she recalls, “so I’d just upload little clips and half songs to Soundcloud.”
Through that, she was spotted by songwriter Brian Higgins (Cher, Pet Shop Boys, Girls Aloud) who invited her to join his team of writers at the hit production house Xenomania, at the age of 16.
“Actually, I initially auditioned for a girl band,” she says, “but I decided I didn’t want to do that, so I said, ‘I’ll happily come in as a writer.’
“I didn’t do any lyrics because I don’t think they trusted a dyslexic 16-year-old who was going through her GCSEs to do the lyrics – but it really gave me a good time to hone in on my melodies. Even now, I find them I’m so much quicker at melodies than anything else. I learned a lot.”
She got so good at it that Gracey became a writer-for-hire, with her first professionally-recorded song, Jonas Blue’s By Your Side, going platinum. She later penned hits for Rita Ora, Raye and Olly Murs before Different Things opened a new chapter.
Which brings us back to those two months of enforced silence.
‘Pretending to be happy’
“I was in a bad place,” the singer reflects. “I was like, ‘I just cannot have a career like this.'”
Her team was worried, too – not about Gracey’s voice, for which the prognosis was good, but about killing the momentum of Different Things.
There was pressure, she admits, to post about her surgery on social media.
“They responded so well and so calmly but they were very much like, ‘You should share this… We can’t have a two to three month break without releasing music,'” she recalls.
“They were panicking, basically, and as much as I could sympathise with that panic, I was just too scared that I’d never be able to sing again.
“So I was like, ‘I need to look after my mental health instead of pretending I’m happy on social media.'”
That scenario inspired a lyric in Gracey’s new song, Empty Love. “Can you stop asking me to smile, please?” she pleads over a sparse digital beat. “Gotta have the time of our lives all the time, don’t we?“
Warning: This song contains explicit language.
A duet with Australian pop star Ruel, the song is more concerned with the dangers of performative happiness on social media.
It’s a topic Gracey wrestles with: She recognises that only posting on her good days builds up a false impression, but is instinctively wary of over-sharing.
“I hate pity, so it’s a double-edged sword,” she says. “I feel like a drama queen when I say I’m having a bad day on Twitter and all these lovely people message back, ‘No, you’re great. You’re loved’.
“I’m just like, ‘Oh, no, no, no I’m not trying to make you compliment me!’
“But I think sometimes it’s important to vent and, you know, shampoo and condition your brain out.”
Even so, music will always be the main outlet for Gracey’s emotions.
“Whenever I’ve been through a break-up in the past, I’ll only talk to my friends about it as many times as I think I won’t annoy them,” she says. “So I kind of push everything down and then, when I’m in the studio, it just comes out, which I think is why a lot of my songs are sad.”
Two of those songs – Alone In My Room (Gone) and Don’t Need Love (Swipe Left, Swipe Right) – have both gone viral on TikTok, proving that Gracey doesn’t need to write long confessional posts on Instagram to help fans realise they’re not alone in their feelings.
But does she realise that people are playing these songs on repeat, in floods of tears, while they pore over photos of their ex?
“Yeah, and do you know what? I feel kind of bad about it,” she laughs.
“But I also think getting it out in the open is the best way to move on. Go out and pretend you’re fine to the guy, for sure, but also go home and cry.
“If you’re gonna pretend, at least don’t pretend to yourself. I think that’s the key.”
Empty Love is out now.