Originally, Grace Adele was going to be a Rockette.
“I started out as a dancer at about age 4,” Adele says, in a phone interview. “I studied mainly classical ballet, and then went to school for more modern dance. Then I did a lot of workshops with the Rockettes. I went and auditioned for the Rockettes a few times in New York.”
She was drawn to the old-school theatricality of the fabled Radio City high-kickers, and also by a more practical consideration: their height. “I’m pretty tall,” she says, with a laugh. “In the classical ballet world, I did pointe work, but I was a giant.”
But after a while, the round trips to New York from Adele’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio, got expensive. And closer to home, she had started to spend more time singing, which had been a side pursuit for years. She was a backup vocalist with a few local bands. “And then a lot of times the band would be rehearsing, so I would pick up a guitar and start playing along,” she says. Before she knew it, she “just naturally started writing songs. It was just kind of there.”
So it was—as Adele’s 2009 debut album, Never Lost, attests. It is a diverse and likable collection of songs that showcase her big, warm voice and her embrace of styles from torch ballad to rockabilly to plain old honky-tonk. As a singer, she recalls alt-country crooners like Neko Case and Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins, who derive their power as much from reining themselves in as from letting rip.
And as a songwriter, Adele says, “A lot of my influences are in country/Western swing and Tin Pan Alley. But we have bluegrass instruments, and since moving to Nashville, I definitely have a lot more bluegrass influence as well.”
The move to Music City came two years ago. “I was visiting here a lot,” she says. “There’s a whole country scene, and there’s more of a bluegrass and Americana scene as well, there’s a huge indie-rock scene here. I think a lot of people think it’s just pop-country. So I’ve really enjoyed it.”
She moved to town with her bandmate Keenan Wade, who plays mandolin. “He grew up more with a bluegrass background, so he’s definitely influenced me in that way,” she says. “And then I discovered Chris Thile and started going to a lot of his concerts.”
Those influences will probably be evident on a new album that Adele says she hopes to have ready by early next year. Hesitant to characterize her current sound as belonging to any particular genre, she says it’s an amalgam of various kinds of acoustic music. “What I’m doing is influenced by probably about five different genres. But the lyrics and the ideas in the songs are taking more of a modern twist, on what I think people are experiencing now.”
Adele was active in theater through high school and college, and says she enjoys the performance side of her work as much as the writing/recording side. “I’ve always been more interested in entertaining,” she says. “I really like the connection between an audience and a performer.”
That does not yet include incorporating dance into her shows. But she is using tap dancing as percussion on some songs on the new album, and may find a place for it on stage soon. That would make her part of a small wave of resurgent interest in tap, from artists as diverse as country singer Elizabeth Cook and indie-poppers Tilly and the Wall.
“I love to see that,” she says. “Tap dancing is one of the dance forms that’s actually based in America, it started here. You used to hear it all the time, in 1920s music and 1930s. It’s pretty cool, I think, as an idea for rhythm.”
So far, and in contrast to some of the horror stories you hear about it, Adele has found Nashville a welcoming city. “There’s just all kinds of really great opportunities to sing and play,” she says. “It can be intimidating at times, but people are very humble here. I was surprised by that. Everyone has been extremely friendly.”
She also has good things to say about Knoxville, from several stops here in recent years. “I love Knoxville. There’s such a great art community. We actually were on the road last night, and we were hungry so we stopped at Barley’s for a pizza to go.”
She’ll be back at Barley’s this Sunday, for a little longer this time. On the road, she plays with Wade and a varying rotation of other band members. This show will probably be as a three-piece, she says, most likely with a stand-up bass. “We’re extremely emerging artists, and we’re grassroots,” she says. “But we try to bring the musicians when we can, because it’s more fun that way.”