idolator

Grace Talks Hit Single “You Don’t Own Me,” Her Debut EP & Working With Quincy Jones: Idolator Interview

Modernizing a ’60s classic with a rap feature is a bold move for any new artist — let alone for a teenager from Brisbane, Australia. But that’s exactly what Grace Sewell (she prefers to go by her first name) did with debut single “You Don’t Own Me.” Admittedly, the 18-year-old was in the extraordinary situation of being able to work with the original producer, Quincy Jones. He not only suggested covering Lesley Gore’s signature song, but also helped update it with a little help from hitmaker Parker Ighile.

I recently caught up with the buzz artist and asked her about working with Quincy on “You Don’t Own Me,” which raced all the way to number one in her homeland. We also talked about collaborating with rapper G-Eazy, her favorite song on debut EP Memo (spoiler — it’s the title track) and hanging out with Nicki Minaj after a concert in London. Find out more about the rising star below.

You have such a mature sound. Where do these soulful sounds come from? I always gravitated towards that kind of music because that’s the music my mum liked. I grew up listening to it when I was little. I grew up listening to Motown and soul — Smokey Robinson, The Temptations. I fell in love with that whole world early on. I think that’s why it carried over into the EP, it’s a really heavy influence in everything I do now.

Who came up with the idea of covering “You Don’t Own Me”? It’s a funny story. My manager has been friends with Quincy [Jones] for a long time now and one day he was at his house, he was playing Quincy some of my music. He said to Q, “We’d love to remake one of your originals, something from your selection of hits.” Quincy, before my manager could finish his sentence, was like, “You guys should do Lesley Gore’s ‘You Don’t Own Me’.” He was so certain about this idea, he thought it was just a message that needed to be portrayed again for this generation.

They told me about the idea and I did a little bit of research on Lesley. I knew the song from The First Wives Club so I was a little bit familiar. But I just got more into the song and then he explained to me how important the song was at the time when it came out. He told me how Lesley was my age when she recorded it. It seemed like a good fit. Then Lesley unfortunately passed away and Quincy was like, “We’re going to put this out as a tribute.” It all happened within that couple of weeks. But it was recorded a year ago.

He’s right about it being timeless. Lyrically, it’s still on point. I think it’s a timeless message. Women’s lack of equality is still something that we battle with every day. Just in general everybody should be able to feel equal and feel like nobody can possess them or own them. I think that was a message that I felt strongly about and it’s empowering for women to hear those words. It really is a female anthem. Quincy hit the nail on the head. It was definitely long overdue for a refresh.

What was it like working with Quincy? I’m incredibly blessed to be able to just meet him, but to be able to work with him and get advice from him… to be able to kick it with him was just mind-blowing. He was so instrumental as well in my version being what it is. He really was the main element of making sure that all those classic and iconic moments from the original, the strings and the horns, they all stayed the same and were very much a part of our version. He was really… a big part of how it sounds today. I can’t believe still that he was involved but it’s really amazing.

What advice did he give you? He just talked a lot about staying humble and always putting the music first, and then to never take things too seriously. After all, I do music because I love it and I think it’s fun and I enjoy it. He said that should always be at the forefront. It’s about the music. A great thing he always says is a great song can make the worst singer a superstar but a terrible song — the three best singers in the world couldn’t sing it. It comes down to the music and classic songs with a timeless message.

How did G-Eazy get involved? By affiliation. His manager is close with my manager and it was all in the same family. One day we were in the studio and we thought he would be cool on it but we didn’t know if he would like it or not. We played it for him and he ended up loving it and seemed enthusiastic about the idea. Obviously with Quincy being involved we all thought it would be a great fit for him. It just worked out. He came on and he killed the verse and everything just fell into place perfectly.

Were you surprised when it blew up in Australia? When I make music I never think about the outcome or where it’s going to go or have that in mind when I’m recording or writing. The fact that it has been received so well, especially in my home country, I couldn’t be happier. I’m blown away. I think that it’s amazing, really. Obviously, it’s a classic but it still sounds so different. It doesn’t really sound like anything that’s out right now. The fact that it has done so well in Australia especially is amazing. I couldn’t be happier.

The rest of the EP is great too. Do you have a favorite song? I love them all each so much for different reasons. They’re all very personal to me and all have a different meaning and a different story. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite. But I think the most personal and the closest to my heart would be “Memo (Boyfriend Jeans),” which is the reason why the EP is called Memo. It’s the last song on the EP and it’s this little rough scratchy demo that I made in my bedroom at home in Brisbane with a good friend of mine.

It was one those therapy sessions when something shitty happens and then you call your girlfriend over and you have a debrief. Then it ended up turning into this song and the concept was boyfriend jeans. I remember wearing the jeans at the time and being like, “Why don’t we make it about that whole phase of when you’re trying to separate yourself from somebody but you still find yourself finding items of them around the house?” A lot of my friends will wear their old ex-boyfriend’s jeans or t-shirts and you’re like, “What are you doing? You have to move on.”

It’s this funny, quirky concept that I thought might work. This demo … We wrote the song and we thought it was cool but I wasn’t in love with it. I sent it to my manager and he was like, “No, it’s great.” He sent it to a bunch of different labels. It’s still this raw demo that was recorded onto GarageBand. Couldn’t be more organic. It ended up getting me the deal with RCA, and it’s been a gateway to a lot of opportunities and opened a lot of doors for me. That’s probably the most personal on the record for me.

Have you finished recording your debut album? It’s still halfway through. We started a couple months ago in London. It’s in the works. But I’m excited, I can’t wait for people to hear what we’ve got.

Is the EP a good indication of what to expect? I think the EP is very much youthful and fun and we tried to appeal to my younger side. I’m still a baby, I’m only 18. But I want the album to have a little bit more of a serious note and tone. I want to grow as a writer and as a musician. I think the content may be a little heavier but all my inspiration is still the same. I still love R&B, I still love hip-hop, I grew up on soul. Those elements are always going to be there. But yeah, it just may have some serious moments.

I was spying on your Instagram and I saw that you’ve been hanging out with Nicki Minaj. How did that happen? Again just by affiliation. I’ve been in that circle for a while and the producer that did my EP, Parker Ighile, is signed to Nicki’s label. So we met one day. I went to her show in London and we met afterwards. She’s amazing, another inspiration of mine, I love her music, I think she’s great. Yeah, I guess you just run into people, it’s a this small industry. A lot of it is just by affiliation.

Get an eyeful of even more pop music coverage, from artist interviews to exclusive performances, on Idolator’s YouTube channel.