rb-2016-Gracie and Rachel
“It is such a pleasure to have Gracie and Rachel release their new album on Righteous Babe. Their ethereal and provocative songs are a cinematic addition to the RBR cadre of feminist artist/activists. They sing softly but carry a big stick.” — Ani
Gracie and Rachel are magnetic fields: Opposites who attracted and never looked back. A decade ago, when pianist-vocalist Gracie and violinist Rachel met as high schoolers in a modern dance class at their public high school in Berkeley—where they grew up among the city’s progressive politics and encouraging spirit of artistic community—they were quickly intrigued by what the other had.
Rachel was a transfer student from a classical music boarding school who had started on violin as a child, spending her Saturdays at the San Francisco Conservatory, playing chamber music. This strict, regimented background was a clear foil to Gracie’s freer-spirited approach to songwriting and self-expression. Gracie, meanwhile, appreciated Rachel’s knack for structure, theory, and form. “We used to joke that Rachel gave me structure and I gave her freedom,” says Gracie. “That was our foundation in a way. And then we just started to dance with the two.”
These tensions—classically-trained and open-ended, dark and light, timeless and contemporary, certainty and the unknown—have become hallmarks of the modern baroque pop Gracie and Rachel have made ever since. And the power of Gracie and Rachel’s particular alchemy—that of a secret language between musical sisters, with a preternatural melodic sensibility—has never been more potent or realized than on their sophomore record, Hello Weakness You Make Me Strong, released through Ani DiFranco’s label Righteous Babe Records. “We wanted to bring a little more color into this record,” Gracie says of its expansive, beat-augmented sound, “to control the landscape sonically before opening it up to other people.”
And the results are tidal. With more focus on billowing electronics and hints of dusky but sharply-defined baroque-pop cadences, Hello Weakness You Make Me Strong bursts open the pristine emotionality of Gracie and Rachel’s self-titled debut from 2017. These 10 bold, oceanic songs chart the crests and crashes of feeling and thinking that one might encounter in the process of perseverance, in working through uncertainty and inner-excavation towards self-possession—towards clarity. “The songs ask us to look directly into the eye of the broken mirror reflection in front of us,” Gracie and Rachel write in a mission statement. “The music is less interested in fixing what’s fragmented than it is in putting value on imperfections for all they’re worth.”
Central to that journey, in Hello Weakness You Make Me Strong’s lyrics and music, Gracie and Rachel offer a profound inquiry into their own complex interpersonal dynamic, and with that, into communication in general: internal, external, how it is often flawed. Their relationship can be nearly telepathic when writing songs, but as with all deeply entwined collaborations—the duo write together, tour together, and live together in the Bushwick loft where they moved in 2013—it can also be a challenge. “We live, work, breathe, everything together—the lines are so blurred in our relationship sometimes,” Gracie says. “Are we friends today? Are we collaborators? Are we strangers? It’s fueled the music, but there can also be a lot of conflict and confusion. You feel empowered, but you also forget your identity. These songs are notes-to-self on how to get through that. They knew more than we did.”
With an awareness of their divergent approaches to communication—Gracie is more extroverted and confronting, while Rachel is more introverted and less vocal—they let that push-and-pull into the music. Gracie calls the questing opener, “Trust,” a thesis for the record, a subtly-anthemic ode to trusting oneself in the face of self-doubt. It sounds like a testament to the wide-reaching impacts of believing in oneself: “Times up, times out, a whisper becomes a shout,” Gracie sings, a possible polemic, “Turn up, tune in, a revolution will begin.” This message of self-empowerment through self-knowing continues like a mantra on “Sidelines”: “Waiting for a sign is a waste of time,” she sings, “When I can find one in my mind.” The confessional “Underneath,” meanwhile, is about seeing hidden layers of meaning in the everyday: “We have these narratives about ourselves—how we have our coffee, the way we do an errand, all these mundane things,” Gracie says of the song, “and what is underneath that is maybe the more interesting narrative to confront.” The music of Hello Weakness You Make Me Strong benefits from Gracie and Rachel’s contrasting but complementary interests: Gracie is influenced by poets and writers like Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Gilbert, and recently Brene Brown’s writings on vulnerability, while Rachel points to the wordless transcendence of 13th and 14th-century choral music.
For Gracie and Rachel, it was crucial, this time around, to equip themselves with the tools to control their sound more fully than before. Following a “dream-shattering” experience with a team of outside male producers, the duo quickly realized they wanted to be more self-sufficient. Rachel dove into online tutorials, learning Ableton herself in order to achieve the subtleties they wanted: The album documents the process of Gracie and Rachel giving themselves permission to trust their own vision.
They channeled lessons from their label-head, DiFranco, too, who has become a champion of Gracie and Rachel’s work and a guiding force — the duo has played her festival Babefest, and toured with her as both an opening act and as onstage collaborators. “In the music industry, you’re met with so many people telling you how you should sound,” Gracie reflects. “Ani is a huge inspiration to us to write that story ourselves.” The duo sees their life’s work as a project of mutual empowerment, which has extended from their teenage years—playing open mics, practicing and giving concerts in Gracie’s living room—to their present career, one that has seen them share the stage with Gloria Steinem and release a viral feminist video piece, 2018’s “HER,” in tribute to Christine Blasey Ford.
As they equip themselves with knowledge, Gracie and Rachel also embrace the unknown. “It’s humbling to unpack what it means to not know and how much wisdom is in that,” Gracie says. “That’s been a driving theme lyrically. How do our perceived ‘misses’ give us strength? How does the unknown teach us?”
While facing such uncertainty, Gracie and Rachel have each other; a sense of camaraderie, of two women working together, “teaming up as a force to do things we couldn’t do on our own,” is built into every note of Hello Weakness You Make Me Strong. Rachel says the song “Speak” was the result of a difficult moment between the pair: her attempt at diffusing the tension of a dispute when words failed her. There’s hope in this bracing honesty. “It’s about trying to confront a difficult conversation and be outspoken about how you’re feeling and it’s my anthem to Gracie telling her that I want to show up, even if that’s not always translating,” she says.
The two artists are seen walking on seemingly never-ending sand dunes in the video for “Underneath,” with their backs to the camera, headed toward the horizon. On their path they begin stripping away articles of clothing until they’re completely bare before running off into the distance. This deeply compelling, stark visual also seems to be a metaphor for Gracie and Rachel as an artistic duo. Entering this partnership with differing perspectives, opinions and behaviors that preceded their meeting, Gracie and Rachel let go of any preconceptions they’ve had of themselves along the way until they are fully peeled down to their core – vulnerable, empowered, and ready for their continued evolution together, headed confidently toward the unknown.