Dirty Linen October/November ’08 #138 page 15
LEELA AND ELLIE GRACE
Little Girls No More
By Deborah Wilbrink
It was time for creativity to manifest and make an expression of huge growth and change. Listeners say, “Look, they are two adults now!” Maybe because we’re not smiling on the cover. — Leela GraceOld folkies approaching 30? The Grace sisters’ rich musical heritage began in the Missouri living-room jams of parents Paul and Win Grace. The Grace parents were professionals on the folk music circuit, and Leela and Ellie joined in at a very young age. “A lot of people want to define what they do musically; the music industry encourages that. But we’ve grown up crossing lines. We love traditional and old-time music, rock, pop, activist music, Celtic, progressive. We’re in that community,” said Leela. The sisters not only harmonize, but complement. Ellie plays mandolin, guitar, and fiddle; Leela plays banjo and guitar. Both sing, write, and incorporate dance as percussive rhythm. Appalachian clogging is infused with tap, hip-hop, flamenco, Irish step dance, and more when the women dance in performance.
The sisters began touring independently from their parents in 1997, releasing a self-titled debut in 2003, produced by Pete Sutherland. Now Ellie lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and Leela has moved to Portland, Oregon. They’ve recently been promoting their new CD, Where the Waters Run, on the road. Years of touring give the sisters a unique perspective: As teens, they were in the midst of a powerful scene, but lacked peers; then about 10 years ago, they began to notice an influx of young people joining the folk and old-time scene. The women see the inclusion of political music as a cycle that’s making a comeback, this time including gay rights. “Another thing: The scene was more inclusive musically when we were younger,” said Leela. “Now there’s endless argument about definition.”
The women agree on a broad definition, from old time to Indigo Girls. They are excited about folk moving into the cultural foreground. “Lori McKenna is one of my favorites,” said Ellie. “A woman singing a heartfelt song with guitar or piano — and the general public is connecting. They’re ready for folk music! It’s coming to the popular realm; you hear it on TV and movie soundtracks. Real people and real music are putting their hearts out there.”
Leela and Ellie also tour separately and with others, teach, and are DIY artists. While business tasks take time away from creative aspects, they see no other practical way to proceed, and have found that dilemma common among the Folk Alliance community. Ultimately funding was the biggest reason for waiting five years to make a new CD.
Recording was a happy accident. Family and friends gathered in the Grace family’s hometown of Columbia, Missouri, for Leela’s birthday, and presented her with a new guitar and some recording time. Ellie went along to the recording studio, and they surprised themselves with six new songs at the two-day session. The project was completed over the next year, finding hometown musicians of national caliber, “adding magic to the music,” said Ellie. This time the sisters wrote most of the songs, produced the album, and played the lead tracks – all significant signs of growth. Leela recalled, “We’d grown up recording, but it was stand in a circle, play, get a good take, and fix it from there. In 2003, we couldn’t do it ourselves. Pete Sutherland taught us. We learned from him how to communicate ideas about production and how to make them happen.”
“Ellie and I have very different approaches, a sort of sibling disharmony! I’m seeking interesting arrangements, and Ellie is focused on communicating the emotion of a song,” Leela said. That emotion is often love. “When I write about a specific personal experience, something about the way I write it causes people to relate to and identify with that. I wrote a song for Ellie’s college graduation (both sisters were home-schooled and graduated summa cum laude from Columbia College) and people called to ask if they could use ‘Never Forgotten’ at a funeral. . . and at an event for prisoner’s families!”
Ellie added, “Love is universal. It gives people something strong and powerful to connect to and be moved by, something important to believe in to make a change in the world.”
The strong listener reaction to “Morning Grace” was surprising to its writer, Leela: “When my partner and I first met, I’d get an e-mail in the morning saying, ‘Morning, Grace!’ and I started thinking about it being interpreted as a prayer of thanksgiving. For me it described a specific experience of new love. People connect with this because it takes them to a time when they felt that way, or still do: ‘Tears like a blessing, love like the light/I touch you like a prayer every single night!/ I don’t know who to thank every single day/ I sing a little song and say a little grace.’ For both of us, love is what life is about, defined in a personal way and in a political way.”
Ellie mused, “We may be angry or frustrated, especially in the political arena, but when we express this in our writing it comes out positive and pro-active.”
“America the land of the free, you’ve forgotten we’re your blood/ But we will join together one by one/ Until a drop becomes a flood” are the lyrics from a folksong (“Until a Drop Becomes a Flood”) by the sisters worthy of Pete Seeger. They attended a Washington peace rally in the spring of 2002, “ . . .with half a million others,” said Leela. “This groundswell was reported on a back page as 30,000. Then it started to become unpatriotic to oppose the war. There was an atmosphere of intense fear, a suggestion that you were aiding the enemy if you spoke out or didn’t agree. We want to remind people the U.S.A. was founded on dissent!”
“We’re trying to take back the empowerment,” Ellie contributed. “If we join together one by one, that is really how change might happen!” The sisters had fears, too, about playing political content, but the song has been well received.
“Sharing with the audience, community, is important,” said Leela. “It’s a conversation with us! Our music seems serious, emotional, passionate. But onstage we banter with the audience and each other, getting silly.”
“When the audience responds,” Ellie said, “that’s what we love! We connect to the acceptance and the social consciousness. We have a desire to bring about positive change in the world, make it a better place.” The Grace girls are making music that empowers others, a sign of true maturity.