Hailing from Brooklyn, Grace Ives started making music while in college, studying briefly at the Maryland Institute College of Art before transferring to SUNY Purchase. While most of her peers were trying to emulate the success of fellow SUNY Purchase grad Mitski, Ives was more inspired by M.I.A. and Britney Spears. Throughout her first releases, the 2016 EP Really Hot and her debut album, 2019’s 2nd, she developed a style of lo-fi pop that somehow felt both nervy and laid-back, but always irrepressibly fun. Her songs, often built around a Roland MC 505 beat, were all about keeping it minimal. Ives’ process going into her recently released sophomore LP, Janky Star, wasn’t much different: she began making demos at home with her favourite synth, fleshing them out over a period of two years before her label encouraged her to work with a producer. She eventually enlisted Justin Raisen, whose work with the likes of Sky Ferreira, Charli XCX, and Yves Tumour melds pop with the avant-garde.
The result is her most dynamic, fully-realized effort yet, one that highlights the nuances of her writing. The spaces in Ives’ music can be both restless and quiet, claustrophobic and introspective; in less than 30 minutes, Janky Star shifts along a wide spectrum of sound without diluting its core message. Although the album doesn’t adhere to a conventional narrative – or a conventional anything – Ives and her collaborator bring the songs to life in such a way where each individual story feels potent and hypnotic, brimming with more than just quirky ideas. Her songs don’t just mirror the busyness of modern life – they capture the luminous chaos of trying, day after day, to simply stand still.
We caught up with Grace Ives for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the process of making Janky Star, working with Justin Raisen, and more.
Now that the album is out and you have some distance from it, I’m curious what your relationship is to some of the songs – particularly ‘Angel of Business’, which you wrote a while back to try to be more hopeful about your future in the industry. Do they still feel close to your heart?
They definitely do still feel close to my heart in the message that I intended to wrap into each song. Especially for ‘Angel of Business’, those are words that still I have to go back to and remind myself of to keep going. I was talking to my manager before the album came out and was really nervous, and she was like, “It’s like you said in the song, you’re gonna get it either way.” She even referenced back to ‘Angel of Business’ to remind me that those are words that I wrote and I should revisit them often. But for the most part, I feel like my relationship to the songs now, they still like make me happy and give me the same feeling that I wanted them to give other people. I don’t really listen to ‘Angel of Business’ that much, but when I’m performing it, I’m reminded of the encouragement and it still means a lot to me. I don’t think that that period of my life, of uncertainty, is over. I still need those words of encouragement. Even though it does feel like everything is going well, it’s very easy for me to get a little bit scared.
I wanted to ask you about the beginning and end of the record, ‘Isn’t It Lovely’ and ‘Lullaby’, which are kind of connected by the word “lovely.” I wonder if the word “lovely” has a particular significance to you, if there’s a reason you preferred it over other synonyms.
Totally. That’s a great question. I feel like it’s a word that kind of touches something that’s beautiful or charming, but it’s not the hugest compliment. It’s not so rooted in beauty and magic – it’s almost quaint to me. And I also just think that it’s a beautiful word by itself, “lovely.” And I feel like it also relates to love – it sounds like it should mean like it’s of or about love, but I don’t think that it’s used that way. So I think that it’s a fun word to play with – it sounds cool to say, it sounds beautiful, but it’s a small word. It’s a small little nod to something kind of beautiful, without being so descriptive.
I agree with a lot of what you’ve said. I don’t know if you’ve read Japanese Breakfast’s memoir Crying in H Mart?
I haven’t! I need to.
I remember there being a specific passage in it about the word “lovely,” which totally changed my view on it. It’s a small word, but there’s a powerful resonance to it. It really strikes that perfect balance.
As a whole, Janky Star retains some of the restless energy of your debut, but it’s also marked by a longing for stillness. It feels like you’re trying to be not just playfully self-aware, but actually mindful. How conscious were you of balancing those two impulses, and to maybe lean more on slowing things down?
I was definitely mindful to have balance throughout the record. Fire and Water – I had all my songs and I would kind of label them Fire, Water, or Earth. ‘Isn’t It Lovely’ is very Water to me, it’s very calming. And then ‘Burn Bridges’ is pure Fire, too much Fire. And then ‘Loose’ is Fire, and ‘Lullaby’ felt very Earth to me. Because there wasn’t like a cohesive mesh of a story being told throughout the album – I have more of just a chronological sequencing of songs that I had written that kind of tell a story of my life, but you have to kind of dig there. So I was definitely mindful to create those balances that we all need, of stillness and motion. I feel like on my first album, I wasn’t really thinking of it like that. I kind of wanted it all to be fire. [laughs] This time around, not necessarily while I was creating it but while I was sequencing and thinking of things as being done, I was making sure that I had enough of mainly the Fire and Water thing.
I feel like the dynamic really starts to shift around the fourth track – the transition from ‘Burn Bridges’ to ‘Angel of Business’ is almost jarring in an intriguing way. At what point did you start thinking about the sequencing and the effect you wanted it to have?
I wish I had been thinking about it sooner, because when it came to actually sequencing it, I had a really hard time because it almost felt like there should be a minute of silence between each song. Like, ‘Burn Bridges’ was hard to lead into and hard to get out of. I don’t think I made it super easy on myself by not being so mindful of transitions and space throughout the record while I was making it. It kind of was an afterthought, and that made it hard to piece it all together, especially when I wanted to find balance. It was definitely a challenge. Because a lot of the songs are also very different, when I had these problem songs and I was like, “I don’t know how to go into this song, I don’t know how to leave it,” I then had to go back to the story that was being told. So, like, ‘Burn Bridges’ is a song about having a meeting with someone in the music industry and ‘Angel of Business’ is kind of a message from the universe telling you that, yes, this business side of things is scary and overwhelming, but you’re gonna be okay. When it was hard to figure out what would come next, I had to go into the story.
I wish I had thought a little bit more about sequencing while I was making it because transitions are so fun to play with, but I was very in a song mentality and not really an album mentality. I tend to work that way where it’s one melody idea, one story idea, and then close the book and go to the next one. I don’t really tend to work larger chunks of time. I look at like three minutes and not six minutes. It’s like staying in the moment and not worrying about the future. [laughs] Which is a hard thing to do, and I’m not an expert at that. But that’s more how I work. It’s like, “This song, this song, and this song only,” and you’re like running along with the song. And then the plan for what comes next is just in the moment.
Do you feel like the process of making the album made you feel more grounded in the present? Was that an important goal for you personally while you were making the album?
I think so. I was taking my time more, and also, in my past records, I was so focused on my two instruments, and this time around, I was in a studio where there’s like keyboards on the walls. I have a tendency to rush through and just be like, “That sound is great, that’s the one.” But this time around, I let myself actually play – even if it doesn’t go on the record, it was important for me to play a piano that I’ve never played for 20 minutes, and if we end up using it, we do, and if we don’t, we don’t. I tried to give myself a little bit more time, but also space creatively to explore different options in the moment and not fast-track things.
I feel like that makes it a more versatile record as well. When you consider the album as a whole, do you think it represents different sides of your personality, or is it almost like some songs are kind of alien to you – like they have a life of their own?
No, I think it’s all different sides of me. Because I can have a week where I’m like, “Oh, I hate ‘Burn Bridges’, why did I put that on there?” And then cut to when I’m in a different mental space and I have ‘Burned Bridges’ on and I’m like, “Yes!” I think there definitely is – maybe not a full spectrum of who I am, I think that’s hard, for us as humans to capture our full spectrums – but I think it’s a good chunk of different sides of me. And also different sides of what I’m capable of as a producer and a writer. Like, ‘Back in LA’, I could hear somebody rapping over that for sure – especially the outro is very Travis Scott. But then on ‘Isn’t It Lovely’, I was more inspired by Harry Nilsson and more country and folk type melodies. So I think it definitely shows a full spectrum of my influences as a musician – maybe not emotionally, I think that that’s a little harder for me to capture.
In what way do you mean?
To write an album that captures all of my different feelings – I don’t think I showed on this record, like, my insecurity, there wasn’t a lot of sadness. There’s a little bit more of a content feeling. I feel like it’s harder to put into a record a full spectrum of your emotions and thoughts and feelings. I think that I captured maybe three-fourths of it, but I gave a more full spectrum of musical references.
You worked with Justin Raisen on the production of the record. Is there a general quality or any specific details that came out of the collaboration that still surprise you? Do you think there’s a part of your musical personality you were able to tap into more as a result of working together?
I think that some things that I would have shied away from, he encouraged. He was super encouraging of my own artistic impulses that sometimes I’m just like, “That’s too cringy to follow through with.” But he was like, “No, you wanted to do it, you should do it.” He was super encouraging, which wasn’t really a surprise. I FaceTimed him and I knew that he was a great guy with a lot of character and energy. But I was surprised at how well he understood my musical language. Talking about music is different for each artist – I would say things like, “There’s a door before the chorus of ‘Lazy Day’ and I need it to just open, like someone burst through it.” You say that to somebody and they could be like, “Uh… door… OK.” But he was like, “Totally! I see that door!” We had the same sonic language, which was the best surprise ever. That was something that felt really good and reassuring.
Another thing that struck me about the songs is your singing – you allow your voice to be manipulated in various different ways, but you’re also confident in your vocal performance. How has your relationship with your voice evolved over the past few years? Is that something you intentionally put more energy into?
I feel like on my first album, 2nd, I was using a sort of character voice, very cute and tight and not too revealing. And I think I did that so that I can [create] a distance between me as a person and me as an artist. I gave myself a little voice to sing in. But on this one I was really like, “I love singing, I sing all the time. [laughs] Why don’t I just let myself sing in my natural voice?” I feel like I was going for a more unfiltered approach. There’s delay, but there’s not a lot of AutoTune, it’s not drowning in reverb. There was a conscious decision to just do straight-up me singing as best as I could, and that felt like a first for me.
Was it sometimes a challenge to make that flow with the sonic palette of the record?
Yeah, I think so. Because singing is always the last part – you make your songs, and then you put your voice on top of it. And sometimes they don’t mesh. I had to change my delivery for certain songs, like ‘Shelley’, I had to be a little bit more Lou Reed, rock star-y. It’s like the manipulation had to happen on my end, I had to be just more conscious of my delivery.
In just about every way, Janky Star feels like an expansion: from the overall running time to the length of the individual songs, from the production to the way it was released. Yet in the way it’s being talked about, there’s a sense that there’s almost a smallness to how it’s presented. I’m thinking, for example, about the Pitchfork review calling it “one of best little pop albums of the year.” Is that a perception you struggle with or want to break away from going forwards?
I have to tell myself that it’s “little” because I’m little, you know, in the scope of artists and pop music. I’m small, like not a lot of people know me. Because I think that sonically, I want things to be huge. I’m okay with being small for the time being. Obviously, most artists want to be as big as they can be, but I don’t think I’m there yet. But maybe the littleness is the intimacy of my closeness in my voice and the shortness of the songs and the breaths that you can hear. I think that that makes it seem kind of small and personal, as opposed to really singing with a lot of reverb and longer songs, longer stories – I think that that would make it sound bigger. I don’t know, it’s hard to understand what they mean when they use the word “little” pop. I take it as, “Oh, it’s because I’m little and it’s only 10 songs.”
It’s definitely meant in a positive way – I think those qualities make it endearing and personable. I was just curious if your ambition for the future is to make something that’s unmistakeably bigger as far as pop goes.
I would love to make things bigger. I think that it’s a challenge, but I’m up for it. I do value the closeness and the intimacy and the smallness of what I do naturally, so I’m not sure if it’ll be totally natural in my next project to expand so quickly. I think I’m looking for more of a slow expansion that’s more natural.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.