“One day I will be at the Brits… I don’t know when. But it will happen.”
That’s a tweet Grace Carter posted in February 2015, aged 17. Four years later, there she was, posing on the red carpet in a floor-length peach coat. It may take another year for her to get a nomination, but if the soulful Londoner maintains the quality of her early run of singles, it’s inevitable.
She started memorably in mid-2017, supporting Dua Lipa (with whom she shares management) on her European tour after releasing just one song. The video for the track, called Silence, saw her singing directly at the camera in close-up, crying real tears. Her vaulting, spectacular voice, coupled with lyrics such as, “I believe every word you didn’t say/Now I see you’re only gonna break me down,” might initially make you think: here we go, another woman who’s been dumped, like Adele on 21 or Amy Winehouse on Back to Black. But it’s more serious than that.
“When we were shooting, the director said: ‘Look at the camera like it’s him.’ I literally just burst into tears,” she tells me. “We didn’t have to use it but when it came to the edit I thought, ‘You know what, that is me in my purest, most natural state.’ It is hard – I’m not gonna lie – but it’s all I’ve ever done.”
She’s singing about her father, who she doesn’t remember ever living with her and her mother, and who merely dropped in and out of her life every few years for visits. She last saw him when she was 16. Another single, the heartwrenching piano ballad Why Her Not Me, is about him starting a new family. The video ends with her staring into his home at night, alone on the outside.
Sitting in a pub near her Queen’s Park home, she’s far more upbeat and unbroken than her fragile music suggests, and clearly ready for our conversation to hone in on this subject. I planned to edge tactfully towards it after talking about the nicer things – her recent third place in the BBC Sound of 2019 poll, for example, her other support tours with Rag ‘N’ Bone Man, Haim and Mabel, or performing at Wembley Arena with Ellie Goulding just before Christmas – but she brings it up first.
“My dad broke my heart before any boy had a chance to,” she says. “I felt that pain but didn’t understand it because it’s something that you shouldn’t really feel so young.”
How many of your songs are about your father? I ask. “Most of them,” she replies.
“Of course they are – it’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened in my life. The only way I can describe it is as a heartbreak. Every time I got strong enough and it would start to mend, he would come back again and I would be taken back to square one.”
She spent her early years in west London, near where she lives now, where her mum worked as a policy advisor at BBC Worldwide. When she was eight they moved to Hove, inspired by a visit to friends who had moved down a few years earlier. For a mixed race girl, the change from London’s melting pot to a predominantly white area exacerbated her identity crisis.
“In Kensal Rise I never questioned what I looked like. In Hove, the week I started school, another girl saw my mum picking me up and asked me if I was adopted. That was the fire starting. I didn’t really understand who I was or where I came from or why my dad left me. I was very angry and frustrated.”
As she approached her teens, her misery intensified. She had some counselling. “I think we’ve all lost someone at some point, in whatever capacity. The thing with it being a parent who’s still alive is you never have that closure,” she says. “That’s the hard bit. It’s not that they’re not here because they can’t be here.”
What helped the most, however, was the arrival on the scene of a stepfather, Paul Phillips, who bought her a guitar from the Sue Ryder charity shop for her 13th birthday, taught her four chords and challenged her to write a song in a week.
He had been a musician himself, and a music journalist. Older readers may know his top 10 hit from 1979: Car 67 by Driver 67, a song which transcends its novelty status by mixing its spoken interludes from a Brummie taxi controller with a beautiful melody.
The song Carter wrote was called Blank White Page, and was about staring at an empty page feeling unable to write – very meta. “As soon as I wrote that first song, that became my retreat,” she says. “Every day after school my friends would go to the park and I’d go for a bit, then go home, up to the loft, which had a mattress in it. I’d sit up there, where no one could hear me, play my guitar and write songs.”
The music acted as a place to process her powerful emotions. “I could really reflect on the way I was feeling. I started to understand that it wasn’t my fault. Before, I’d always thought that it was. Month by month I would change. I stopped being this angry, slightly aggressive child, and found a lot of forgiveness as well.”
As she progressed, a couple of lucky breaks got her to where she is today, busy recording her debut album in London Fields for the major label Polydor. Jamal Edwards from the influential web channel SB.TV visited her sixth form and agreed to make a video of her singing her song Home, aged 16 with braces. That was shown to Guy Moot, the head of the music publishing company Sony ATV, who happened to be the father of one of her best friends.
The songs that she has released to date feel slow and sad as a rule. When I ask when she’ll put out a fast one, the best she can offer is the drum and bass remix of her latest, Heal Me. But listen more closely and they’re far from broken. Saving Grace is a song of praise for the lifelong support of her mother, who she now calls her best friend. “It’s not my fault,” she sings on Why Her Not Me. Another track’s title is It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To. On Half of You, she sings: “You’re the one who’s lonely/I know you’ll be calling on me now that I’m somebody.” She sounds defiant, not despondent.
“All my songs are about sad things, but I always want them to feel uplifting,” she explains. “There is light at the end of a tunnel. It’s not just, ‘Poor me.’”
I note that it must be difficult for her that, while some music interviews can focus on how somebody got that amazing synth sound or what it was like working with Rick Rubin, hers will inevitably involve raking over her personal life. Turns out she’s found an upside to that, too.
“The songs might sound sad but they’re about getting over something, and in turn, that’s helping other people,” she says. “As a 21-year-old girl, it takes a lot to be really honest, but if I can put myself out there it can encourage so many others. You might think you’re the only one who’s been through this. I feel so happy that me being open can encourage other people to talk about it and feel normal – whatever normal is.”
Grace Carter’s new single Heal Me is out now on Polydor. Mar 28, Electric Brixton, SW2 (electricbrixton.uk.com)