Isaac Gracie is feeling a little unsettled. The 21-year-old from Ealing has moved quickly from fantasising that he might, perhaps, one day like to be a rock star, to actually being expected to be one right away. He’s got the look down, at least, sprawled outside a St John’s Wood cafe with a mane of blonde hair, various bracelets and necklaces and one too many buttons undone on his floppy vintage shirt. But he confesses he’s been feeling less prowling lion, more rabbit in the headlights, since putting one song online last summer and watching the music business trip over itself in desperation to sign him.
“I was entirely, only rabbit. I was nothing else but that,” he tells me. “Because you don’t know what to make of it all, and what to make of yourself in relation to it all. When you value the music really highly, it becomes a challenge because you have a responsibility to carry that forward for an audience. It’s a lot to juggle.”
At the moment, things are relatively quiet. He’s holed up in RAK Studios writing and recording, an atmospheric place full of retro kit to suit his stylings as a tortured troubadour in the vein of his idol Jeff Buckley. You may have spotted him supporting Michael Kiwanuka at Shepherd’s Bush Empire earlier this month, strumming an electric guitar alone and singing in a skyscraping, choir-trained voice. He doesn’t have a band yet.
“A band will definitely happen, but sometime next year. When it does come, I want it to be frickin’ awesome, not just some faceless people behind me to pad out the sound,” he says. For now, all you can buy are two deliberately low-key EPs: Songs From My Bedroom (which is exactly that) released in March, and a new one, Songs in Black and White. Its four songs were recorded live in July in Stoke Newington’s tiny Waiting Room venue. No one’s expecting hits just yet, but I can sense he’s approaching the top of the rollercoaster’s long initial climb, ever closer to a high-speed 2017 of teeth-rattling loop-the-loops.
The buzz began with the only other song you can currently buy: Last Words, again recorded in his bedroom using Apple’s basic GarageBand software. It’s so simple, it could be a dusty folk recording unearthed from the Tennessee countryside; so dark, that you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that its composer was already long dead in tragic circumstances, like Robert Johnson or Judee Sill. “Blood in your nails and you’re scratching for the face/With a noose round your neck and a needle in your vein,” he sings. Heavy stuff for a teenage veteran of the Ealing Abbey Choir, and striking enough for Lucian Grainge, head of Universal Music and the most powerful man in the record industry, to fly from LA to attend Gracie’s gig at King’s Cross pub venue the Lexington at the start of this year. Gracie is now signed to Universal’s Virgin EMI imprint, home of two of the last British men with guitars to make major breakthroughs: James Bay and Jake Bugg.
Unlike most of the songs he writes, Gracie says that he knew this one was a winner straight away. “I wrote it and recorded it in one night, and played it at a gig the next day. I see everything that’s happened since then as kicking off from that night,” he says. “It was this weird thing, where even in the act of writing something, or even in the very first thought you have about a song, it feels strong from the outset.”
The response since he posted it on Soundcloud last July has been so overwhelming that he can’t mix metaphors fast enough: “It’s very rare to be put in a position where you can go from nought to 60 like that and be thrown in at the deep end and challenged to swim. If you’re a person who sets high expectations for yourself and are also aware of how things can go wrong, it’s a perfect storm in a way,” he says.
It put him in a position where he had to decide what kind of musician he wanted to be, in terms of how to present himself to the world, at a stage when he ought to have been worrying how he could persuade enough mates to drag themselves to his latest pub gig. “The idea of goals is a new thing in itself. But when you do start thinking of this as a career, my aim for sure is unashamedly to play in front of as many people as possible, for as many people to hear and love the music as possible. It’s the same kind of secret lust anyone else might have in that situation.”
He already had performing experience with his esteemed choir, including going “on tour” to Rome (probably a shade more wholesome than his next tour will be) but didn’t begin to teach himself guitar until he was around 16, and didn’t think about gigging until he found himself with too much time on his hands during his gap year. He was sacked from a pub job for falling asleep on a bench. “I was like, ‘What do I do at this juncture?’ I had a bit of money saved up. Do I bugger off to Paris and flaneur around the streets for a while, writing poetry or some crap? I’m not sure why it occurred to me to play some shows.”
Even then, he didn’t seem to have caught the bug, choosing to study English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia’s renowned author factory. His mother, Judith, is a psychotherapist who has also published a book of poetry with the daunting title Lost in Space – Amexane: Paths of Impossibility. His own vague poetic inclinations weren’t solidified at university. “It was quite challenging but I was never too enamoured with what I was faced with. It didn’t blow my mind.”
So he wrote some songs in his bedroom – he says he has about 30 now – and watched surprised as a passionate audience began to form around him. He may have been discovered on the internet, but the always-on culture of social media more often leaves him feeling out of step with modern times. “It’s hard to convey honesty and integrity to the world when you’ve got a profession that needs this relentless self-promotion. How do you create a mystique these days?”
So he looks to Jeff Buckley for inspiration – without the drowning too young part – rather than any contemporaries. “I found Jeff on my gap year and he was such a massive influence on me. He was so honest and human. I love the live recordings, there’s such a vibe going. I hope to do the same.” He should find that even in 2017, when big things will surely happen for him, that the world still warms to sad young men with their heart on display and a vast voice soaring upwards.
Songs in Black and White (Live) is out now on Virgin EMI. Isaac Gracie plays at Annie Mac’s AMP Collected Night, Nov 10, Jazz Cafe, NW1 (0844 847 2514, thejazzcafelondon.com)