Photo by Samuel Metzger, graphic by Marina Kozak

Grace Ives’ Hot Mess Anthems

In this Rising interview, the eclectic pop singer talks about bedbugs, indie sleaze, and trying as hard as you fucking can.

Grace Ives once smoked so much weed that she vomited for several days and ended up at the ER. “The paramedics are like, ‘you have to stop,’” she recalls. “And I’m like, ‘no, no, no, absolutely not.’” The 27-year-old singer-songwriter is in the kitchen of her Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn apartment, regaling me with tales of substance-induced idiocy as she assembles a lavish Mediterranean lunch for us. I’m paying attention, I really am. But hanging on the wall just a few feet away from Ives’ head is a ginormous silver spoon—a hundred times larger than your average vehicle for soup—and I can’t help but wonder what age a child would have to be to match its size (Four years old? Seven?).

Everything in the apartment is distracting, really. It smells like potpourri, and it’s impossible to walk 10 steps in any direction without encountering some kind of ornamental animal: salamander door handles; beetles on chair cushions; a colossal painting of a goat over the fireplace. Technically, the bohemian residence doesn’t belong to Ives but the parents of her longtime boyfriend, Sam. She and Sam moved there after his parents relocated upstate during the pandemic; before that, they had been living in a small, grubby place in Astoria, Queens with a high school friend. The eclectic decor was mostly curated by Sam’s mom, who Ives describes as a “professional thrifter,” but the apartment suits Ives’ personality, too. Like her winsome pop music, it is cluttered with curiosities across competing aesthetics, but its patchwork design feels invitingly lived-in.

Ives spends a lot of time in the apartment’s rainbow-tiled, amenity-filled kitchen. “I’m the world’s messiest cook,” she warns me. There’s spice-coated chicken already in the oven. An ice bath has been laid out for the asparagus. She ladles quinoa out of a bright blue Le Creuset into a wooden bowl, and sure enough, several fluffy kernels fall to the floor.

Being able to effortlessly whip up a multi-course meal may seem like the mark of an adult, but Ives really doesn’t feel grown-up at all. Her recent second album, Janky Star, documents her in a state of messy uncertainty, watching the same movies 10 times over and going “logic free.” The album’s lead single, “Loose,” alternates between clinking, ramshackle verses and sumptuous choruses, referencing mishaps that seem straight out of Broad City. “Oh, what a loser sound/I let out when I hit the ground,” Ives sings about the time she fainted while doing yoga stoned. “Without a tutorial, it’s hard to guide yourself, you know?” she tells me, earnestly.

I expect her to crack wise when she talks about the record’s inspiration, to adopt the loose-cannon energy of a comedian like Meg Stalter. But independent of some active hand gestures, her demeanor throughout our conversation is serious and searching. She lists off times she’s sabotaged her own well-being: Citi-biking on ketamine, smashing her tailbone after spending $400 on drinks. On the record’s opener, “Isn’t It Lovely,” she marvels that she’s still alive. “I didn’t really take a second to think about why I wanted to be high or drunk all of the time,” she tells me. “I guess I was feeling self-conscious, just normal person-trying-to-figure-themself-out anxieties, not wanting to be present in my own life.”

Photo by Logan White

Ives’ made the demos for Janky Star at home, with the Roland MC-505 that she bought in college because M.I.A. used the same model. She started writing most of it in 2018, and after two years of tinkering, she assumed she was done: “For my 2019 debut 2nd, I had been just like beat, one track, top line, melody, simple words—that’s it.” But her label encouraged her to work with a producer, and she eventually brought on Justin Raisen (Yves Tumor, Charli XCX) to help notch up her sound.

The songs on Janky Star twitch and rattle, like pop music made from the inside of a maraca. There’s a maximalist element to Ives’ approach—breakbeats and big ’80s drums, laser zaps and birds twittering—but it’s also like she’s stripped a layer of varnish off of what you might hear on a Lorem playlist. You can interpret “Janky Star” as a literal description of Ives’ chintzy sound: “It’s like a pop song that’s been deconstructed and formed into this imperfect shape,” she says. Or maybe it’s a metaphor for herself. We’re at the dining table now, eating the exquisite meal she’s made and examining the many shitty tattoos on her body. There’s the cringe “Cool S” that middle-school kids doodle on their notebooks, and an “Oops” to signify all the times she drunkenly recorded herself singing Britney Spears into Photo Booth. She struggles to lift her leg, trying to show me a misshapen outline on her ankle, and there it is: the album’s namesake. “If I were a star I would probably look like this,” she says. “In its own weird form, like it’s taken a little bit of a beating.”

Ives considers herself a pretty anxious person, and one of the things she frets about is missing the window of time to make it as a musician. “I Googled, ‘How old is Grace Ives?’” she says. “It said 24, and I was like, let’s keep it that way.” Growing up in Brooklyn, she was in a parent-organized band in high school with the TikTok-famous bassist Blu DeTiger and DeTiger’s brother Rex. She decided to make music on her own once she got to college, enrolling at the Maryland Institute College of Art before transferring to SUNY Purchase a year later. “There are some melodies that I wrote when I was 18, and I want to sell that shit to Dua Lipa,” she says. But insecurity held her back from promoting what she’d been making; she worries her music might not be as impressive now that she’s not as young. Lately, she has been dwelling on a line from fellow SUNY Purchase grad Mitski: “I used to think I’d be done by 20/Now at 29, the road ahead appears the same.”

Youthful missteps provide lyrical inspiration on Janky Star. “Loose” is about the time when Ives’ and some friends moved into an apartment in Port Chester, New York, only to discover it was infested with bed bugs. “They came out at 3 a.m. and you would see them on the walls, crawling,” she remembers. Misfortunes piled up. She was working at a flower shop under a boss with anger management issues; her psychiatrist abruptly moved to California, so she just stopped taking her Lexapro. On top of all that, there was homework.

She moved to Astoria in 2018, and took on odd jobs post-college to keep afloat while making music: dog-walking, babysitting, working pop-up toy conventions. For a while, she was a coat checker at the Williamsburg venue Baby’s All Right; bored of just standing there, she’d sing her own melodies over whatever was playing and record them into Voice Notes. “It was this weird like meta-sampling,” she says. “I would take the ideas and then go home and make a demo on my Casio.” One of the new songs that came out of that process is “Shelly,” a choppy power-pop number about a Baby’s bartender who is a spitting image of Shelly Johnson from Twin Peaks. “It’s one of the first songs where I’m talking about thinking that a girl is beautiful,” Ives says shyly. “She was so beautiful—and she deserves a song written about her.”

A few months ago, Ives quit her server job at a nearby wine-bar, where the work was so thankless that the fear of going back has strengthened her resolve to make it as a musician. Once, a dissatisfied woman directly placed her cooked eggs into Ives’ hands; another time, her manager’s obliviousness meant she was assigned to 14 or so tables. “The other server and I were just sobbing, because there was nothing we could do,” she says. She knows the music industry is no picnic, either. Ives hesitates to speak about opening for boisterous pop phenom Remi Wolf earlier this year, but admits that some crowds seemed to detest her. She feels dread and embarrassment toward self-promotion, even though she thinks her teenage self would have loved her music, so she should go viral on TikTok. “I have to start thinking I’m the shit,” she resolves. “Fake it till I make it.”

Photo by Samuel Metzger
Pitchfork: Earlier you were talking about feeling inadequate as a songwriter, being intentionally glib because you don’t have the words. That’s a little surprising to me, because I imagined your goal was to be funny.

Grace Ives: There’s a sweet spot of being funny and poetic. I throw in some jokes here and there. My favorite kind of rap is punchline rap, like Nicki Minaj. And it’s inspiring being like, I see what she did there.

Are there writers whose profundity you want to emulate?

I would love to be as poetic as Leonard Cohen, and I think Kate Bush is an amazing storyteller. I really like honesty. I want to describe these situations that I’ve been in that other people can relate to, in a way that’s a little more poetic than just telling the story to someone. I want people to listen to my music and cry. An issue that I have with a lot of pop music is like: Who the fuck are you? What do you like? Why are you making music?

Something that struck me about Janky Star was how some of the beats sound like old electro music. Tell me about the musical palette of this record.

We talked about that “indie sleaze” era of fashion, but I’m more into the music, what I was listening to in middle school. Santigold, M.I.A., Amanda Blank, the Gossip Girl soundtrack, even LCD Soundsystem. If I could make a song that sounds like Spank Rock’s “Rick Rubin”—that’s the goal.

It’s just such fun music. The beats are very hip-hop, but using newer technology. And Santigold or Spank Rock, they have these top lines that are moving around the chords, but aren’t playing the chords. I think that’s the coolest way to make music. Also, the synths they use are super buzzy and annoying—they become like a voice, obnoxious and loud. I tried to use thinner sounds on my record, because I didn’t want it to be too padded and huge. If I make a beat that’s very traditional pop, I have to add something that throws it off from being too predictable.

Have you always had a tendency toward the off-kilter? I’m thinking about these strange press photos of you in a closet, wearing a Bose T-shirt and looking vaguely menacing. Feels like you’re shitposting.

I’ve never marketed myself before. I just thought that it would look interesting, and I've kind of exhausted every section of the house in press photos. So I was like, yeah, the closet. That’s just what I was wearing—my little shorts and my Bose T-shirt. When I overthink having to take photos of myself, it’s stressful and they come out bad. I’m trying to come across as cool and honest and weird without Miley Cyrus Bangerz-era shock value.

How do you think your priorities have evolved since 2nd?

2nd was very college—like flirting, I want to be with you, not digging deep and doing a lot of self-discovery. I was churning out beats and slapping some lyrics on it, going with the first thing that came to mind because that’s what I thought the production needed, something short and sweet to match the short and sweet production. These songs are telling more mature stories. I was trying to figure out what my process is other than finding cute words like “icing on the cake.” It’s the first time that I’m pushing myself a bit harder. I’m letting myself play instruments and actually sing.

I’m so tired of hearing artists not sing. Everybody wants to sound like Billie Eilish, whispering, like they’re not trying too hard. And I’m like, why not? Try as hard as you fucking can.