When Grace VanderWaal won the reality competition “America’s Got Talent” in 2016, anyone who had witnessed the then 12-year-old, ukulele-wielding singer-songwriter perform her surprisingly polished original tunes knew it was “Just The Beginning” for the budding star. VanderWaal reconfirms that thought with the title of her debut full-length album, just released November 3 through Columbia Records and Syco Entertainment, owned by Simon Cowell, one of the judges on “America’s Got Talent” who declared VanderWaal’s catchy confessional style of songwriting as the “next Taylor Swift.”
“Simon once told me ‘Don’t change. That’s what’s good about you,’” recalls VanderWaal, now 13, who says she and her mom “made a super spontaneous decision” to have her try out for the show and never thought she’d ever win. “His advice was with me the whole time while making my album.”
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 15
Where: Park West, 322 W. Armitage
Tickets: Sold out
Though the young talent worked with a heavy roster of notable collaborators on the 12-track album, including Kinetics & One Love (Hailee Steinfeld), Sean Douglas (The Chainsmokers) and Greg Wells (Katy Perry, Adele), VanderWaal wrote all the songs herself with her trademark ukulele (she was introduced to the instrument to by a family friend from Brazil), and put in her own suggestions for sounds.
“On ‘City Song,’ there’s this little clicky noise on the second verse; that was my retainer case I was clicking to the beat of the song,” she says as one example, also one of the few reminders that the astute VanderWaal is in fact a pre-teen. The soulful, choral track, inspired by her time growing up outside the creative hub of New York City, fits well into the current pop canon while her raspy-sweet-peculiar vocals recall Elle King, Regina Spektor and Katy Perry.
On “Just The Beginning,” VanderWaal further proves herself a modern-day Mozart (even Rolling Stone has called her “a pop prodigy”) as she smoothly transitions into a range of musical territory beyond the acoustic indie folk she perfected on “AGT” and her first EP, “Perfectly Imperfect.”
“I’m still experimenting with my sound. I honestly don’t know what I like yet,” she admits, though the dreamy island breeze of new single “Moonlight” is a fantastic start. “This album is the first time where I’m actually putting true produced music behind what I’m singing. A lot of elements from different genres were pulled into the album and I think it invites everyone into my journey.”
That musical journey also includes a number of milestones over the past year including winning Radio Disney Music and Teen Choice Awards and being named to Billboard’s “21 Under 21” twice. There was also playing the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games, last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Cindy Lauper’s annual holiday fundraiser, as well as a handful of dates in Japan and appearing at Austin City Limits in 2017, which “changed my life,” she says. In recent months VanderWaal also signed a contract with IMG Models and will present her first fashion collection at Charming Charlie this month, at the same time she kicks off her completely sold-out first tour, which heads to Park West on November 15.
“Everything has turned into such a blur, there’s so many good memories already,” VanderWaal humbly says, noting that she doesn’t have time to do much else besides music these days, though her other hobbies include normal kid activities like riding her bike, grooming her dog and dressing him in crazy outfits and trying her hand at cooking.
Her family helps keep her grounded f— her sister Olivia has helped design all the packaging for her EP and new album (“she’s a Picasso,” VanderWaal beams) and one of her parents will be joining her on tour. “It’s very important to have them there. Even though I know what I want and I’m very strong, I think a lot of people overlook what I have to say because I’m so young,” she admits, offering advice to other young talents like herself that want to pursue their passions even if they seem impossible. “I think that being creative and following your dreams is really about having no rules. If you’re passionate about something and it makes you happy, you should do it.”
VanderWaal also does her part to give back and inspire, using her $1 million “AGT” prize money to help establish a charity, Little Miracles, which brings art and music programs back into schools. “A school in my town was starting to lose music classes, and I thought that’s just not right. There are a lot of kids who have been opened to music through school and probably, like me, never thought they’d love it so much.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.