Two years ago, Grace VanderWaal was your average small-town child prodigy, learning the ukulele and the sax, writing her own songs, and performing covers of Twenty One Pilots tunes at open-mic nights near her hometown of Suffern, New York. But early last year, her mom entered her in the TV competition show America's Got Talent – without telling her first. Grace rolled with it, swept through rounds and won the show. In October, her hometown threw her a parade, where she was presented with the key to the county. On AGT, judge Simon Cowell dubbed her "the next Taylor Swift."
"Hopefully, one day I will be as successful as her," the 12-year-old says. She's off to a good start, amassing more than 50 million YouTube views before finishing the seventh grade. Her warbling, old-soul vocal style evokes Regina Spektor and Feist, but VanderWaal's blond hair and bubbly energy do evoke Swift in her early days.
VanderWaal's recently released debut EP, Perfectly Imperfect, features tender original songs like "I Don't Know My Name" and "Beautiful Thing" – both of which she performed on the show – as well as newer tunes. She's proudest of "Gossip Girl," about the shock of being suddenly embraced by popular kids in the wake of her insta-fame. "I had a lot of those fake friends," she says. "You just have to realize it's happening. You can't get caught up in the 'Oh, my God, they want to be my friend finally' aspect." That said, her victory has been a major confidence booster: "Before," she says, "I thought that all of my songs were, like, really bad."
Over the fall, she was able to learn the ropes of working in a professional setting while making her EP "I wasn't sure what I was walking into by working with Grace in the studio," producer Greg Wells recalls of working with VanderWaal on Perfectly Imperfect. "It was her first time ever in a proper recording studio and I envisioned several different potential horror stories. Within the first 10 minutes of working on music together, I was happily surprised to find that I was working with a real artist who could speak the language of record making."
Though the singer-songwriter is still in the early stages of plotting her debut album, she and Wells have already established a fruitful chemistry in the studio. "There were many times in our recording sessions when Grace would suggest an idea that I wasn't sure would work, but as soon as we tried it, it made the song better," he says of her musical intuition. "That's a skill that takes most of us years to hone and develop, yet somehow this was pouring out of her at age 12 during her first time in the studio."
And despite the Swift comparison, she actually wants to model herself on an artist Wells has worked with in the past: Katy Perry (in a rare moment of unity, both Swift and Perry sent congratulations on her AGT win). She admires what she sees as Perry's artistic integrity. "She's always stayed the same," says VanderWaal, noting that her favorite songs include "Roar" and "I’m Still Breathing." "In her movie, she said that she turned down some producers just to be herself – and that could've been putting her entire career in jeopardy, but she still did it. I think that's a good thing to remember."
America's Got Talent star Grace VanderWaal talks songwriting and her viral audition.