How Gracie Abrams Turned ‘Owning Her Sh*t’ Into One of 2023’s Best Debuts
When the pandemic shut down the world in March 2020, millions of people had to find ways to cope with an abundance of time indoors. Some baked bread. Others took up pottery. And on one very-early Friday morning, singer-songwriter Gracie Abrams got high, dove deep into Taylor Swift’s discography, and fired off a hit tweet: “i know places by taylor swift makes me feel like i’m being hunted down in the purge.”
“That was one of like a dozen tweets explaining my feelings about her music in that state,” Abrams says, laughing, as I bring it up. (Other tweets sent in the spree suggest Abrams thinks Swift’s best song is “Innocent,” and “Mine” makes her crave overalls.)
Abrams, 23, will have dozens of chances this summer to see an artist who shaped her — but not as a fan. For 30 dates on Swift’s The Eras Tour, Abrams will open for her hero at stadiums across the country. “It feels like the most ridiculous master class known to man,” Abrams says. “I’m going to learn so much keeping my head down and listening and watching her do what she was put here to do.”
Abrams is Gen Z’s melancholy maven and one of pop’s buzziest young artists. Her debut, Good Riddance out February 24, shows a serious command of autobiographical songwriting. She’s not the only pop star writing heartbreak confessionals in her bedroom, but she translates the guilt and doubt of young love turned sour in her music better than most of her peers. “I miss you, I’m sorry,” a breakout hit that has garnered more than 100 million streams on Spotify, is both a goodbye to a lover and an argument for the opposite: “You said, ‘Forever,’ in the end I fought it/Please be honest/Are we better for it?”
“Gracie’s writing mixes fragility with introspection in a way that I really relate to,” Swift tells Rolling Stone. “It makes me feel like maybe she and I started writing songs for the same reason, just to try to make sense of how we feel. My favorite writers are the ones where I never have to wonder why they wrote this particular song, because it just feels inherently obvious that they had to — like a confession or a catharsis. Sometimes it feels like she’s on the edge of tears or laughter while she sings, and we’re all just sitting on the floor in a circle listening to the story unfold.”
On a warm, overcast day in January, Abrams and I sit in a beige booth at a Hollywood diner she frequents, hours away from the release of a new single, “Where do we go now?” Abrams grew up in L.A.; to her it’s “an industry city,” one her family is very much a part of: Her father is the filmmaker J.J. Abrams and her mother, Katie McGrath, is a producer and co-CEO of J.J.’s production company.
Abrams began writing songs when she was eight, just as she started taking journaling seriously. Writing was comforting to her. Performing in front of people was not. “I was not like a little kid that would listen to music on the radio and pretend to be onstage,” Abrams says. “I never wanted to be onstage.”
Abrams’ first act took shape in 2019, when she took a break from classes at New York’s Barnard College to focus on music. She signed with Interscope, and that fall, released “Mean It,” with its soft vocals, infectious chorus and vulnerable storytelling a sign of things to come.
Abrams says she felt a type of imposter syndrome when signing a record deal, knowing that there was one expectation Interscope had that she wasn’t sure she could carry out: playing live. “And then COVID happened, I got to play shows on Zoom…literally in my bedroom, the exact same thing that I would do on Instagram but I would see little people in squares,” Abrams says, referring to the original snippets she’d upload to Instagram as a teenager from her bed, piano, or a backyard. “That was a stepping stone for me that I can’t express how much I think I needed.
Good Riddance took shape after the National’s Aaron Dessner invited Abrams to his Long Pond Studio in New York’s Hudson Valley. When Abrams started crafting the album, she was fresh out of a breakup, and the feelings on Good Riddance are raw. Album opener “Best” was the hardest to write. The lyrics sugarcoat nothing, stinging deeper with each verse as Abrams admits she wasn’t at her best in a past romance. “We were too different/You were so sensitive/Gave me the best of that/I was so negligent,” she sings. The same song gave the album its title: “You were there all the time/You’re the worst of my crimes/You fell hard/I thought good riddance.”
For Abrams, writing the song felt like “twisting a knife” inside of her. When announcing the project, Abrams wrote about how Good Riddance forced her to be accountable. “I don’t think I was always the most transparent partner,” she says, adding that she struggled with confrontation. “I wanted really badly to get to a place in my life, as I am entering adulthood in a more real way, where I’m being more straightforward with myself and not falling into the trap of victimhood in a situation sometimes, but really owning my shit some more.”
I ask Abrams how the subject of her songs will feel about them. She takes a beat to think about it, acknowledging that there were many times she thought she might have to spike a song because of the subject matter. “I’d write a song and then I’d get really insecure about anyone else knowing that I wrote it,” she says. “It’s concerning to think about hurting a person because of something you’ve written.”
Dessner encouraged her to move forward with the songs, following the example of another artist who recorded at Long Pond. “Aaron said, ‘You know, all the artists you’ve ever loved before, they’ve all been like, ‘Holy shit, can I release this?’ ” Abrams says. “Honestly, I sat and internally just thought about Taylor, and she’s had the most public career ever, and still has the guts to say what she means.…”
As for those whom the songs are about? “I can’t know how they might react but I really love them a lot so I hope that maybe they believe that,” Abrams says after a moment.
At Long Pond, Abrams stayed with Dessner, his wife, and their three children. Abrams often worked 12-hour days, taking breaks by spending time with the Dessner children. “His kids made me want to maybe be a mom one day, after never wanting that, to be honest,” Abrams says, smiling. (She particularly enjoyed nature walks with the middle child, Robin, who’s obsessed with lizards.)
Abrams finished her contributions to her debut album on September 7th, her twenty-third birthday, for which the Dessner children made her an original song and performed it on string instruments. “It’s the lead single,” Abrams jokes.
Abrams hasn’t missed the online discourse regarding nepotism — a conversation that came to a head in New York magazine’s December 2022 “nepo baby” cover. (The issue classified Abrams as an “on the come-up” nepo baby.) Abrams says she doesn’t find the term insulting, and stressed that she understood the conversation: “Obviously we can’t control where we are born into, and there are a million visible and even more invisible advantages to having family members who are in any entertainment industry,” she says. “I know how hard I work, and I know how separate I’ve kept [my parents] from every conversation about anything careerwise, but of course you can understand what it looks like from the outside.”
When Abrams got the call that she was going to open for Swift, she phoned her mom, who told her daughter that she sounded like she was shaking. Then Abrams texted Swift, whom she’d met through Dessner a few years earlier. “I was just like, ‘I don’t even have words for you, but I will be thanking you for the rest of my entire life.’ ”
Having a mutual friend in Dessner, Swift and Abrams met when the superstar asked Abrams about coming out to a party. “She texted me out of the blue like two Christmases ago. Like, ‘hey, it’s my birthday.’ I was like, ‘I know,’” Abrams says. “She’s one of the brightest lights ever, a writing genius, an artistic genius, angel from above.”
While going through her horror-film inspired thoughts on Swift’s “I Know Places,” Abrams and I agree that 1989’s closer “Clean” might be the album’s best song. Abrams speaks on Swift with an intense admiration, peppering our conversation with little fun facts. “You know Imogen Heap worked on that song?” Abrams asks me (I did not). “Both of them are obviously bucket list collaborators, so seeing them work together I was like, “Fuuucckkk.”
At the diner, Abrams orders nothing, instead fidgeting with her Cartier love ring as she opines about love, The Lion King (“I knew I wanted to be an artist when I first heard Simba,” she jokes) and Long Pond. She’s feeling nerves — the good kind that bubble up when your single is hours away and your debut album isn’t much farther off. “Definitely biting my nails a lot more this week than I have in a minute,” Abrams admits, saying she’s finally coming to grips with the fact that an album she crafted as much for her as she did for the world is going to exist in more places than just her phone and journal.
These days, Abrams spends her time rehearsing — in a couple of months, she’ll begin her 30-date opening act set on Swift’s The Eras Tour while concurrently playing behind the album on her own Good Riddance tour. “Bedroom pop” just got a big upgrade.
“I feel really more grateful than I ever have for what songwriting has provided me just as a person outside of music,” Abrams says. “I grew up using it as a tool to process shit but like…to have done it and to finish something…I very much felt like I had kind of done the grieving and really let go of what I needed to.”
Styling by Spencer Singer. Hair by Bobby Elliot for The Wall Group. Makeup by Loftjet using YSL Beauty for The Only Agency