Kayla Grace on Realign: “it's about damage and trauma”

Rising artist Kayla Grace uses music as a way to navigate the issues that keep her awake at night. Songwriting is like solo therapy: maybe music doesn’t have all the answers, but it definitely helps her make some sense of her problems.

Her new single, Realign finds Grace digging deep and addressing a story that’s close to her heart. The song reflects on her relationship with her older sister, whose disabilities meant that she had to move into a residential home to receive the care that she needs.

While Grace’s words are racked with guilt, the reality is that an overwhelming situation only had imperfect solutions. Now the Watford singer hopes the song can help people who have experienced similar situations to tell their stories and to try to make peace with their decisions.

What tends to inspire your songwriting?

Some artists can write about literally anything. I think it was Billie Eilish that said, “You don't have to have been through it to write about it”, and I really do look up to that. But for me, writing is like something that I don't even intend to do. 

This sounds so pretentious, but genuinely if I'm feeling any kind of intense emotion, I never learned to express that healthily. So now, my healthy version of doing that is I write a song because I'm just like, “Ah! Get out!”

How so?

Even last night, I was exhausted from being on tour. I was on the way home and I was getting so stressed. I was crying on the tube and as soon as I got home, instead of saying hey to my family, I just ran to my room and I was like: voicenote open and I picked my guitar up. 

If people could hear my voice notes it would be mortifying! But I had to document that feeling, because I bury stuff otherwise and never explore myself. I always write about my own experiences and things in my life.

We're literally meaningless – we're on this floating rock and I'm here expressing sadness.

What are some of your early musical influences?

I grew up listening to a lot of my dad's favourite bands, which were random bands. It was Smile Empty Soul and Breaking Benjamin – some people in the states might recognise those names, but no one that I ever tell knows them! But that was what I listened to as a kid.

I very much had rock drilled into me and then when I was listening to what I wanted to, I would buy CDs like Now That's What I Call Music. I was obsessed with Ed Sheeran and Jessie J, but then I tried to understand the concept of people's albums and bodies of work.

In my teenage years I had like a ‘90s grunge rock phase and I was obsessed with Courtney Love and all the different bands she was in, and The Distillers, Nirvana, and then I discovered The 1975 and I haven't looked back since.

It was a really horrible, guilty feeling and it was one I couldn't cope with.

Tell us about the inspiration behind your new single, Realign?

My sister's got a learning disability. She's two years older than me but I'm kind of like the middle child because she's got additional needs and she needed a lot more attention to get her through and give her the care she needed.

It was weird growing up. It was very crazy in this house, and it was hard. People would be shouting all night long. She would be shouting, my parents would be shouting. 

She'd be knocking on the walls – we didn't sleep much my whole childhood. I just remember a blur of sleep deprivation and loud noises. It was chaos.

This song specifically is about the time she first had to move out when I was 16. She moved into supported living because we just couldn't give her the care she needed and no one was happy. 

She moved just up the road, still in Watford, but it felt like a big, big deal because I had been used to this chaos 24/7, and it was sudden silence. She was gone.

I was doing GCSEs at the time and I was like, “God, this is my fault. I'm a horrible sister. I've kicked her out and she's confused”. It was an awful, heartbreaking thing when you would hear her trying to comprehend what's happening and wondering why she can’t come home. But there is a happy ending, which is where we are now – she's got her own house and I'm with her all the time. She's so happy.

But at that time, it was a really horrible, guilty feeling and it was one I couldn't cope with, to be honest. I really wanted to realign with her. But with her being away, this guilt almost pushed us further away, which is ironic, but I think that that does happen at times. 

The song was about realigning and hoping that it will be the same way it was without us always having to live together forever.

I didn't know I was gonna write about my sister, because some things I find too uncomfortable to write about.

Considering you’ve said you’re not great at processing big emotions, this sounds like it must have been a tough song to write. What was that process like?

My God, I was hungover! I had coffee on an empty stomach. I rolled up to the studio with my friend Mikey Gormley, who I write with a lot, and Stefan Abingdon, who was producing, and we basically started from scratch. 

I didn't know I was gonna write about my sister, but I was feeling very jittery and anxious that day. I was just like, “Oh God, something extreme is gonna happen today”. Stefan started playing this loop, which is the intro of Realign, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, that makes me think of my sister”. 

I realised at that time, I'd never written about it before, because some things I find too uncomfortable to write about. It's fun to write hate songs, but when it comes to life stuff, it's hard.

It was very stressful. I was trying really hard not to have a panic attack – it was intense. Mikey and Stefan were amazing and they were hugging me every five minutes. I basically sat down and ranted and Mikey was quickly typing out what I was saying. Eventually we mapped it out and it all made sense.

Then I did very terrible demo vocal takes that my voice was shaking in, because I was like, “This is too much”. But that was a day where I was like, “This is how I'm supposed to be writing”. 

It's not always going to be fun. This is what helps me to process things. I felt like it was a weight off me, almost like the guilt was mildly alleviated. I'm really proud of that song. 

Everyone that I showed it to afterwards really connected with it. It's quite wild how many people were latching on to it, and of course, my family were sobbing. But it felt like a song that could help people.

I'm taking the mick 24/7, and then the next line is the most depressing thing you've ever heard!

What types of themes do you find yourself exploring through your songwriting these days?

The age I’m at is one where I'm reflecting on my childhood a lot. I guess it's this post-uni weirdness where you're like, “What am I doing? Why am I the way I am? Who am I?” I literally bought this book yesterday, and it says, “Who am I?” It's psychological exercises to further self understanding.

My music often is a mix and match of dark stuff that's happened, like childhood trauma, and then also fun things that you're supposed to explore as a kid, like the things I wear, the things I'm obsessed with, like teddy bears, and fun Y2K stuff. 

The things I didn't get when I was a kid, I'm kind of re-exploring, like the joys of being a child, through the music, if that makes sense.

So it’s the fun aspect of it and the colours and everything but then actually, when my songs are stripped back down, you realise that it's about this damage and trauma that happened at that age.

I guess for myself, selfishly, I'm trying to readdress my childhood and put fun stuff back into it. Even though the music's depressing, the shows can feel like a party and they’re fun - I hand out charm bracelets at my shows.

Do you think those contrasting themes of sadness and fun are a common theme in your music?

The thing I go by is ‘sad clown’’, where it is sad, but there are tongue in cheek lyrics that are thrown in there. I'm taking the mick 24/7, and then the next line is the most depressing thing you've ever heard [laughs].

You can be sad, but also, laugh at yourself for how dramatic you're being about that. I guess it's this nihilism thing of we're literally meaningless, and we're on this floating rock and I'm here expressing sadness, which of course, we should all do. 

But guess it's nice to take a moment and be like, “This is hilarious” and also to dance around to it. I guess it's just like, have some sad fun.