On a futuristic stage only a multi-billion-dollar tech company like Apple would dare construct, Grace Mitchell confidently bounces on the balls of her feet and stares down a television camera. As thundering percussion shakes the lavish London concert hall that surrounds her, she takes advantage of the close-up by running her hands through a thick mess of fiery red hair and wrinkles up her nose to snarl the line: “The tension in here is like a short little fuse and I’ma light this up. I ain’t got nothing to lose. Do you feel me?”
The words are delivered with a level of reckless abandon that comes naturally to most 18 year olds, matched with the earned confidence of a prodigious talent. That lethal combination is exactly what landed Mitchell on this stage, opening for R&B man-of-the-moment The Weeknd at the Apple Music Festival in September—the latest in a string of milestones that have made up an incredible 12 months for the Portlander.
At first glance, Mitchell’s rise smells a lot like an overnight success story. Barely recognizable in her own hometown, Mitchell’s dramatic electropop take on Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” was placed on the soundtrack of Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, setting the stage for her debut EP Design in late 2014—which earned her an avalanche of internet buzz.
The momentum from that release led to the surprise premiere of her anthemic single “Jitter” on Apple’s international Beats 1 radio station in mid-August. After playing the track, legendary DJ and renowned tastemaker Zane Lowe decided he hadn’t heard enough and reloaded it for an unheard-of second consecutive spin, excitedly shouting, “This might be the song of the year so far! Honestly. She’s absolutely a new contender in the pop world. Grace Mitchell just took a seat at the table and looked at everyone else and said, ‘What?!’”
A little digging reveals Mitchell’s journey to that table has been awhile in the making. Archival footage from a local news broadcast shows a 13-year-old Mitchell performing acoustic country songs for small-town Oregon venue Axe & Fiddle five years ago.
“I was onstage from a really young age, performing covers and original music in Cottage Grove, where I grew up,” Mitchell explains. “It doesn’t feel quite as overwhelming for me to be onstage as it does for others. It feels very right.”
Her natural confidence in front of a crowd is matched by a fearless attitude towards the cutthroat environment she’s entering as a commercial pop artist. Confronted with the notion that signing a recording contract with Republic Records and associating with mega-corporations like Apple may have sped up the normal progression of a growing artist and tainted her young career, Mitchell points to the people she was lucky enough to surround herself with from an exceptionally young age and explains how naturally everything has unfolded. (She recorded a demo with world-class producer Richard Swift—her neighbor and member of The Shins and Dan Auerbach’s brand new The Arcs—when she was 11.)
“The entertainment industry in general is a pretty small world,” she remarks. “I was just making friends with a lot of creative, artistic people. All the connectivity and networking spiraled from there and I ended up finding myself in really cool positions with really talented and skillful people.”
With a modern sound rooted in vocal-driven electronic pop, she has a finger firmly placed on the pulse of her generation’s aesthetic tastes. Of course, that’s more of a job requirement for a pop artist than a special talent. What separates Mitchell is that she has another finger on the pulse of her peers’ consciousness as well. She understands that it’s more important now than ever to hold on to her individuality and refrain from following the predefined formulas used by those that came before.
“My generation is so diverse and culturally ambiguous,” she explains. “I feel like the anthem for us is to not put labels on anything because we know from history that putting a label on somebody is just going to result in a negative nurturing experience and will make that person feel self-conscious if they choose not to conform.”
Drawing from a selection of diverse influences that range from EDM to Tori Amos to experimental punk-rap trio Death Grips, Mitchell’s music reflects the tastes of her musically ADD peers. She dares you to try to describe it within the well-defined confines of a single genre.
Over that musical tapestry (which she co-produces herself), Mitchell preaches independence. It’s the kind of music made for late-night drives during especially confusing points in your life where you’re desperately searching to find direction but don’t know where to start or who to follow. Mitchell believes it starts with yourself.
“I just want to be able to help people who feel like they need to identify with someone and be like, ‘No! You can be who you want to be,’” Mitchell says, her voice rising with intensity as she approaches a topic she’s clearly thought about a lot—a topic that provides the foundation of much of her lyrical content.
After a moment, the relaxed and carefree mentality she exhibited onstage in London returns. The measured air of a groomed pop-star-in-the-making fades away and I’m reminded I’m speaking with a teenager from my hometown. Mitchell exhales as she realizes how simple her message is. She chuckles, “I mean, just do whatever you want, man. That’s it. Just do what you want.”