From Detroit to Nashville: Grace Elizabeth Lee on Developing as an Artist and Creating New Music

The singer-songwriter has come a long way since winning Rochester Idol
Grace Elizabeth Lee // Photograph by Curtis Wiklund

Grace Elizabeth Lee is often found performing on intimate stages, which coincidentally acts as a metaphor for her musical aesthetic. The 19-year-old Rochester Hills native, who moved to Nashville in 2017 to study songwriting and social entrepreneurship at Belmont University, considers Lianne La Havas, Ingrid Michaelson, and jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday as her musical influences. With these inspirational artists and elements in mind, she integrates old jazz standards and colorful imagery into her songs.

“Ella inspires me songwriting-wise,” says Lee. “Lianne infused soul into her music that I also love. Ingrid is an example of a successful female singer-songwriter who writes songs out of the commercial box, which really inspires me.”

Lee began singing toward the end of middle school after winning Rochester Idol, a local singing competition, in 2014. From there, she took vocal lessons and endlessly wrote songs. In 2016, she released her first EP, Darling. She describes the EP as indie and fitting under the umbrella of commercial pop with a whimsical sound, filled with catchy melodies. That year, she also opened for folk rock band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros show in Boston, and her song “Best of You,” played on Olive Garden’s national Mother’s Day commercial.

The commercial feature came about when her friends, producers Mike Mullinix and Steve Saputo, offered her the opportunity to sing on a track. She learned the lyrics and melody during lunch in her school cafeteria, then recorded her vocals that night. Not only was the song picked up for the campaign, she gained some fans, along with Olive Garden’s buttery and garlic salted breadsticks — making it a “win-win,” she says.

“Metro Detroit has given me places to perform,” says Lee, noting that The Royal Park Hotel in Rochester and 20 Front Street in Lake Orion are some of her favorite local venues. “It’s given me my fans and inspiration in terms of it being where I grew up and shaping who I am.”

Lee is the first in her family to pursue music, and she says they are supporting her as she navigates through the unfamiliar waters of the industry. “I very much believe in ‘go big or go home,’” she says. “If I’m going to pursue music, I want to pursue it fully. I mean, it’s hard. You have to know people. You have to kind of be schooled on how the music industry works. It’s a hard industry to break into, and sometimes, you feel like you can only get so far before you kind of plateau.”

Subsequent to Darling, she released her new single, “Heat Lightning,” earlier this summer on July 13. Lee wrote the song from a sad place, and it became a way to process an ending relationship and feeling buried by time, she says. “Every now and then, the sky before a summer storm makes me think of that person and the way we used to watch storms roll in together, specifically watching heat lightning. It is supposed to be a somewhat melancholy song,” she says of the track, which she wrote quickly on a stormy summer day. “I am always writing lyrics. I just write on the side in my phone notes or in a little notebook.”

Lee and her boyfriend created a music video for the single after recording clips on their iPhones — intending it to be a small teaser for the song. The result is an effortless, nostalgic video. The song played over natural elements of greenery, lakes, and roads.

Following “Heat Lightning,” she will be releasing two more “artistically driven, indie” songs later this year. She also plans on continuing to play shows in Detroit and Nashville and to “keep meeting people and co-writing,” she says. “I think that’s the most important thing right now — to learn, grow.”

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