The idea of suddenly being happy and healthy, realizing that life’s never gonna be like it once was, it was like getting a second chance early in life.
Henry Grace is disarmingly honest and speaks plainly when it comes to broaching the subject of his past struggles with crippling depression, which had gotten him hospitalized at 18 following a failed suicide attempt. At rock bottom, the British singer-songwriter subsequently crossed the pond “in search of a new life,” which would mark a hugely significant turning point for the artist: not only was this new frontier life-saving, it’s emblematic of the Americana in his music-making.
Opening up wounds across the ten soulbound tracks of his debut album Alive In America—at once hazy and hyperaware about the hurt that’s being sanded down by time—there’s a lot of grace, his namesake, within it. Meanwhile, wielding his resonator guitar like a cartographer’s quill, the artist summons the cinematic landscapes of his adopted country with each run of the fretboard. Looking inward, Grace charts a continued wandering search for peace on life’s uncertain, unmapped terrain.
Anthem reached out to Grace in London, where he currently resides, for an in-depth conversation.
Alive In America is out now.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
Hi, Henry. How does it feel to have your album out in the world?
It feels good! It feels like a mixture of relief and I guess excitement. I’d spent the last year and a half without any music out so to have a musical identity in the world again is really cool.
It’s this tangible thing you created to hold in your hands.
That’s a huge reason why I wanted to get this album made: to actually have that physical thing. Because with digital music, there’s nothing physical there. If the Internet was to disappear tomorrow, there’s nothing but just files on my computer. Previously, I’d released two EPs—the first [Crash the Moon] in 2016 and the second [What We Took From the Mountain] in 2018 —before taking them offline a year and a half ago, at a stage when I thought I’d be releasing a different version of this current album. But that never went ahead. It took me another year to actually record, mix, and master—do everything for the record that’s now out. So it’s been a long process. I started recording this album in 2019 and then went through several producers before I ended up self-producing it. That ultimately became the way forward.
You’re also unloading a lot that’s nonmaterial—personal stories. Did you find that difficult?
That part was easy. What was difficult was figuring out how to properly produce that. The songs are written from a place of extreme vulnerability and up until now I was a solo artist. I mean, I still am, but I’m just very lucky to have found some friends who really enjoy playing my music with me so I have a band. I was always writing for myself so the songs that I was then going to play live solo had to work with just me. They were also songs that were deeply personal. But you couldn’t just go and record just me and the guitar and that’s it. I mean, you could, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the most interesting album to listen to. I think these songs also deserved to have other stuff in there because the record is really visual: it brings out images and feelings of parts of America and different instruments can really add to all that stuff. I needed instrumentation and arrangement around these songs. So figuring out what that looked like was the challenging thing. That is why I decided to self-produce this and do it the way I think it should be done: very sparse production, not overly produced, and not have loads of stuff going on. It needed to be quite simple. There shouldn’t be any backing vocals because that takes away from the intimacy of it all and the themes of loneliness and distance. So it was about getting the right parts.
Where did you record this?
We went to a studio in Wales called Rockfield, which is a really amazing place. It’s where Queen did Bohemian Rhapsody and Oasis did (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? It’s a farm in the middle of Wales on the countryside. So we went out there and recorded the album live in five days, which was a pretty massive task. We had one day, for example, where I’d spent the whole day on one song and ended up not keeping anything. But then we had other days where we recorded four songs start to finish in a day. I ended up doing most of the guitar work. I had a friend playing bass and another friend playing drums. It all worked. And I think it had to be live. Recording live was something I’d not done in the past. The way that you described it to me before is exactly what I was trying to achieve in the production and I’m really glad that comes across: to make it really human and honest. As soon as you stop recording stuff live, all that stuff disappears because you can tell that everything’s just perfect and I didn’t want that. A lot of these songs are about my time in America, but they’re also about America. And not everything I was singing about is about America, but I used America—a very specific kind of degraded America—as a medium to channel what I was saying. A lot of the songs are not exactly from a positive place so I wanted to talk about how I was feeling through something that was kind of breaking down. That kind of America, that part of America, really fit for me. I wanted the record to feel kind of thin and old and worn, everything from the way the instruments sound to the album art. There was real intent behind what I ultimately released, which I found difficult figuring out how to do. I’ll find time to reflect. I’ve been busy so I haven’t really done that. I think it will feel like a real achievement.
I love how you chose to incorporate America as a concept to really anchor the vastness of your experience and feelings. It totally works. How did you arrive at the album title, Alive In America, which is obviously echoed in the leading track “Midnight Sunset”?
I didn’t always know what to call the album, and the title of the record does come from that song. It was a nice line. I liked that line. It fits the theme of the record and the kind of degraded America that feels quite empty of life or people like “This person’s very much on their own.” So someone shouting “Is anyone alive in America? Is anyone even out there?” fits that. But also, it mirrors the other theme of the record: I went from a place of real depression and really struggling in life to going to America and getting my life back together. The title hints at that.
Once I learned more about you—and you’re wonderfully candid—I found your struggles an inescapable subject. I just feel it in every corner of your music. Were you always so open?
I think I always wrote about how I was doing so it was very much out there. I mean, there are a lot of songs that are not out there that are so much more about that stuff. [laughs] Music has always been very helpful for me to channel what I’m feeling and to deal with it and understand it. What’s also cool is having a time capsule of that place you were at emotionally so you can always look back. That’s the cool part of writing and recording songs. Talking about mental health was the thing that didn’t come naturally. I would write about my feelings, but I didn’t want to talk about that kind of stuff publicly. And when I did get better and figured my stuff out, I realized it was important to do it, for someone young and maybe also someone male to do it, especially in the U.K. where mental health awareness is better now, but it was really not ten years ago. So it was my voice to say “I really struggled with depression to the point where I didn’t have a life. But I was able to get better and my life is now great.” That there’s hope. That there’s reason to believe that this is not going to be permanent. That things will get better. I felt very lucky to get better, and I felt like I owed it to myself to say and to share that depression is not forever. But, again, that took some time for me to feel comfortable doing. Whereas with the writing and singing, I’ve always felt that was very much where I feel comfortable. On stage, I feel really at home. Playing music live is, apart from writing songs, the whole reason I love doing this.
The fact that you talk about this stuff off-mike, I think your music can only resonate more. I also think it’s important to contextualize your experience, especially because you’re talking about life and death stuff. With your music, is the healing and the hurt inseparable?
I wasn’t any good at music really until I got better. And I’m not saying I’m good now. [laughs]
No, you’re great.
What I mean is, I think there needed to be more of a balance between light and dark for this to make sense and to work. I was just in such a bad place singing songs about where I was at. It was almost too one dimensional. I also wasn’t well enough to be able to actually improve in any areas of my life. But when I got better, my voice changed. Everything, musically, it all changed. I very much feel like I wasn’t born—I don’t think at all—with a natural kind of musical talent. So it was something I really wanted to have and worked really hard for. I think the sound that I have now was very much forged by what I went through. I can’t separate what I went through from my music. That for me is really special and I’m proud of that. And that’s not to say I think all my music’s gonna be like the record I just released. It’s not. I haven’t even started thinking about it.
In the press material, Alive In America is described as “a stark and vivid depiction of the country Grace called home and ultimately credits with saving his life.” That’s written in the past tense: “called home.” Was America always a temporary arrangement?
No, and I moved back here because I wanted to try and make a career out of music. It was just so much easier to come home. I’m sure you’ve traveled enough to learn that living in a foreign country is not easy when you’re not from that country. I knew that if I came back, I would make life easier for myself in loads of ways, from being able to live at home for a bit and maybe save some money and all that kind of stuff. Whereas if I was staying in America, having to sort out more visa stuff, it was just gonna be too much. But it felt like a good time to leave as well. I went out there really only thinking I was going to be there for like 30 days and I ended up staying for five and a half years. And in that time, I started a music career, which was great. I started playing live shows and got some momentum there. I also got a degree from Berkeley in English Literature. When I graduated, that was such a huge achievement and I felt like “Okay, I’m now really going to dedicate myself to music.” It just felt like the right time to come home. That being said, I’ve been back in the U.K. for three and a half years now and I’d do anything to go back ‘cause I loved being there. Although I love it here as well, I think if I can find a way to go back to America, I will.
This is the sound of Americana and your music has a sense of place. You also throw definitive anchors onto places like Oakland and Arizona. You had a past song called “Missouri,” a personal favorite of mine. Are people surprised to discover that you’re actually British?
I think some people are and some people aren’t. It’s just one of those things. Some might question it like “But you’re British. Why are you singing about America?” I’ve heard stuff like “Why do you make Americana music?” or whatever it is. And, you know, you can make whatever music you want to make. [laughs] That place had a huge impact on me. And I think my singing voice is very different to my speaking voice. I’m probably a lot more soft-spoken than what you thought I was gonna be. And, again, I think what I went through ended up shaping the sound, the music. I love American music as well. Despite the fact that I lived there and what I went through also created the kind of music that I make, I’ve also listened to American music my whole life. I’ve also always been way more interested in and intrigued by American culture and its landscape than the U.K. I’m more interested in American politics than British politics. I think the American scenery is a lot more intriguing to me, especially artistically, than anything in the U.K. I’d much rather write about some place in the American Midwest than about some place in London.
You also had a much deeper American experience than most in that stretch of time. You went through treatment. You went to school. I’m curious—what had brought you out to Venice?
When I was in Arizona, the friends I’d made there were like “Come to Venice and just try it out.” So I did that and I was like “Woah, this place is amazing.” It was the most fun I’d had. I actually didn’t love the Bay Area as much as I loved LA. From there, I enrolled myself in community college and spent two years doing that while I was really focusing on music. I ended up doing really well at this college, which I put down to having some amazing teachers who believed in me. And then I got accepted to Berkeley so I went up there and did two years. Yeah, I loved LA.
I learned to never ask artists what they think they sound like. It’s just universally hated.
I do wonder, though, about the evolution of your sound, thinking about your situation specifically, framing it in chapters almost: pre-America, America, and post-America.
That’s a good question. I mean, my music’s evolved massively and that’s a really satisfying part of it for me. I just want to get better and better and better. I’m a ten times better artist now than I was a year ago, and so on and so on and so on. When it comes to songwriting, the lyrics are and have always been the part that I spend a lot of time on. I think that is the thing I’m most proud of with this album. It’s hard for me to view my evolution in music in a way, other than just critically going “I’ve improved in that area” and “I still want to improve more in that area” kind of thing. All I know is that it’s changed. It’s become more Americana and stuff like that. I can’t really separate progress from evolution.
Maybe there’s a parallel to staring at yourself in the mirror every day: there’s no discernible change that you can make out. Only other people can see how different you’ve become.
Yeah, and I’ve always just had ideas of what I want my music to be and then I will try and chase that. That starts from a really basic level when you’re starting out: you get really inspired by other musicians. It still happens, but maybe not to the extent like when I first heard Slash play guitar in Guns N’ Roses. I was like “Fuck, I wanna play guitar.” Bon Iver’s singing for me was like “I wanna be able to sing.” Cat Stevens’ songwriting was like “I wanna be able to write songs like that.” I was so infatuated by those artists. I wanted to be able to do what they do. But as soon as I started writing and singing songs and playing guitar, I then had ideas about what I wanted to sound like. That’s something I will always chase. So when I start writing again, which is hopefully gonna be quite soon, it will be a sound that I’m ultimately chasing like this album was.
When you started writing songs at 12, were you setting benchmarks already?
No. I mean, when I was writing songs at 12, I guess I was still chasing a certain sound at the time. I knew that I loved music more than anything else and that’s still true today. I knew it was what I wanted to do when I was really struggling and living in the U.K. before America, but I was way too unwell to possibly do anything about it. When I got better, it was such a moment of realization: “I’m 21 years old and I got my whole life ahead of me.” Prior to that realization, I’d thought that I’m only gonna be living in psychiatric hospitals for the rest of my life or I’m gonna be dead. The idea of suddenly being happy and healthy, realizing that life’s never gonna be like it once was, it was like getting a second chance early in life: “I got a lot of time ahead of me. I got to live the best life I possibly can. Okay, I know what I want to do and it’s to make music.” I really dedicate myself to that. And that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. It also doesn’t mean that’s the only thing I’ve done. I did go to Berkeley. I’ve spent a lot of time in the U.K. working with young kids, helping them with mental health stuff, which I love doing. I would one day hope that through music, I can have a platform to make a greater difference for mental health awareness. When you were asking me “How does it feel now that the album’s out?” it’s great, but I’m also already thinking, “What’s next?” Hopefully soon, I’ll be writing again and I want to do it to the best of my abilities.
I love your advocacy work with young people. And even if you chose not to do that, I think your music can help in immeasurable ways. Do you have full-circle moments?
Yeah, a lot of them. But you’ve also caught me at a time where I’m really aware that I need to take some time to just reflect because I haven’t. [laughs] A full-circle moment is that exact thing where you go “Ah yes, that’s just come around.” I love mentoring kids. It’s something I’ve done a lot of, coaching them and spending a lot of time with kids that have been in the same place I was: unable to cope and having lost all belief in themselves that they can’t have a normal life. Some of them I’ve been able to help and that’s been the most fulfilling thing. And if my music can do something close to that—and I don’t believe it could because I think being with someone one-on-one, talking, is bigger than anything music can do—that would be amazing. If it does, like you were telling me it could, that’s so cool. It’s almost something that I haven’t really even considered yet. But that would be the biggest blessing from this album.
I wonder if it’s too romantic, the idea that music could encompass life-saving properties.
I don’t know. But I do know there are songs that have meant unbelievable amounts to me at certain points in my life. A song can soundtrack entire five-year periods, for example. I don’t know whether music can be life-saving. But for me music has meant an extraordinary amount.
When you said that we’re much better now at talking about mental health issues, is there something you wish had been around when you were really going through it?
I wish there had been young people, or just people to be honest, talking about it and sharing their experiences to give a message of hope. That’s literally what I’m trying to do: just talk about it and give a message of hope. Any time that I do talk about it, it’s to shine hope on mental health and awareness. There was no one that did that that I can remember. I remember when I first got diagnosed with depression, I didn’t know what depression was. When I was really unwell and in hospital, it was something that no one really talked about. Because there was, and still is, a huge amount of stigma around it. It would’ve meant a lot to me to have someone say “It’s going to be okay. This is something that so many people go through. You’re gonna be alright.”
You wrote a column in the March 2020 issue of Happiful where you single out a specialist who seemed to finally listen to you and ask you the right questions. That was obviously hugely significant. It also confirms the enduring belief that it only takes one person sometimes.
Well, he was the first person that I guess maybe gave me a different message than what I’d been receiving for most of my life. He framed it to me like “If you want to, you can get better.” That you just really need to believe in yourself and work really hard at it. That you will also need luck and you’re gonna need help, but you can do it—if you want to. Having someone say that was almost like “They’re believing in me that I can do this.” That was huge. Whereas, you know, I got really messed with in the kind of care I had been getting, which was a huge part of why things had gotten so bad for me. I was put on all kinds of drugs. Maybe being put in hospital at 18 wasn’t so helpful to me? It just made things worse, and I was in hospital for quite a long time. Maybe it would’ve been helpful to just have better conversations with people, rather than lots of doctors and stuff like that. And this is not me taking away from the extreme value of doctors and hospitals. It’s just that all it took is, like you said, one person saying the right things at the right time.