Chasing Grace are an acoustic four-piece who make you think and dance. They are influenced heavily by contemporary folk music and yet are connected to a litany of urban influencers; they have been described as ‘very Mumfords’, and yet they have been played on Radio 1Xtra. They are a showcase for the pure, clear tones of Grace Ackerman and the huskier, soulful vocals of co-songwriter Phil Plested, the lush guitar of Phil Leigh and dextrous drumming of Matt Holmes, not forgetting the crucial production skills of one Shahid Khan aka Naughty Boy.
Hailing from Hertfordshire, Chasing Grace formed four years ago while at school in Rickmansworth – the same one attended by fellow rising stars, The Staves, Kyla La Grange and Daughter. Sixth formers Phil Leigh, Phil Plested and Matt Holmes, then 17, invited schoolmate Grace, who was still only 14 at the time, to sing on a cover of Rihanna’s Russian Roulette as part of Matt’s AS Level music project. Phil Plested was the art student on course to study Illustration at Central St Martin’s with the Damien Rice and Bob Dylan albums. Matt was the Slipknot and Nirvana nut set to do a degree in Sound Design at Herts University. Phil Leigh was the one into Mark Knopfler and Grace was the self-taught guitar player with a background in theatre and a girl-crush on Debbie Harry.
Enter Naughty Boy. One of the most in-demand studio whizzes on the planet, the Watford born and bred producer discovered Chasing Grace when he attended a battle of the bands competition at their school. He was immediately impressed.
“I arrived as they appeared onstage and I knew there was something special about them,” says the La La La hitmaker and Emeli Sandé collaborator. “I wanted to get involved, to help them. They had a very British, very classic kind of mood. There was nothing else like them in the charts: they had country guitars with hard drums. I could see that they were going to be a really successful part of a new wave of talent.”
After Naughty Boy caught that set of theirs at Rickmansworth School they proceeded to play the star producer some more of their songs in the car park.
“It was like something out of a film,” recalls Phil Plested. “After that, it all fell into place.”
Chasing Grace’s first gig proper was at the Social in London in 2011. Already by summer 2012 they were supporting and even mixing with Emeli Sandé. “We went to a couple of parties at hers before she blew up,” recalls Grace. “We were at one at her house, with Naughty Boy and Mic Righteous, and we were all singing songs and drinking. It was one of the best nights ever.”
The band also joined Emeli for a couple of writing sessions. “On one of our first ever studio nights two years ago Emeli, Naughty Boy and ourselves all wrote one of our album songs, Only a Fire,” they recall. “It was so inspirational being able to see how Emeli writes, and more importantly being able to write alongside her. It’s definitely a moment we will never forget.”
Soon after Chasing Grace signed a deal with Naughty Boy’s label via Island Universal and they toured with rapper Devlin, confirming their status as the folk-pop band capable of captivating a hip hop crowd. There was a similar crossover effect when they started getting radio plays for the tracks on their Dinner Will Be Served EP – released last summer – on 1Xtra.
On the back of the EP, Chasing Grace supported BRITS Critics’ Choice 2014 award winner Sam Smith and new soul wunderkind John Newman, as well as Ellie Goulding who declared that, although she normally had electro people on tour with her, this time she wanted musicians with a little more guts and soul. “I want something more raw and heartfelt this time,” she told them.
Other hook-ups included Chasing Grace co-writing and featuring on tracks on Devlin’s second album (‘A Gift and a Curse’), and X Factor winner James Arthur eponymously titled debut album, (‘Certain Things’), plus Naughty Boy’s own album, Hotel Cabana, (‘So Strong’). They played an Unplugged set at Nobu in London in front of diva supreme Mary J Blige, two members of Fleetwood Mac and Nicole Sherzinger, who told the band she loved their song ‘Trust’ and that she “really connected with it”. And they “technically supported” The Rolling Stones when they performed at Hyde Park on the same day as the rock legends.
In February 2014, Chasing Grace hosted a residency at the Social, alongside Naughty Boy and some of the UK’s hottest emerging talent, with appearances from Lauren Aquilina and Max Marshall, not to mention some very special guests such as Jessie J. The latter appeared on the third night to perform an acoustic set with songs never before aired.
Much of Chasing Grace’s time over the last year has been taken up with writing and recording their debut album. Produced by Naughty Boy and associates at his Ealing studios, the album includes five Emeli co-writes and one with Disclosure associate Jimmy Napes. The album features a dozen or more explorations of childhood, nostalgia, loathing and regret: noir-ish subject matter, even if the music on the album is often upbeat.
The first single from the album – arguably the most obviously folk-influenced song on the album – was inspired by the movie Green Mile and the way, as Grace puts it, “at the end of your life you are, in a way, free.”. Run – one of the very first songs they wrote – is about seizing opportunities, whether that be “leaving everything behind and running with love”, in the words of Grace, or as, Phil put it “running with an opportunity – like the start of our journey in the music industry.” ‘Another Type Of Love’, in contrast with it exuberant melody and anthemic structure, is reflective and instrospective lyrically, addressing “the darker side of love: infatuation, lust and jealousy”, and people’s obsession with drugs, and experimentation in general.
The theme of Hercules is the seemingly invincible man made vulnerable by affairs of the heart. “I was thinking about all these guys in society that present themselves as being so strong, like Hercules, but perhaps aren’t so strong on the inside,” offers Grace. “The song tells the story of how Hercules would be affected when he loses something he loves. He’d become weak and reliant.”. While, ‘Tonight’ is one of the band’s poppiest moments. “It’s based on finding love at a festival, making the most of that very brief moment,” Phil says. He adds: “It’s a stupidly rousing anthem, all melody – literally the most festival-y song you could ever imagine.” It’s a pertinent description: the band’s ambition, reveals Grace, is to headline Glastonbury.
Inspiration for the album came from a broad range of influences – Kings of Leon, The XX, Paul Weller to Bon Iver, Ben Howard and Matthew and the Atlas, to name a few. Asked how to sum up their sound, Phil Leigh decides: “We are baking a cake. Throw in some folk, sprinkle a dash of pop-rock, then beat it with some heavy drums. Once out the oven, layer it with some luscious harmonies.”
The theme of growing old runs through it. “We write all our songs from the point of view of growing up in these times,” they say. “Experiences and emotions that we hope people can relate to.” Matt calls Chasing Grace’s music “conscious – with a positive message”. Professor Green put it most succinctly when he Tweeted: “Look out for Chasing Grace. They’re the truth.”
Who are they? “Phil Plested is dad,” decides Grace. “Matt’s the cool, mysterious one. Phil Leigh is a bit crazy and breaks everything – there’s something in his head that isn’t right.” How about Grace? “She’s sassy, although she’s not a diva,” replies Phil Leigh. “She’s down to earth.”
Invited to sum up the band in a sentence, they decide: “Best mates, on an adventure, making music to inspire and get the people going.
But the last word surely goes to Naughty Boy, Executive Producer of the album.
“They’re songwriters, writing real music, in their own lane. I’m learning from them as much as they are from me. There has to be mutual gain. It’s a very personal experience making a song with someone. It’s a conversation. When I worked on Emeli’s album I wanted to make songs that stood the test of time and became part of people’s lives. And I can see that happening with Chasing Grace. There are songs on their album that I can imagine being listened to all over the world.”