Gracie Abrams on How Songwriting Is ‘Like Breathing,’ Touring With Friend Olivia Rodrigo and Making New Music With Aaron Dessner

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Standing onstage at the El Rey Theatre in March, Gracie Abrams seemed genuinely shocked at the turnout for the first of two hometown shows in Los Angeles on her “This Is What It Feels Like” tour. She blushed and stumbled over her words, rattling off a list of thank-yous and interacting with fans in side conversations, as if she weren’t one of the fastest-rising singer-songwriters in her generation playing a sold-out show.

Abrams started that performance full of nerves, she tells Variety in a Zoom call from Long Pond Studios in upstate New York, where she is currently working on new music with Aaron Dessner, guitarist of the National (and, over the last couple of years, a primary Taylor Swift collaborator). But once she felt the energy of the room, it all melted away.

“I felt extra shocked by everything, just because there are nerves that inevitably come with playing at home, especially when you know more people at the show than you normally would,” the 22-year-old says. “That is a factor that typically triggers my anxiety. But to feel in awe of the people that were there made my anxiety disappear completely, and I just felt so engaged with everyone that was in front of me.”

Two of the people at the El Rey that night were Abrams’ parents, director J.J. Abrams and producer Katie McGrath, who Abrams insists are the “opposite of stage parents.” Though they’ve always supported Abrams’ songwriting, she never felt an obligation to enter into show business.

“I have tried throughout this process, and it’s been very short, to keep it as separate as possible because it’s important to me that I navigate these relationships on my own,” Abrams says. “But of course, they have always supported the fact that I write to process my feelings and experiences. I hope that they find some relief in knowing that I was lucky enough to find an outlet that works for me, because that’s what this is more than anything else. Selfishly, I feel very lucky that I get to do this right now — as long as the people will have me around — because I would be writing as much regardless if there was any actual music to show for it.”

As a third grader, Abrams started journaling frequently as a creative outlet and to process emotions, and became fascinated with a wide range of music — Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello and musicals like “The Lion King” and “The Sound of Music,” to name a few.

“Songwriting just felt like the most natural extension of that… It’s an odd choice, I guess, when you’re young. I’ve just been doing it so long that it’s like breathing because I need it so desperately in order to function properly, that it’s funny thinking about that developing over time,” Abrams says. “It just feels very inherent because I rely on it for so much.”

When she got to middle school, Abrams discovered the music of fellow L.A. native Phoebe Bridgers — who she met when she was 13 through a mutual friend — and fell in love with songwriting in an entirely different way.

“I felt similarly toward her music how I felt about Joni’s. I feel like these women are just talking to me —  it felt so conversational and also so colored in detail in a way that I hadn’t experienced with anything else before,” Abrams says. “I didn’t really feel awake to the human element of music until finding her stuff, and then immediately a light switched.”

But still, Abrams never imagined she would one day make a career out of the scribbles in her journal.

“There was nothing that I ever could have imagined in terms of an actual career of any size. Every time that I write, whether it’s journaling or songwriting, I feel better after. There’s a wave of relief and gratitude,” Abrams says. “Whenever it feels good to write, I just am so relieved, and that is the one revelation every time. I thank God that I know it works for me emotionally and mentally. It’s a really grounding practice, and I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have it.”

That necessity and urgency to express emotion is immediately apparent in Abrams’ music. She sings with a kind of soft yearning, her whispery voice revealing the true pain behind lyrics in a way that indicates the immense amount of courage it took to say them in the first place. Take “Camden,” for instance, from her most recent project “This Is What It Feels Like,” in which Abrams details her struggles with mental health. “I never said it, but I know that I / Can’t picture anything past 25,” Abrams croons in the song’s opening lines. “Not like I care to know the time and / Not like I’m looking for that silence / Self diagnosing ’til I’m borderline / I’ll do whatever helps to sleep at night.”

Abrams writes from such a vulnerable place in hopes of creating a community within her listeners, so that the often isolating experience of anxiety or depression isn’t so lonely. And in turn, that community has done the same for Abrams.

“To feel real community around something that was once so isolating is such a gift. So I don’t feel scared to be honest in my songwriting, because honestly it’s really just the more that I do say — and if there are people that still gravitate toward it and understand how I was feeling — that is a miracle,” Abrams says. “Just the spirals and anxiety as a young person growing up with feelings, you don’t always want to talk about them with people in your life. I just hope that the people at the shows or the people that are listening to the music at home by themselves also feel seen and heard in the same way that they make me feel.”

And Abrams is about to expand that community tenfold as she heads out on tour with pop sensation Olivia Rodrigo, with their first show on April 5 in Portland, Ore. Not only is Abrams a fan of Rodrigo, but the two share a true friendship.

“I’m really already kind of emotional about it just as her friend, to know that I’m going to get to watch her first shows on this tour that is going to be such a big deal for everyone who is involved,” Abrams says. “To watch Liv explode in this new way is going to probably make me cry every day. I feel super proud to be a part of it in the tiniest way possible. But I mostly am just really honored that I get to stick around to watch her make such an impact on her fans.”

As both Rodrigo and Abrams’ careers skyrocketed last year, they came to rely on each other for support and advice while navigating newfound fame.

“She’s an incredible friend,” Abrams says of Rodrigo. “There’s a specific sensitivity that writers share, and she’s a really empathetic person and I’ve felt that from her. I’m super grateful and can only hope that I’ve done the same for her. Our careers look very, very different and I feel lucky because she has insight that I don’t, so that’s definitely something that I don’t take for granted.”

But before leaving for tour, Abrams spent some time with Dessner — who co-wrote and produced four songs on “This Is What I Feel Like” — working on her next project at Long Pond. A new single from their collaboration, “Block Me Out,” releases on April 8. Abrams says their working relationship is unlike anything she’s experienced before.

“We’re similar people in lots of ways, so there’s that general umbrella of an understanding of who we are… Everything that he makes just makes so much sense to me, and it’s so satisfying to my brain that it feels very easy for the pieces to fall into place,” Abrams says. “The more that we’ve worked together, the more rich that process feels. The initial spark of that excitement around making something — for that not to fade at all, it’s a crazy thing. I never, ever could have imagined I would be so lucky to find that with anyone.”

Although Abrams says she’s “never had a better time” in the studio, the new music is different from her past projects, correlating with the “transitional time” Abrams is in at the moment.

“There’s been a handful of changes in my life… I have changed a lot as a person. I can feel myself growing up in real time in certain ways; in other ways I absolutely feel like I’m 12 years old on the inside,” she says. “But this music is really reflective of my taste. I really love the music and I feel so myself every single day writing it.”

Abrams continues, “It’s odd, I don’t feel like I’m worrying about outside pressures or factors in a way that I have every single time. I feel really, really free making everything that I’m making right now, and I have a different kind of nervousness around you hearing it because I love it so much. It’s different, so I don’t know if anyone else is going to be into this, but I feel proud that I am. I feel like I’m being myself.”