Grace Theisen Shares Stories Of Change, Hope and Resilience On New EP, Dance With The Shadows
I first met Kalamazoo, Michigan’s Grace Theisen when she was working alongside a good friend of hers here in Nashville, for the nonprofit they co-founded in 2014. Songs Against Slavery raised money and awareness through benefit concerts to battle sex trafficking in the United States. It wasn’t until a few years later that I even knew Grace was a musician and songwriter as she was dedicated and focused on their organization’s mission during those years. She grew up with music, harmonizing on folk songs and playing at family gatherings. She picked up the guitar and started writing songs in her early teens, released her first ep in 2015, another in 2017 and her new one, Dance With The Shadows is out today.
AnaLee: Congratulations on these songs and releasing this music, Grace. It’s always amazing to me how an artist can let us in to their life through song and share so much. We listeners appreciate that honesty, it makes the whole experience so relatable. Those connections are key and I’m sure for you as an artist as well. I want to get into the songs on the ep but first, if you don’t mind, would you share a bit of your journey from leaving Nashville and returning to your home state of Michigan to writing, recording and releasing this deeply personal music?
Grace: It has been a WILD ride that is for sure! When my co-founder and I decided to close Songs Against Slavery back in 2018/2019, I honestly wasn’t even in a good mental space to think about what was next for me. Working in the anti-sex trafficking industry takes a toll on you and alongside that, I had just had a second major back surgery which meant I was on a ton of pain meds and was struggling with intense anxiety and depression. I knew I needed to do something drastic to sort of “wake myself back up” so I decided to leave Nashville and move to Costa Rica for 6 months. I wanted to put myself in a place and in a position where I knew no one and had to get up every day to make a new life for myself instead of just being on autopilot. It was there that I fell back in love with music again and just felt
deeply it was exactly what I was supposed to be doing next. Obviously, the Universe has a funny way of interrupting our plans because when I moved back to Michigan ready to do music, Covid hit and shut down our entire industry. But in a lot of ways 2020 gave me an entire year to play “catch up” on what it means to be an artist versus what my job was with Songs Against Slavery. (IE: Booking artists and venues for our shows.) I took two online vocal intensives, guitar lessons, started co-writing more with people over Zoom and that is how Dance With The Shadows was birthed. It truly was my Covid baby. I wrote and recorded it all in 2020 and the essence of it is me processing everything that had happened to me over the last few years: back surgeries, working through a pain med addiction and being
hospitalized for suicidal ideation, deciding to close SAS, leaving my community in Nashville, walking away from the Church, finding a new type of spirituality… It was a LOT to unpack and as you know, we musicians tend to process things through penning songs!
AnaLee: You released three singles ahead of today’s ep, one of them, “Behind The Rain” has a powerful message of hope and self-love, “promise me you will fall in love with yourself no matter the pain” … Can you talk about the inspiration for that song?
Grace: Maya Angelou has this quote that has always stuck with me: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel.” If we look back at all the hate and violence that was spread in 2020 and when I look back at my time with Songs Against Slavery and working alongside survivors of sex trafficking… I can see so clearly that hurt people, hurt people. The biggest lesson I have learned is that; if I can take the time to LOVE myself and take care of myself first and foremost-whether that be through seeing a therapist (highly recommend!!) or in deep conversations with friends or time alone… if I can look inside and learn to have love and compassion for EVERY part of me - the angry Grace, the sad Grace, the suicidal
Grace - if I can learn to sit with those parts of me and cultivate compassion for them and realize that they are JUST as equally as important as “happy, fun and joyful Grace” then I am less likely to take those parts of me out on other people. I truly believe we only have the capacity to love others to the extent we love ourselves. And THAT is the lesson I wanted to convey to my nieces through “Behind the Rain”. Accolades, awards, how many streams my songs have, those don’t matter at the end of the day… how I make people FEEL does. But how we make people feel starts first and foremost with how we feel about ourselves.
AnaLee: I love that drenched in reverb sound, particularly in Down to the River. It really adds to the haunting feel of this song and it all comes together in this gorgeous music video. Would you tell us about the song and its visual companion?
Grace: This is my favorite song off the album! I wrote it sitting in my living room back in January of 2020 and had it finished within an hour. I grew up in a strong Christian household and water has been a huge part of my life so I wanted to incorporate both of those into the storyline. While my faith and spirituality does not look the same as what I grew up with, I wanted to write this song as a sort of “ode” to my roots and to my parents. I wanted them to know I will always be so appreciative of the structure and stability they provided for me. As for the music video, I wanted to do a sort of backwards baptism. Most people think of going “down to the river” to be baptized where they go in with sin (where red signifies blood or uncleanliness) and come out wearing white to signify purity and cleanliness. I wanted to do the exact opposite. I wanted the color red to be in every shot to foreshadow me coming out of the water at the end in the red dress which to me symbolizes me choosing my new life and a sort of rebirth of what I believe and who I am now. The shot of me sitting in the kitchen staring out the window with the tea kettle rumbling signifies the tension that has been building inside of me over the years through the inner wrestling I have done to figure out what I believe for myself. This was my first ever music video and we shot it on October 31, 2020 in Michigan so that water was at LEAST 40 degrees! I am so proud of this video and song and a major shoutout to the videographer, Stephen Norregaard, who really took my vision and made it into the masterpiece it is now!
AnaLee: You wrote a song called "Freedom Ring" following the murder of George Floyd. It benefits JABS, (Justice Against Bullying @ School), a Kalamazoo initiative dedicated to the mentorship of impacted youth and prevention of bullying in schools. Tell us about “Freedom Ring” and how you decided to partner with JABS.
Grace: As you know from my work with SAS, I have always believed music and social justice go hand in hand. I wrote “Freedom Ring” the night after George Floyd was murdered in reaction to what we were all watching and in just trying to process it all. I wrote it first and foremost for my mixed nieces because I wanted them to know that I am committed to doing my part to unlearning my racism and that THIS IS NOT OK. This must stop but it starts with each one of us looking inside and doing our own deprogramming and re-education first. I decided to partner with JABS (Justice Against Bullying At School) because I have seen firsthand how their mission to confront and combat bullying and racism through education and activism in kids is literally changing Kalamazoo from the inside out. One of the biggest things I learned through SAS is that you cannot stop a problem until you KNOW about a problem. Education is the first step in changing systems, but then you also must be willing to get yourself in the game and learn from those who are doing an excellent job in your own backyard. For me that was JABS!
AnaLee: Do you have any tour plans and will we get to see you in Nashville at some point? Thanks for taking the time to chat about Dance With The Shadows today and for sharing your story with us.
Grace: I actually just got back from a writers round tour I did with Nashville based singer-songwriters Katie Pederson and Brontё Fall! We traveled all over the Mid-West promoting our albums and playing listening rooms. I do have a lot of full band shows around Michigan starting in April to promo the EP and my goal is to get back down to Nashville this summer! You can visit www.gracetheisen.com for all album and show information.
“Down to The River”
“Behind The Rain”