30 Nov Grace Yukich’s New Record Reminds Us Why Saying ‘No’ to Sleep Can Be Good for the Soul
by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
Standing tall on stage in platform boots and a slinky bodysuit, Grace Yukich, lead singer and guitarist for New Haven, Conn.-based femme-punk trio Corpse Flower, performs with the flair of David Bowie and the ballsy bravado of Courtney Love.
And because she brings that renegade spirit to the acoustic realm, her solo songs are both endearing and surprising, centered on subjects close to her heart — family, love, and the importance of living in the moment. It’s that dichotomy between the punk persona and the wizened folkie that makes Grace’s new record, Wisteria (out Dec. 2) perfect for 30- and 40-somethings navigating the space between youthful idealism and nostalgic longing.
The six-song EP, produced by Stephen Peter Rodgers (Tiny Bunker Studio), is complex and layered and flows beautifully, with pretty acoustic instruments that accompany Grace’s lyrical journeys — into summertime evenings with her daughter (“Firefly Summers”), through the moments of being with a parent with dementia (“Forget Me”), and into a renewed joy of discovery: “Say No To Sleep” is a charming, cheeky reminder to seize inspiration whenever it strikes (because, as we know, it doesn’t always strike at opportune times). My other favorite, the upbeat “Plant Song,” is an ode to being weird and different, with plants as a metaphor for being brave enough to do your own thing. The sweet closer, “Travelers,” is particularly lovely, too, infused with a mélange of pretty acoustic effects.
Throughout Wisteria, Grace digs deep, mining the pain of the past two years, in which she experienced divorce amid the isolation of Covid, for raw material. As a listener, I appreciate anyone who isn’t afraid to wear their heart on their sleeve.
We recently caught up with Grace to chat about music, motherhood, and more.
Rockmommy: You’re a sociologist and a professor. How did you get your start in music?
Grace Yukich: I’ve been very musical since I was a child growing up in Alabama, and probably wrote my first song while I was still in diapers. I have some pretty embarrassing evidence of some of those early songs on old home videos, which no one other than my family and closest friends will ever, ever see. A fan favorite among my family is called “The Noise,” which feels oddly foreshadowing for someone who would later join a punk band.
I’ve always been a singer. I learned to play the piano as a child, and I learned guitar in high school and played a handful of shows back then. In college, I majored in theater, and playing and writing music took a back seat to theater for a while after that, except as a solitary activity. About five years ago, I realized I really missed music, and I decided to teach myself the ukulele, and that got me interested in and excited about music again. But it was really after my divorce two years ago that I picked music back up in earnest.
Rockmommy: Who are your musical influences?
Grace Yukich: Joni Mitchell was a big early influence. Her song “Carey” was the first song I ever performed on the guitar in public. I was also very into the Lilith Fair scene as a high schooler and found a lot of inspiration in women writing their own songs and playing their own instruments and just generally kicking ass. It may sound strange, but my years in musical theater influenced me as a songwriter as well. Stephen Sondheim in particular, whose lyrics are incredibly funny and clever, shaped my preference for injecting humor into lyrics even when, or maybe especially when, the theme is heavy.
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Rockmommy: How would you describe your sound?
Grace Yukich: Some people have described it as folk music that is a little bit country and a little bit punk. Different songs have a different feel, of course, and some are less country, or less punk, or whatever, than others. But that description captures the overall feel I’m trying to create pretty well.
Rockmommy: Where did the songs on ‘Wisteria’ come from emotionally?
Grace Yukich: So many places. Feeling both jaded and excited about love and romantic relationships after my almost 20-year marriage ended. Missing my parents and sisters during a long Covid separation, during which my marriage fell apart and I became a single parent. My parents aging, and my dad losing his memory due to dementia, which has been heartwrenching for the whole family. My family and I having significant religious and political and cultural differences, and the strain and pain sometimes around those differences. The pain of growing up, of letting go of the parts of the past and of home that you can’t hold on to, and that don’t serve you well. Wanting to be a good role model for my daughter in all of that.
Rockmommy: How did you meet/connect with Steve (Stephen Peter) Rodgers? What made him the ideal collaboration partner and producer for this record?
Grace Yukich: I first met Steve through my friend and bandmate (in the femme punk band Corpse Flower) Sarah Dunn. She worked with him on her EP, “Thank You” and sang his praises. Steve was at one of the first shows I played when I started playing out, so he had heard my music, and when I started to get more serious about the idea of recording an album, he suggested I come to his studio (Tiny Bunker Studio) to see if we might want to work together. I went and played a couple songs for him, and we really connected personally and musically and decided to collaborate on the project. We share a lot of the same musical influences and tastes, and Steve is so talented, both as a musician and a producer, that I knew the project would be in great hands with him.
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Rockmommy: “Forget Me” is truly beautiful and bittersweet. What is that one about?
Grace Yukich: My dad has dementia. He is in his 60s, so, still young. Anyone who’s ever had a loved one with dementia knows how brutal it is to watch the slow decline of a loved one as they lose their memory … their personality changes, and they ultimately even forget who you are. It’s been and remains an incredibly painful journey. I wrote that song this past spring after I learned my mom was having to move my dad into a memory care facility after years of being his caregiver at home. Writing that song helped me through that time and all of the emotions around it, and I return to it when I need to grieve that slow loss of my dad. I also think the song is about more than just dementia, though. It’s about the blessings and curses of memory more generally, and how sometimes it can be a great gift to give someone permission to forget and move on.
Rockmommy: Is the nostalgia for Alabama and family the overriding theme?
Grace Yukich: It’s a huge part of it. The idea of home, and what it means, and who is there, and where you find it, and how you make it, and how that changes over time in beautiful and painful ways. I’d say that’s the main theme of the album. The name Wisteria has a few meanings for me. When we were kids, my parents would walk with my sisters and me past this magical cascade of wisteria that grew near a house on our street, so it makes me really happy that it also grows beside the front porch of my house today. Wisteria is a beautiful plant, its vines are strong and its flowers are fragrant and pretty. But it can be invasive, and choke out other plants, and take over whole houses and ruin them. And that’s a metaphor for so much of what I’ve been discovering these last two years: in Covid, in romance, in parenting, in family, in pursuing new passions in life. Our pasts — relationships, home, etc. — demand so much of us, and give us so much. But they can make it hard for us to change, to innovate, to take risks, to create and build something new. There’s always that conflict when we are trying to grow as people. And this album is about that stretching, about trying to create something new while still holding on to what’s valuable from the past.
Rockmommy: You are a single parent. How old is your daughter? Does she play music with you?
Grace Yukich: I am. I was married to my college sweetheart for almost 20 years, and we decided to split in 2020, just a few months into the Covid pandemic. It was pretty world-shattering to go through divorce during a global pandemic, and to become a single parent during that time, when kids weren’t even having school full time. My daughter was 6 at the time and just finishing kindergarten, so she needed a lot of help using the computer and attending school over Zoom, while I was trying to teach my own college classes over Zoom in the next room. It was rough going for a little while there.
But that transition period really taught me a lot about myself, and gave me the space to try a lot of new things and to reinvent myself in a lot of ways, including as a parent, so I’m grateful for that. I have a very close relationship with my daughter, who is almost 9 now and is starting to develop an interest in music. She takes piano lessons, and sometimes writes her own songs. We play music together sometimes — she will play on the drum kit in our basement while I play guitar and sing, usually covers of pop songs she is into. She sometimes gets embarrassed that I play music out, in the way that kids do anytime their parents are doing something unusual. But when we are riding in the car, sometimes she will ask me to sing one of my songs for her, since she knows all of them at this point. So I think there is a big part of her that is proud too.
Rockmommy: Have you ever wondered how your life would have been different if you stayed in the South?
Grace Yukich: Sometimes. I’m a sociology professor, so I think a lot about how the context we live in — our friends, families, groups, cultures — shape who we are. I’m pretty sure I’d be a different person if I’d spent the last twenty years in the South instead of in the Northeast, just like I’d be really different if I’d spent the first half of my life here in the New Haven area instead of in Alabama. It’s hard to say exactly how I might be different, but I’m happy in my life, and that makes me grateful for all of the different places and people and risks and mistakes and triumphs that made me who I am. I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am now, with the people and the communities I have in my life, and to have called both places home, to have been formed by the best of both cultures in ways I probably don’t even realize.
Making this album was like summoning a ghost from the past for me, one that reminds me of how I am both more at home today, in this particular time and place and life situation, than ever, and also distant from most of my centers of home of the past, both people and places. Wisteria is an exploration of how to love and live as fully as we can, wherever we find ourselves.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor of Rockmommy.