Despite her relatively young age (24), local roots-pop singer/songwriter Grace Askew has the voice and perspective of an old soul.
Askew's musical voyage began 11 years ago when, at the age of 13, she started taking guitar lessons at the Howard Vance Guitar Academy.
"The arts, of any kind, were always highly encouraged in my family," she says. "Whether it was piano lessons, summer art camps, acting camps, voice lessons, or ballet classes — my parents were completely supportive of any hobbies or interests my siblings and I found ourselves getting into.
"It wasn't until I began taking guitar lessons that my passion for writing and music really came to fruition, and I found my voice, my vent. Music became my best friend. I always felt like I could never really relate to my classmates and wasn't particularly interested in field parties or being a mall rat. Instead, I turned to music, and what I found was a best friend."
By the age of 17, Askew had honed her craft enough to feel comfortable pursuing live gigs — first at high school assemblies and local open-mic nights and then a series of short regional tours organized with the help of her close friend and PR manager LaDonna Marie.
"It was the most exhilarating time of my life," Askew says. "My youth was the normal, classic, all-American experience. So, to live on the run, on my own terms, traveling nonstop — that was what I had always dreamed of doing. Most importantly, I learned more about myself and the world around me than I ever could have imagined."
At 21, Askew cut her first official release, an EP, Wasted Lipstick, at Ardent Studios with producer/engineer Pete Matthews and a crew of studio musicians. She and Matthews also began collaborating on a follow-up EP, Hawthorne, but Askew soon began moving in a different direction, stumbling upon what would become the foundation of her backing band, the Black Market Goods, at a gig by the local roots-jam collective Groundspeak at Otherlands.
"As soon as I heard them finish a song, I thought to myself, I have got to have these guys," Askew says.
After finishing Hawthorne with her new band in tow, Askew followed it up last year with a full-length debut, Until They Lay Me Down to Rest. The album was recorded entirely with the new band — partially in local multi-instrumentalist Richard Ford's home studio and partially at the Oxford, Mississippi, recording facility Tweed Studios with producer Andrew Ratcliffe. Tweed would emerge as a home base of sorts for Askew, even as the project evolved and the band's lineup changed somewhat.
"The entire atmosphere at Tweed has always been so easygoing and enjoyable," she says.
Last November, Grace Askew and the Black Market Goods (which now includes initial members Logan Hanna on guitar and Jesse Williams on drums, along with Ford and bassist J.D. Westmoreland) returned to Oxford to begin work on the group's new eponymous album — Askew's fourth release in as many years. The record features sparse and airy instrumentation behind Askew's trademark roots-influenced pop songwriting and earthy lead vocals and generally has the loose but focused energy of a well-seasoned live act.
"I wanted to stick to a more swampy, gutsy, Southwestern sound that evokes vivid imagery and gets you fired up inside. I wanted to stay away from the soft, sad ballad-y sound of the previous album," Askew says.
The album Grace Askew and the Black Market Goods also features the most noteworthy musical contributions from the backing band on any Askew release, and all four band members are credited as co-producers. "It really has become a collaborative effort," Askew says. "We've grown to realize each others' strengths and weaknesses, and the guys have become very adept at understanding what my songs really need to blossom."
Grace Askew and the Black Market Goods celebrate the release of their new album Friday, May 27th, at the Balinese Ballroom (330 N. Main) at 7 p.m. Keith Sykes and Delta Joe Sanders open the show. Admission is $10.