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Nascent pop star and Stanford undergrad Taylor Grey talks fame and finals with Uwana Ikaiddi.

Shades of Grey

Though most college students only dream about becoming pop sensations, Stanford sophomore Taylor Grey is already well on her way. Grey has been songwriting since she was twelve years old, and performed her first original song as a senior in high school. It wasn’t long until she captured the attention of Jacob Whitesides and was invited to join his “Lovesick” tour as the opening act, marking her national debut. Soon after, Grey joined The Summer Set’s “Made for You” tour as a special guest. Now, Grey is poised to release her first studio album, “SPACE CASE,” later this spring, and the project promises to be an expert balance of lighthearted pop and introspection.

As a musician, Grey has had the opportunity to work with producers Josh Abraham, known for working with P!nk and Shakira, and Nico Stadi, who has collaborated with Justin Bieber and Jason Derulo. As if that wasn’t enough, “Fallin,” the first track on the album, was a collaboration effort with Brad Simpson of The Vamps.

Despite how star struck most students would be at the opportunities Grey has had, she remains mature and eager to learn. Seamlessly juggling the rapid pace of rising to stardom and excelling academically, Grey uses her songwriting as a way to contend with maturing physically and psychologically. By a stroke of luck, I was able to catch her between her academic break and her professional overtime.

Shades of Grey
Taylor Grey on Stanford campus (Photography by Kinjal Vasavada, Stanford)

Uwana Ikaiddi: Tell me about the first time you were exposed to singing/songwriting.

Taylor Grey: My first memory of singing was in second grade. My mother signed me up to audition for the school musical. She now tells me it was because I was a pretty shy kid, and that she wanted to help me increase my confidence. So she had me do that. I remember loving it. Ever since, I’ve done almost every single school play and school musical. That’s my first memory of singing.

With songwriting, I started writing songs in middle school and it’s actually a pretty funny story. In seventh grade, my boyfriend broke up with me right before the big volleyball game, so I wrote a song called “All in a Volleyball Uniform.” It was a very literal title.

UI: Nowadays, a lot of pop stars perform ghostwritten songs. How do you think it changes the meaning of your music that you compose the lyrics?

TG: If you can find meaning behind a song, then it comes from a place of truth. I just think it happens more readily if you’re the songwriter. When you’re writing from a place of honesty or experience, you can go back to that space you were in when you were writing it. The performance tends to present itself as more authentic.

UI: Is there usually a time frame that you have to work within when you’re writing a song, or will the time vary depending on the song?

TG: It really varies. Usually, I’m pretty quick. I remember one song called “Miles Away” on the album. I was set up to work with this amazing writer, but he only had two hours. So we picked a track of his, and I wrote and recorded the song. Within two hours, the finished product was on the album.

So it can vary from taking an entire day, to being pretty quick like that. And sometimes, if it’s a really personal song, and I’m not sure how to find the right words, I’ll try to write it in a day and then pick it up on another day.

UI: Of the songs that you’ve written thus far, which was the most challenging?

TG: I would say there are two. The one that’s actually out there to be listened to is called “Mind of Mine.” And that one was hard; I wrote it on Valentine’s Day. I remember that because it was a heartbreak song.

I really struggled with what I wanted the meaning of the song to be. It’s kind of about myself, but it’s also in the narrative of being about a boy. And, for the longest time, I couldn’t find the right words. So I wrote the first verse and came back to it a day later and wrote the rest of the song. That’s a very personal song for me.

Shades of Grey
Taylor Grey (Photography by Kinjal Vasavada, Stanford)

UI: The way you describe that process sounds like even though it was the most challenging one for you, it was also really rewarding.

TG: Totally. I think that the most challenging ones, because they end up being the most personal, are the most meaningful. I also have a song on the album, the [titular] song “Space Case.” Lyrically, it means a lot to me because I wrote it in the third person, which I’d never done before. It was really exciting, but it was also challenging to find the right words. Thematically, it’s so much bigger than my other songs.

I write a lot of songs about heartbreak or falling in love, but this one is about a girl who is a space case, just kind of out there. She dreams big, and her vision might not be understood by other people.

That song also took me a little longer lyrically, and I had to sit with it for awhile to try to craft the right words to fit the metaphor, and to fit what I wanted to say. It ended up being one of my favorite on the album, lyrically speaking.

UI: Are there some song themes that you think about, but haven’t yet been able to share?

TG: One of my goals is to write a song for myself. I don’t know what form that is going to take yet. I think that “Mind of Mine” tried to be like that, but it didn’t necessarily turn out that way. I’m really excited about what it turned into, but I’ve tried a lot of times to write a song for myself. That’s an extremely personal process, so it’s very hard to put down in words.

UI: Writing a song for yourself is a really interesting goal. It’s like an exercise in understanding who you are and how you feel, then translating it into song form. How would you say songwriting has helped you understand yourself?

TG: Songwriting is a really great form of closure for me. If I’m going through an experience, a falling out or any sort of relationship that I don’t quite understand, transcribing it into words really helps me vocalize and put the pieces together.

When I feel like I have a final product, then, even if I didn’t get closure in real life, I feel like I did. I feel complete, and I have my feelings down in writing; I don’t need to keep them up in my head anymore. I have this piece of work that I can always reflect back on later.

UI: You are currently attending Stanford, which has quite a few notable alumni, such as Elon Musk, Reese Witherspoon, and Emmy Rossum, who, like you, is a songwriter. What drew you to Stanford?

TG: Personally, I was drawn to Stanford because I grew up in the area, and it always seemed like such a good dream school, full of innovation. It was always about creativity for me, and Stanford has a very open environment. I think that’s probably what attracts a lot of creative people; you aren’t bound by a rigid system. They’re very welcoming and want students to do what they want to do, to the best of their abilities.

Taylor Grey on Stanford campus (Photography by Kinjal Vasavada, Stanford)
Taylor Grey (Photography by Kinjal Vasavada, Stanford)

UI: What are you currently studying at Stanford?

TG: Right now I’m undeclared, but right now I’m thinking of studying Psychology, Neuroscience or Cognitive Science. So, something about the human brain.

UI: That jives with the theme of wanting to understand yourself and working through that psychologically, which you do in your songwriting frequently. Is singing/songwriting something you plan to continue with after completing college?

TG: Regardless of what happens, songwriting and singing are going to be hobbies, passions and loves for the rest of my life.

UI: Would you say that attending college has changed what you write songs about?

TG: Absolutely. The songs on this debut album are going to be the first time songs I’ve written since starting college have been released. And I cannot wait! I’m so excited for that, because I’m showing off who I am now. In college, you’re more independent. You’re experiencing a lot more of different people and life and the world, because you’re on your own. So that’s definitely influenced what I write about, and I’m very excited for that album to actually be released.

UI: Are there any aspects of performing that you felt prepared you for college, or even vice versa?

TG: They improve each other in ways that I didn’t expect. For example, performing, being on stage and connecting with complete strangers definitely helped me when meeting new people in college, because now I’m used to meeting strangers and talking to them right off the bat. And that’s exactly what you’re doing when you go to college right away. So that absolutely helped.

And then, vice versa, I think school probably helps me keep a very organized, focused and driven mindset. I was always very driven in school, and I think that absolutely transferred over to what I do in music. Thinking about things analytically, as well as creatively, really balances things out and helps me.

UI: What has surprised you the most about college life?

TG: I think what surprised me the most is that I don’t feel old; I don’t feel like there’s been a big change. I’m 5’2”, and when I was younger, even as a senior in high school, I pictured myself growing three inches as soon as I got to college; I would magically become more adult and mature. I just thought that, as soon as I got to college, everything would change. And it really didn’t.

I still feel very young. It’s kind of scary that in two years, I’m going to be out in the real world and done with school. So I guess college just wasn’t as crazy or as wild or sophisticated a place as I thought it would be, but I love it.

Taylor Grey on Stanford campus (Photography by Kinjal Vasavada, Stanford)
Taylor Grey (Photography by Kinjal Vasavada, Stanford)

UI: Many performers opt not to go to college, or, if they’re in college already, drop out. Why did you choose to pursue a college education?

TG: I opted to continue with school because I love learning, and I didn’t want to give it up. I spent my entire sophomore year of high school in the library. I know sophomore-year Taylor would absolutely hate me if I decided to drop out.

I think continuing my education is a way that I can help encourage people to stay in school, and maybe help more people get access to school later in my career. Plus, continuing to learn is always going to help in life.

UI: What would you say is the biggest misconception that people have about songwriting?

TG: I think a misconception could be that if you’re not documenting 100 percent truth when you write a song, then you’re lying. People tend to think about songwriting like journaling. For some songwriters, it definitely works that way.

I kind of document experiences word for word, but I think that, at least for me, it’s more than that. I frequently write in the abstract and create scenarios and experiences in my songs that may not have happened to me, but they’re relevant and true because of the emotion behind it.

For example, like in my song “Never Woulda Letcha,” I mention “…that day in Aspen.” I’ve never been to Aspen. I took three different experiences in my life, with three different individuals, and wove together a narrative that would connect them all, and create a story that’s relatable to people. And the misconception may be, “Oh, then she’s lying.” But then I don’t believe that, because the song and the emotions are real.

UI: There is also a misconception that performers have no depth to them, that everything is superficial, which might be encouraged by their eschewing higher education. You are the clear antithesis of that.

TG: I definitely can see how people think performers are superficial, because you’re on a stage, and you’re putting on a show, and you’re entertaining.

But true performers are artists. If you’re an artist, you have that emotion and creative process behind your work. I feel like artists, even if they’re performing on stage in makeup, still make legitimate work. The glamour doesn’t invalidate any of their work. It doesn’t make it any less important. We don’t need a degree to feel emotions or be able to write them down.

I personally love education, because I think it helped me with understanding myself and being able to articulate myself better. But there are so many successful people who didn’t choose to pursue school. There are also a lot of people who did choose to pursue school, and it didn’t work out for them. So it’s kind of just about a whole lot of work and a lot of luck.

For more on Taylor, follow her on Instagram and Facebook. The second single from her upcoming album, titled “Miami,” will be released May 16. The full album will be released June 19. 

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