In a global pandemic, having a Norwegian and Irish star link up on a song seems like a fever dream. And yet, it is exactly what singer-songwriter Robert Grace and Emma Steinbakken did. Their new song “Self” discusses the inner saboteur some of us may suffer from constantly. We spoke to them about their collaboration, what they do to get rid of their own inner demons, and so much more.
“Self” was originally written by Grace, together with Jez Ashurst. “I went into a writing session with him, and told him that I’m not depressed, just depressing. Basically, if you’re around me too long you’ll just get sad. Luckily, I’m still able to push on and get stuff done most of the time. But I know a lot of other people who struggle with depression that can’t do anything. We had this idea of doing a lot of self-words. He wrote down a load of words that started with self, and then we picked out four that were really cool. We thought of using them throughout the song, and we had a riff on the guitar. And then we got the chorus — ‘self-sabotage, self-medicate, self-camouflage, self-isolate.’ It all just flowed really well. It is very true to the way I am and what goes on in my head at times,” Grace explains.
It’s a very personal topic, how to deal with this constant self-destructive monologue that you can’t seem to get rid of, yet also one that a lot of people will relate to. It’s the reason Grace decided to actually put the song out, in spite of its deeply personal link. “Sometimes, you can love a song but it might not be a song that’s necessarily meant for the world, or a single,” he says. “But with this one, I just wanted to get it out. I really love it. Even if I could make a few people feel a bit better from it. Not every song is that personal — of course the songs I write do relate to me, but they’re not all about me. And so something in me was just telling me to get this out as soon as I could. If I could just help even 10 people feel better, then that’s all I care about.” He’s certainly succeeded, and Grace smiles when he tells me that he’s “gotten hundreds of messages and comments from people saying that the song has really helped them and gotten them through a tough day,” adding, “And that’s the main thing I love about all this. I love releasing poppier feel-good songs, but there’s something about releasing a very personal song and have someone write to you that it helped them. It just feels more organic, and satisfying I suppose is the word. It makes me feel better at the same time, that me feeling like that isn’t such a bad thing — if by sharing it I can help someone else. You feel less alone in the experience — they’re not alone, and I’m not alone. There’s always going to be someone that’s feeling the same as you.”
The topic of mental health is something that is very close and personal to not just Grace, but also his duet partner Steinbakken. She tells me that it was one of the things that attracted her to the song. “Robert and I have the same record company, and they put us in touch and sent me his song,” she says. “I really liked it and it put focus on something important. I’ve written about mental health myself, but not in this way. So it felt right and good to be a part of, and it’s alway fun working with unfamiliar and talented people.”
Grace adds that the two of them didn’t know each other before this collaboration happened. Funnily enough, even though the track is called “Self,” it was very much written to be sung by two people. “We’ve never met in person,” Robert says. “When Jez and I were writing the track, we always felt it sounded like a duet, like it would be great to have a female vocalist on it. My management suggested Emma, and I’d never heard of her, but I looked her up and thought she was unreal. Her voice’s amazing, so we got on Zoom and her team to see if she’d be interested. We sent her the song, and after a couple of Zooms and Instagram DMs she was in, and she sent over her vocals — that was basically it.”
While he did feel a little exposed by having someone else on a track that was so personal to him, upon hearing Steinbakken’s vocals, he was sold immediately. “She made it better, so it just clicked. Her voice has a lot of emotion to it, which worked really well for the song and what I wanted it to convey,” he shares.
For Steinbakken, it was also a different experience than usual. “A song that I’ve written myself obviously feels closer to my heart, in a way. But when the song I join is like this, and hits so many, it’s not hard at all to join and to feel ownership with it,” she says.
And while she and Grace have never met face to face, the collaboration still signified a moment to get inspired and learn from each other. “To write about mental health in that way was inspiring, because I never thought of writing that way about it,” she shares. “And he does a lot of the production himself, in his home studio. That’s cool! One day I’ll hopefully have one myself.”
Being involved in the production is something that Grace also takes a lot of pride in, as he actively considers how lyrics and sonic elements go together. “I don’t want to make anyone sad after listening to this, when you’re listening to the song casually — I don’t want them to be like, ‘Jesus, that was a big downer.’ And if you’re not listening to the lyrics but to the song, I like that it disguises the important topic. It keeps it light, it’s not all dark and dreary,” he says.
“Self” is a song that does exactly that — if you’re not listening to the lyrics, you may not even recognize at first that it’s about mental health and self-destructive patterns. Grace smiles as he says that his parents only really started focusing on the lyrics of songs when he started writing his own material. “I think for people who release songs, in most cases, they’ll want you to listen to the lyrics and understand what it’s about,” he says. “Some songs that I love don’t have any meaning, they just have hooky bits that make you want to dance, which is also great. And if someone just loves the sound of the song, I’m totally happy with that as well. It’s just, I’m not the best at talking about this kind of stuff, and it’s why music helps me a lot. It comes out easier when I’m doing a song. I’m just not very good at talking in general, in every way. I’m better at singing, it’s easier. I have it written out, I know what I’m saying. If I’m not happy or down, my parents will know, but I don’t necessarily talk about what’s going on exactly. So they might be happy that at least they get some insight through the songs I write.”
With “Self,” Steinbakken finds it hard to pinpoint what lyric exactly is her favorite. However, she also tends to gravitate to the clever lines that eloquently outline a particular feeling or struggle. “I don’t really have one favorite, because I think the verses, pre-chorus, and chorus are so strong, but if I have to choose, I’d say ‘just really wish / that the voices in my head would go and talk to someone else instead / but they don’t want to,’ because I think it’s a funny and clever way to describe the frustration.”
Grace adds that at times, his own lyrics even take him by surprise. “When I started working on my album, I realized after writing that I did have a few mental health issues, of which I didn’t realize how much they’d been affecting me,” he says. “It wasn’t until I started writing all these songs that touched upon mental health issues that made me think about it. So it’s quite therapeutic in that it also makes me understand parts of myself that maybe I didn’t fully get before.”
Steinbakken has found that one thing to help her actually battle those insecurities is to just be nice to herself. “Tell yourself nice things. If you do it long enough you’ll start to believe in it!”
Both artists are also proud of their respective roots. Grace come from a musical family — his father was in a traditional Irish band as well. Now, Grace ranks as only the third Irish male solo artist to score a Top 20 hit in Ireland last year, after Dermot Kennedy and Niall Horan. “To be the only other solo act, it was just crazy, to be honest,” he says. “Still hard to believe, but I’m super grateful.” It’s also made him reflect on what exactly makes music Irish. “I probably know every song there is that’s seen as traditionally Irish, because I listened to it from such a young age. When they used to be out playing and I’d be listening, so when I hear them now it just gives me comfort. It reminds me of being a child again, brings you back to that feeling of safety. While my music is different, there’s definitely elements and melodies that were inspired by Irish music.”
Steinbakken comments that although she loves her home country and the language, it’s not what she naturally gravitates towards. “It feels more personal to sing in Norwegian, it is still more natural,” she says. “At the same time; I haven’t been writing in Norwegian since I was like 9 and haven’t really wished to do so either. So it’s funny to do once in a while, but I prefer to write and sing in English.”
However, hailing from different places also means that making music and collaborating with other artists continues to feel a little bit isolating in times of COVID-19. For example, Grace and Steinbakken have never met to this day — not even for the music video. “It was a bit weird,” Steinbakken acknowledges. “Luckily I’m working with people that are good on technology. It obviously don’t feel that personal to do it alone, but that’s how it is these days. We’ll have to take it back soon!”
Grace adds that they did love the concept. “We got this pitch about doing it on a double decker bus and having twins involved, which is smart — as if you’re arguing with yourself. We drove like 100 kilometers to film everything. It was very fun at the start and then I felt very sick at the end, but it was great, I loved it! I feel like it does the song justice.”
Doing everything virtually does take away from the real-life experiences, particularly getting feedback from fans. Grace jokes that after his song “Fake Fine” did so well last year, it was hard to imagine how virtual excitement would translate into reality. “I didn’t know if anyone would then recognize me if I went somewhere,” he says. “But it’s actually been amazing. The younger they are, the more likely they are to just come up to me. The older, they’ll actually ask their parents to see if they could ask me for a photo. There was this one girl who asked her mom to come up to me and ask if I’d take a picture of her, and then afterward, I thought something was up. She was actually crying. And I’m just an average, very ordinary person. So to think that someone would be so happy or emotional from just having gotten a photo with me is hard to wrap your head around.”
Steinbakken, for her part, is mostly looking forward to getting that connection with her fans during performances. “I am not a big fan of online shows, so hopefully I can perform this song fully live in person soon,” she says. Grace is also excited about a mini Irish tour he’s doing in November and sees his live online gigs as great practice for those bigger shows. “I’m married and have two kids, so that’ll be the part that gets tough when I do get really busy. But you’re doing it for your future self. If you can make future you’s life easier, then that’s the key to proper happiness,” he shares.
For now, that means working on his album and new music, including all the other steps that are part of new releases. “I love music videos, so I’m really excited to get another one done,” he says. “It means that there’s something on the way when you’re doing photo shoots and all that stuff, it sort of helps you get through the wait when you know there’s a release scheduled but it’s not out yet. It’s only the start, really, of everything.”