The storytellerFeb 15, 2015 11:56PM ● By Kerigan Butt
By Richard L. Gaw
During the second world war, Frederik Graae was the minister of culture for Denmark.
On April 14, 1948, Graae and his wife Christiane headed from Copenhagen to the mainland of Denmark aboard a ferry boat. The boat struck a mine that had been left there undetonated since World War I. Because of his status as a statesman, Graae was offered a lifeboat for him and his wife, one that wold most assuredly allow them to reach the shore safety. The Graaes looked around and saw others scrambling through the waters, gasping for breath. No, they said. Give the lifeboat to them, to the younger people. They have so much more of life to live.
For years afterwards, Graae family lore told the story that when the bodies of Frederik and Christiane were discovered at the bottom of the sea, that they were found holding hands. In reality, they were discovered in different parts of the ferry's sunken passageways and cabins, but in the Graae family, it was far more poignant to believe in the immovable power of myth, in the stuff that finds its way into legend, into poetry, into songs.
"For a long time, I wanted to write a song about her great-grandparents," said singer-songwriter Jessica Graae. "I thought about the idea for a long time, and then I wrote it from my great-grandmother's perspective."
The song is "Tomb in the Sea." She has only performed the song in public one time, but there are other songs with equal force in her catalog. In the last three years, Jessica Graae has become one of the leading voices on the Delaware music scene.
Backed by her 2013 solo debut CD, "Gypsy Blood," Graae has performed shows locally at the former Mojo on Main in Newark, the Bellefonte Cafe in Wilmington, Cromwell's Tavern in Greenville, at the Hometown Heroes, 2013 Dewey Beach Music festival, the Fall Community Arts Festival in Media, and at the Singer-Songwriter Festival in Cape May, N.J. She also performs regularly at the Ladybug Festivals in Wilmington and at the Bus Stop Cafe in Pitman, N.J., and the Bowery Electric in New York City.
In the three years she's been performing, Graae has already been nominated for six WSTW Hometown Heroes Homey awards. She was the winner of the 2013 Philadelphia Folk Factory People's Choice award, as well as a Delmarva Folk Hero finalist in 2012.
In the throbbing pulse of a multi-piece band, lyrics often merely come along for the ride -- a word jumble accessory to a guitar riff or a drum solo. With a singer-songwriter, however, the words practically form the entirety of the gig, and the whole purpose for being on a stage or recording songs. When Graae performs, her lyrics line up like soldiers at a call to arms, protecting the storyteller.
See the message written,
Is in code.
And the secrets hidden,
Speak for yourself,
If you’re speaking at all.
Dream of the day
The angels will call.
-- "Find Me a Rose"
"Sometimes I go toward the words, and sometimes the words just arive," said Graae, a former Newark resident and instructor at Accent Music in Newark. "I try to remain open to anything. Sometimes I'll be sitting, playing my guitar, and play an interesting chord, an interesting bunch of notes that aren't in any way standard, and experiment with it for a while, and then somehow get a feeling. Then I get the content of the song and a few words, and then it grows out of that. Sometimes, my subconscious really works overtime. I will wake up in the morning with a tune in my head, or some words."
At Second and Lincoln streets in Wilmington, near Graae's current home, there is a chruch on one corner, a liquor store on another, and another corner where she sees people selling drugs. "It also serves as a bus stop for little kids going to and from school," she said. "One day I was driving through the area and came up with 'Jesus is on one side of the road, and the devil is on the other.' Then it turned into a song."
"Lining up My Angels" came from a cemetery near her home. "There are a lot of stone angels on gravestones there, and one one particular gravestone, there are twin angels," she said. "I took a photograph of it, and thought, I'm lining up my angels so they could be there when I need them. The song grew out of an image and then my thoughts about the photograph."
Graae grew up in Washington, D.C., with parents Steffan and Cynthia Graae, where she was raised in a renovated townhouse on Capitol Hill. Steffan was appointed to a 15-year term as a judge on the D.C. Superior Court by Ronald Reagan in 1982, while Cynthia served as an assistant staff director for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and then as the director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Throughout Grae's childhood, the home was filled with conversation and fascinating visitors. Ideas were discussed at the dinner table. She grew up listening to classcial music that her father played on the family stereo -- Mozart and Brahms. She listened to the Beatles and Joni Mitchell. She saw "Annie" before it went to Broadway and she fell in love with the songs.
After graduating from a prestigious private school in Washington, D.C., Graae headed off to the Manhattan School of Music to study classical guitar. After a year and a half, she transferred to Barnard College, where she took several literature classes during her studies to become a classically trained singer. After furthering her vocal performance studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Graae began a teaching career at Accent Music and the Wilmington Music School, while living in Newark.
All of this -- the life she now enjoys as a singer-songwriter -- arrived purely by accident. After a life change brought her from Newark to Wilmington, Graae began playing her acoustic guitar. She had no television and for the first time in years, very little interruption. At first, the words came slowly, but eventually, everything came together: Her training in guitar, her literature classes, and her training in vocal performance. Her first concert was an open mic show at the Buzz Ware Center in Arden, Del.
"I decided that I didn't care if it was something I couldn't do," Graae said. "I thought, 'Let me just do it.' I was at a point in my life where I was trying a lot of things I hadn't done before, and feeling finally like it doesn't matter. Writing songs and performing them was freeing for me."
Help me get to the other side,
because it’s cold and dark.
Help me get to the other side,
It’s so far from here.
The space is small and the air is gone,
It’s so hard to breathe.
Time’s moving fast,
but I’m standing still.
I’m stranded here.
-- "The Other Side"
"Jessica's a hybrid of a lot of influences, and she has an amazing voice as well," said musician Todd Chapelle, who has performed with Graae. "I think she would categorize herself as a singer-songwriter, but she has so many other dimensions to her music."
One of those dimensions is comedy. Graae has performed with Chappelle and comic musician Peter Scobell at several comedy music concerts where, Chappelle said, her unique sense of humor finds its way into her songs.
"Jessica can really find a song in almost any situation," he said. "She has a song about squirrels where its written from the point of view of the squirrel and its sung in a squirrel's voice. She starts out in her normal voice and then switches it to a high-pitched voice, and you don't see it coming."
A full three years into her musical journey as a singer-songwriter, the only thing Jessica Graae is assured of is that she wants to continue breaking the conventional rules of music. The evidence is already present; in many of her songs, there is little trace of the typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus sameness, and often, her lyrics don't rhyme when they ought to. She's currently taking piano lessons, and wants to work with other musicians and go deeper with her sound -- maybe with a band. She hears strings and a mandolin, maybe another guitarist, all in a folk-rock genre.
"I don't want to have to think about music the way others think," she said. "I want to be able to express myself the way I want to.
"It's wonderful to have people tell me that they have enjoyed listening to my songs, or have played my CD several times. I'm a hard worker and I am trying to understand more about my songwriting process. Musicians need an audience, and it's nice to have an audience of two people, and even better to have a full house."
Don’t you know the road is hidden?
Don’t you know the path is long?
Won’t find it in your heart to help me.
I can’t find it on my own.
I can’t find it on my own.
-- "The Other Side"
To learn more about Jessica Graae, visit reverbnation.com/jessicagraae, or e-mail [email protected]
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail [email protected]