Grace VanderWaal - Just the Beginning

by Jonny McKinnell

Grace VanderWaal is 13 years old. At the age when most of us consider managing three different types of homework a herculean task, VanderWaal has already won America’s Got Talent, released an EP and is now putting out her debut full length album, for which she has a writing on every song. At 13! And the worst part: the album is good. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been so annoyed while being so in awe.

Let’s be clear though, I’m not saying Just the Beginning is a piece of music revelation, nor am I saying that it’s one of the best albums of the year. But I am saying that it’s a solid debut that an artist of any age could be proud of, never mind someone who has yet to finish puberty. The album has a defined and consistent style, with no severe misfires or low points, something that largely differentiates it from the works of other child artists – a group that is far more established in the music industry than it has any right to be.

VanderWaal certainly stays true to the ukulele, folk-inspired brand of pop that first propelled her to popularity on the stage of America’s Got Talent. Creating a successful and mature sound in this genre is certainly not the easiest thing after every tween that has ever been told that they have a good voice has got their hands on a ukulele and posted 100 terrible karaoke covers online. However, VanderWaal’s sound maintains a high level of uniqueness and authenticity that elevates her beyond a genre that is so often overly saccharine and generic. This achievement is absolutely helped by the fact that VanderWaal not only wrote every song on her album but also contributed to the background vocals and has instrumental credits for bass, ukulele, glockenspiel and percussion. It is this clear evidence of her involvement in many aspects of the album’s development that distinguishes VanderWaal as a talented artist with large potential for success.

Just the Beginning opens on a strong note with the lead single Moonlight providing a great first burst of energy and a strong a developed vocal. Stylistically, the song isn’t the album’s best but the fun-loving attitude of the track and almost ethereal tone in VanderWaal voice lays a great foundation for the tracks to come. The first real highlight of the album comes with the third track, Burned. Rather than being driven by the usual ukulele sound that had featured heavily in the previous two tracks, Burned instead uses piano to build the base of the song and, in doing so, creates a sound that is somewhat reminiscent of a Lady Gaga acoustic track. Accompanying the piano and vocal melodies is a bed of what sounds like an organ (although it could easily be a keyboard effect) which provides the track almost gothic eeriness and, when combined with VanderWaal’s airy vocals and the use of a backing choir, creates a powerful and haunting atmosphere. On top of this, the synthetic repetition effects on the chorus add an unusual but effective blending of acoustic and electronic techniques that gives Burned a solidly current feel.

The next high point of the album comes from VanderWaal’s third and most recent single from the album, So Much More Than This. The song is probably the most inventive on the album as the way it employs rhythm in the vocals and builds texture on the track through the combination of the lead vocal with backing vocals and accompaniment constructs a genuinely great sound; one that encourages multiple listens.

My third pick from the album is the most unique track on Just the Beginning. Florets takes a very different stylistic to the album’s other tracks, using VanderWaal’s usual bevvy of classical instruments to build a sweepingly emotive acoustic form of tropical house. The song showcases the best parts of VanderWaal’s music, her age-defying vocal range for one, while packaging them in an unexpected but fun pop composition. This track more than any else from Just the Beginning exemplifies Grace VanderWaal’s range and potential as an artist.

This album certainly is a referential work. Never stepping in the bounds of imitation or plagiarism, it is definitely built on inspiration from many different artists and while much has been made of VanderWaal being the next Taylor Swift, the voices of Sia, Florence Welch and Regina Spektor can be heard far louder here. Overall, Just the Beginning isn’t a revolutionary album but it is a considered and artfully created example of pop music and one that far surpasses a lot of the work put out by artists twice Grace VanderWaal’s age.