Header photo credit: Anna Michell
By Lisa Henderson
“I’m pretty busy at the moment, so I’m just surviving on tiredness and coffee,” explains beatbox champion Grace Savage. And yes, that’s her real name. “I have a two-coffee limit. I start to get a bit shaky and have heart palpitations, which I quite enjoy.” That bittersweet adrenaline is how Savage manages to maintain her whirlwind schedule as an unsigned, unmanaged, independent artist.
In the past year alone, she has scooped up her fourth beatboxing championship title and waved the flag for London at the U.K.’s official residence British House showcase during the Rio Olympics. In January, she squeezed in a trip across the pond to perform an intimate gig for Sofar Sounds NYC, a Shoreditch-based company that puts together secret shows. She’s shared bills with the likes of beatboxer Beardyman and BBC Radio 1’s Scott Mills. Most recently, she independently released her eponymous debut EP. To say she’s been “pretty busy” would be an understatement, and that’s just her musical career.
The theater world has greeted her with similar enthusiasm. When we catch up with the 26-year-old on a muggy summer evening in London, she is fresh out of a rehearsal for a theater show entitled ‘Beweep, Outcast.’ The production falls under the master’s program at the University of London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. It was written by playwright Sabrina Mafouz with a musical score by Savage featuring choral work and beatboxing. The two formerly collaborated on music and storytelling mash-up Slug.
This time around, Mafouz has enlisted Savage as an actress as well as musical director—a role Savage has never taken on before. “It’s challenging and tiring,” she says. “There are about 65 transitions that I’ve had to work, which is insane. The show is next week, and we haven’t done a run of the play yet, so it’s at that stage where we’re all just a bit like, ‘What the fuck is going on? How are we going to do this?’ But it always comes together.”
Savage is no stranger to intertwining beatboxing with acting. Having studied theater at the University of Leeds, she went on to earn a place in The Guardian’s “Top Ten Standout Theatrical Performances” of 2014 for her beatboxing role as Jade in ‘Home’ at the National Theatre. In the same year, she premiered her one-woman autobiographical show ‘Blind’—an examination of the way young women’s identities are shaped by the sounds they hear. Following a successful run at Soho Theatre, she inked a deal with literary and talent agency United last year, putting her acting resume on a par with her beatboxing one.
Savage grew up in the quaint market town of Crediton in Devon, England. Like most teenagers stuck in the countryside, she spent her formative years “going to the park and drinking cider” with her childhood best friend, fellow champion beatboxer, Belle Ehresmann, aka Bellatrix. “The reason I beatbox is because of Belle. She started beatboxing when she was 14, and I started about a year later. She’s probably one of the first females in the world to really start beatboxing,” she gushes.
Despite the fact that the best friends are each other’s fiercest competition, Savage only has supportive things to say about Ehresmann. ”Well, imagine you were the only tightrope walker in the country, and then there was one other that did it. You’re gonna go up for the same jobs. Sometimes one of you is going to get it, and the other one isn’t. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it drives you on,” she admits. “But the friendship comes first, and the fact that we beat the boys two years in a row [at the U.K. Championships] was the best feeling ever.”
The pair made history last year as the first women to enter and win the U.K. Championships team category for the second year in a row. It’s an incredible feat in itself, but even more so when you consider how male-dominated the scene is, even with substantial improvement since Savage started out. She remembers a time when the U.K. Championships didn’t even have a female category, let alone mixed. But it didn’t stop her trying her hand against the guys way back when. “I felt really good about that, but I remember thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m going to win’,” she recalls.
Though she may not have seized a victory against the gents in the beginning, Savage certainly made up for it with the introduction of the female category. She won two years in a row. Now, the gender divide doesn’t exist in the U.K. Championships, but it poses the question: Was it ever necessary? In short, Savage thinks so. “Initially, it was set out for positive reasons, because girls were too scared to enter the guys’ category, and also it was a chance for a girl to win,” she explains. “To be honest, six years ago, girls were not at the same level as the guys, and there was only four or five [girls] doing it, as opposed to 50 or 60 guys, so it looks a bit pathetic,” she laughs.
It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t just the female beatboxers who were stuck on the periphery. The art form itself started as an underground scene, propelled forward by just a handful of pioneers like Doug E. Fresh, Swifty, Buffy, and Wise. But, like many newer art forms, it evolved from humble beginnings with the birth of the Internet, bringing a new generation of vocal gymnasts with it like Beardyman, Rahzel, and Reeps One.
“When I started beatboxing, YouTube wasn’t even around!” Savage exclaims. “There was just this one website called humanbeatbox.com where you could go and people shared tutorials and stuff. There was probably only about 30 or 40 people on there. So the community started from really, really small beginnings, and it’s just spread so far and wide now,” she explains.
“Now, there are world championships. There are regional championships, and there’s East vs. West in America,” she reels off. “You’ve got the U.K. Championships, which have now been going for ten years, and year after year it’s busier and busier. It was at 2000 capacity last year!”
It isn’t all good news for the art form, though. “The culture is starting to become a little bit saturated, and a lot of beatboxers are starting to sound very similar, because they’re all learning from the same online tutorials rather than discovering their own sound in their bedrooms on their own. The language is becoming more unified, which is great for technicality, because people are sounding so technical, but I think individuality and musicality is not as prevalent,” Savage says.
She thinks it’s because beatboxers are continually chasing the zeitgeist of popular music. “As music changes, so do beatboxers,” she explains. “Beatboxers follow trends in music, so when dubstep came out, suddenly beatboxers started doing synth sounds. When drum ’n’ bass music came back, suddenly beatboxers were doing these really fast rhythms. We’re imitators essentially, as well as inventors,” she concludes.
And yet Savage, like some of the most established beatboxers around, manages to eschew convention and deliver a distinctive sound that is recognizable as hers. Whereas Reeps One’s calling card is his continuous breathy undercurrent, and three-times U.K. champ Ball-Zee’s stock-in-trade is his impossibly crisp snare, Savage’s trademark sound is her ’90s hip hop–influenced vocal scratching. “People don’t really do [vocal scratching] any more, because it’s seen as the old style of beatboxing,” she says. “I’ve always loved manipulating my voice and singing and scratching, because I just feel really free when I do that.”
Though beatboxing may be increasingly popular within its scene, it hasn’t found a place in mainstream consciousness. Is this partially because it still isn’t taken seriously? “I think there’s still this perception that it is this party trick/gimmick that you can only listen to for five minutes, and then you get bored of it, for some people,” she reflects. “But I think there are also artists who are really pushing it as an art form and doing really interesting, musical, exciting things with it. And the more that those creative people push, the more that the art form will be respected and understood.”
While beatboxing has been her “bread and butter” in a myriad ways, Savage also considers it a launching pad for a much bigger dream of hers. “I would be much happier if I could be a full-time Grace Savage songwriting, singing artist, but it’s quite difficult to maintain, because there are thousands of people who want to do that.” But Savage concedes, “I think I’m doing pretty well at the moment, though.”
Humility is a strength of Savage’s. Her self-titled debut EP was entirely crowdfunded by her legions of adoring fans, plus she recently won a £3000 bursary from PledgeMusic, an innovative online marketplace that connects musicians with fans. She spent that money on a PR campaign for her EP .
Though it may seem like Savage has been on an upward trajectory since the very beginning, the journey up to this point hasn’t been without its hurdles. Before this EP, Savage had written two albums’ worth of material that got tied up in a legal battle with her then-producer. “It was very complicated, but it all came down to rights, basically,” she sighs. “This producer wanted me to work with her and no one else for the next four albums. She wanted to be my manager and take a percentage from my beatboxing and singing—like a 360 deal,” she explains.
Negotiations stretched out over a year, and Savage spent thousands of pounds on lawyers before any kind of conclusion was reached. “We eventually got to the stage where I owned the rights for nine of the songs, but then after all that time and all that resentment I went ‘D’you know what? I don’t think these songs are even very me. I don’t like them much anymore,” she laughs. “And it was really scary, because I didn’t even know if I could write without that producer because I had no experience writing with anyone else. So for that reason alone, I’m super proud of this EP. It’s been quite an achievement,” she says with an audible sigh of relief.
But the completion of her debut album isn’t the only thing Savage is celebrating. The accompanying music video for its lead single, “Just for Tonight,” puts a same-sex narrative at the forefront, played by Savage and her real-life girlfriend. Though it’s nothing out of the ordinary to see a gay relationship portrayed in a music video, it’s the first time Savage has felt comfortable exposing her sexuality to the public. “When I was first writing music, the general vibe of what people were saying to me was ‘just say you’re bisexual; you don’t want to be a gay artist,’ and because I was only 22 and 23, I took that on,” she says.
“When I left that producer, I just thought, ‘What the fuck am I doing? I’m so proud of who I am, and why wouldn’t I want to celebrate that?’ In no way was I ‘coming out,’ it was just a ‘fuck you’ to that previous situation and going, ‘I’m just going to put it in a music video and sort of celebrate that in a way’.”
This article was featured in the Outlaw issue of Tom Tom. Purchase it online.