Elise LeGrow was set to launch a Spring 2020 tour behind the release “Evan,” an emotionally powerful and intensely personal song about losing a friend and coping with grief, when the world suddenly shuttered. Rather than retreat into herself, the soulful Toronto singer-songwriter wasted no time, emerging with Grateful, a lockdown-produced, neo-retro album led by propulsive first single, “Feel Alright.”
“It’s an ode to the sweaty dancefloors that I so miss, that high you get just from being in that crowd,” LeGrow says. Inspired by a night out surrounded by friends, strangers and live music, just after she’d quit drinking and drugs, it’s since taken on new meaning. “The more I sing it during this pandemic, the more it becomes ‘I just want to feel alright; I just want to feel okay.’”
LeGrow’s horn-blasted, belted-out banger follows on the heels of “It Is What It Is,” her 2020 smash collab with Vintage Culture. Starting from a slow, sparse melody and lyrics she’d had sitting on the shelf, the Brazilian DJ/producer amped it up to maximalist effect and more than 11 million audio streams on Spotify alone.
The dance hit’s modern-meets-old school sound neatly captures what makes LeGrow so special — her ability to mine the past, like a Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak or Amy Winehouse, without being beholden to nostalgia. Swinging between soothing sweetness, bluesy grit and powerhouse passion, LeGrow’s evocative vocals seem to exist along so many timelines as to make her songs timeless.
LeGrow has always been a little out of time. Growing up in downtown Toronto, she fell deep in love with her mother’s records. “Some of us are just old souls,” she says. “When I was 18, I was the only one in my circle obsessed with pop music from the 1960s and fashion from that era.” Today, boasting blunt bangs and throwback threads, it would seem not much has changed. LeGrow’s new album of her own handcrafted songs features an unmistakable vintage twist, albeit with fresh pop sensibilities.
“On Playing Chess, a lot of the heavy lifting had been done by the original recording artists. My interpretations were undoubtedly inspired by their performances,” she says of her critically acclaimed debut album of covers from iconic Chicago label Chess Records. “With Grateful, it’s my original music, so I had the opportunity — or the challenge — of building every component from the ground up.”
Introducing drum machines, programmed horns and synth keyboards alongside live instrumentation, anachronistic vocals and contemporary lyrics, the results more accurately represent LeGrow’s reality. “I am, despite my love of vintage music and fashion, in actuality, a modern woman living in 2021 so I can’t help that everything I write has a modern touch.”
Recording during lockdown meant that instead of hunkering down with her band and producers, she laid down her vocals alone — in a studio when legally allowed, from home when not — while Grammy winners, Theron “Neff-U” Feemster and Brian West helmed the productions from LA and Vancouver via Zoom.
Some of her songs delve into romance — aspirational on “Forever,” a child of divorce seeking to overcome her suspicion of commitment vows, and frustrating on “Love Me or Leave Me Alone,” about that too-familiar moment when a fledgling couple must finally go all-in or just go away.
“Drinking in the Day” explores the dark side of self-medication and a repressed society where it’s more acceptable for men to get blackout drunk than to cry. “Better Side” goes deeper into the need for human connection to provide relief from the isolation of modern life. “It doesn’t take a lot to make people happy — a little kindness can make us feel in touch with our own humanity and willing to embrace others,” LeGrow says. “It can make us grateful to be where we are, right now.”
Continuing that notion is the title track, a slow, spiritual sequel to “Evan” LeGrow wrote to process survivor’s guilt about escaping her reckless youth. “He and I were on the same trajectory at one point,” the now-sober singer says, “and there’s no justice in the fact that I’m still here, and he isn’t.”
Her message that every day is a gift, one that’s denied to those we’ve lost, has never been more universal than during these dark times. “When I’m struggling with depression and anxiety, I sometimes lose sight of all the good in the world, and in my life. But I can feel myself inching closer to a state of persistent gratitude.”
And while LeGrow cannot wait to finally get back on the road performing, she’s already excited about writing more music, calling Grateful just the tip of the iceberg.
“Songwriting has a seductive power,” she says. “The live performance inevitably ends, but the song can endure. If you’re lucky, even after you’re long gone, there are people still listening. That chance at immortality is pretty incredible.”