Manu Grace Johnston is a singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from South Africa. When she was just eight years old, she started learning to play piano, guitar, and bass guitar, and at fifteen, she wrote her first song, dedicated to newborn brother. Growing up, Johnston's access to the internet and TV were limited, resulting in a unique connection with music in the form of hand-me-down CD's.
Last year, Manu Grace made waves with her debut EP, June, which has been nominated for two South African Music Awards—one for 'Female Artist of the Year' and the other for 'Best Alternative Music Album.’ Her music is marked by soft and breathy vocals, honest and vulnerable lyrics, percussion-driven tracks, and playful production. Shortly after the release of June, Johnston began traveling and working her way across London, Italy, and Berlin to meet up with her previous collaborators, Ross Dorkin and Robin Brink, and create her sophomore EP, No Room for Error. Released last month, the seven-track record tells the story of her travels—falling in love, making mistakes, and learning more about herself in the process.
We recently caught up with Johnston, who shared more about her musical roots, her approach to songwriting, and what she’s been up to during the pandemic. Check out the full interview below.
Listen to her new EP 'No Room For Error' HERE
Tell us more about your introduction to music. How did growing up in South Africa, in a creative family, and with limited access to tech affect your relationship with music?
My dad listened to a lot of Bob Dylan—he’d play it to put me to sleep when I was tiny, adamant that I’d love it. Sundays in my childhood home consisted of a fun mix of Dylan, Rodriguez, Sheryl Crow, Nelly Furtado and Van Morrison… all papa’s doing.
All of my own music came in the form of CDs—the occasional hand-me-down or gift from a visiting aunt or uncle. I would just pour over whichever album came my way, listening over and over and over. I suppose the limitations made the relationship to the music I could get my hands on so much more intimate.
Who are your biggest musical influences/inspirations?
My influences/inspirations have varied so drastically that it’s difficult to say—at the moment, though, I feel super inspired by the women who are taking over the industry by being fully authentic and owning their genius: Charli XCX, Caroline Polachek, Rosalìa, Christine and the Queens, HAIM, FKA Twigs… that whole gang.
Your music has been described as "sensitive pop," but you hesitate to commit to one genre. I can think of a few reasons for not wanting to label your music with a specific genre, but can you explain your reasoning for that?
To be honest it’s mainly because I find it so hard to be objective about what I’m making—I’ve never created with a particular genre in mind, it just is what comes out, so the simple answer is that I actually don’t know what genre to call it.
How would you describe your songwriting process? Your music is quite personal and vulnerable, so I imagine you have to be in a certain state of mind when writing a new song. Is your approach different for every track, or do you have a process that you find really works for you?
My approach definitely differs… I’ve found the most common approach is just kind of stream-of-consciousness—if I just sit with an instrument and sing with no real intention, it often just lands all together. It’s how I gauge where I’m at in my life. For other tracks - for example, ‘No Room for Error’ and ‘Waiting for a Change,’ I’ll start with the production and I’ll often come back MONTHS later to sing over it.
What was it was like making your sophomore EP, No Room for Error, and collaborating with Ross Dorkin and Robin Brink again? What was your vision for the EP?
It is literally a dream working with Ross and Rob—we have such a great understanding (musically and otherwise). Working with them on this record was so rewarding and so much fun. We pulled the majority of it together in an intensive ten days in Berlin. It felt kind of magic - everything felt so fluid, it sort of just poured out of us. There was no clear vision—the songs took it upon themselves to show us which direction we were moving in.
A lot has happened since your first EP, June. You’ve been nominated for two SAMAs for 'Female Artist of the Year' and 'Best Alternative Music Album.’ You’ve travelled and toured across Italy, London, and Berlin. How have you grown musically since your first EP? What felt different for you when creating No Room for Error?
Making this record felt like an exercise in shedding imposter syndrome, in a way. I had a much greater sense of confidence in my craft, and a trust in the whole process in general. Naturally, I evolved a heck of a lot over those mad couple of months—got to know myself a whole lot better as a human, which I think seeps into the music.
What was your favorite place to travel to? Do you have a favorite venue or show you played?
In February, I did a solo tour all over Italy, top to bottom—my second last show was a house concert in Lecce. I really loved that. Connecting with the place and the people is what really makes things memorable.
Tell us a little bit about your experience during this pandemic, as a human and a musician.
As for all of us, it’s been a wild time of loss and disappointments, reflection and growth… we’ve been forced to really be still and look at where we’re at, emotionally. Which isn’t easy, but so valuable! I wrote a lot, throughout—in a way that didn’t feel awfully productive at the time, but I’ve somehow racked up more than enough material for the next project. Collaborations helped, in a big way—provided a feeling of connection and accountability. I’ll admit, it’s felt painfully slow, but I’m so grateful that there are so many aspects of my job that I can do from my little home studio—and that my music can still travel!
What are you up to now and what’s next?
I’m currently working on the next project. A few singles in the works too—one particularly unusual lockdown collaboration that I’m dying to share. Steadily moving forward where I can, dreaming of coming out to see everybody in real life.