Orchestral pop duo Gracie and Rachel talk Berkeley roots, debut album

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Not unlike the punk bands that practice in garages and cramped apartments before earning spots in extravagant studios, the two members of the orchestral pop duo Gracie and Rachel have a history of committing themselves to their craft — doing whatever it takes to get their music out.

The two women met in a dance class at Berkeley High School, where they were encouraged to collaborate on a musical accompaniment by their teacher. “And so the assigned marriage,” violinist Rachel Ruggles quipped in an interview with The Daily Californian.  

The two now live and work in a shared apartment in New York, a move that can be accredited to their friendship and drive. “When inspiration strikes, we can meet in the living room in five minutes and make an idea come to life,” pianist and lead vocalist Gracie Coates said.

They released their first album, Gracie and Rachel, in 2017. It is filled with a sense of rich melancholy, communicated via Coates’ voice and Ruggles’ violin. Throughout, the two engage in musical conversations that often come to a raucous head — a peak reached with Ruggles’ powerful violin solos, which communicate a frantic nervousness utterly indescribable in their ability to emote. Rather than relying on tired romantic tropes, the album is full of haunting ballads that tackle the anxiety and inner turmoil that the two women feel about coming of age in the music industry.

In many ways, the album is not an easy listen. “Only A Child” captures the agitation that inevitably accompanies growing older, doing so to a degree of perfection that makes the song feel like a piece of directly recorded human experience. The emotional stress brought by listening is undeniably worth it, not least because of the incredible symbiosis of Ruggles’ technically masterful violin playing with Coates’ voice. The vocals are reminiscent of folk legends such as Joan Baez, reimagined in an entirely new context.

Coates credits her Berkeley childhood for inspiring her to create songs about more than just romance and sunshine. “I came from protest parents,” Coates said. “It was always important not just to sing about love songs but to sing about resistance and empowerment and how to be a stronger individual, as opposed to a stronger romantic partner.”

“Only a Child” is one of these odes to resistance, drawing strength from weakness and inner turmoil. Ruggles’ violin responds to Coates’ echoing lyrics, creating a musical dialogue that embodies pain and beauty simultaneously.

The pair’s aesthetic mirrors the duality of the conversation between violin and voice. The duo’s album art, music videos and outfits are always in a perfectly coordinated black and white color scheme. “It’s just us using two extremes through color to have that conversation and be OK with not always balancing each other,” Coates said. “These things are part of the human experience — to have conflict.”

Coates and Ruggles unabashedly battle with internal and imposed conflict throughout their debut album, from the track “Upside Down” to “Don’t Know,” in which the pair confronts the all-consuming role technology plays in the lives of many. The “Don’t Know” music video features scenes of a party where people only engage with their mobile devices. The video is fraught with a sense of disquietude — we see Ruggles pulled so deeply into her phone and computer that she becomes a shell of her true self.

To get away from technology on the most recent leg of the duo’s tour, Ruggles said the two focused on “driving and meditating” and read Laura Jane Grace’s autobiography, “Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout.” Reading Grace’s stories from the road was powerfully affecting for the two women, who are still in the process of learning how to maneuver through the enigmatic world of the music industry.

An an indication of their originality and spirit, Ruggles said that she and Coates’ favorite quotation to live by is by Theodore Roosevelt: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Rather than constantly preoccupying themselves with what others are doing, especially as communicated through social media, Ruggles asserts that focusing single-mindedly on the art that she and Coates are producing is what leads to the band’s best work.  

The emphasis that the two place on producing high-quality music is apparent whenever they talk about their work ethic. Coates admitted that she and Ruggles are “obsessive” about their art. While Ruggles is scrupulous about her practice and technique, Coates is fully devoted to delivering lyrically powerful narratives. Each feels that the other is her missing half — the two complete each other as artists and people. “I can help her tell her sonic stories, and she can help me tell my literary stories with music,” Coates said.

“We do feel like we’re one person,” Ruggles continued. That sense of symbiotic unity is apparent throughout their music: It’s nearly impossible to imagine Ruggles’ violin without Coates’ voice, and vice versa. Together, the two women create unforgettable odes to the complexity of the human experience.

Contact Keats Iwanaga at [email protected].