Musician Grace Weber defies definition. Jazz chanteuse, indie singer-songwriter, soulful popster—all of these monikers could apply to the 24-year-old Milwaukee native, who released her debut album, “Hope & Heart,” in 2011. Named a Billboard “Artist to Watch,” Weber moved to Brooklyn after graduating from New York University in 2010, but her touring schedule brings her back to Brew City often.What was your reaction when your debut album, “Hope & Heart,” opened at No. 8 on iTunes?
That was such a fun day. I wasn’t even expecting it to chart. I had a friend who was working at a music label, and he texted me when the album was at number 70 and sent me a screenshot, and I thought that was awesome. And then it kept climbing, and I was shocked when it cracked the top 10. To be up there with albums like “James Taylor: Greatest Hits,” it was crazy.
What had your recording experience been prior to “Hope & Heart?”
I’ve been singing pretty much my whole life. In college I was in a band called Grace and Julian with my piano player, Julian Pollack. He’s helping me with my solo project while he’s pursing his career as a jazz pianist.
I read that you wrote 30-40 songs for your first album. Is it hard to narrow it down to 12?
It was and it wasn’t. Some songs we recorded and when we went back and listened to them it was like, ‘Oh, that’s not going to work.’ ... I’d recorded an EP earlier and we knew that “Sparrows” and “Leave the Light On” we going to be on [the abum]. With the songs we were on the fence about, my manager and producer were helpful in whittling those down and shaping the album’s sound.
You studied at NYU. What was it like to balance school with the pursuit of your music career?
I was actually able to create my own major through the Gallatin School. I called it Music Performance and Marketing. ... I studied things like social media, and graphic design so I can create my own album covers. Everything was relevant to my career. When I was in high school people advised me to learn about the business end of the music industry. I’ve loved always learning and going to school, so going to college was important to me.
You’re selling some of your paintings on your website, which is kind of unusual. Is painting something you do frequently?
I actually sold my paintings as I was trying to raise funds to record my album. Fans asked me about them, so I put a few for sale online. I’m not a professional artist by any means, but it’s always been a great creative outlet for me. When I’m feeling uninspired with my songwriting, sometimes I’ll paint and that will give me some inspiration. I’ve been so busy recently that I haven’t painted for months.
You’ve shared the stage with some pretty big names, including Ben Lee and Fountains of Wayne. Who have been your favorite musicians to perform with?
Fountains of Wayne’s guitarist, Jody [Porter], was a total goofball and so much fun to perform with. At the end of the show we all got together and performed “Love Potion Number Nine.” It’s still surprising to me that I’m sharing the stage with people like that. Once we perform I feel like I belong there, but it’s still kind of hard for me to accept that I’m on the same level sometimes.
In 2006 I performed at the ELLA Awards with people like Frank Sinatra Jr., Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach and Patti Austin in honor of Johnny Mathis. That was an incredible experience. I mean, Frank Sinatra Jr. was giving me advice in the green room! And Whitney Houston was actually in the audience. She talked to me after the performance and she was so kind and encouraging. She was amazingly talented and definitely a big inspiration to me growing up.
How often do you make it back to Milwaukee?
I make it back pretty frequently, because I’ve been touring a lot in the Midwest. All of my family is still there. My sister and her husband recently had a baby and they just moved back, so I’m excited I get to see them more often. I love coming back to Milwaukee. Whenever I start to feel worn down in New York, I usually have a trip coming up to Milwaukee before too long, and I know I’ll be able to recharge there.
What are some of your favorite music venues in Milwaukee?
The sound at Turner Hall is incredible. I feel like in Milwaukee, Turner Hall, the Pabst and the Riverside are the ultimate venues, and it’s amazing to have the opportunity to play them.
Are there any restaurants you make a point to hit when you’re in Milwaukee?
I really like eating out in Wauwatosa Village, especially at Le Rêve. And Gilles is my absolute favorite. I ate their chocolate custard every day in high school. It was like my comfort food. I wish I had the same metabolism today.