Grace Enger is the Friend On the Other Side of the Phone | by NYU Local | Sep, 2021

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After going viral on TikTok, the Clive Davis sophomore played to a packed venue at the Bitter End last Friday.

NYU Local
Picture of Grace Enger singing into a microphone with a backing band behind her.
Photo by Cat Tebo

By Cat Tebo and Morgan Pryor

The sun’s just starting to set when budding singer-songwriter Grace Enger takes the stage at The Bitter End, a small, sweaty venue tucked away among the many other small, sweaty venues that dot Greenwich Village. The energy slowly builds, the crowd — mostly young adults, it seems — packed in tight on a Friday evening.

After some cursory cyber stalking, a few details can be gleaned from Enger’s growing online presence: she’s an NYU Clive Davis sophomore and, evidently, a decently well-known TikToker. As our knowledge of TikTok famous musicians is limited to teenage e-girls and Charli D’Amelio’s older sister… Well, it’s difficult not to assume, going into the show with no knowledge, that Enger’s audience will mostly be comprised of teenagers, and her sound will reflect accordingly.

15 minutes past the 6:30 p.m. start time, Enger arrives on stage, her backing band following closely behind, and launches straight into the first song on her setlist of unreleased tracks, “Blame Me.” Though she initially seems nervous — “I practiced in front of the mirror that whole week,” she recalled in an interview a few days later — Enger quickly hits her stride. Moments after wrapping up her mature, bluesy ballad, she’s already moved onto the second song, “The Half of It,” and the majority of the audience abandons their seats to crowd around the stage.

It’s difficult to believe that Enger has only recently returned to live music — this is her second show since the return of live music after the lockdown, following a performance at the Berlin. Though Enger has been performing her own material since the start of high school, not being able to play live shows for the last year and a half made her first show back in August feel “like getting back on a bike, if you haven’t ridden a bike in a while.” This time around, Enger shows little hesitancy, and rarely seems to break her stride.

Any preconceived notions from Enger’s reputation as a viral TikToker quickly melt away. Not only does the strong, smoky quality of her voice demand attention as she seamlessly switches between belting out notes and dipping into them with a more somber softness, but something about the raw vulnerability and personal feel of her music is reassuring. It turns out that it’s pretty hard, as an audience member, to remain preoccupied with superficial, social media-induced bullshit while watching someone pour their heart out in the way that she does, crafting songs that are as personal as they are catchy, and delivering them with the same amount of emotion that, no doubt, goes into writing them.

“I’m a lyrics-first person,” Enger said. The first words she uses to describe her music, which is mostly in the pop lane with some hints of R&B, is “very honest” and “confessional” — she doesn’t shy away from rawness, dealing with well-worn topics like heartbreak and loneliness, but giving a freshness and depth to them. In “Body,” for instance, she recalls the painful contradictions of being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t like you quite as much as you like them, crooning the evocative refrain, “And happy as I be/I feel like you’re just using me/But I’ll sit quietly/’Cause at least I’ll have you partially.”

The vulnerability of her songwriting could be credited for propelling her popularity on social media, TikTok in particular. Enger released a short clip of a track called “19 and Lonely,” which she worked on with regular collaborator and fellow Clive student David Alexander. Since its posting in early August, it has amassed over 1.5 million views. Summing up her feelings in the song’s to-the-point hook, as catchy as it is melancholy, Enger captures the particular sadness of being, “19, 19, 19/And lonely, lonely, lonely,” a feeling that she didn’t realize would resonate with quite so many people.

Photo by Morgan Pryor

“It’s pretty clear I’ve never been in a relationship, and I was kinda feeling down about it,” she described her inspiration for the song. “I posted it on a whim,” Enger recalled. Almost overnight, her follower count more that quadrupled, reaching over 26 thousand. “It completely exceeded my expectations,” she said. “It brought a lot of people to my account and has created a little fanbase to prop myself on.”

In the non-digital world, the crowd connects with her too. Given she only has a couple performances in the city under her belt — and that she started her TikTok account a mere year ago — there is something special and even moving about the dedication and excitement of the concert-going crowd at the Bitter End. Not only do most know the lyrics to “19 and Lonely,” but also to many of the songs on her setlist. In other words, Enger has already begun building a dedicated support system of friends and fans, all before hitting 20.

“What I aim to do with my music is be the friend on the other side of the phone,” Enger explained. If last Friday’s show is anything to go off of, she has more than met her goal. And when the show is prolonged by not just one encore song, but three, it’s clear that this might be an early performance of a star-in-the-making. Even after Enger has left the stage, a palpable energy hangs in the air; the audience loudly chatters among itself, basking in the afterglow of what was, thanks to the honesty and emotional honesty of Enger’s music, an ultimately cathartic performance.

The best concerts are shared experiences that leave their audiences unified, brought together by the transcendence of music, something that Enger — in just 45 minutes — managed to do. More than anything, though, it confirmed that Enger is more than a TikTok musician; she’s an artist, capable of holding her own with or without the app.

“At the end of the day, I don’t want to be a TikTok artist,” she confirmed. “I want to use TikTok as the highway to find the people who would enjoy my music the most, but I don’t necessarily want to be creating based on the trendy sounds that are big right now because I don’t know if that has longevity.”

Photo by Morgan Pryor

Still, it’s impossible for Enger to not feel some amount of pressure on social media, following the overnight success of her TikTok. “It’s hard to separate the, ‘I have to be doing this because it’s the quickest way to get to where I want to be career-wise’ [and] ‘how is the numerical reinforcement taking a toll on my mental health, or how I view my art?’” she said. With all the views and likes on the “19 and Lonely” post, some doubts creep in. Yes, the immense reaction reinforces the good, but there’s an internal pressure to try to match that same response with future posts. With some other videos, she can’t help but question, “‘Why isn’t this doing as well as I thought it would?’”

Though she still feels the internal and external pressures that come with social media virality, Enger tries to remember that it’s just a tool for releasing her music, and at the end of the day what really matters is making music that people connect with. “It is mostly about the fans, and should be all about the fans […] I want to put out something and have the most amount of people listen to it and be moved.”

Performing a set entirely of songs she has yet to put out, Enger is hoping to release her first single in late October. Her viral “19 and Lonely,” she teased, “might be a contender.” With plenty to choose from, Enger has her eye on releasing music steadily. “I think once that happens, everything’s going to be all up from there,” she said.

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