Oftentimes, artists can spend what feels like a lifetime waiting for their first “big break.” And in a year that has been hectic to say the least, those opportunities may seem harder to come by.
However, in order to catch that “big break,” there’s usually a few risks that need to be taken first. In Grace Leer’s case, those risks included moving across the country to Nashville, Tennessee, and auditioning for American Idol, a show that has launched the careers of artists that have since become country music superstars, just one year after failing to reach the celebrity judges.
Not only did Leer blow judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan away with her powerhouse vocals, she finished in the top 10 during a season unlike any other in Idol’s nearly two-decade history.
Now, with three singles releases under her belt and big plans on the horizon, Leer is ready to take the next steps in her career.
However, long before she was creating music of her own, Leer was drawing influence from an array of artists as a young girl before quickly falling in love with country music’s leading ladies of the 1990s.
“Growing up, I remember playing the Fly CD by the Dixie Chicks in my boombox until it got all scratched up and I couldn’t play it anymore. As a singer, I always loved the big powerhouse vocalists like Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey,” says Leer. “As I got older, I was listening to Shania Twain, Martina McBride, Jo Dee Messina and Faith Hill; the female powerhouse vocalists of the 90s. I fell in love with not only what they were singing about, but how they were singing it. I modeled myself after those singers, and I really got into country music and knew that I wanted to do it as my own singer.”
Not only was Leer falling in love with listening to music, at just six years-old, she began falling in love with performing it as well.
“I started doing talent shows in first grade; I sang ‘Dreaming of You’ by Selena at my first one. What really connected me to music was the feeling of being on stage, singing a song and connecting with people,” says Leer. “It was crazy that I had this gift that my parents realized, and that I could make people feel something with music. That’s what music is all about.”
That connection and love of performing, coupled with an appearance on American Juniors, led Leer to realize at an early age that she wanted to pursue music as a career, but at the same time, she enjoyed the simplicities of being a kid.
“I knew I wanted to pursue music really early in my life. I just loved being on stage and having a microphone in my hand. Once I found that passion, I never wanted to stop. It wasn’t until American Juniors that I actually saw a career for myself in music. After the show, I went back to California and started booking gigs, so I was on stage a lot,” says Leer. “At one point, I made a demo and was working towards a record deal when I was about 13, and I decided not to go for it because I was really drawn to just being a kid, playing soccer and staying grounded, and I’m really happy that I did.”
However, it was during her time on American Juniors that judge Gladys Knight praised the “richness” in Leer’s voice, giving her a level of validation that made the two-day wait for her audition more than worth it.
“We got there at like three in the morning. We waited in line all day, and when I finally got to the front, they had stopped auditioning and said to come back the next day. It was a group audition where you stand in a line of five and step forward and sing a song. I sang ‘Natural Woman.’ I was an 11 year-old girl singing about some very old stuff, so it probably wasn’t appropriate,” Leer says with a laugh. “I got to the top 20! I’ll never forget the comments from the judges. As a young girl, you’re just singing for fun and because you love it, but to get that validation made me realize I was doing something right.”
After her time on American Juniors, Leer continued along her musical path, eventually meeting guitarist Kyle Clouse, and striking a creative bond that allowed them to tap into the throwback sound that they both grew up loving.
“Kyle is like family to me. We met through a mutual friend; I needed a guitarist, and he had a long list of songs that he had written for a female country artist. It was just the right time and right place. I was looking to take the next step and find my sound. Kyle was that stepping stone and partner I needed,” says Leer. “We started writing together and creating this throwback sound, because 90s country is what connected us right away. Since that time, we’ve been holding on to that throwback sound that’s not really on the radio too much today, and something we want to be a part of bringing back.”
As they continued to take those next steps together, it became clear that Music City was the logical destination for the pair. Leer made her move from California to Nashville in 2015, with Clouse following soon after. Leer, admittedly hard on herself, admits to initially feeling pressure when making her move.
“I’m someone who puts a lot of pressure on myself. I was a little fearful, so I got a full-time job in sales because I didn’t know if music was going to work out and I still needed to pay my bills. I wasn’t even sure that I was going to like Nashville; I wouldn’t know until I got there,” says Leer. “I prepared myself for the worst, because I hold myself to really high standards. I had so many goals in front of me that I wanted to achieve, and my biggest fear was not reaching those goals and not being the best version of myself.”
Pressure intact, Leer and Clouse formed The Grace Leer Band and released their debut single, “Oh Night” in August of 2017, which served as the first taste of the sound that the duo was creating.
“When I look back at ‘Oh Night,’ I think we just needed to get music out there. We didn’t have a huge following and we didn’t really have a lot of listeners. I wanted to have something on Spotify that people could go to and get a feel for who we are and the type of music we wanted to create,” says Leer. “‘Oh Night’ was a no brainer because we absolutely loved that song. We played it live all the time and it always got a great response, so we were super exited to release it!”
Just over a year later, the band released their sophomore single “Old Songs,” an ode to the music they love and the music they strive to create.
“That song is what we stand for: ‘Old songs are old friends of mine.’ It’s about holding onto older music and the country music that isn’t really around today,” says Leer. “When I sing it, it’s true, honest, real country that we want more of, and we talk about how much it means to us.”
This February, Leer and Clouse put that love on full display with their newest single, “Goin’ Back Home,” a steel-driven boot stomper that puts Leer’s belting vocals on full display.
“’Goin’ Back Home’ is one of my favorite songs that Kyle has ever written. It’s such a toe-tapper! It kind of makes me feel like a badass because it’s a gritty, fun country song and I can belt the crap out of it,” says Leer. “Kyle wrote it just before we moved to Nashville, and we didn’t know it was going to be a single until we moved here and saw the response it got live. When we finally recorded it, we had went through a few different musicians. If you listen to the first version of it, it sounds so different than what it is now.”
In the midst of establishing themselves in Nashville, for the second year in a row, Leer auditioned for American Idol, and on her second attempt, had Clouse by her side.
“I auditioned the year prior and didn’t make it to the celebrity judges. What’s funny is the year they passed on me, I didn’t bring Kyle with me because he was busy,” says Leer. “When a producer called me for this season, I said I would do it, but I knew I was bringing Kyle with me. I told him I needed him there because he’s a really important piece of what I do.”
As her audition drew closer, and with the result of the year prior in her head, Leer admits to allowing fear and doubt to creep into her head, but when the time came to sing for Richie, Perry and Bryan, the nerves went away and allowed her to just do her thing.
“I was nervous as all heck; I was shaking. We were standing behind the wall to go in front of Lionel, Katy and Luke, and Kyle was holding my hand and telling me, ‘You’ve got this, you’ve got this, you’re going to be fine.’ I was really nervous, and I had the fear and doubts of ‘am I good enough?’ popping in my head,” says Leer. “When it finally came time to walk out there and do it, the nerves went away, because they’re all so great. They made me feel really relaxed and comfortable. After I sang my first song, by their reactions alone, I could tell they were feeling it, which made it way easier. It was definitely scary, but I was also excited to do something that was scary; it was a risk that was worth the reward.”
After singing “Crowded Table” by The Highwomen and “Crazy” by Patsy Cline (by request of Katy Perry), the judges not only praised Leer’s performance, but recognized the classic sound of her voice. Coupled with the emotions of the long musical journey she had been on to that point and the golden ticket to Hollywood soon to be in her hands, Leer let her emotions show in the audition room.
“That feedback really touched me because it’s been a long road for me. I’m 28, and this is all I’ve ever wanted to do. You can have your family and friends tell you how talented you are, but hearing it from them was something really different because they have so much credibility,” says Leer. “It was an honor to hear those words and to get the validation that this is a good path for me and that I do have what it takes to make it happen.”
After receiving three quick “yeses” from the judges after her audition and a trip to Hollywood on the horizon, Leer now had the seemingly impossible job of keeping her audition and fate a secret from many of the people around her until her air date came.
“It was so hard to keep it a secret. My closest friends and family knew, but I had to keep it a secret from a lot of the people at my sales job. My managers knew, but when I went for Hollywood Week, my coworkers thought I left for vacation,” says Leer. “When my audition was going to air, I was so nervous, but it was also fun because I was already in LA for the Top 20 with the other Idol contestants. The audition went by so fast, so there was a lot I didn’t remember, and because my eyes were closed at times when I was singing, there were things I didn’t see. I didn’t see their facial expressions when I was singing ‘Crazy,’ so it was really cool to see that.”
After successfully making it through Hollywood Week, Leer moved on to Hawaii, where she performed “Natural Woman,” the same song she performed on American Juniors 17 years prior. Following her performance, Leer took to social media and admitted to getting emotional as soon as she walked off stage and realizing that music is truly what she was meant to do.
“Hawaii was my favorite performance on American Idol. It was such a special night and week. I was only on stage for a minute and a half. It was the biggest stage I had ever sang on and the biggest audience I had ever sang in front of. There were little girls in front of me that reached up to touch my hand like you see on TV all the time with artists doing big shows, and none of that had ever happened for me before,” says Leer. “It was really emotional getting off of the stage because so much work, preparation and dedication went into it. I was so proud of myself, but I was also realizing that I was going to have to quit my sales job. It knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
With the final slot in the top 20 up for grabs, the judges surprised Leer and fellow classic-country vocalist Lauren Mascitti with the announcement that a fan vote would decide who received the last slot, which left the two to sit on that announcement until the episode aired.
“Sitting on that was definitely weird. Lauren and I were really good friends, and during all of that, it was strange. We couldn’t believe it came down to a vote. I had a lot of anxiety leading up to the night when everyone found out about the vote and that I needed people to vote me into the top 20. I wish it wasn’t that way, because I was feeling a lot of anxiety wondering if people were going to vote,” says Leer. “Those two days of voting were really stressful. I worked really hard on my social media to make sure that I was sending out the right message and making sure people felt like they were a part of my journey.”
Not only was Leer voted into the top 20, she was able to tangibly see the support she had from people all over the country.
“It meant so much to see that support,” says Leer. “It’s hard to put into words how grateful I am for the response and the support from people I’ve never met. For some reason, they want to support me and cheer me on, and I’m so grateful for that.”
Like most things in the era of the coronavirus, the live rounds of Idol took place remotely for the first time in the show’s history. Though it came with an adjustment for Leer and her fellow competitors, Leer still cherished the opportunity to continue on and reach so many people.
“That was definitely different. It was all about staying positive and understanding that COVID is a huge thing. I was inspired by people on the front lines like my mom, sister and brother in law and knowing that they are protecting us,” says Leer. “I was still getting to do what I love. Even though it was in my backyard, I still got to sing and be a part of the show. I kept telling myself mentally that I was still doing what I loved. I was doing it to an iPhone, but that iPhone was still going to be played to 10 million people, so it was still important to give it everything I had.”
So she did. And though her performance of “Over The Rainbow” did not earn her a slot in the top 7, Leer realizes that her time on Idol was a great stepping stone and allowed her to showcase what she represents both personally and sonically.
“The biggest thing I took away from the experience is to stay true to who I am. It’s easy in competitions like that to start comparing yourself to the other artists and think that you should do a certain song because another person is singing a certain song, or do a song because you think it will put you in a certain box. As long as I am sticking to who I am, trusting my gut and knowing that I am going in the right direction if I’m being myself, I don’t think I can ever disappoint myself,” says Leer. “I always told myself that if I was going to get eliminated, what song would I want to go out singing? It was all about sticking with my gut and being proud, no matter the outcome.”
As she told herself in Hawaii, after her time on Idol was complete, Leer quit her sales job to focus on music full time.
“It was a pretty easy decision. Before American Idol, I was really scared to quit my job, because I always saw it as a huge risk. I started saving before Idol, so if I did make it far enough and quit my job, I’d have something to fall back on. So now, I don’t have that fear anymore. I know this is what I am meant to do now. And even if I am broke, I’d rather be doing what I love and going after what makes me happy than going back to a 9-5 sales job where I wasn’t fulfilled,” says Leer. “It’s been fun over these past few weeks in Nashville knowing that I go to bed thinking about music and I wake up thinking about music.”
Though 2020 has derailed many of the plans of artists so far, Leer is keeping her focus on creating new music and surrounding herself with the right people as she takes the next steps in her career.
“For the rest of the year, I’m focusing on the music. I’m writing and looking for songs that fit my style and brand. I’ve been working with some management companies to figure out who is going to be a good partner for me,” says Leer. “As I continue my career, the goal is to obviously release music, but I want to release the right music. It will probably start with a single, and that will be the first one that is just Grace Leer, so that’ll definitely be a big moment for me. I just want the right team around me to help me along this journey.”
*Find Grace’s music on The Best of Pro Country playlist!*