A year and a half ago, a confident 12-year-old ukulele player named Grace VanderWaal walked onto the America’s Got Talent stage to audition for the NBC reality competition’s 11th season. Clad in banana yellow pants, she sang an original song titled “I Don’t Know My Name,” and earned the coveted Golden Buzzer from judge Howie Mandel. Now 13 and just as brave, the Suffern, New York, native is ready for the release of her aptly-titled debut album, Just the Beginning.
“I like to think that I haven’t changed too much. I am still just a normal teenager with the same friends and family around me,” VanderWaal exclusively tells Us Weekly. “I just have music and a tour now, too!”
She may not have changed, but she has certainly evolved. On her first full-length release (out Friday, November 3), the singer-songwriter transcends the comparisons that have followed her since AGT judge Simon Cowell first called her the “next Taylor Swift.” Throughout the refreshing LP, VanderWaal channels the folky twang of Swift’s earlier projects, but intertwines the sounds of fellow musicians Florence Welch, Regina Spektor and even Miley Cyrus.
Though VanderWaal has her favorites (“Moonlight” and “Florets” to name a few), each of her new songs hold a special place in her heart. “The album is just based on life experiences,” she tells Us. “All of the songs are about things that have happened to me. I kind of made these experiences I’ve had into their own mini-movies through each song, which was really fun.”
Nine of the 12 tracks were written solely by the teen. For the others, she tapped some of her favorite songwriters. “At the end of the day this is all new to me and this is my first album, so it was amazing to get to work with other writers and producers that have so much experience,” she explains. “I’ve worked with some people like Ido Zmishlany and Greg Wells who have worked with my favorite artists like Shawn Mendes and Adele, so it’s crazy to be in that position.”
For now, VanderWaal is taking life one day at a time. “I love performing and I cannot wait to start my tour [in Los Angeles on Sunday, November 5], but then I also like to balance it with being at home and going to school like a normal 13-year-old,” she tells Us. “I’m still learning how, but trying my best.”
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