It’s one thing to excel as a young person in one creative area, but to emerge as a star in another lane is not all too common, unless you are 16-year-old Mckenna Grace. The singer-songwriter performed at her first show last night at downtown LA’s Moroccan Lounge to a sold-out crowd of fans, industry guests and some famous faces like Lostboycrow and American Idol’s Catie Turner. The show comes on the heels of Grace’s debut EP entitled Bittersweet 16, (due out on March 3), which includes much of the material played at the historic gig, including never-before-heard songs, recent single “Checkered Vans” and other popular tunes from 2021 to the present. For those unfamiliar with Mckenna Grace by name, her fresh face may be familiar, as one of the breakout stars of the past two seasons, Emmy-nominated for portraying Esther Keyes on Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, among other projects like I, Tonya and Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which went on to use Grace’s debut single “Haunted House” as the closing credits theme. Grace will also reprise her lead role in Ghostbusters: Afterlife 2 coming in December, but back to the music, Mckenna Grace displayed another side of her star power. She commanded the stage while enjoying moment, impressing on her vocals, guitar and giving fans the attitude expected from a rising, rebellious teenage pop star.
A pattering of rain set the scene, with thunder and strobe lights building up to the starlet’s entrance with some mysterious sounds as Mckenna Grace appropriately kicked off with the ballad opening of “Haunted House”. Grace sounded pure and beautiful on her vocal, leading up to the more aggressive chorus of the song, wearing a sparkly black jacket and skirt with stars and a bold red lip. New single “Checkered Vans” pumped up the crowd further, an angsty pop-punk anthem with a danceable beat and plenty of attitude with the lyrics “chew me up and spit me out” and “I’m your cigarette, so gaslight me”. Grace embodied the badass song, dancing during the energetic instrumentals and having a blast smiling throughout as red strobe lights pulsed.
Mckenna Grace laughed and laughed some more before collecting herself, sharing “This is my first-ever concert”. “Only time you’re ever going to be able to say that is right now”, said Grace. “Thank you for coming, this is insane”. She mentioned how she is an awkward dancer and that her label hired a movement coach, but based on the night’s movements she looked like she either aced her lessons or had no problems whatsoever. “Ugly Crier” is a total punk rock song and Grace’s presence on this one was felt, whipping her hair while the crowd screamed for more. You could feel the power of this show. Grace continued with an unreleased song that we will endearingly call “Two-Seater”, belting and showcasing excellent vocal control, and smashing her upper register while smoldering on her lower one as the fans clapped along.
“Holy guacamole”, said Grace before continuing with the 90s-flavored “You Ruined Nirvana” with a near-perfect rock vocal, amazing guitar from Herag Sanbalian and bassist Mistine (Christine Meisenhelter) and an amped up crowd who got in on the lively “oh-oh” call-and-response moments. “These next three songs are my favorite three on the EP, Bittersweet 16“, confessed Grace. Mckenna Grace got into her feels on the bluesy pop ballad, the unreleased title track off the upcoming project, expressive with her eyes and face, and voice breaking in the most beautiful way possible on a rock song. She kicked off “Post Party Trauma” adding that it’s her favorite of the already-released material, touching her torso as though she wanted to rip off her skin, while singing “I deserve to be alone”. The drama of the song was felt, reflecting on the pressures and drama of a teenage social life.
Another unreleased/unannounced song with a moody guitar opening that we will call “Stars” (as a placeholder) had big vocal moments and a hard punky sound which was followed by an unexpected cover of Alanis Morissette’s calling card “You Oughta Know”. It’s one that probably shouldn’t be attempted by most, but Mckenna Grace put on her own spin, playing acoustic guitar and giving the vocal her all. It landed beautifully, with Grace getting bratty with an eye roll during the explicit word, opting for “kiss her”, for her all ages crowd on a tune that was released 11 years before her birth.
“I’m an actor and when you’re an actor it’s hard to keep in touch with people because you’re traveling so much”, said Grace. She added that when she touches down on planes she enjoys looking at her texts and one time after a long flight someone wrote her “bye loser” and it affected her. She channeled this into a gorgeous ballad called “do all my friends hate me?”, tackling the darker subject matter with a delicate vocal and she connected deeply to the lyrics. It’s a powerful track in her repertoire, sadly a theme song for her generation (for better or worse), with the lyrics “Sometimes I feel like I’m crazy, like all my friends hate me” and later, “no one picks up their phone”. It’s a brave choice to release and may over time change the culture, as is the case with lots of popular music. The song title was also cleverly embossed on a PopSocket over at her merch booth.
“I was crying in the green room and I’m going to cry after”, said Grace. “I can’t believe anyone showed up”. She introduced her band which also includes Patch Mahoney on drums and keys player Ryland Holland. “I went from Alanis Morissette to “do all my friends hate me?” so I wanna bring it back up. Sorry to be a buzzkill”. Mckenna Grace was of course teasing her final song, the unreleased “Buzzkill Baby”, a danceable pop-rock track with solid hi-hat from Mahoney. Pink and blue lights fluttered over Grace as she danced and felt the energy back from her fans.
San Francisco native Forrest Nolan opened with a handful of his tunes, including an acoustic version of “a song from yesterday”, which he introduced as being about a dating app experience. His “Second Base” was a gentle acoustic tune, with the lyric “better be at least a ten on the inside”. His pleasant voice shined on “would you like to go on a date with me some time?”, comparing it to Jack Johnson whom he was sure the crowd was unfamiliar with (not true Forrest, not true!) and mentioned elements of the tune would be good for Bruno Mars and even Lil Wayne, pointing out the verses he had in mind. It was very good on guitar and it will sound even more Jack Johnson/Bruno on ukulele as his set grows. Nolan had some pleasant falsetto on “falling for you” and concluded his set with “hold me close”, hitting well on his upper register.
Words by Michael Menachem
Photos by Nicole Ditt