How this young ukulele player is rocketing up the charts.
By Mike Duffy
It wasn’t too long ago when Grace VanderWaal bought her first ukulele (using money she received on her 11th birthday, no less) and taught herself to play.
My, how things have changed in only three years.
Now, as a teenager, VanderWaal is a household name, having won the 11th season of NBC’s America’s Got Talent and a Teen Choice Award, booked a sold-out U.S. headlining tour, and released a hit debut album entitled Just the Beginning featuring her powerful vocals, personal lyrics and lively uke stylings.
VanderWaal’s star continues to shine, as she just came off a blockbuster summer stint opening for Imagine Dragons and is preparing to make her film debut in Disney's book-to-film adaptation of Stargirl. Oh, and for good measure, VanderWaal now has a pair of signature Fender ukuleles that are perfectly primed to inspire the next generation of musicians.
It’s a heady rise for the humble VanderWaal, and one she didn’t really expect.
“When you sign up for America’s Got Talent, it’s not like you’re signing up to go on the show. You’re signing up to go to an open call audition,” she said. “I literally just went there to people watch. I know everyone says this, but truly we were doing it for fun. Me and my mom were doing it for fun and to see everyone.”
Following through on that idea turned out to be life-changing.
Born in Kansas in 2004, VanderWaal grew up in Suffern, N.Y., and was involved with music at a young age. At 3, she began making music by singing into a wireless microphone. Later, she took up the saxophone before a video of Twenty One Pilots’ Tyler Joseph covering Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” on a ukulele kick-started her own uke journey.
Soon, VanderWaal was writing her own songs and even performing at open-mic nights in local coffeehouses.
As her confidence increased, VanderWaal set her sights on American Idol, but the age limit for that show was actually 15. Enter America’s Got Talent.
One could say her audition for AGT went pretty well. Performing her original song, “I Don’t Know My Name,” VanderWaal earned the “golden buzzer” from judge Howie Mandel, a rare honor that sent her straight through to the live shows.
In the end, VanderWaal took home the show’s grand prize – including a comparison to Taylor Swift by judge Simon Cowell – sparking a record deal with Columbia, appearances on nationally televised shows like Ellen, a spot performing at the 2017 Austin City Limits Music Festival and nearly 3 million subscribers to her official YouTube channel.
“Singing and playing my ukulele on America’s Got Talent was my first time playing in front of a larger crowd,” VanderWaal said. “I was very, very nervous, obviously. I don’t see how someone wouldn’t be. But as you can imagine, it was amazing. I’m here now because of it. It’s really done amazing things for me.”
VanderWaal’s collaboration with Fender is the next step in her already exploding career. It is also historic. As she joins the company of Fender signature artists like Eric Clapton, Johnny Marr and Chris Shilfett, VanderWaal is also the brand’s youngest signature artist ever and will be the first with a ukulele player.
"What I think is cool about Fender, and what originally drew me to them, was the Fender electric guitar headstock, which I've never seen on another ukulele," she said. "I feel like a rockstar when I'm tuning it. I wanted these ukuleles to be pretty, but also have a great sound. Fender perfectly accomplished that and made my dream ukuleles come true. I'm seeing my passions come full circle.
"I think everyone has music inside them and my hope is that I can help them find it."
The performance-inspired signature model incorporates everything that she loves about playing live for her fans. From the stage-ready, Fishman Kula preamp pickups, dark walnut exterior and custom deluxe gig bag, the instrument itself reflects Grace's boho-chic style and mission to inspire more people to play music.
"Designing the Grace VanderWaal Signature Ukulele with Grace was effortless. She knew she wanted personal touches, such as the gold hardware and her signature on the headstock, but was most passionate about the electronics so she could be stage-ready at all times," said Billy Martinez, Vice President Category Manager of Acoustics and Squier Divisions. "Having Grace join the Artist Signature Series brings that same on-stage energy to Fender Ukuleles and underscores that no matter how wild your dreams, anything is possible."
VanderWaal also worked with Fender to create the Grace VanderWaal Moonlight Ukulele - a navy blue-colored version of the California Coast Series Venice Soprano uke - perfect to play by the beach or at home with friends and family.
To assist players that want to follow in VanderWaal's footsteps, Fender has included a free trial of Fender Play - the perfect companion and complete learning app for ukulele, guitar and bass - with the purchase of either signature ukulele. Six of VanderWaal's hit songs, including "I Don't Know My Name," "Just a Crush," "Clay," "Gossip Girl," "Light the Sky" and "So Much More Than This," are offered in the app's ukulele lessons, so fans can sing and play along with VanderWaal in minutes.
The Grace VanderWaal and Fender partnership also supports her efforts to bring music to underserved schools. Her foundation, "Little Miracles," strives to give the gift of music to local schools and communities where music programs have been reduced or cut altogether. Fender has donated several ukuleles to this cause and will continue supporting Grace in her work with the foundation. Visit the foundation's official website for more information.