Grace McNally

Grace McNally
Abby Duran March 4, 2023

For Charleston's Grace McNally, music is a way to blend traditions, fuse foreign folklore, and regenerate the soul through storytelling. Her classical arrangements and multinational upbringing enable her to hear Afro-Brazilian and Cuban correlations to those of southern American roots. Her role as a classical guitar composer is a “seamstress weaving different fabrics to create new pieces." Her debut album, Full Circle, encompasses the gateway between past and present musical narration.

“Full Circle is my musical memoir. It is a love letter to Charleston and all the countries that have shaped me into the musician and woman I am today. It is a journey back to the city that raised me and a place of wholeness within myself. It's a collaboration, an effort in preservation, and an ode to the beautiful world we call home."

Moreover, McNally brings global textures through her educational radio show, Travel Notes, on Charleston's OhmRadio96.3FM. In a city known for cover/jam bands and R&B/soul audiences, “Travel Notes is an essential way to travel through music and explore ways we connect." Listeners are transported passport-free to Senegal, Argentina, Japan, and beyond through the rhythmic history of native instruments and artists. During the pandemic, she longed for “a sense of community" among her journeys and thus sparking her podcast. Her second insight came from her musical discoveries in northeastern Brazil before returning to Charleston.

McNally grew up with global awareness and connection as her parents heavily impacted her musical and travel education. “My parents met and got married in Senegal, Africa," she notes. “West African musicians like Baaba Maal, Youssou N'dour, and Toumani Diabate filled our home." Furthermore, as a Washington D.C. native, she was in the thick of international cuisine, language, and additional musical influences.

Between the beats of West Africa and those of her drummer father, McNally gained a natural pull toward cadence. “Rhythm is the inherent life of a piece," she expresses. “When I get stuck while writing, playing with the rhythm helps me break out of the rut." What better way to master tonality and tradition than through classical guitar? It was the instrument's warm tone that welcomed her. “I may be biased," she admits, “but strings have an incredible ability to communicate music in a profound and pure unadulterated way."

McNally studied classical guitar under Risa Carlson, a student of Manuel Barrueco, at the Levine School of Music for six years. She partook in regional competitions, performed at the French Embassy, and advanced her techniques under guitar masters David Russel and Nicholas Goluses. In 2009, she received an invitation to Michelle Obama's Classical Music Workshop. Then attended the College of Charleston under a music scholarship, where she graduated in Classical Guitar Performance under Grammy-nominated guitarist Marc Regnier.

“I'm grateful for my training because it's helped me develop a technique that allows me to explore other styles more freely." This freedom led to a fruitful experience abroad post-graduation. Similarly to the guitar, she drew to the liveliness and warmth of Latin American culture. Her classical training led her to Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, who fuses indigenous, afro-Brazilian, and Portuguese arrangements.

“I love Latin American music," she adorns. “It's so emotive, specifically in the Brazilian tradition, how they blend classical music traditions with African and indigenous traditions. It's hypnotizing and such a beautiful reflection of the people."

She took the opportunity to learn the pandeiro, a frame drum, that introduced her to elementary samba rhythms. Upon returning to Charleston in 2019, McNally reintroduced these patterns into her compositions and performances. Again, this tempo enabled her to meld two cultures together as she found the “similarities between samba and the Gullah clap."

Additionally, the Malian kora has held a significant role in McNally's musical curiosity and accompaniments. It's a transcendent and hypnotic medium performed as if the artist and instrument are one entity that captivates her. Eventually, she met Derek Gripper, classical guitarist and Malian kora player for Toumani Diabate. Gripper's transcription of Jarbi for the classical guitar became McNally's dream inspiration for her tracks Give Me Water and Bahia, featured on Full Circle.

Despite having an international effect, McNally has found her lowcountry surroundings mimicking those of her musical influences. “I'm deeply moved by the natural landscapes here and its ties to West African history." Even with her seven-year residency, she finds “the palmetto and pine forests exotic." Musically, she frequently collaborates with The Plantation Singers, a Gullah/Gospel a capella, and a storytelling group.

After searching for narrative, McNally beautifully gained her voice within her debut album, Full Circle. As the title suggests, it portrays her time soul-searching abroad and returning to her roots. Traveling gave her “a sense of self-trust and strength in faith." Although her foundation facets are foreign, “Charleston feels like home, and it doesn't," she says. “I found a way to settle in between." A comfortable balance in quilting an American story.

full circle album release is may 4th.
photos provided by artist


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