The Secret of Gracie Abrams & Taylor Swift: How Their Partnership Is Lighting a Fire Under the Rising Star’s Career (Literally) (2024)

Somewhere on Gracie Abrams’ camera roll is a video of Taylor Swift in the pop superstar’s kitchen in Tribeca, deliriously extinguishing a bonfire threatening to consume her center island.

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Behind the lens, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter cry-laughs as her childhood hero works fearlessly to save them from danger. They’d both distantly heard the candle fall over earlier that night, but Swift had assured Abrams it was probably one of her cats thumping around. It’s well past 6 a.m., after a night of dinner and drinks – heavy on that second thing — when the fire finally goes out.

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“She was such a legend – I don’t know how at this hour or in our state she knew what to do,” Abrams raves to Billboard six months later over Zoom. “We both had an insane cough from the fire extinguisher fumes for weeks.”

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The pair had just finished co-writing “Us,” the crown jewel of the California native’s 13-track sophom*ore studio album The Secret of Us – due out this Friday (June 21) — when the fiasco occurred. Before that, they’d spent the night previewing songs from Abrams’ new record and the 34-year-old hitmaker’s The Tortured Poets Department for each other before either project had even been announced. Abrams recalls singing and dancing “like theater kids” to “But Daddy I Love Him” and lying on the floor in disbelief after hearing “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived,” after which they started listening to instrumentals made by their mutual collaborator and friend Aaron Dessner.

“Something caught our ear at the same time very hard and fast,” Abrams says. “So we ran to the piano and started writing this song … I used to fantasize about that kind of a thing as a kid.”

“Us” ended up being the ribbon that tied together the material Abrams had been dreaming up with Dessner at his famed Long Pond Studios last year, after spending the summer opening for Swift’s Eras Tour, a role she’ll reprise on select dates in North America later this fall. Shortly after their near-death experience, the two women headed upstate to record the duet with the 48-year-old National founder, who recalls: “It was just really fun to watch the chemistry of Gracie and Taylor bouncing off each other, Gracie in total wonder and awe watching how Taylor records and produces her vocal performances and builds the world.”

“Taylor’s brilliant at synthesizing a whole story,” Dessner continues over Zoom, the wooden panels of Long Pond’s interior making up his backdrop. “[That song] just brought everything [about Gracie’s album] into focus in a beautiful way.”

The Secret of Gracie Abrams & Taylor Swift: How Their Partnership Is Lighting a Fire Under the Rising Star’s Career (Literally) (4)

Even without Swift’s name on the credits, The Secret of Us is easily Abrams’ most mainstream-friendly project to date. Though still rife with acoustic guitars and Dessner’s signature woodsiness, the project is sharper, hookier and more extroverted than ever, with light synths and the occasional ghost of a dance beat injecting newfound adrenaline into its DNA. The sound is best exemplified by Abrams’ most-recent single “Close to You,” which dropped earlier this month and is already shaping up to be her splashiest hit yet.

Abrams hadn’t set out to write a new album so quickly after her debut record Good Riddance dropped February 2023, peaking at No. 52 on the Billboard 200 — much less one that sounds so distinctly different from her past work. But the songs just kept coming to her as intuitively as on that spontaneous night in New York, many of them about unrequited love so strong it “felt like a sickness,” she says.

“I didn’t even think we were making [an album], and neither did Gracie,” says Dessner. “The first song that we made is ‘Gave You I Gave You I.’ That immediately established a very different palette and sonic world, and it evolved from there.”

“We just had a good time realizing that we can make things that sound totally different,” Abrams adds. “It was permission, this album, to try whatever the f—k we want.”

This time around, the duo – who first teamed up on Abrams’ 2021 EP This Is What It Feels Like — also had a cowriter in the singer’s best friend since she was 10, Audrey Hobert. Abrams and Hobert have technically been working together since they were in middle school, writing and directing Video Star movies together, but the tracks on Secret of Us co-penned by Hobert mark her first foray into songwriting.

The friend duo’s closeness allowed Abrams to be more vulnerable than she ever could’ve been with any other collaborator, and Hobert even stars as a main character in the bittersweet lyrics to “Good Luck Charlie,” which the former says is about observing a relationship end between two friends and “having a lot of love for both people … half mourning it and half wishing well on everyone involved.” (The title, she clarifies, is totally unrelated to the Disney Channel show of the same name — “I wasn’t a Disney kid growing up … I feel like I missed out.”)

“I trust her with my life, and she knows me so well,” Abrams says of her friend. “There was no pretending.”

Plus, after hitting the road with Swift, Abrams realized she was ready to perform music that commanded a little more presence in the stadiums she was warming up, which she hopes to translate to her own headlining tour of theater-sized venues across the U.S. kicking off Sept. 5 in Portland. That’s why you’ll hear her properly belting for the first time in multiple places on The Secret of Us, as teased in lead single “Risk,” which dropped May 1.

“I think it’s just time,” she says of honing her vocal abilities. “I wasn’t a singer. I was a writer, and no one else would sing my songs when I was little. I was singing my songs to myself in my room, so it didn’t require much projection. I could stay very quiet and curled up into a ball. Being onstage, it’s a different game.”

But as her star has risen with Eras exposure and residual Good Riddance hype – and as naysayers have finally moved on from poking at her “nepo baby” status, being the daughter of director J.J. Abrams — her singing chops have invited some criticism, even though her crackling alto is the thing many fans love most about her.

“There are vocalists that are worth calling out [for their skills], and that’s not me,” Abrams admits. “I love to sing so f—king much, because I love to sing things that I write. It’s an extension of the writing for me, so I’m always trying to improve upon that skill. But I wouldn’t lead with ‘I’m a singer.’ I’d say, ‘I’m a writer.’”

Abrams and Dessner are already working on the former’s next project — “We don’t know what it is yet,” she says, “but we’ve been making a bunch of new music that feels already wildly different from this album.” Still, she feels like the style and subject matter of Secret of Us is fully evocative of her current state of mind, as opposed to past works that felt like “revisiting old wounds” to perform live.

“It can feel like this funny ghost,” Abrams adds. “And with The Secret of Us, it feels very topical still. That’s so me.”

If there’s one exception, though, it’s “Close to You,” which Abrams first recorded seven years ago with producer Sam de Jong before scrapping it, feeling unready to embrace such a distinctly pop sound. That didn’t stop fans from obsessing over a seconds-long snippet of the track Abrams uploaded online last decade, and she’s been receiving almost daily requests – plus some gentle pushing from her team at Interscope – to release it ever since.

With Secret of Us being as pop-facing as it is, “Close to You” finally has a home that makes sense. It appears at the very end of the tracklist and serves as the second single, with Abrams officially dropping it to fans’ elation June 7. (For those wondering whether another years-old cast-off, the deeply Swiftian “In Between,” will get the same second-life treatment, Abrams teases it’s “looking like a deluxe situation.”)

Her label’s patience was rewarded, with the track debuting at No. 49 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, her first-ever solo entry on the chart. It follows her appearance on the remix to “Everywhere, Everything,” Noah Kahan’s Stick Season anthem, reaching No. 79 in December.

“Gracie is truly one of those brick-by-brick artist development stories, building such a dedicated following one fan at a time and never wanting to skip steps,” Sam Riback, president of IGA and head of Pop/Rock A&R, tells Billboard over email. “It was her connection to her fanbase, built over a long period of time, that was truly unique and special to her arrival on the mainstream stage. It is that bond between Gracie and her fans that will propel her all the way to the top and keep her there.”

If Secret of Us makes as big a statement as Abrams and her team hope it does, then “the top” is definitely in reach. Since she first spoke to Billboard less than a year and a half ago, the star has nearly doubled her Spotify listener count (15 million+), picked up her first Grammy nomination and held her own on the biggest tour of all time.

On a more personal front, Abrams says she’s also more self-assured – as a person and artist – than she’s ever been before. “I just know that I trust myself solo,” she says. “This album has meant so much to me because it has supported me through a period of transitions. I’ve learned about how I like to spend my time, about what works for me or doesn’t in relationships, about how having friends is ultimately the priority for me. I don’t need to know who I want to wake up next to every day, but I know that I want to be there for every chapter of my friends’ lives.”

“I’m learning every five seconds,” Abrams adds. “We’ll have to find out what it all turns into, but that’s me today.”

The Secret of Gracie Abrams & Taylor Swift: How Their Partnership Is Lighting a Fire Under the Rising Star’s Career (Literally) (5)

The Secret of Gracie Abrams & Taylor Swift: How Their Partnership Is Lighting a Fire Under the Rising Star’s Career (Literally) (2024)
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