#LetTheGirlsPlay: Quiet Confidence Carries Mignon Grabois’ Big Country Voice
Courageous? Crazy? Cute? Mignon Grabois may be all three or none of the above. Actually, she definitely embraces one of these, but not necessarily the one you’d expect a #LetTheGirlsPlay artist to embrace. The Belmont University senior and rising singer-songwriter has a big country voice and even bigger plans. But despite an awareness of her gift and a competitive background, she’s not a fourth “C” …
Grabois (pronounced Gra-bwah) isn’t cocky. She could be. The Houston native once entered a contest that was literally called "Best Singer in the Nation," and she won. Before she graduated middle school she was working weekends with a songwriter known for hits by Tim McGraw, George Strait and Keith Urban. Before high school graduation she’d shared the stage with Brad Paisley — the CMA Awards stage, on network television, in front of millions.
I just had to make the decision: Do I really wanna stay pop or do I wanna fall on my heart and go country?
“In Texas, competitions were intense,” Grabois says, sipping a strawberry-flavored soda in front of a plate glass window overlooking cars and hipsters on 8th Ave. South in Nashville. A few moments earlier she mentioned that she doesn’t drink much soda or carbonated beverages because the bubbles get to her. It’d be adorable if her rock-solid presence had cracks. At 5-foot, 9-inches, with long dark hair, the eyes of an owl and very un-21-year-old-like ability to focus and listen, she's magnetic in a strange way. She's not the life of the party, because she doesn't have to be.
“Me and my mom would just be the ones in the dressing room off to the side,” Mignon says, remembering the pre-show tilt-a-whirl. "It’s just a completely different world. It’s like the pageant world.”
“I would just go on stage, do my thing, go home …”
Yeah, this drove the other moms and daughters crazy. She’d win and be home before bedtime. It's almost unbelievable, this idea that someone could dominate any field so easily and so nonchalantly. The commercial voice major even has a hard time wrapping her head around it. Her life today sounds boring by comparison, she admits, laughing. But maybe it was just the bubbles.
The name Mignon (pronounce it like the steak) is a family name. Five generations of women have given their firstborn daughter that name, although this singer is the first to have it as a first name. There's even a store in Brentwood called Mignon's. Walk inside and you may find her mother and a large photo of all five ladies, dating back to her great-great-grandmother. The name means "cute" in French.
There's not another Mignon or Grabois in the business. The industry is filled with stars who started late, not because no one recognized talent, but no one knew how to nurture it young. Ronnie Dunn and Kip Moore are two contemporary examples. Shania Twain is another, although her path was blocked by personal tragedy.
Grabois’ parents didn’t hesitate. “I think my mom and dad just knew I had this crazy gift for a voice, from age five or six," she says with disarming matter-of-factness. Her performance as Annie in Annie left people talking and dreaming.
Musical theater was a huge influence before country singers like Martina McBride and Faith Hill took over. To this day Mignon prefers songs steeped in emotion. They allow her to be someone she's not, and she jumps right in. "Followin' the Beat" wasn't her story, but one would never know.
Childhood theater auditions led to roles which led to competitions, and eventually, Radio Disney. Yep, the 21-year-old was on the label that birthed the careers of Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus. This is where the crazy part of her story begins. She ended up in the Disney incubator program after winning that Best Singer in the Nation contest. TV shows, pop albums, dating Justin Bieber? Who knows?
“I didn’t really even know what I was really getting into,” she says, her soda now half-gone. After winning the regional round she forgot about it ... until she got a call and learned that all the regional winners' video tapes were sent to Los Angeles.
“They’re like, ‘You’re coming to L.A. and recording this song.’”
So she did, and then she didn't. She gave it up as suddenly and casually as she began. It was like starting all over again, except she was spared all the woe-is-me anguish and depression. Melissa and Todd Grabois had raised a confident young woman, who knew she’d bounce back.
I think any song that I can really get into and show attitude or cry, that’s what I like," Grabois says. "I just love turning into this other person when I’m singing.
“I just had to make the decision: Do I really wanna stay pop or do I wanna fall on my heart and go country?"
Time to Leap
Grabois finishes at Belmont in May, after nearly a decade in Nashville. At age 12, songwriter Mark Nesler (McGraw's "Just to See You Smile," Urban's "You Look Good in My Shirt" and more) discovered her and told her she needed to do two things: start writing, and move to Nashville.
“I was one of those people that when I was younger, I didn’t know that there were songwriters," Grabois says. "I always just thought about the artists.”
The first part wasn't easy, but she and Nesler formed an unusual bond. They found common ground because he had a daughter about her age, so they set off on writing songs that would fit her in four or five years, figuring it'd be awhile before she was singing them for money. A song called "So I Don't Love You Anymore" from her self-titled EP came from those early sessions, but more importantly, she learned to write by sharing a room with some seasoned pros.
So then, she needed to get to Music City. That was more difficult. Todd said "No" immediately, but the conversation never quieted. Like a bee to honey she felt the pull, and her mom and four brothers were all on her side. So they picked up and moved, more or less to follow Mignon's dream.
“My mom told me when I was younger, ‘If your older brother was really into acting and movies and that was his passion,’ then they would have done the same for him," Grabois says, beginning to open up about how tough it's been on her brothers at times. Dad stayed in Houston, commuting to see his wife and kids on weekends. Mignon stutters a bit in talking about how supportive he's been. "He's been commuting back and forth for almost eight years!"
For the last year she's performed with Song Suffragettes, an all-female singer-songwriter collective which performs on Monday nights at the Listening Room in Nashville. It's the antithesis of the competitive singing world, and Grabois fits in just fine.
“This is a time in country music when all females have to be for one,” she says, reasserting the group's mantra. “There’s no room for competition right now.”
There will come a time, however, when the other players in the field aren't so kind. Grabois looks toward 2016 with a sensible enthusiasm. Make no mistake — this is a girl who wants to be wrapping up recording her third or fourth studio album in 10 years. She also knows that every smart decision she's made to this point has laid an important brick in building her career.
“There’s pressure," she admits when pressed on if she feels she needs to quickly justify the chances her family, a well-known songwriter and so many others took on her, "but I feel like I’m in a great place. The relationships I’m making right now are great.”
“Hopefully, I will have some sort of income,” she adds with a laugh over a now-empty soda.
Mignon Grabois Sings "Pick Me Up"