21-year-old Illinois Native Brings Inspiring Life Story to “American Idol”
The persistent, inspiring 21-year-old native of Algonquin, Ill. (near Chicago) had her first child, Lennon, in Los Angeles Jan. 22, 2019. Grace has loved music and “American Idol” since she herself was little – writing her first song at age 4.
Her parents named her after a 1980 Grateful Dead song, and Grace named her daughter after the legendary ex-Beatle who was murdered in 1980, since Althea is a huge Beatles fan. On Thursday – three days after she progressed on the “American Idol” duets episode that aired March 22 – Grace said her favorite John Lennon song is 1971’s “Oh Yoko,” from the “Imagine” album.
“I cannot listen to that song and not, like, cry. It’s such a beautiful, just like so real, and so raw versus the other stuff,” she said. “I feel like ‘Oh Yoko’ is just really powerful because it’s just such a raw feeling of love.” “John Lennon was just so himself and so beautifully — like they would not have cared what people thought of what they were doing, because they knew that they were creating something beautiful and
magical,” Grace said.
On the national singing competition, filmed in December before celebrity judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan, Grace related that her daughter had to go to the hospital the night before – a complication of the emergency liver transplant she had to have in L.A. in January 2020, after suddenly experiencing liver failure.
“I think you might have caught me in tears, trying to stay present and be here, and focus,” Grace told the judges, before her triumphant duet with fellow contestant Camille Lamb, “You Don’t Own Me.”
Katy Perry told her: “Althea, you’re doing the best you can, and your child doesn’t understand dreams if you don’t dream, so you must keep dreaming.”
After their song, Perry called the women salt and pepper, “two different things.”
“And if you don’t learn how to come together, you will not reap the benefits of being seasoned,” Perry said. “The sum of you together is better than the sum of you apart. You held the line for each other. There was a little respect there. And it had to grow overnight, ‘cause I know it wasn’t there in the beginning. But that respect just got you guys into the next round.”
“The coolest part is in the moment throughout this whole experience has been like you black out while you’re singing, and they give you the feedback, and then you walk out of the room and you’re like — that just happened,” Grace said Thursday.
“So getting to now watch it back is just mind-blowing like and to hear Katy’s comments that she made when I left the room, which is amazing, because in the moment I was like, God, she doesn’t like me,” she said. “Like you really need to prove to Katy, that I need her to see that I’m cool. Wow, she actually just really believes in me. And like, she sees something in me.”
In Grace’s first round (filmed in October), shown last week, she sang an original song, “Saturday Morning,” which she wrote about her daughter. The show featured a behind-the-scenes video all about Lennon and her struggles to hang on to life.
“She was on life support, on dialysis, in a coma,” Grace said on “Idol.” “I don’t think it was until one of her doctors looked at me and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I can save her,’” she said. “It felt like a piece of me was going to die if she died. I just felt hopeless.”
“So we put our hands on her, and told her we loved her and said, ‘if that’s what happens, that it’s all going to be ok,’” she said. “And that we just love her.”
Six days after her diagnosis of liver failure in January 2020, Grace got the call that they found a donor liver for Lennon.
“It’s an absolute miracle, that gift of life she was given,” she said on the show. “She is the best part of every day and I would not change a thing about her. The fact that she was able to pull through and get through what she’s been through is why I’m still pushing for my dreams.”
Grace said she wrote “Saturday Morning” about “all those mundane things you do with your kids … that you don’t realize you miss until you can’t do them anymore.”
She said Thursday she penned it last March, the first time after they got out of the hospital, after Lennon was fed through an IV tube and
Grace had to take care of her with a feeding tube.
“I remember having just a really hard day. I remember just, you know, I had to wake up at. 7 a.m. and start her routine and, you know, constantly make sure that she wasn’t gonna pull out her tube,” Grace said. “It was really scary. I was just I was in fight or flight mode for months, just constantly being on edge and like. watching for something bad to happen.
“I remember having a really bad day and waking up and being like, you know, the world is unfair. Life is unfair,” she said. “All I want is to wake up in the morning and just, like, make my kid’s breakfast. And I just want to do something that feels normal. So that’s when I wrote that song.” Grace started the audition process for “Idol” last July (through many videos and Zoom calls) and was asked to first sing for Richie, Perry and Bryan in October, when she did “Saturday Morning.”
“That is unlike anything I’ve ever done, you know, because I’m used to playing for people,” she said Thursday. “I have no fear when it comes to like playing on stage and whatever, but like sitting in a room with three people who are all legends just staring at you is absolutely terrifying.
“But I also felt pretty okay, because I remember when I called my parents to even tell them that I was auditioning,” Grace recalled. “I’m just honored that at the end of this, if I just get to say that I sat in a room with those three people and they got to hear me singing – like, I’m intense, I’m good.”
For the second round of “Idol,” Grace sang “Girl” by Maren Morris, and had just 24 hours to prepare her duet with Camille Lamb. They had to choose from a list of songs.
John Taylor, a concert organizer in Cambridge, Ill., said of Grace this week: “She is phenomenal. Her guitar playing is great, her voice is great, her songwriting is great, and she is just a genuinely great person. As far as I am concerned, she is as good as anyone and I’m very excited to see her getting some attention.”
Grace performed at Bishop Hill, Ill., Oct. 4, 2019 (with Chicago Farmer) and was due to play the Levitt AMP summer concert series in Galva last July, before being canceled by Covid.
“Both of her appearances on ‘Idol’ have brought me to tears,” Taylor said.
From Algonquin to Davenport to Hollywood
As the child of what Grace called “hippie Deadheads,” she started performing regularly at 10, and liked to perform barefoot, which she did in a talent contest for the McHenry County Fair. At age 13, she won the contest.
“I was doing ‘Crazy on You’ by Heart, and I remember there’s two rounds,” Grace said Thursday. “All of my comment cards from the first round were the judge is telling me that it’s not acceptable to play barefoot. And so my family is like, you should take that into consideration. And right before I walked on stage, I took both my shoes off, and I was like ‘Nope, I’m gonna be me. I’m gonna play how I play, which is barefoot. It was a pretty beautiful moment.”
“It was really cool to play a rock song barefoot at the county fair and my whole family was there and it was the first time that I felt like, wow, what I do is special,” she said.
When Grace was in 8th grade, she knew she wanted to make music a career, and worked hard to graduate high school in three years.
“I came to my parents and I was like, guys I could graduate in three years if I started now and I kinda don’t want to go to college,” she said, noting her parents worked hard to graduate from college. “They looked at each other and looked at me and said, fine by us. And I remember being, like, what, wait, is this real?”
“My mom believes in my music so much,” Grace said. “My dad is the more stern one in the family. But he just believed in what I did so much that he was like, I think you could do this. And even as I’ve grown up, as I’ve gotten older, like when I had Lennon, when other things have come up in my life when music wasn’t going so well or every time I called my dad crying, being like ‘What if I just start now? What if I start school? What if I pick something else?
“Every time my dad is like, I will not allow you to quit music like you think it’s the easy way out to go to school,” she recalled. “He’s like, do what makes you happy and that’s all that matters.”
Grace has performed at Davenport’s Redstone Room and she recorded a 17-minute Daytrotter session in Davenport in March 2018. A summary at Paste magazine described her this way: “Her music is bluesy, but isn’t necessarily blues. Above all she is a pop artist, writing songs that are structurally firm and just as catchy.
“Before she picked up all this attention as a solo artist, she was in the folk-pop duo Future Stuff, where she played some upright bass. They’re so good Sheryl Crow even tweeted about them once. In this session she’s all by herself, but she holds up incredibly well. Her voice is so
powerful and assured—her guitar playing is the same way. Whatever groups Althea may go on to join, her power is in her solitary way: the power of a lone artist moving mountains,” Paste wrote.
Without knowing what future challenges Grace would face, the magazine also said: “Her songs are often about persistence, about staying up straight when the world is trying to knock you down. But sometimes, even with all the confidence in the world, you get knocked down; Althea has songs for that, too. Althea’s songs have a maturity to them that is scarce in even the legacy songwriters still active today.”
Listen to her full Daytrotter session HERE.
Grace moved to Los Angeles at the end of 2019, since she has close friends there. When Lennon got sick in January 2020, Grace was scheduled to perform in a Fleetwood Mac tribute show in Chicago, in the Stevie Nicks role. The guitar player in that band sent her a video and a picture where they had a felt heart draped on the drum set, and “they were like, we told everyone that we have Lennon’s heart with us
and to pump energy into her,” Grace said.
Earlier this month on “American Idol,” judges Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan both compared Grace’s voice to Stevie Nicks.
“You have a cut-through voice,” Richie added. “But I think you just have to be more confident in yourself.”
When he said that, Grace thought, “One of my heroes just compared me to one of my heroes. That didn’t just happen,” she said Thursday. “And when he said that, I was like, you don’t know who you’re saying that, too, because, like, I literally have one of my walls in my apartment. It’s a wall that I painted pink, and it just has a giant Stevie Nicks mural in the middle of it.”
Lennon’s life-and-death situation for those six days before the transplant was a rollercoaster in itself, since doctors took her off the waiting list for two days because they thought she wouldn’t survive the surgery, Grace said.
“They were like, even if we got the call that she got a liver, it wouldn’t be fair to put her through that surgery because she wouldn’t make it through the surgery,” she said. “They tried to get her stable enough to be able to have the surgery, and they got her to that point where she was stable. And then within two days after that, we got another call. We got the call that they found a liver.”
“We’re so lucky that Los Angeles was where we were visiting because, you know, they’re one of the number-one children’s transplant hospitals in the country,” Grace said.
“I remember just sitting there with her and playing songs for her and sitting by her bed and just being like, whatever happens is okay,” she said. “Obviously, I was trying to remind myself, but I had to get to that point where I was, like, I don’t get to choose what happens. But I have to be okay with whatever happens.”
Dark past, bright future
Lennon was born with a rare genetic disorder that caused skin spots, and benign tumors all over her body, including her brain and heart, Grace said.
“She showed no symptoms until she was eight months old and she just out of the blue one day, woke up and started having seizures, like, all day every day,” she said.
Doctors treated her and she got back to 100% normal, until Lennon was 11 months old and one morning, she threw up, her mom said.
“By the end of the day, she was just so lethargic and didn’t want to eat. Didn’t wanna, wouldn’t wake up,” Grace said. “We took her to the ER and by the end of the day, she was on life support and dialysis, and within 24 hours, they were sitting us down, telling us that they were putting her on the transplant list, that we needed to agree that was something we were okay with that.
“We had to sign all these papers that, like, we would take on this responsibility if she got a transplant,” she said.
Those six days before the transplant felt like an eternity.
“It feels like that those six days in my life was an entire year. Like when I tell the story, it just doesn’t feel real because it feels like that lasted an entire year,” she said, noting they ended up in the hospital for about 200 days in 2020, Grace said.
Because of Covid restrictions, Lennon couldn’t have family visitors in the hospital between February and November.
Grace is so grateful for her “Idol” outlet.
“I’m really honored that I get to tell that story in a such a large setting,” she said of TV. “But honestly, the biggest thing is that I just wasn’t able to play anymore — I wasn’t able to perform and live performance, that is my focus.
“That is what I do and want to do. So between that and then also having Lennon and going through that medical journey with her, I think it also just boosted my confidence, like through the roof,” she said.
“I’ve always been a very confident person, but there’s something about hearing that your kid is going to die, that makes nothing else in the world seem scary,” Grace said. “Lennon literally has a smile on her face every single day. And every day when I wake up like you know, you wake up and you’re like, I’m a little pissed about something.
“This kid literally came back from death multiple times and she smiled every day like there’s nothing to complain about.” Grace has health insurance that has covered Lennon’s bills (including extra children’s insurance through the state of California), but has had lots of help from family and friends.
“There’s no way I could have made it through the whole thing without all of our friends and family, like offering help,” she said. “I was constantly in this state of, like, feeling awful. So, you know, so many times when my mom and our friends would be like, I’m gonna send you a meal, and I’d be like, that’s great, because I don’t think I’ve eaten in a day and a half.”
Grace is among over 40 contestants (of the original 113 who auditioned) to make to the next round of “American Idol,” which airs Sunday and Monday at 7 p.m. on ABC. You can see some of her “Idol” performances HERE and HERE.
She is next scheduled to play live at a music festival Aug. 20-22 in Chillicothe, Ill. (90 miles southeast of Moline).
To hear more of her music, visit https://altheagraceband.com/.