Musician Danielle Grubb Is Learning to Be Happy on Earth

Danielle Grubb dreams of outer space but is grateful for her spot on Earth.
Danielle Grubb dreams of outer space but is grateful for her spot on Earth. Rebekah Hedges

There's a piano in the rec room at Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital in New York. It took musician Danielle Grubb a few days to find it, but eventually, she did. In the winter of 2017, Grubb was staying at the hospital following a psychotic break. Eventually, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Her dreams of becoming an astronaut were destroyed, but she still had the piano, and she played it every day.

The doctors and hospital staff started whispering about the patient with a penchant for piano. One staff member, intrigued by Grubb’s talent, approached the musician, pulled up songs on his iPhone, and asked her if she could play them. She could, and she did.

The rec room also had a window. “A small one,” Grubb says. At night, if you squinted and tilted your head just the right way, you could still see the stars.

As a kid, Grubb wanted to fly among those stars and map new astronomical terrain. Her hero was Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space. Every night, she would look up at the vast expanse of star-spotted darkness above her, and tell herself that one day she would be up there.

Grubb, who's now 27 and back home in Dallas, maintains a strict daily routine. She drinks some coffee, does some yoga, then begins ticking off her own list. She has a weekly goal (a recent example: “Mix a record”) and three tasks she needs to complete to meet that goal. She tries to stay organized and stay on schedule, and if she ever starts to worry, she stops, closes her eyes and just breathes. The stars are there for her, too. She’ll walk into her backyard, look toward the sky and start to dream, if only just for one second. Then, she’ll get back to work.

Grubb makes indie rock music tinged with soul, blues and pop. Her songs sound like well-produced transmissions from a rock 'n' roll party in space. Sometimes they are suffused with well-crafted pop sensibilities (see: “Undone”). Other times her heartrending tunes capture how it feels to be lost, listless or longing for love (see: “Under Your Skin”).

When she was in her teens, Grubb was torn between life as an astronaut and life as a musician. Her father, an engineer and ardent music fan, encouraged both of her passions.

“I was the math and science kid, but I also loved writing,” she says. “And I was obsessed with space.”

When she was 14, Grubb got the chance to meet her hero. Her family took her to Waco, where Jemison was signing books. Grubb waited patiently in line, then handed the astronaut a copy to sign.

“She wrote just one word in it,” Grubb recalls. “It said, ‘Purpose.’”

Grubb had no idea what it meant, nor does she know now. Nevertheless, the word stuck with her.

In high school, at the arts magnet Booker T. Washington, Grubb honed her craft in music while privately pursuing her astronomical interests. After a long day, she would explore the stars through dusty textbooks, or navigate the nooks and crannies of the galaxy via Wi-Fi. Her two interests would eventually merge: She has albums with names like Venus, Saturn, Pluto I and Pluto II.

“Something was happening with Pluto whenever I wrote that,” she says of the record.

People who meet Grubb are often surprised to learn about her budding music career. The singer is reserved; Grubb loves her friends fiercely, but is often shy when meeting new people.

“When Danielle told me about their music, I was like, ‘Oh, OK. Cool. I’m sure it’s nice,’” says drummer Jace Allmon, who eventually joined Grubb’s backing band. “Then I heard it, and I remember thinking, ‘This is you?’” He couldn’t believe that Grubb, a quiet, bookish, bespectacled Texas kid, created something that sounded so soulful.

Grubb met Allmon in New York City. The two musicians worked at BrandNewNoise, a company that makes recording gadgets, while Grubb studied music and sound production at SUNY Purchase.

“My brand used to be lovesick; now it’s love. I want to celebrate emotions.” — Danielle Grubb

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“Everyone says this about their musician friends, but Danielle is the most humble, hardworking person you’ll ever meet,” says Allmon.

After graduating from SUNY Purchase in 2015, Grubb worked at Gravesend Recordings in Brooklyn and maintained a residency at Arlene’s Grocery, a Manhattan bodega-turned-music-venue frequented by local hipsters. The stars were brighter in New York nights, but they were often obscured by Manhattan’s looming skyscrapers. Space seemed out of reach. Then, practically overnight, the dream of life as an astronaut was snatched away from Grubb.

She is fuzzy on the details, but she knows her friends admitted her to the hospital. “You’re acting strange,” they told Grubb. “You need help.”

The first few days at the hospital in New Rochelle still feel dark and out of reach, like the space beyond the skyscrapers.

“I had basically no idea where I was,” she says. “I talked to a few people. They ask you questions, they give you a room. They don’t tell you why you were brought in, but they tell you it’s the best place for you.”

She did her best to go to group therapies and picked up yoga and meditation. The hospital offered art therapy, so Grubb colored and crafted poetry. Then she found the piano, a tiny, cobwebbed Casio tucked away in a corner in the rec room.

“For the most part, I would sit very quietly at the piano,” she says. “And I would play.”

After a few weeks at the hospital, Grubb was released into the care of her family. She returned to Dallas and continued to play music. Thanks to therapy and new friends, she started tapping into a new sound.

“On the new record, you'll hear it,” she says of her forthcoming release. “My brand used to be lovesick, now it’s love. I want to celebrate emotions.”

For the new album, The Emancipation of Jameson Roye, Grubb teamed up with Dallas writers like Alexis Inglehart, who co-wrote two songs and helped with vocal production on a third.

“Writing with Danielle is like taking six shots of espresso, then drinking two glasses of wine,” Inglehart says. “We bounce around ideas, bang on the drums and shout ideas into the void.”

Inglehart is also quick to disavow any notion that Grubb is not disciplined. The singer will pore over lyrics, she says, and spend hours dissecting seemingly minuscule elements of a song.

“Danielle is very meticulous,” she says. “But sometimes you have to get a little wild, a little emotional.”

The Emancipation of Jameson Roye is Grubb’s most buoyant, hopeful work yet. It’s pop rock with a bluesy hue that will satisfy fans of artists like Brittany Howard. The album might also be Grubb’s most personal work thus far, as evidenced by its earthbound title: Roye is her mother’s maiden name, and Grubb pulled the name “Jameson” from the short fiction tales she penned as a child.

“Anytime I would write myself into fiction, I’d give myself the name ‘Jameson,’” she explains.

For this album, Grubb wanted to do something a little different. Through hints and riddles on Instagram, she has teased fans with a pre-release streaming link. If you guess the password, you get to listen to the album months before anyone else. Thus far, only a few people have guessed the correct password.

“I think it’s starting to frustrate some people,” Grubb says, laughing deviously. “Maybe I’ll have to go easier on them.”

Often, she still finds herself looking skyward, exploring the universe from her own backyard. Yet she does not seem too saddened by the reality that she can never be an astronaut. When she talks about it, she is brief and matter-of-fact.

“They don’t let you be an astronaut if you have a mental illness,” she says calmly. But she is not ready to give up on space. Grubb still flirts with the idea of dusting off the old astronomy textbooks and going back to school to become a full-time researcher. Maybe she’ll just continue to make music; maybe she’ll do both. For now, she is happy where she is.

“We have such a lucky setup on Earth,” she says, brimming with reverence. “We have a sweet spot for where life can grow.”

Grubb recalls driving home after a recent show at Babb Brothers, a barbecue joint and music venue. During the days leading up to the show, she had a feeling she couldn’t shake or explain.

“I think I was feeling a little bit worried and unsure,” she says in retrospect. After every show, she thinks about the people she saw, the things they said, the things she said.

“It’s weird, because you’ve done this thing where you’ve created a gathering,” she says. “We got all of this shit going on here on Earth, and people chose to come to my show.”

As she drove home, Grubb couldn’t help it: She looked up. The stars were out, and if you squinted and tilted your head just the right way, it almost looked like they were trying to touch the ground.
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Tyler Hicks was born in Austin, but he grew up in Dallas. He typically claims one or the other, depending on which is most convenient. His work has appeared in Texas Monthly, Truthout, The Texas Observer and many other publications.
Contact: Tyler Hicks