In 1978, Kate Bush became the first solo woman to reach No. 1 in the U.K. with a song she wrote, produced and performed entirely by herself with “Wuthering Heights.” Forty-five years later, in October, dancepop artist Kenya Grace joined her as the second to pull off the feat with the quietly devastating “Strangers,” her major-label debut single.

“There wasn’t too much pressure on that song, to be honest,” Grace says. “I didn’t really have some mad goal in mind — I just wrote it one random night.”

For Grace, 25, that kind of writing experience is the result of skills she’s been honing her entire life: she began creating and performing songs for friends and family at age four, inspired by Norah Jones tracks that her mother would play around the house. By 16, the South Africa-born, Southampton-raised singer was frequenting drum’n’bass parties, baptizing herself in the energy of the U.K. dance music scene that would soon characterize the sound of her own music. “When I start writing something at 120 BPM, I’m like, ‘No, it’s way too slow,’” she quips.

She graduated from London’s Academy of Contemporary Music in 2019 — an institution she likens to a massive networking event — and spent the next few years building an audience on TikTok. Even from her initial videos, Grace displayed a deft understanding of how to present her music, including one clip in which she crafted a beat by using her music production controller to source sound waves from oranges.

The post caught the attention of Day One Music’s Nick Huggett and Nick Shymansky, who have signed and developed British music icons including Amy Winehouse and Adele. By November 2022, two months after she self-released the aptly titled “Oranges,” the two were managing Grace. “We’re seeing someone with a craft [who] knows how to sing and command an audience,” Shymansky says. “We’ve got someone that has earned their stripes and is ready to take on the world.”

They prioritized growing her fan base on an international level, and by July, the two helped her sign a deal with Major Recordings, an electronic dance music label launched by Warner Records. “We knew early on that more than half of her audience was in America; it’s not a coincidence the deal was signed there,” Shymansky says. “We had offers for shows in Los Angeles prior to ‘Strangers’ — that’s not typical for a British artist at such an early stage.”

Kenya Grace photographed on November 20, 2023 at SOUTH56 studio in London.

Bex Day

The partnership quickly paid huge dividends in “Strangers” — though a different song nearly took its spot. “I signed my deal about two weeks before I posted [a snippet of] ‘Strangers’ online,” Grace recalls. “The month before that, we were lining up a different song,” which ultimately became its follow-up single, “Only In My Mind.”

Nonetheless, when a teaser of “Strangers” connected with listeners on a musical and lyrical level, the label pivoted, with Grace still meticulously poring over the song’s final mix. “I was rewriting the lyrics to make it rhyme,” she says. “I’m always really funny and picky about vocal production. I spend the longest on the vocals.”

Sonically, the song is steeped in drum’n’bass and aligns with the current U.K. dance music revival in the U.S. led by artists like Fred Again.. and PinkPantheress. The song’s vulnerable lyrical bent (“And then one random night when everything changes/You won’t reply and we’ll go back to strangers”) plays to Gen Z’s penchant for unflinchingly honest pop songwriting.

Though Grace admits feeling pressure ahead of its release, “Strangers” officially arrived through Warner Records/Major Recordings on Sept. 1. By the end of the month, it became her first entry on the Hot 100 (since reaching a No. 52 high). The track has also climbed to No. 1 in the U.K.; reached the top 5 on the Billboard Global 200; and spent five weeks atop Hot Dance/Electronic Songs, marking the first time in the ranking’s decade-long history that a track solely written, produced and sung by a woman has reached the summit.

Says Huggett: “We had no expectations other than, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if this did better than the last release, which was really nowhere near there?’ That was the benchmark. Every time we put out some music, we want to improve on it incrementally.”

While social media helped buoy “Strangers,” the resources of a traditional label drove the song at radio and helped place it on editorial playlists on digital service providers. The song has earned 773.7 million on-demand streams through Nov. 23, according to Luminate. “The label used this explosive moment to make sure there’s a proper campaign globally,” says Huggett. “We’ve been blown away with how brilliantly the label has worked the record with their understanding of the complexity of radio and traditional media.”

In October, Grace released the trance-driven “Only In My Mind,” and three weeks later, followed it with a “sad acoustic version” of “Strangers” as the song continues to chart. At the top of December, she detailed a biting take on modern love with “Paris” and, come 2024, she expects to release her “dark, moody [and] dance-inspired” debut album.

In the meantime, she’s on her first tour, with stops in London, New York and Los Angeles — though Shymansky has his sights set on even brighter lights: a Las Vegas residency 10 years from now. “There’s a long road to get there, but we think she has the goods to do that,” he says. “That’s gotta be the ambition.”

Kenya Grace, Chartbreaker

From left: Nick Huggett, Kenya Grace and Nicholas Shymansky photographed on November 20, 2023 at SOUTH56 studio in London.

Bex Day

A version of this story will appear in the Dec. 9, 2023, issue of Billboard.

Josh Glicksman
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