The singer-songwriter opens up about jumping into the world of comedy and changing perceptions on butch identity in her new show at Edinburgh Fringe, Butch Ado About Nothing

BY ANNIE CALLAHAN, IMAGE BY JOHN HELPS

Grace Petrie has always had the ability to work a crowd. Her soul-stirring stories and charming quips are slotted between her politically-powered acoustic folk tunes, making them a fundamental part of her live shows. Grace is best-known for her 2018 hit, Black Tie – a queer anthem chronicling her experiences of growing up as a butch lesbian. The Leicestershire singer talks to DIVA about opening up the conversation around butch identity through her new venture into comedy. 

DIVA: Hey Grace. How’s the vibe up there in Edinburgh? 

Grace: It’s lovely. It’s my first Fringe so I don’t have much to compare it to, but it’s just so nice being able to see stuff every day. As an artist, it’s very inspiring. 

It’s been a pretty big year for you. You opened for Hannah Gadsby at the Palladium, played Glasto and joined The Guilty Feminist tour down under. Have there been any “pinch yourself” moments?

All of it to be honest, particularly after the couple of years we’ve just had. Being able to get back to Australia was really amazing, because I was there when the pandemic hit. I’d just played some festivals and an amazing sold-out show in Sydney, and I was thinking “it doesn’t get any better than this”. Then 12 hours later it was the complete reverse of fortunes—a cancelled tour, emergency flights home and no idea if or when I’d ever gig again. It felt really special to return; after so long there was a big fear of “will people actually come back?” It’s amazing to have those big crowds together and think, “it is all still here”. It’s still quite emotional to be able to see that happening. 

You’re in the middle of your Edinburgh Fringe Festival run of your show, Butch Ado About Nothing. What we can expect from it?

The first thing I should say is that people can’t expect music! Branching out into comedy is a completely new thing for me. Butch Ado About Nothing is a comedy storytelling piece about butch identity and butch visibility, or lack thereof, and the place that butchness has in an exciting new world. Younger people are experimenting more than ever with gender categories and being more inclusive, and I talk about what that means for the places that butches traditionally had in the queer community, and in the world.

You said it’s a story you’ve needed to tell for a long time. When did the idea first form?

In some ways, I’ve been writing this story in my head for four or five years at the least really. I have a song that I released in 2018 called Black Tie which is my best-known song – it’s about growing up as a butch lesbian. The response to that song was really surprising to me because I thought I was singing about quite a niche experience. I didn’t think that that many people would relate to it, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Out of everything I’ve ever done, it’s the thing that people connected to the most, which was amazing. Over the next few years, I started to feel like there was more to say about this and maybe music wouldn’t be the best forum for it; there’s only so much you can get into a three or four-minute song. I felt like I hadn’t really finished the subject with the song, so it’s a continuation of Black Tie in some ways. 

How has the show been received?

I’ve been amazed at the response up here, it’s been really supportive. It’s quite an emotional story and there are parts of it that are not that easy to tell. I think the Fringe is a special atmosphere to share very personal and quite complicated ideas. With theatre, you can really translate something that’s very different from the audience member’s perspective. It’s really nice to do this show for a queer audience who relate to it, but in some ways it feels more productive to meet the ears of people who had subconscious negative biases about butch women. Having a chance to make them rethink that feels like it’s more useful. 

You said on Twitter that you were terrified at the thought of performing with no guitar. How are you finding that experience?

If anyone’s seen me do a gig, I do talk quite a lot between songs. I tell stories and I try and make the introductions funny. Over the years that’s just extended until somebody said to me, “you know you’re a real folk singer when the introductions get longer than the songs!” So I thought, I need to put my money where my mouth is. I wanted to see what happens if there’s no safety net of a guitar. It’s just me with nothing to hide behind. It’s been an amazing experience learning that I can do that. I’m full of admiration for comedians who do it all the time, but I’m really proud of myself for taking the leap. 

How did you find striking the balance between funny and serious, when talking about such an identity-centric topic? 

I think it is a funny balance. I’m talking about things that happen to me: being misgendered and how I’m received out in the world. I think finding the humour in the ridiculousness of it is quite cathartic. There’s a lot of it that really lends itself to comedic content, even though it’s really personal. I talk a lot [in the show] about the run-ins I’ve had with transphobes online, and repeating some of those interactions verbatim is very funny – sometimes it’s so patently ridiculous that it’s laughable in itself. It’s a universally acknowledged truth that comedy and tragedy are very close bedfellows, and I really enjoy being able to play those two emotions quite close to one another. I think you access a different piece of people’s hearts if you’ve made them laugh two minutes before, because they’re not expecting it. That’s the best way to make people sit up and reconsider a different point of view.

Is there any future for the show beyond Edinburgh?

The honest answer is I just don’t know at the moment. I feel like this story’s been fighting to get out of me for years; it’s a personal story very close to my heart and I’m really enjoying performing it at Edinburgh, and there’s part of me that likes the idea that I might never do anything like this again. Maybe that’s not what people who want it to tour are expecting to hear, but the honest answer at the moment is, who knows?

After your Fringe run, you’re straight back into music, with upcoming tours in the UK and Canada. Are you excited to get back to it?

One of the beautiful things about doing something different is having the chance to miss music – I’m normally never far away from doing a gig or playing a song. After being up here for a whole month, I really want to play the guitar again! 

Finally, what are your Fringe picks this year?

Molly Naylor, who directed my show, has a brilliant show at Summer Hall called Stop
Trying to be Fantastic. For any queer women in Edinburgh, Bloody Elle the musical is a
massive festival pick from me.

Grace Petrie’s show Butch Ado About Nothing is on every day at The Blue Room,
Assembly George Square in Edinburgh until 28 August. You can find out more
at tickets.edfringe.com.

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