Grace Darling was a recording duo based in San Francisco. Comprised of composer/instrumentalist, grEGORy simpson and vocalist, Val Martino, they were active between 1989 and 1994. Grace Darling released three albums, and appeared on several compilation albums.
In 1989, I placed an ad in an urban San Francisco newspaper for a “female vocal contortionist.” Over the next several weeks, I auditioned an immense quantity of hairspray and spandex but precious little actual talent. Sprinkled amongst the rock star wannabes were several visits from various angry women — each of whom dropped by solely to condemn me for using the word “contortionist” in an ad. Dejected by the outcome, I was on the verge of abandoning the whole “duo” idea and returning to the instrumental world from which I came. It was then that Val Martino walked into my studio. She sported a spandex-free wardrobe and naturally flowing hair. She joked about the fact I was looking for a “vocal contortionist” and not “just” a singer. When she stepped up to the mic, what emerged was a voice more fabulous and flexible than even my dreams had allowed.
I had previously decided not to compose any new material until I found a singer. I believed it would be necessary to craft songs that would highlight whatever unique character or nuance my future vocalist possessed. It was a solid plan but, in Val’s case, an unnecessary one — I quickly discovered it was nigh impossible for me to write anything that exceeded her vocal grasp. Her adaptability actually proved to be a bit problematic for me in the early days, because without any obvious limitations, I couldn’t really decide what direction to take. We spent the bulk of 1989 experimenting in the studio, and recording a widely diverse selection of songs that crossed multiple genres. By the end of 1989, we had no real identity and had yet to form a cohesive musical vision. And, like most upstart bands, we were also void of a name.
Loathe to mass mail demo tapes to hundreds of record companies, I opted to send tapes to only those labels I most admired—naively assuming that if I liked the artists on a label, then that label would like me. My demo mailing list contained just two companies: 4AD and C’est La Mort. To complicate matters, Val and I still couldn’t settle on a name, so I chose to send each demo tape out under a completely different moniker. Somehow, this hopelessly misguided strategy worked.
Woodrow Dumas, owner of C’est La Mort Records, called me in early 1990 and said that his wife kept stealing our demo tapes for her car. Woodrow wasn’t sold, but his wife was. I found out what songs Woodrow’s wife liked best, then began to craft other songs I thought she’d like. This unabashed attempt to get signed by appealing to the label-owner’s wife was the catalyst for the preponderance of “softer” songs that would later become synonymous with Grace Darling. As we recorded each new song, I would send it (under a different band name) to C’est La Mort and wait for Woodrow’s wife to work her magic.
Fate, Destiny, and Dumb Luck
Woodrow was on the fence about us, so I decided to shift tactics and land a record deal by covering an old, but recognizable song — but which one? I’d recently been suffering from a bit of a Leslie Gore obsession, so I decided to work up a version of her 1963 hit, “You Don’t Own Me.” Midway through the recording process, Woodrow called and said that C’est La Mort was thinking about a compilation CD of cover songs, and he had this sudden inspiration that we should do a cover version of “You Don’t Own Me.” A billion songs in this world, and Woodrow and I — without any knowledge of each other’s plans — had chosen the exact same tactic and song for the band. Fate? Destiny? Dumb luck? Who knows? But with this moment of sublime serendipity, the band had made it to the inner circle of C’est La Mort.
Unfortunately, C’est La Mort never released that covers album (or our version of “You Don’t Own Me”), but they were releasing the next installment of their popular Doctor Death’s compilation series. The CD had already gone to press, but Woodrow requested use of “Sleep Knows No Melody” to appear as a “bonus track” on the cassette release. Now all the band needed was a name.
Within days, I took a call from an excited Woodrow, proudly exclaiming, “We’ve got your name!” He then proceeded to tell how he and his wife were watching a documentary on famous lighthouse stories. One of the stories involved a British lighthouse keeper’s daughter who rescued some sailors from a shipwreck and became a legend. That girl’s name was Grace Darling. Woodrow said he and his wife turned to each other and simultaneously shouted, “That’s the name for that band!”
Val, before adopting an assumed name, thought it wise to read a biography about Grace Darling, so she borrowed a book from the library. On the cover of that book was a painting of Grace Darling in a row boat…
For many years previous to these events, I was a regular fixture at the San Francisco Brewing Company in North Beach. If at all possible, I always sat at the same table – the one under what I frequently referred to as, “the painting of some girl in a rowboat.” Yes, it was the same painting. It was Grace Darling under whom I sat for those many years — never once knowing the identity of the “girl in the rowboat” or that she and I would become forever linked. Val and I went to the bar, toasted the painting of Grace Darling, and adopted her name.
– grEGORy simpson
POSTSCRIPT: That wonderful streak of luck ended subsequent to the release of our second album, when another artist chose to release a record under the name “Grace Darling.” I have no idea who she is or how she got away with recording under our name, but if you see a “Grace Darling” album that doesn’t appear on this website, it’s not us. I’ve already received enough hate mail from people who purchased that album, thinking it was some long lost “Grace Darling” album, only to discover it had nothing to do with my band. Also, if you see any references to “Grace Darling” being a rap act on various online music sites, please ignore them. We are most definitely not a rap “band.” But in spite of repeated efforts to get these online catalogs properly updated, I was rebuked as having “no authority” to change the band’s bio. I’m not sure how it’s possible that someone who comprised one-half of the band, played every instrument, and who wrote most of the music could be thwarted from correcting inaccuracies about the band. But there you have it. Silly world, isn’t it?