FOLK singer, lesbian and checked-shirt collector Grace Petrie has been incorrectly called “Sir” every day of her adult life, she says.
Now, after finally running out of subject matter for her “whiny songs”, she is putting down the guitar at the age of 36 to work out why in her debut stand-up show, Butch Ado About Nothing, as she returns to The Crescent in York on September 17.
Before then, her tour brings Grace to Old Woollen, in Farsley, Leeds, tonight (31/8/2023) and The Leadmill, Sheffield, on September 10.
“I’m definitely out of my comfort zone. Check in with me before the first show for how my nerves are!” she said on the eve of the tour kicking off. “The great thing with songs is that whether they’re good or not, people will clap, but if they don’t find a joke funny, they won’t laugh.
“I have to be honest and say that I’m bricking it much more than with my folk gigs, but it’s good to challenge myself.”
What’s more, Grace has “had a front-row seat for a masterclass in comedy”, from supporting comedians on tour. “I’ve learnt to develop that between-song patter, which I came to enjoy, and as those introductions got longer and longer, I thought, ‘well, I better put my money where my mouth is’ [by doing stand-up].
“Billy Bragg is a huge inspiration, and so was Billy Connolly, who set out to be a folk musician. Victoria Wood too.”
Finding herself mired in an age of incessantly and increasingly fraught gender politics, the Norwich-based Leicester native set about exploring what butch identity means in a world moving beyond labels, pondering where both that identity and she belong in the new frontline of queer liberation.
“I first did the show at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and was really passionate that I wanted to do it in a different way, with no music, over a month of shows,” says Grace.
“I’ve been writing in the months since then because of the need to update it, though it’s basically an autobiographical show, so I guess the bare bones don’t change as it’s about my experiences as a butch woman moving in a patriarchal world and how it treats women who don’t fit into that world.”
In her suits, her hair cropped with a neat side parting, the daily occurrence of being called “Sir” troubled Grace when she was younger, but “I have got used to it,” she says. “It made a change being greeted with ‘monsieur’ at the airport when I was in Canada recently!” she says.
That put a smile on her face, and her show has been doing likewise for her audiences. “I would hope it’s a show for anybody. All kinds of people came to see it in Edinburgh, though there is the draw for queer audiences and especially butch audiences, but I’ve also had messages from straight blokes saying, ‘you gave me something to think about’,” says Grace,
“The best comedy is the comedy that stays with you and makes you think. That’s always what I want to do, whether in concerts or comedy, when you’re trying to put across ideas, you could lecture someone with facts, but if you move someone emotionally, that’s far more powerful.”
Freed from her guitar, reliant on the spoken word, Grace has found her performing style changing too after 15 years on the folk circuit in her transition to comedy. “It’s not only the voice, but also the body, and how you use it on stage, when you’re not playing the guitar,” she says.
“It’s funny how there are a million things that affect how a show will be before you’ve even set foot on stage – and it’s also been amazing how different comedy audiences are, just in terms of expectations, in terms of calling out.
“At a music show, you’re encouraging them to sing along, but at a comedy gig, noise can be derailing, so I have to think about how I use my body, how I use the microphone, and I’ve learned a huge amount being in front of audiences about to control the show.”
For the tour, Grace has chosen to play smaller rooms than she would for her concerts. “That’s deliberate, because comedy is a more intimate artform, where you need people to see your face and your mannerisms,” she reasons.
“Performing the Edinburgh shows last year, the biggest benefit was in facing my fear of doing stand-up. At the end of the day, the worst thing people can do is not laugh. That can happen and it can feel brutal, but you just have to get up and do it again. You just have to go back to the same room, the same stage, and do it again.”
John-Luke Roberts, Grace’s comedian friend, gave her a piece of advice. ” He said that making people laugh is an emotion and it’s no different to any other emotion in that way,” she says.
How Grace triggers that emotion, in a show directed by her partner, fellow performer and writer Molly Naylor, is through a combination of long-form stories and gag-heavy sections.
Over 15 years, she has enjoyed “many wonderful gigs in York”, from the smallest room at the Black Swan Inn to The Crescent and York Barbican. “I would say my favourite visit was when I did a tour of Labour marginal seats in 2019 and we did one for York Outer with York spoken-word performer Henry Raby at the Crescent,” says Grace. “That was was a really barnstorming, fist-pumping night!”
Butch Ado About Nothing presents her in a different guise on her return there, but looking ahead, she will not be putting her guitar to bed for good. Far from it. “I’ll be recording a new album in October,” she reveals.
Her transition to stand-up is not the only move that Grace has been making. “I’ve bought a house in Sheffield,” she says. “I love Sheffield! I managed one term of studying a course to do with youth work and counselling but it was a bit of Mickey Mouse degree, so I sacked it off, but got a job and stayed there for three years. Now I’m back.”
Burning Duck Comedy Club presents Grace Petrie: Butch Ado About Nothing, The Crescent, York, September 17, 7.30pm, SOLD OUT. Also plays Old Woollen, Farsley, Leeds, August 31, 8pm, and The Leadmill, Sheffield, September 10 7.30pm. Box office: gracepetrie.com; York, thecrescentyork.com; Leeds, oldwoollen.co.uk; Sheffield, leadmill.co.uk.
Did you know?
GRACE Petrie is a swimming enthusiast, swimming each day during last year’s Edinburgh Fringe run, for example. Her sea water publicity photos were shot at Happisburgh, on the Norfolk coast.
Did you know too?
GRACE appeared on The Guilty Feminist bill, a live offshoot from the irreverent podcast series, hosted by Deborah Frances-White at York Barbican in May 2022. Part comedy, part deep-dive discussion and part activism, the show “examined our noble goals as 21st-century feminists and our hypocrisies and insecurities that undermine those goals”.