|Fiona Grey at Du-par's in Studio City
12036 Ventura Blvd., Studio City
One might not expect a nearly 70-year-old diner to be the usual haunt of an L.A.-based singer-songwriter, model and actress who is just barely out of her teens, but Du-par’s being Fiona Grey’s favorite place in the city isn’t the only surprise the on-the-rise performer has up her sleeve.
“I love things that are kind of grimy and dirty but also really classic. If I was restaurant, I would be a diner,” she says. “The best kind have been there for so long, have so much history. You feel at home, it’s safe, there’s no judgment. It’s come one, come all – a mixture of a lot of lost people.”
The Studio City Du-par’s – where David Lynch came up with the idea for “Twin Peaks” and scenes for 1983’s Valley Girl were filmed – is certainly always an interesting mix of patrons, even in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Fiona usually comes here late at night, though.
“I come here after shows, or my friend [photographer Chase R. McCurdy] and I will do photoshoots together and come to Du-par’s after. We shoot more at Du-par’s and end up only liking the photos from here. I have a lot of photos on that stairway and in my booth, which is way in the back because it’s where I draw the least amount of attention because I’m always doing something absurd,” she laughs. “It has that old-school diner vibe and is one of the few places that’s open 24 hours. I like consistently going to places where I feel comfortable and know the people. I know all of the graveyard shift staff here; it’s nice to see friendly faces at the end of a night.”
While the 20-year-old indie pop songstress is as fun and quick to smile as her latest single, the infectious and highly danceable “What You Want,” would lead you to believe, she also exudes a confidence, eloquence and wisdom of someone far beyond her age. Perhaps this maturity is a result of having spent the better part of the past decade dividing her time between Los Angeles and her native Chicago.
“I’ve been here a little over 10 years. My parents are based in Chicago, so I always went back and forth a lot and feel like I’m equal parts Chicago and L.A. I feel like the Midwest girl in L.A., but when I’m in Chicago, I feel like the L.A. girl,” she says. “The nice thing about not coming to L.A. as an adult is the things that would be terrifying aren’t. I give people who graduate from high school and then move to L.A. a lot of credit because they don’t have the foundation I’m so blessed to already have. Obviously I’m still growing and learning but to start establishing myself before I was an adult was less daunting. No matter what it’s daunting, but less daunting for sure. I’m thankful for that.”
Growing up with two parents working in the arts (Her dad, Ralph Covert, is a Grammy-nominated musician and frontman of the Bad Examples, while her mom, Cathy Schenkelberg, is an established actress and voice-actress.) opened Fiona’s eyes to the good and bad of the industry.
“Both my parents have gone through the highs and lows of being an artist. Watching what they did, I would have never gotten into this industry, but I watched it and loved it enough to say that I can put up with all the crap. Nothing was easy, and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I work for success and longevity – I don’t work for fleeting fame. I want to be able to send my kids to college on the money I make from music. This is fun and I love it, but it’s a job, a job that I’m passionate about. If anything, my parents were like, ‘Love what you do, but don’t love it like you would a hobby. And, know what you’re getting yourself into, be prepared for the highs and lows,” she says. “That’s the most important thing because I know so many people that expect. The best songwriters and artists are locked up in their rooms writing the best songs that we’ll never hear, but I don’t want to be them. I want to work on my craft but be smart enough to find ways to get my music out there, to build it as a business – that’s what my parents taught me.”
Naturally, the arts were a constant in Fiona’s childhood, but she wasn’t raised on your typical Disney fare. Rather, she grew up watching Sabrina, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot. She dressed up as Marilyn Monroe for Halloween and thought every girl wanted to be Jane Russell when she grew up.
She began writing songs quite early on, becoming an ASCAP member at age 7, yet she only shared her music within the comfort of her own home until she found a safe haven at L.A. County High School for the Arts (LACHSA).
“Like any high schooler or middle schooler knows, you spend a lot of time just trying to somehow fit in, and when you don’t, there’s usually a reason. It’s not because you suck, you’re just different than the other kids,” she says. “It wasn’t until I was in arts school, where it was cool to be different, that I felt comfortable enough to be my own artist.”
It was around age 17 when Fiona released her first EP, Striped Heart, and started playing shows in and around Los Angeles. When she asks me where I’m from, she is excited to hear “Orange County” since Laguna Beach was one of the first places she performed.
“I did a Sunset Serenade in Laguna Beach, and there must have been 150 people because all the locals come. People in Laguna have so much respect for music compared to L.A. where we’re a bit oversaturated. It was such fun, playing for a crowd that I had to win over,” she recalls. “Playing for 150 people who love you is great, but it’s not as much work. I much prefer playing for new crowds, that’s why I love opening for bands. It’s a chance for you to freak out their fans. Either they love it or they’re like, ‘This isn’t for me,’ but how else do you grow your fanbase unless you get out in front of new faces?”
Fiona had the chance to open for the likes of Charlie XCX, Foals and Liz on tour as a backing vocalist for L.A. indie rockers Kitten last year.
“Being behind the frontwoman as a part of the band and not being the star was a chance for me to be on the sidelines and observe. I was in the environment that I wanted to be in, learning and seeing what actually happens. It was important for me to experience,” she says. “When I was a kid I would go on tours with my dad, so that was another chance to get as much inside information as I could. You can read a million books on touring, but until you’re on the road, you don’t really know what goes on.”
Fiona released her sophomore EP, Belladonna, in 2014 as well. It was a year that she really came into her own as an artist.
“The thing about touring and the timing of it was that it came two months after my deferred year. When you’re the most unhappy and confused, you try to do too much to distract yourself. I was taking too many classes in film, acting, music – nothing was focused. I was keeping myself busy so I wouldn’t realize how miserable I was. I went on the Kitten tour, and the best part was that I had to sit with myself for eight to 10 hours as we drove to different venues. I would just look out the window thinking, ‘What are you doing? This is where you want to be.’ I had tons of pots boiling, and once I saw one boiling faster than the others I said, ‘I’m going to put these on low simmer and put my energy in the one pot. I’ll have a chance to do the other things,’ and I have. With music, I go out on auditions and book things. It’s awesome.”
One of those jobs she booked was a role on ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth,” which she filmed over the summer. For now, though, her main focus is music. Fiona really feels like it was blessing when she realized that she could actually incorporate all of the art forms she loved into her music career.
“I wanted to be a musical theater performer and an actor. I’ve written screenplays and produced short films. I realized as an independent pop artist I could do all of these things: produce my own music videos, my performances could feel like musical theater shows with dancers and costumes [that she designs],” she says. “I incorporate all of my loves into this one thing that is me. It was such a turning point in my life. You don’t have to choose, just put them all into a blender and mix it all up.”
Fiona has a fabulous sense of style, as illustrated in her performances, music videos and Instagram, so I, of course, have to ask her about her favorite places to shop in Los Angeles.
“I love Melrose flea market. I’m a big believer in not spending more than $5 on anything except for staple items. I save up and spend money on all the statement pieces I have, but the fun thing about thrifting is that you’re finding something for a really good deal. It’s less about name brands and more about how clothes fit you. I like finding pieces that people wouldn’t like and making them my own. There are a lot of simple pieces that you can buy and embellish,” she offers. “As far as specific shops: St. Vincent’s is a good one; you can find good things at Wasteland, but sometimes it’s too expensive; and any Jewish Council Thrift Shop is great. I love eBay, too. I just bought this crazy leopard jacket for 99 cents.”
Our waiter brings some coffee and a piece of boysenberry pie to share, and Fiona describes her usual order with me.
“Du-par’s is definitely my place to go have a coffee and pie at 2 a.m., so I feel like home right now. I’m a berry girl. I can’t really eat gluten, but I do it. They have the best Corned Beef Hash here, too. I love food,” she confesses with a laugh. “I want to be on ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.’ I want to go with him [Guy Fieri] into all the kitchens!”
She loves diners so much that she would love to do some pop-up shows in diners across the nation. She actually just did one at the Peppermill in Las Vegas.
“Each diner has its own personality. I love Canter’s and Swingers, but I always come to this Du-par’s since it’s close to my house. The likelihood of me doing a pop-up show here is very high,” she says with a mischievous grin. “I like to freak people out a little too much. I have no problem with just belting out when no one expects me to, and I love the unknown of ‘are they going to stop me?’ I was prepared to get dragged out of Peppermill, but they didn’t. At the very end of our second song they said, ‘We can’t have you doing that,’ so I said, ‘OK, we finished our two songs!’ In a dreamworld, if I was on tour, I would play the shows then pop up somewhere at 2 a.m., do two acoustic songs and then all my friends, family, fans and I could just eat breakfast food, pie and coffee.”
After spending so much time in Los Angeles over the past 10 years, Fiona has come to love her second hometown for all it is.
“In California, we have so many powerful, kickass women, and you don’t see that everywhere you go. You do not see as many women who create empires as you do here; that’s so inspiring to me,” she says. “Most of things that people hate about L.A., I think are the funniest and the best. Traffic sucks, but there’s something to be said for having quiet time. I like to twist everything, because it could be worse.”
It’s that positivity and upbeat attitude that make me believe that Fiona has exactly what it takes to succeed in whatever field she pursues. She is releasing another single in a couple of months, and it promises to reveal yet another layer of the young artist.
“I’m really excited about the next single. There are two different sides to me: the side that wants to dance around and sing pop songs with you, and then there’s the cinematic storyteller. They intertwine a lot, but one is more mellow, darker. This song is a synth-y pop song about excess, money and falling in love with money,” she says. “If it was a photo, I would want it to be a highly specific Helmut Newton photo that I love and was highly inspired by. The photo suggests so much, but there’s still a lot that is unknown about what’s going on. The song’s coming out in a few months, and we’re doing the music video for it now.”
She says that an EP and a tour are also in store for 2016. So next time you’re enjoying a post-concert cup of coffee and piece of pie at your local diner, be on the lookout for Fiona Grey.
"What You Want" is currently available. Fiona Grey performs Nov. 16 at Hunnypot Radio’s 10th Anniversary at the Mint. For more information, visit fionagreymusic.com.