“I can hold a mean grudge,” Ace Stiles said.
The 18-year-old Tulsa singer-songwriter has seen some rejection. While that may not be a rare experience for most young adults, few can say they’ve been turned down in front of millions of people. Stiles progressed to the televised audition rounds of American Idol’s 19th season. Despite being one of the featured contestants granted a backstory segment for the program and earning praise from the celebrity judges for his quirky charisma and budding artistic voice, he ultimately did not secure a ticket to Hollywood.
Nonetheless, Ace Stiles downplays the bitterness on his new debut EP, Grudge, which pulls from vocal jazz influences to enrich his city boy alt-pop style. As the title indicates, resentment is at the root of the five songs that comprise the release. However, he finds a way to grow his negative experiences into constructive themes of self-confidence and resilience. He transforms the titular grudge from a potentially destructive mindset into a motivating one.
“I try so hard to see the positive in things and be good,” Stiles said. “But it takes time and anger and annoyance and all the nice to get to sweet from sour.”
Though 2021’s American Idol experience is still fresh in his memory, enough time has passed that he can appreciate the positives. He learned a lot about the industry at a young age, met some great people, and recalls moments with production staff as lovely and friendly. Additionally, making it to television meant that Stiles immediately made fans of people he had never met. His episode segment currently sits at over 750,000 views on YouTube with thousands of encouraging comments.
Being this visible, however, has its drawbacks, especially for transgender people. American Idol was not shy about shining a light on Ace Stiles’ trans male identity, which some viewers praised but others criticized for virtue signaling. While he is happy to represent the trans community, the label has a tendency to overshadow other aspects of his art. It also attracts transphobia.
“I do get some off comments, and most people think I’m a lot younger than I am. People misgender me no matter how many statements I make,” Stiles said. “I just ignore most of those people and am lucky that online it has been easy to do so.”
Listening to Grudge, one can sense that Stiles has had to brush people off for a long time. Any shades of defiance in his lyrics come across as, if anything, aloof. Whether casually jabbing at toxic aspects of the entertainment industry or pitying the insecurities of those who can’t take his loud personality, he doesn’t spare more than a few breaths on naysayers. He has better things to do.
Much of the album happens into fruit metaphors, drawing comparisons to his flavorful personality and emotional growth. Opener “Mango Tree” is the clearest of the bunch with an angle about thriving outside of the entertainment industry’s exploitative practices. Instead of finding the fruits of others to squeeze life from, he creates life on the branches he extends elsewhere. As the first verse explains, “I planted seeds / In the people worth watering....And now I got sweet babies fallin’ all off of me.” Later tracks “Double Vision” and “Again” explore concepts of fruit as nourishment.
“It wasn’t intentional at the beginning, but as I was deciding what songs to put on the ep, I thought that it was a funny common theme,” Stiles said. “Fruit is deep. Like, there are so many metaphors for fruit. They can mean anything you want.”
The mix of tart and sweet also resounds in Grudge’s musical palette. Stiles sings in a smooth, nonchalant croon that occasionally dips into an expressive rasp when it is not floating into delicate vibrato. The studio band fills out the recordings with easy-going strains of soul, blues, jazz, and funk adding texture to the adult contemporary leanings of Grudge’s style.
These sounds are not far removed from those of musical theater, which is where Ace Stiles started his journey at the age of six. Here, he developed his stage chops before jumping into songwriting, and by age 15, he was frequenting open mics like that of Tulsa’s Gypsy Coffee House. One restriction, however, kept him from much of the rest of the local music scene.
“I was too young to truly get into it,” Stiles said. “How do you go to shows or play at a bar you’re too young to enter?”
American Idol, however, is open to contestants as young as 15 and as old as 29. As Stiles is still a few years away from drinking age, he could return to compete again, as some online comments have suggested. Some contestants have found success with that route, but Stiles seems disinterested now.
“It’s been like, two years, and I don’t think about it all that much,” Stiles said.
As a fully independent, unsigned artist, Stiles has a chance to explore the facets of his own artistic identity rather than have the industry thrust one upon him. Of late, this includes other mediums of expression as well. He has taken to visual arts on the side, recently having a collection of abstract paintings shown at TAC Gallery under the title Am I Angry, or Is This a Beautiful Moment.
That title captures much of what may come to be known as Stiles’s “grudge period.” While his career is still blooming and promises much change to come — he started on testosterone this year, which is already affecting how he writes for his voice — he has learned a lot in a short amount of time. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Grudge is the notion that simply casting off criticism and living one’s best life may be the sweetest revenge there is. That is what Ace Stiles is doing, and his creative fruits are as sweet as mango.