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Gretta Ray On Heartache, Growing Up & Life Advice From Gang of Youths

Melbourne singer Gretta Ray pairs her soul-bearing songwriting with a fresh and shiny pop sound on her debut record Begin To Look Around.

The now 23-year-old wrote the album between the ages of 19 and 21, chronicling formative moments of heartbreak, friendship, self-discovery and adventure. But only once she had pieced the tracks together did Ray realise that she had created a coming of age record.

Begin To Look Around is home to a layered narrative, which Ray gave room to breathe through her staggered release strategy. Rather than dropping the entire record at once, she released most of the songs in three thematic pairs titled Duology One, Two and Three. First was the romantic and hopeful ‘Bigger Than Me’ and ‘Readymade’, then the intense ‘Human’ and ‘Passion’ and finally the heartstring pullers ‘Cherish’ and ‘The Brink’.

Not only did this give fans space to connect with each song, but it also slowly introduced them to the sonic shift they could expect from the rest of the record. Flexing huge hooks and singable choruses polished with pop production, it’s a slight but natural departure from the indie-folk musings on her first two EPs Elsewhere (2016) and Here And Now (2018).

Drawing inspiration from pop powerhouses like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Julia Michaels, Ray experimented with pop formula while continuing to perfect her lyrical dexterity. This skill is encapsulated gorgeously on the climactic track ‘Wordly-wise’, which includes production by her pals Gang of Youths and a helluva vocal cameo from their frontman Dave Le’aupepe.

Begin To Look Around is a thoughtfully crafted celebration of life, change and music that proves Ray is one of Australia’s most exciting young artists to watch. Music Feeds caught up with Gretta Ray over Zoom to chat about the new record, collaborating with Gang of Youths and embracing her passion for pop.

MF: Hey Gretta! How are you going in lockdown right now?

Gretta Ray: Yeah, it’s tough. I don’t know how to feel about it. I had a little bit of a cry yesterday when I realised there were cases. I’m like, “We’ll be in lockdown, like within the hours” which is definitely what happened. It’s tough. But I mean, for the most part, I think that this is a scary variant and I want everyone to be safe. So, the best thing to do is just to be safe. And you know, we’ll get through it. We’ll all be vaccinated, eventually.

MF: How’ve you been spending your days in lockdown? It must feel surreal to have something as exciting as an album coming out while you’re stuck at home.

GR: My lockdown habits include eating a lot of good food and I like to journal a lot. I do this practice called morning pages, which is a type of stream of consciousness writing in the morning.

I like to go to Merri Creek and to CERES because their groceries are still open. So I’ll go get a takeaway coffee, go for a walk and then for the most part, I’m pretty busy with admin stuff at the moment. So I’m usually in front of my computer a lot anyway. I think that I have a relatively good system. I also live with my parents and my little sister, and they’re all very independent and do their own little projects and things.

MF: That sounds very wholesome. Has it been tough getting the record ready going in and out of lockdown?

GR: Yeah, to a point. I’m pretty used to it now. This whole album has just been shocking. It’s kind of just the nature of the thing at this point. I think what I’m really grateful for is the fact that I am really fortunate to have been an established artist pre-COVID. That means that there’s an audience there and a lot of them have been to shows before so they kind of have insight into that.

There are artists that are emerging right now that haven’t even gotten a chance to do anything to meet any of their audience and thank them in person yet. And when I saw that BIGSOUND was cancelled, I was devastated because that’s the place where so many of those initial connections happen. That’s where the artists that are going to blow everyone away are born at those live shows.

I just want to be able to find ways to support those kinds of artists, which is why I think what Jack Rivers is doing right now with her new initiative is so fantastic. So I think you just have to be grateful for what you can do rather than ruminate on what you can’t do.

MF: Since it has been a bit of a rollercoaster to get here, how does it feel now that the record is almost out?

GR: Oh, man. Pretty surreal! It’s interesting talking to people about the record now who are outside of my initial team. People who have the record and have listened to it, have opinions about the songs and have heard the narrative in full. To me, that is crazy and really, really exciting. It’s definitely a story that I’ve been wanting to tell for a while.

As a result of the pandemic, it’s a little dated now, I guess. But it’s also really nice to go back in time, in a sense and watch people be with the songs for the first time, and how those songs become theirs instead of mine. I think I’m just excited to hear what people think of it. And when it’s safe and when we can, to hopefully play some shows. And just find a way to put this out into our weird, weird world in the best way that I can.

MF: You’ve been doing that a little bit with the Duology releases. Can you tell me a little bit about the process behind that and why you decided to release the album like that, rather than all at once?

GR: I love to talk about songs. And I love to talk about music and narratives and lyrics so much, I love talking about that stuff in depth. And I knew that because of what the record had become, I wasn’t gonna really be able to do that much. If I did that more traditional rollout with such a big record, especially because I still feel like I’m in the beginning of my career path, I kind of thought I don’t know if that’s going to be engaging enough.

I have much more of a story to tell. How can I find an interesting way to do that? And I think with the concept of the Duologies, it means I really get to hone in on the fact that this record celebrates changing your mind, changing how you feel about certain things, and people, feelings, places, where you want to be, who you want to be with or whatever. I think that having released the songs in pairs, that all go together in their own way, with their own theme, you can feel this way or this way. There’s always a different angle or different sides of the story.

It has been really great because it has meant that I’ve gotten to talk so much more about specific emotions and things. I feel like when the full record is out, it will all make a lot more sense for one. There’ll be a lot more that people already know and understand, so I won’t have to give them that bulk of information in one form.

MF: Do you think it has also helped you ease into the record release as well? I can imagine dropping your debut full-length album is a little daunting.

GR: Yeah, I think it eased me into it. I think that it eased my existing audience into it as well because there has been a little bit of a sonic shift with this album. And I think doing more of the pop thing, it’s always really interesting and I’ve had so many fascinating conversations because I still feel like there’s this really odd perception of, “Oh, you make pop music now? What does that mean?” especially if you come from a background of being a singer-songwriter. I’m still a singer-songwriter. It’s still exactly what I am. They’re the same narratives, the same big words and lyrics. I’ve just put it in a more organised formula with more twinkly sounds. I don’t really feel like there’s much of a shift but that being said, I remember being quite narrow-minded about genres.

When I was a little bit younger, like 15, 16 I strictly listened to folk music. I only listened to Laura Marling and that was a really beautiful period in my life. I love Laura Marling but I also love Ariana Grande. I love Dua Lipa, I love Julia Michaels. Her influences are Fiona Apple, Joni Mitchell and all of those people. So it’s all interlinked. I think in terms of drip-feeding the album, it has meant that I’ve gotten to see how people respond to all of those different sounds and this new journey that I’m going on as an artist. Because releasing a song like ‘Bigger Than Me’, with that video clip, it’s much more upbeat. There’s lots going on. That’s not really something that I’ve done before, but it’s still a reflection of who I am as a person and as an artist.

Then having released Duology Three recently, with songs like ‘The Brink’ and ‘Cherish’, people appreciate my heartbreak songs a lot, because it’s something that I’ve done in the past. It’s something they’ve resonated with in the past. So it’s comforting to them. It’s safer. So I think giving them these little packages has meant that I can introduce the new stuff, but also remind them that it’s still the same in so many ways as well. That has been a good transitional period for me but also for my audience and my relationship with them. Which is really important to me. I really value what they think of my music, of course. I don’t think I expected that when I put the Duologies out. But it’s been nice to have that.

MF: You’ve described it as a ‘coming of age’ record. Was that always the plan?

GR: I definitely didn’t go in thinking it was going to be a coming of age record. I don’t know why. I think that there was so much that I had to learn when I was at the beginning of the journey of writing the album. As a writer, there was so much that I didn’t know I had whole new skill sets to acquire and so many different collaborators that I could learn from. And so I had no idea what the album was going to eventually become. I just knew I wanted to make an album and I wanted to learn. And then interestingly, as soon as I’d said those things, and made that call, my personal life kind of went to shit and gave me the content for the album. That timing, in hindsight, was quite convenient.

It was also painful as well. It was difficult to go to work and feel pretty destroyed emotionally. But then I got the chance to lean on the fact that I had music to process that. It was very therapeutic to be able to write a lot of those songs in that time for me as well. Then at the end of the writing process, when I had the full tracklist, it made sense.

MF: That must’ve been a cathartic experience. What has it been like reliving some of those tough moments through the record?

GR: I knew this was gonna happen, particularly when I got to Duology Three. I was like “Oh, man, I don’t want to go back there”. But then also, I think that it has been nice, because I’ve been able to revisit that time, emotionally, and reflect on how much I learned from it. But also, the songs become other people’s, you know? They become my audiences’ now. I’ve had my time with them, for them to be something that I leaned on when I needed to when I was writing them. And now I’m getting messages from people who are in London and across the world who are like, “I’m going through this breakup and ‘Cherish’ is getting me through it”, and that is the coolest thing.

I think that’s the best possible way to relive those memories is through their perspectives and through their new stories. And I think performing them has been very challenging because this is my first time singing the songs live. And I’m like, “Oh, wow. Fuck. They’re hard to sign.” But I have that with everything I’ve ever made. I’m like, “I did it again. It’s so difficult to sing.”

I think it’s super satisfying as well. I still really deeply resonate with a lot of the songs like ‘The Cure’. I feel like that will be pretty timeless because that was such a pivotal turning point for me to be like, “You’re fine on your own. You have just you.” That’s fun and I think that that’s always gonna be a message that I need to remind myself of when things get tough. Whether it be in romantic relationships or in my job or anything.

MF: On Instagram, you described ‘The Brink’ as a low point for you. Is it surreal to share something so personal and then have people really relate to it or are you used to that by now?

GR: Yeah, definitely. That one was really interesting because lyrically, it’s so vulnerable. No one really wants to admit there was a time where you’re begging this person to stay. And you’re like, “Oh, gosh, I can’t believe I did that. I’m so much better off not being in that place”. But also it’s so important to have that moment in order for the rest of the story to make sense. And overcoming those feelings as well. It’s really interesting how much people gravitate towards heartbreak songs, particularly right now. I feel like “headphones in and just be sad”, that’s just the thing that everyone wants to do. But if it helps you heal, and move forward and reflect and think about what you want to do differently next time, it’s great that we have music to teach us things in that sense.

MF: Was there ever a point where you were a little apprehensive about being so vulnerable on the record?

GR: Yeah, I think maybe had it come out a little sooner, then I probably would have had those feelings. But because of the pandemic and all the setbacks, it has meant that I’ve been emotionally in a space where I love to listen back to the songs and it’s a little alarming. “Oh gosh, I remember that thing.” And I haven’t thought about it in ages.

But for the most part, I felt pretty protected because I’ve worked on these songs for so long. I re-did the vocals, I got the production to this point, I conveyed this emotion, I got it mixed by this person. I really do feel like I couldn’t be more of the neat little package that I wanted to be. I’ve done my best with it. And that’s a real shield emotionally. So thankfully, it’ll be interesting when the record comes out as a full thing. There are definitely other songs that I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I think that was pretty vulnerable”. But I’m so excited for them to become other people’s and not mine anymore. That’s the overriding feeling.

MF: Out of the songs that weren’t included in the Duology releases, which ones are you the most excited for fans to hear and why?

GR: One of the songs I’m really excited about is a song called ‘It’s Almost Christmas In Philly’. I think it really is a nice little breather for one. And it’s also a nice emotional balance because it’s about a platonic friendship and how important those relationships and voices are in the process of grief and discovering who you are and leaning on your friends.

And a song called ‘Love Me Right’ as well, because that and the visuals that we’re putting out with that video is very much about championing independence and leaning on your girlfriends. I can’t wait for people to hear the songs and hopefully be like, “Oh, I just love my friends” (laughs). It made me think about this time that I was feeling shit and then I just went and hung out with my friends. And that was all fine because I had a lot of those moments. I was very insulated in that regard by friends and family when things were a bit shit and put into music. I haven’t even thought about this much, but having that little talking moment on ‘Care Less’ where I’m being really sassy or whatever is not something I’ve done before. That’ll be cool to see what people take of that.

MF: Yeah, totally. And of course, we have to talk about Worldy-wise and your collaboration with Gang of Youths. How did that come about and what was it like working with Dave on the vocals?

GR: It was awesome. Thankfully we got most of the songs done before COVID but this was one of the songs that we didn’t get done before the pandemic. So the boys made the additional production for the song and Dave’s vocals were recorded in London, and then sent through to Sydney.

In terms of the conversations around that song, it was interesting because I knew after I wrote it, that I really wanted to get Dave involved. With the melody of the chorus, I really wanted to have vocal layers to it. And in terms of the rhythm and how it flows, I wanted his lower bass octave. As time went on and I changed, my relationship with certain songs and how much ‘Wordly-wise’ ended up meaning to me changed, and then where it landed on the tracklist, even in terms of that whole story. I just thought it’s so appropriate that this is Dave singing these lyrics about broadening your mind and being ready to roll and get prepped for this time. It’s gonna be daunting, but it’s gonna be awesome. Because he was often talking to me exactly like that in our conversations because he’s got a very big brotherly role in my life.

Often when I was going through very formative slash quite painful periods of time, when I was working out who I was, I just happened to often be on tour with Gang of Youths, which was the biggest blessing ever. So having that experience, one minute you’re crying in the greenroom and then the next day, you’re like “Say yes to life!” in the audience (laughs). It’s just so unreal.

We were in London together, we were in LA together. We did North America at the end of 2018. So I am so grateful that those boys have taken me on the road as many times as they have. And often, I would be like, “Man, I’m dealing with this thing. I don’t know how to feel or think about it.” And Dave would just say… I mean, he’s Dave, you know? He just says a sentence and you’re like, “Oh, yes!” (laughs). So I’m very, very grateful to have had his advice. And their music just massively puts things into perspective, which is why I really feel like it’s so fitting that they’re on ‘Worldy-wise’.

MF: I think that collaboration comes across really naturally. At first I wondered if you two co-wrote the song together because his voice fits so perfectly.

GR: I’m so glad! They’re very influential to my music, for sure. But I think Dave and I, the way that we love to write, we love to use big words. When I was doing the Like A Version recently, I actually kept it a surprise from the boys. But I had to message Dave at one point and just act as if I was just having banter because I couldn’t put my finger on this particular lyric, which is “when there’s weightness in use”. And I’m like “what? Is he saying weightless? What’s going on?” And he was like, “Oh, it’s weightness. I made up a word”. And then told me the whole definition of what weightness means over text. I am so glad I got that because I definitely would have sung an incorrect word (laughs). So that love of language and meaning and descriptions and stuff is something that we definitely share. And I have so much to learn from him.

MF: That’s very Shakespearean of him to make up words like that. You performed ‘Cherish’ that same day as well. What other tracks are you excited to play live?

GR: I think I’m the most excited ‘The Cure’, just because it’s such a band song. We actually co-produced that with Robbie and Josh Barber who made both of my first EPs. So it feels superorganic and really classic. And if there’s a song on the record that’s me in a song, it’s ‘The Cure’. But also ‘Love Me Right’ because I can’t wait to jump around to a double chorus. I think that it’s gonna be really fun to see how people respond to that song because it’s the most pop moment and the BPM means that it’s very suitable for jumping. So when we can eventually play shows and it’s safe, that’s definitely something I’m excited to see.

MF: There are so many great pop moments on this record and you’ve said ‘Drive’ was the first time you realised you could really push the envelope of pop in your music. How did that realisation impact how you played with the genre on this record?

GR: I think after I wrote ‘Drive’, I don’t think I necessarily clocked that until after I’d finished that whole EP, because it was a really hectic time in my life. And I was only 17 or 18. And I just wanted to go to Nashville and hang out which thankfully, I got to do but I was really young. And there was so much that I had to learn about the industry that I was in, really suddenly. And I think also just as a writer, I had so much to learn.

I took songwriting very, very seriously. And if anything, maybe too seriously, because I would only work on one song at a time and it had to be perfect. I’d take months to finish it. My ego would get in the way, like a dozen times, but we’d get there eventually. So, the EP Here And Now they were the songs that I had, that was like it, you know? And I love those songs but that was it. I knew that I wanted to make more pop songs. I wanted to learn more about pop music. I needed to basically suck it up and throw myself into writing sessions that would kind of put the pressure on in a sense that it’s like “You don’t have time to do your weird little perfectionist things. You can sit on something for a while.” Maybe if you work with someone who wants to agonise over making this thing a certain way, they will join you in that but for the most part, you just want to get something finished. Which is great because then you practice songwriting, and then you become a better writer, and then ideas hit you more easily.

I have met a lot of my peers and friends in that writing community, who are so good at that and you watch them grow as writers. So I really do feel like I was able to grow as a writer, learning more about pop formulas. How do we get to a chorus quicker? Where can we incorporate little elements like repetition? You can still have your sophisticated words and your alliteration in there. But how can we get little things that are going to be sticky to people? Which will make people want to revisit the song?

I think one of my favourite underlying sneaky pop techniques is something that is barely touching on the major chord of a song, especially in moments like the chorus. So songs that do it really well like, ‘Teenage Dream’ by Katy Perry and ‘Call Me Maybe’ by Carly Rae Jepsen. There’s a reason that we’re like, “Again and again and again!”. They’re structured chord-wise to never fully land you and let you sit in that major chord so you’re constantly held in this space of anticipation. So with ‘Love Me Right’, that’s kind of what we ended up doing with the chords. Not intentionally, but I was like, “Why is this so catchy?”. I’m always gonna be a storyteller. I’m always going to lean on big words and want to say things in an interesting way that is unique to me. So if I can keep that, but make the songs more accessible to more people, then of course, I’m going to want to learn how to keep doing that. So it’s a really exciting and challenging world, the world of pop music. And I’m glad that ‘Drive’ was the song that opens the door to it.

MF: It’s interesting because so many people write pop music off as shallow or low brow, but there’s a real science to it. Why do you think that is?

GR: I am so in awe of pop music now. I definitely have been a little bit narrow-minded about it in the past. It was actually my dear friend, and wonderful collaborator Japanese Wallpaper and when I first heard his song ‘Between Friends’, I was like, “Oh my gosh, pop music can be so moving”. It can be so profound that it can open up a whole world of other things. And so when I got more into that kind of music, I was like, “There’s got to be more out there”. That weirdly odd taboo around pop music that I still feel like exists, maybe not necessarily in the circles that I’m in, but it’s still there.

With older generations, I feel like there’s this perception and it’s so harsh! I think that you can’t really think too much about how something is perceived or how we’re conditioned to interpret something when it comes to genres of music because if it is good, then what else matters? But I’m always going to want to change and push myself as an artist. I think because I love how much opportunity there is in music to change things up and make cool art. It’s not something that I’m going to shy away from. I really love throwing myself into it and learning more about it.

MF: You’ve said that you want this record to inspire people to create or explore something new, or change your mind about something. What records artists have inspired you to do that?

GR: I feel like there are so many! The most obvious example that I can think of is 1989 by Taylor Swift. I feel like that was the most validating bold move that had been made in music for a long time. In that particular world of artists that already have such a successful, comfortable spot in one genre in one world and then they just totally switch it up. And then it just goes through the roof. It was fucking incredible. That’s down to her being so amazing. I think that is very validating for artists that want to try on a new thing.

I feel like I need to give credit to the pop records that I was listening to excessively at the time. Julia Michaels, I love her so much. Ariana Grande, I’m so obsessed with. I think I’m particularly inspired by the women in pop music and how insanely hard they work. Not only do they work so hard in the studio, but then it’s like they put on this ridiculous circus-style show where they’re like little Olympians. The standard that they hold, it’s unbelievable. And it’s a real privilege to be in the same industry as those artists and to have them to look up to. I think that as much as my roots are definitely in folk and country music and those great singer-songwriter artists, I think that I would have to give credit more so to the pop records when it came to validating that shift in risk-taking.

MF: You’ve had to push back your album tour a few times because of the pandemic, but what can we expect when the time finally rolls around?

GR: I think eventually, whenever I get to be on stage, you can expect that I will be loving playing these new songs live! And you can expect that I’m not playing instruments as much as usual. Because I mean, if you saw the Splendour XR set that I did recently, I’m really trying to experiment with stagecraft more and get more comfortable in my body and just focus on my vocals, because they’re much more difficult this time. I want to be a better vocalist, I want to be a better performer. So I think that is something that I can tell people to expect. I’ll be revisiting the older songs as well, which is the nicest thing in the world now, because we only got to do one little tour for Here And Now. Then there was all this time and I think a lot more people were introduced to my music through support shows like Mumford and Sons and James Bay and the tour with Gemma Kennedy. There are people that I met at those shows and then didn’t get to follow up with a headline show for ages because of the pandemic. Seeing where people are with those now will be really interesting as well.

Gretta Ray’s debut album ‘Begin To Look Around’ is out today.

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