INTERVIEW: Gretta Ray

As you look around where you are right now, will you vividly remember everything the way it is? Will the song you’re currently listening to bring you back to this time? That ideology is what Gretta Ray’s debut album ‘Begin To Look Around’ is built upon. Written during a time of heavy heartbreak and self-discovery, this record is a coming-of-age exploration as she enters the world as an adult and finds her footing in where she is and who she wants to be. 

The Melbourne based singer-songwriter uses a lot of visual references that immediately takes you to the fresh air of Brunswick in Melbourne, to the streets of London, and the polarising romanticised emotions of Paris. Each song has a very distinct visual identity embedded that immediately transports the listener to be standing right next to her as she unravels her vulnerability in a very confident and reassuring way. Each song feels like a reminder to the listener that it’s okay to feel the way you feel, that It’s okay to cry, and that it’s okay to be swept up in the moment. 

Sonically finding a contrast between the youthful coming-of-age themes and a confident new found maturity, this country-pop record feels like the love child of Taylor Swift’s ‘Red’ and Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Golden Hour’. It perfectly captures a candid reflection of what it is like to be deep in your feelings about a particular situation, but also being so mesmerised by how beautiful the rest of the world is at the same time.

I recently chatted to Gretta Ray about the coming of age sentiment behind her debut album ‘Begin To Look Around’, discussed how travelling and specific locations impacted the visual identity of the lyrics, and explored the creative processes and stories behind ‘Happenstance’, ‘Paris’, ‘The Cure’, and ‘Worldly Wise’. Check it out BELOW;

THOMAS BLEACH: Your debut album ‘Begin To Look Around’ is a coming of age collection of tracks that explores love, heartbreak and everything in-between. When you listen back to this record in its entirety, what emotions and thoughts come to you?

GRETTA RAY: At the moment the most prominent one is that it feels very bittersweet because so many of those songs were written about travelling or while I was travelling. I wrote a lot of the emotionally defining songs on that record while I was in London. I’ve just received the vinyl and inside you can see so many photos that were taken while we were on tour over there with Gang Of Youths, and it just feels so strange to be celebrating that time of my life and all of those memories when I can’t move around now. But at the same time it’s really nice to have captured it that way and that it’s become this physical thing that I have now. It’s what I believe to be a really accurate representation of that time in my life.

TB: With the coming of age and emotional essence quite strongly embedded in this body of work. If you could insert a song from the album into any movie or tv show, what one would you choose and why? 

GR: Oh my gosh! I’d love a version of a Julia Roberts film like ‘Eat Pray Love’ or ‘Notting Hill’. Something with a similar storyline, cinematic vibes and figuring yourself out in the world with independence. It would have to be made in this present time as the songs are quite modern sounding and it wouldn’t suit the visuals, but definitely something like that. 

TB: ‘Happenstance’ is a song that immediately stood out to me as it follows a relationship and the reality of how it all came together. Can you explain the creative process behind this track? 

GR: I started writing the little seeds of ‘Happenstance’ at the end of 2017 which was when I very gently started opening the door of practicing songwriting again. I found that especially around ‘Drive’ I would write one song and fixate on it for months, obsess over tweaking every little thing, make sure it was perfect, and then I could record it. You can create that way, but I have so much to learn about songwriting because while I may have been writing since I was 7 I still very much feel like I’m at the beginning. 

I was at a little writing camp where all of the writers had to go into seperate rooms for 6 hours and try write 10 songs within that time. So essentially you just write little diddy’s, and you can’t critique anything as you barely have any time, and then you just go “alright, done” and move onto the next one. For me at the time it was the polar opposite of what I was comfortable doing, and there was no way in hell that was going to turn out well for me. But it was such a good learning experience in the sense as I learnt through that panicked environment that I’m really good at melodies. So that’s why I feel like ‘Happenstance’ flows in that way and doesn’t stop. I was writing and just seeing what was happening. I had a verse and chorus idea along with the guitar, and that was it. 

I then took that song into the studio in London with Laura Welsh and Dan Macdougal and wrote it a little more and structured it better. And then it still went untouched for a while, but then I took it to a producer called John Castle and we finally got a full lush demo of it after spending a few days on it. I always really loved that song as I thought it was a good balance between this new pop sound I was exploring, and was a little bit of an ode to my older work like ‘Here And Now’. But the version you hear on the album was produced by Robby De Sa, and I feel like he really pulled it into the other new songs cohesively. 

TB: ‘Paris’ hears you comparing the city to a heartbreak you were going through, and it creates this really beautiful imagery with a distinct contrast. What was it about that particular heartbreak that had you imagining Paris in that way?

GR: I came up with the idea just before my session with Kyran Daniel. We weren’t sure about what we were going to write about as it was the second day we had met and the second session we had together. We were having lunch and having a conversation about travelling and where we had been to, and he said that he had based himself in Paris for a little while while he was going through a bit of a rough time. I very naively said “but was it kinda made a little bit better because you were in Paris?”, and he was like “no, it still sucked”. I then started to think about why I said that in the first place. I had just been grieving a heartbreak in London, and I did have a really amazing community of people around me as I go there a lot for me, but I do think there was something about the expansive nature of that city and how it’s a foreign place and you don’t necessarily have the same memories on every corner there. It’s just you and your journey with that new exciting city. 

I thought about the times I was in Paris and how I had this tendency to over romanticise everything because of how iconic it is. There are definitely parts of Paris that are very accurate to that stereotype, but there are also some really gross parts. So I started thinking about how I interpreted Paris in all of its different forms, and how I interpreted heartbreak. Even when heartbreak is really shitty you can still somehow find this odd silver lining, and that’s why it’s such a rollercoaster. So I brought that parallel together, and created this very complicated metaphor. I’ve never been so tunnel vision focused in a session before because I had to make sure every lyric I wrote made sense as I really wanted this concept to come across strongly to listeners and for them to hear the parallel. 

My favourite lyric in that song is “that’s all heartache is, disorientation” as it definitely felt like that. The scariest thing about going through a breakup is that you don’t necessarily know where to plant your feet for a second. And that’s kinda like what travelling overseas is like by yourself too. 

TB: Well this album does hear you referencing locations and places quite a lot. Do you find that you personally associate places quite emotionally in general, and as an artist?

GR: Yeah, especially as a person. I will never forget the moment in my life when I realised that if I listen to a song enough times in a certain place then it was forever going to remind me of that place. It was like a cool little magic trick. So every time I’d go to a new place I would be like “I can only religiously listen to this record”, and I’d listen to it on every form of public transport and everywhere I went so it would become this place forever to me. I did that initially with Jonsi’s album ‘Go’ which just reminds me solely of Europe. 

I think when it comes to my own music, not only do I want to find a way to bring myself back to the places that inspired the songs, but I think I’m just really inspired by the things that are constantly around me and I wanted to bring that energy into the album. 

TB: ‘The Cure’ has one of my favourite lyrics on this album with “There’s hope in this broken heart. Dancing amidst the disaster of it all”. When you hear that lyric back now, where does it mentally and physically take you? 

GR: It takes me back to a couple of moments. Mainly London as I wrote that one at Kolbalt studios with Jonny Hockings. When we had lunch we went to the rooftop of that building and you could see the whole of London from up there which was so incredible. So it takes me back to there, and it takes me back to playing shows with Gang Of Youths in the UK as I was really in the thick of feeling shit. One moment I’m on the couch in the green room crying my eyes out with Dave consulting me, and then next minute I’m screaming the lyrics “say yes to life” out *laughs*. It was just a contrast of emotions. 

I was very fortunate with what I was surrounded by during that break up period because who has a break up and then gets to open for Gang Of Youths? Like that is so fucking stupid *laughs*. 

TB: ’The Brink’ is another really strong lyrical moment that hears you taking ownership over the breakdown of a relationship and being afraid that you’re on the brink of losing it all. How did it feel writing this track? Was it cathartic, or was it really hard to take ownership so explicitly?

GR: This is interesting because when people started listening to my music it did change how I approached writing because there was now an audience listening to what I had to say. But I think when you’re in a spot where you just have to write because you as a person really need it, that ideology of what other people thought just falls away. ‘The Brink’ is me at my most vulnerable. You don’t want anyone to think of you in that state of just wanting your ex back, but it was really important in that time of my life for me to own that. I didn’t know how to handle those thoughts at that time other than writing about it, so that’s what the writing process was to me at the time. I was really sad and I spoke to my co-writer Chris Collins about it and we  started writing this really dramatic feeling song. 

I looked back at my handwritten notes from that session recently and it was so interesting because there was barely any adjustment to the lyrics I was writing because it was just flowing out of me. I remember being so in awe of that happening, as it can happen, but for me it’s a rarity. 

TB: ‘Worldly Wise’ hears David Le’aupepe and the rest of the Gang Of Youths boys featuring on the track. What was the main emotion and feeling behind that studio session all together?

GR: It’s interesting because Dave and the boys worked on that song at the end of last year remotely. We had finished the bulk of it and I knew that I wanted Dave’s voice on it, but I had no idea that he was going to sing as much of the song as he did, or have the whole band on it with additional production. It was so amazing and I’m so grateful. 

The main reason I wanted to have them involved was because it was always going to be so perfect for that song as it felt like it needed to be layered vocally. It also ended up being conceptually appropriate as that song was sort of a letter to myself. It was less about the heartbreak and more so about stepping into the world and the industry, and travelling as a full time musician in general. It was like “this is going to be a really daunting time in your life, but just throw yourself into it”. But I think where it ended up landing on the track list and how I felt after I had recorded that final vocal; it was also about everything else that had happened along the way. Having Dave’s voice on the song is so nice as it takes me back to when I was going through these hard times on the road and he’d literally be the voice that was comforting me. So it feels very appropriate for this song in particular to have him on it with me. 

TB: The album’s opening instrumental ‘Becoming’ dreamily welcomes the listener into the world of ‘Begin To Look Around’. So when in the process of the album did you get this piece produced up? 

GR: We were like two thirds into finishing the production for the record when we made ‘Becoming’. I didn’t know what it was going to be called but I just knew I really wanted the album to have an intro. There is a really incredible intro on Ainslie Wills recent record. I remember hearing it and just knowing that I needed to have a similar beautiful moment like that on my album. 

So ‘Becoming’ actually has a production element from every single song on the record, but we’ve just pitched it to the key. So you can hear things like the reverse guitars that are in ‘The Cure’, the string arrangement of ‘The Brink’ bridge, and the backing vocals from the ‘Human’ middle eight. I just really wanted there to be a twinkly piece of each song within the intro. 

TB: Let’s play a quick game of rapid fire questions. Are you ready? 

GR: Okay!

TB: The emoji that best describes my debut album ‘Begin To Look Around’ is…

GR: The world globe!

TB: The song that makes me cry when I hear it back is…

GR: ‘Learning You’.

TB: The song that nearly didn’t make the album was…

GR: ‘Happenstance’.

TB: The lyric that makes me giggle on this album is…

GR: “Guess I should be flattered that you can’t seem to find somebody better to play on your mind”, and then I go “It’s kinda a compliment actually, when you think about it” from ‘Care Less’ *laughs*. 

TB: The song that took the longest to hone it’s sound was…

GR: ‘Cherish’! The demo was actually more in club banger territory, and then we had a full string arrangement which changed it drastically. 

‘Begin To Look Around’ is out now!