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Begin To Look Around: Interview with musician Gretta Ray.

Gretta Ray established herself as a rising talent in 2016 with her break-out single about unrequited love called Drive. It went along way in setting alight her path to becoming a singer-songwriter. Importantly, Drive and the songs that followed like Radio Silence and Re:Stacks, all fits perfectly around her captivating voice that seemingly has this uncanny ability to break your heart. This year she hits the ground running with her debut album Begin To Look Around. It serves to cement her growing status in pop music circles. Across its fifteen tracks Gretta has created a diverse record that encompasses delicate introspective songs alongside flashy electronic pop numbers. Importantly, Gretta has managed to seamlessly build upon her ‘obsession’ with what she terms as a sister song concept (more recently referred to as duologies), where two songs are connect by the same story but from two totally different emotional angles. 

It’s fair to say Begin To Look Around is a culmination of everything Gretta has ever dreamed of. Moreover it feels like a highly accomplished album from a young woman who very clearly knows what she wants. That said, I recently caught up with Gretta Ray to talk about her new album. Here is some of what we talked about.

Gretta, one of the first things that stuck me about your new album is its length. It feels like you’ve been writing a lot. I find that the songs you’ve written tend to be reflective of what’s happened this past year or so? Or is it kind of a mix?

I have been writing a lot yes! Well, I was when I was in the thick of writing the record. I knew I wanted to make a full length album, so I went into a lot of co-writing sessions with different collaborators, essentially throwing paint at the wall to see what stuck. The songs are mostly reflective of the events of my life over the course of 2019. That year, I was lucky enough to be travelling a lot for touring and writing, and also went through a slightly rocky time in my personal life, but I learned a lot from it.

Did you choose Bigger Than Me and Readymade as the two songs you first released together not only because it represents the catalyst for the new record but to connect with others?

I think so! Writing this album, I learned a lot about my creative self, and reflected upon how much I have loved to be a sponge in a creative sense ever since I was little. Meaning: I just want to soak up everything and learn as much as I can, because I love music and art in general so much. When we wrote Bigger Than Me, it was as if something shifted. The energy of it set the tone for how I would approach writing the rest of the album.

Your new album Begin To Look Around has a consistent and vibrant emotional tone. Did you have that in mind from the beginning of the project, or did it just happen that all the songs just worked out that way?

I think it just worked out that way, but it’s also just how I prefer to write. My emotions and my storytelling will always be at the forefront of my project. Writing a lot of the songs on Begin To Look Around, I was really leaning on music in a way I never had before. It strengthened me to put my most vulnerable thoughts into song, and it helped me make sense of what I was going through personally.

Throughout the twist and turns of the album, it’s impossible to imagine that you didn’t grow throughout its songwriting and recording process. The songs speak for themselves, I guess. Why do you think it has an “act of self love” feel?

This is such an interesting question. I think that writing music and making art in general feels like an act of self love, because it so often is! For me, writing music has allowed me to properly make space for my feelings; put a spotlight on them in a sense. I can deeply analyse them, reconsider them, and spend all the time I want to turning them into song. I think one of the most self-loving things one can do is allow yourself to learn from your mistakes and admit when you’ve been wrong. Begin To Look Around consists of a lot of lessons I have learned, and I like to think that the record embraces the idea that it’s ok to frantically change your mind about your feelings, especially in your early 20s.

How much of a departure do you feel it is from your 2018 release Here And Now?

On one hand I feel like sonically, it’s quite a noticeable departure. Begin To Look Around feels a lot more ‘glossy’ to me than Here and Now, which was intentional on my part because I wanted to make a pop album. I do feel like structurally it’s a ‘neater’ record, because I am a much more seasoned writer than I was when I wrote Here and Now, despite how much I love that EP. I also feel like Begin To Look Around is more ‘free’ feeling to me… releasing Here and Now after the success of Drive, naturally I was very mindful of what people were going to think; the songs were reworked a bit. For both bodies of work I wanted them to be polished and as great as we could make them, but with the album, I didn’t want to agonise over perfecting things. I have learned that creativity doesn’t like you to toy with it too much. Don’t strip your record of ‘imperfect’ moments – those moments give it character.

There are so many wonderful tracks on the new album. For instance, the hints of the guitar lick set against that wonderful synth beat of Happenstance make it a terrific pop song. What does that sound speak to you and what about it felt right for this song?

Thank you so much! Happenstance was a funny one – if you heard the first full demo I made with John Castle, you’d think it was a bonus track on Here and Now, for sure. It took a moment to sculpt this song’s production to welcome it into the world of all the other, newer pop songs I had written. I just remember from the get go, with the guitars in that song… all I could think about was Kylie Minogue’s Love At First Sight, and how I wanted to emulate the energy that that song gives off, in my own way. There’s nothing better than a sunny, happy pop song.

One of my favourit e tracks is Worldly Wise. Gretta, what was your process behind writing the song initially?

Thank you 🙂 I wrote Worldly-wise with Chris Zane and an artist called Jonah in London. We were talking about how much we loved songs in 6/8, like HAIM’s ’The Wire’ and how songs in that time signature just have this persistence, this magical ongoing flow to them. So very fittingly, when we started writing Worldly-wise, the song almost immediately just arrived with us. This song and The Brink were two songs that fell out of the sky. I think the drive and excitement interwoven into the song’s concept, that wide-eyed way of looking at the world around you, was a feeling I was experiencing a lot at that time in my life. That feeling paired with the 6/8 time signature resulted in a song that got finished very quickly!

I’m curious about the lyric video for Cherish and its subtle symbolism. Does the view from the side mirror of the car represent you moving on from a troubled relationship? The lyrics certainly feel bittersweet. A sense of resigned heartache. 

It does indeed! It is the classic ’this is in my rearview mirror’ metaphor. But also, a lot of the time that I was experiencing that heartache portrayed in Cherish, I was often in the back of an Uber, crying. Or driving somewhere at night, crying. I’ve sung about the space of a car being a confessional, reflective and intimate space in a positive way in songs like Drive and It’s Almost Christmas In Philly. In Cherish, it’s bittersweet. Also in The Brink, it’s pair within it’s Duology, I say “I want you to think fondly of the first long drive.” So… it’s all connected! Ha.

There are obviously some wonderful qualities of your personality that people warm to. You seem to have a great working relationship with both Dylan Nash and Chris Collins, who helped you write and produce the new album. Did they take you under their wing? Tell us something about their creative energy that inspires you?

Oh that’s so lovely. Dylan and Chris were the co-writers behind the Duology Three songs. I’ve worked with Dylan on a few songs for the album, and something about his creative energy that inspires me is how he looks at an idea from every angle. He’ll switch a verse and a pre-chorus around to check if the melodies better in that order, and tweak them in a way that makes the songs so much more catchy. With Chris, his efficiency really struck me. The dramatic piano chords in The Brink – he played them almost the second we sat down in the studio. Then, he made a super lush demo within literally hours after I left the session. I am so fortunate I get to learn from such incredible collaborators.

I’m not sure how much time you spend on social media, but when you see fans sharing stories and impressions of your music, what kind of things resonate?

I think the emotions behind the songs resonate the most, which means the world to me. It was really interesting releasing Cherish and The Brink in that sense, actually. Heartbreak is such a universal feeling, and I think people really gravitate towards breakup songs to heal. It’s fascinating how there is an excitement and joy about the idea of a song making you sad!

Let’s get back to music. There are so many great albums out this year. What are your favourite albums of the year so far and what have you been listening to lately?

So many! Obviously I think Olivia Rodrigo is great, and SOUR was a phenomenal debut. Doja Cat’s record is amazing, and I LOVED Julia Michaels debut album Not In Chronological Order. I’ve been listening to the new Clairo record a lot lately. Two EPs that came out this year that I love so much are MAY-A’s Don’t Kiss Your Friends and Sycco’s Sycco’s First EP. Two amazing emerging Australian artists.

Finally, no one really knows where we are heading at the moment with the latest lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne. Has it affected your ability to connect with your audience? I’m sure you would love to be playing live music at the moment?

Yeah, it has massively affected it unfortunately. I’m really thankful for the online relationship I have with my audience but at the moment, I’m really missing singing together. We just have to wait it out, stay safe and be there for each other. We’ll get there eventually!

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Begin To Look Around is out now via EMI Australia and available in all good record stores and digitally. You can connect with Gretta Ray on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Watch on You Tube.

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