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Gretta ray

On the Rise
Gretta Ray

10 March 2021, 10:30

Picking up the baton from Maggie Rogers, next-gen popstar Gretta Ray is forging a pop career with care, contemplation and authenticity.

Lucking into a record deal while still in your teens doesn’t feel like quite the golden ticket it used to. The wave of controversy surrounding the recent Framing Britney Spears documentary has cast a dark shadow on the idea of plucking a teenage girl out of obscurity and moulding her into a star. From Billie Eilish to Madison Beer, we’re hearing more and more from talented female performers who have eschewed meteoric rises, choosing instead to chart their own path, and to negotiate their careers gradually and deliberately.

Australia’s Gretta Ray falls into this category. Growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne, Ray began writing her own songs when she was seven years old, honing her voice through years of community choir practice. At 16, she was introduced to Josh Barber, a Melbourne producer, who got her into the studio and produced her breakthrough “Drive” - a dreamy, syrupy indie pop ballad about picking up your crush, rolling the windows down and speeding off into the sunset.

“Drive” was ideal radio fodder, and took off in Australia, earning high rotation on local radio throughout the summer of 2016. In a single, dizzying year, Ray won both the Triple J Unearthed prize (a prize for emerging stars, previously won by Australian music mainstay Missy Higgins) and the Vanda & Young songwriting prize (previously won by the likes of Amy Shark and Mallrat) - all while she was finishing her final year of high school. “I feel like I kind of crash-landed in the music industry”, Ray reminisces. “I feel very, very lucky that I was surrounded by people who had known me from before, people who I still work with today.”

Ray is painfully aware of the pitfalls of experiencing so much success so young. “I was so aware that I was young, and still finding my feet, and that I had to take my career a step at a time.” She speaks enthusiastically of the careers of Maggie Rogers and Lorde, artists who have managed to retain an iron grip over their image and their trajectory, despite the disempowering effects of finding success at a young age. Observing Maggie Rogers has been particularly influential, for Ray - after going viral with that Pharrell video, rather than riding the wave, Rogers retreated, and took three years out between releases to work on her debut album. Ray has tried to emulate this decision: “Maggie’s entrance into the music scene was so sudden and intense, it basically happened overnight. And she just left New York, went back to her parent’s house and came back to us when she was completely ready. I love the way she’s able to tell us that story to us through her music - and it doesn’t feel self-involved, it feels careful and contemplative.”

Likewise, after touring with artists like Lianne La Havas and Mumford & Sons and releasing two EPs, 2016’s Elsewhere and 2018’s Here and Now, Ray retreated for two years, to work out who she really was. Her comeback single, released in 2020, was “Passion.” While her previous work lent towards the folky and super-sincere, ‘Passion’ is a rich, wry, country-inflected pop song. Penned with Kyran Daniel, they wrote the song in 7/4 - an unusual time signature, more commonly found in jerky, off-kilter rock bangers like Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”, or “Them Bones” by Alice in Chains. When applied to a velvety, lovelorn pop song, the effect is striking - it feels like your heart is catching in your chest. Ray relished the challenge of writing “something you could groove to” over a complex time signature: “I became obsessed with it - so many people are making music right now, and if there’s anything you can do to make your music that little bit more challenging, that little bit more complicated, it’s worth doing.”

Differentiating herself in a crowded market is a key concern for Ray. Her latest project takes the form of a Duology - that’s two tracks which are thematically linked and released as a pair, kind of a digital redux of the double-A sided single. Ray’s reasoning behind this decision is partially pragmatic: “the music industry is changing so fast, and I think new artists have to be creative, and have to match the way people are finding and sharing music” - but it was also an emotional decision. When releasing her previous EPs, Ray frequently felt frustrated that the singles would get pushed to radio, while the other tracks on the EP would fall by the wayside. The Duology format, Ray says, ensures that both tracks have “a moment in the sun”, while encouraging close analysis of their contents, as listeners unpick how the two songs are interconnected.

The first of these Duologies is “Bigger Than Me/ Readymade” - two songs which Ray describes as being about “performing and being an artist.” The first track, “Bigger Than Me”, is twinkly and tightly-constructed, reminiscent of offerings from glitch-pop artists like Sylvan Esso, while “Readymade” is a lush, orchestral ballad. Ray was inspired, she says, by how Lorde embodies creativity in “Liability” - as “the only girl I ever loved, a forest fire.” Likening the creative process to the volatility of romance resonated with Ray, who had been grappling with the highs and lows of being a recording artist; with coming off “big, exciting days” spent on tour, or recording music, only to find herself completely alone, and the tension between the writing process, which Ray describes as “long and isolating”, and the huge, adrenaline-fuelled rush of being able to share your music with an audience.

For Ray, though, it’s the music that really matters, rather than the format it’s delivered in. Referencing ballads that became renegade hits “Somebody That You Used To Know” by Gotye, and “Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo, Ray notes that “things are changing so quickly in the music industry”, and that “you never know what’s going to move people.” With a smile, Ray concludes: “I really hope that with anything I ever release, I find a way to do it that amplifies the music in a way that feels authentic. And that it feels good and true to me, as a person and as an artist.”

Duology 1: "Bigger Than Me"/"Readymade" is out now
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