For many of us, the pandemic’s months of intermittent lockdowns have meant hours of self-reflection: time to consider who we were, and who we’ve become. It has left many musicians, whose schedules have been hit by delay after delay, releasing work that’s now several years old. Which for a young musician like Gretta Ray, going through a formative period of self-discovery, complicates talking about her debut album ‘Begin To Look Around’.
“The reality is I wrote the majority of this album in 2019 and it’s 2021 now. That’s COVID being COVID,” says the 23-year-old Melburnian during NME’s interview in Brunswick East, just down the road from where she grew up and went to school. “In hindsight, you know, maybe having released all this music sooner would have meant that I spoke about things differently.”
Out this Friday, ‘Begin To Look Around’ is itself the culmination of a more than five-year journey that began with the release of Ray’s debut EP ‘Elsewhere’, before she put out the song song ‘Drive’ – a track that won her triple j Unearthed High and the prestigious Vanda & Young Global Songwriting Competition. It’s clocked over 13million streams on Spotify alone to date.
The songs on ‘Begin to Look Around’ are based on Ray’s experiences and relationships in the years since, and the discovery of her own independence and self-sufficiency.
“I hadn’t really known myself outside of a romantic relationship. I’ve been in two quite long ones,” Ray shares. “And when one started to fall apart – it was quite painful and I was still really young – I was like, ‘oh my god, I don’t have anything to fall back on, aside from writing music’.
“In those moments where things feel really painful and you feel lonely, you only have yourself.”
“I didn’t write that song because I believed anything I was saying. I wrote it because I was trying to convince myself it was all going to be OK”
At several points during NME’s interview, Ray pivots away from discussing her emotions and the specifics of the stories behind her songs, seemingly determined to keep the focus on the craft of songwriting, how those pieces of music were created, and how her career started far earlier than ‘Drive’.
After all, she has been involved in music in one way or another her whole life. Ray discusses her family tradition of singing grace at the dinner table, and how from age five to 18 she sang in the Young Voices of Melbourne choir, which took her on international tours and schooled her early on in professionalism and punctuality. She talks about striving for perfect phrasing and how she likes to pack her songs with internal rhyme schemes and alliteration; she wrote over 50 songs for ‘Begin To Look Around’.
But while discussing the song ‘Learning You’, Ray’s voice cracks slightly and she quickly stifles emerging tears.
“I think that right there, this emotion [I’m feeling], is very within ‘Learning You’ in particular,” says Ray. “It’s just the sense of like, dammit, we really wanted this to go on forever… and then it just didn’t work and it kept hurting. And it just got more painful.”
With songs written as early as 2017, and the bulk in mid-2019, by the time of recording in December that year rolled around, some needed readjusting. Ray made subtle lyrical changes to better reflect her current thoughts on that period in her life. On ‘Learning You’ (written in July 2019 but recorded in January 2020), the original hook of “forever learning you and what a privilege it is to” became “forever learning you gives me something to hold on to”, a small change that for Ray was significant.
“I had clocked by [the time it came to record] that I didn’t write that song because I believed anything I was saying. I wrote it because I was trying to convince myself it was all going to be OK and I knew that it wasn’t,” says Ray. “I had to arrive in a certain place emotionally to finish that song and actually be true to what it was, which was a very beautiful but bittersweet message to someone.”
Ray dealt with her breakup, separated from friends and family, while on a trip to the UK to visit her management and undergo songwriting sessions (including with Mumford & Sons, whom she supported through their 2019 Australian tour; songs from those sessions didn’t make it onto the album, though). During the trip, she supported Gang Of Youths over five sold-out shows at the O2 Academy Islington, and remembers leaving the stage at one show only to burst into tears in the green room.
“When you leave and the venue’s packed up, everyone’s gone home and there’s ringing in your ears. You’re not in a good place, you have to go back and be by yourself, and it’s God knows what time in Australia. Yeah, that’s weird. That’s probably when it was the most lonely,” says Ray.
She describes how her manager chided her for having a “luxury breakup”, getting to spend it in one of the planet’s great capital cities, playing and writing with some of the biggest bands in the world. Ultimately, while it was challenging entertaining thousands as her own difficulties played out in the background, the experience became an exercise in finding her own coping mechanisms.
“I would be going through something that was awful, and I would have to get on stage and go in front of people. That’s really tough – I do think that takes resilience,” says Ray. “That’s probably why I give what was a bit of a crappy time such credit to forming me into the person that I am now. I was in these environments where there was this pressure, there was the sense of like ‘alright, you need to actually get on with it now. Just pull yourself together. We’ve got to get on stage’.”
“Other people can tell you a thousand times something is gonna be good for you, and it’s really helpful, but you don’t believe it… You can only get to that moment by yourself”
It was songwriting, and her life in London, that helped Ray begin processing the emotions springing from her breakup. She remembers feeling something switch inside her before a recording session at Kobalt Music’s London studios.
“I was like: I don’t think I feel like writing a song about being really, really sad tonight, or really yearning for someone today. I think I really want to write a song about how much I love how London makes me feel, and how it’s making me feel OK. And then I wrote ‘The Cure’,” says Ray.
With its build and rise into epic strings that dominate its back third, ‘The Cure’ is Ray’s favourite song on ‘Begin To Look Around’. It’s emblematic of a record which chooses not to wallow in the helplessness and sadness of heartbreak, instead grasping the empowerment to be found in independence.
“There’s a line in that song, it’s very simple: ‘maybe I’m OK without your advice’,” says Ray. “I feel like it was really defining that moment of like, this is actually meant to happen to me, I’m meant to be on this path. There’s something good that is gonna come out of it. Other people can tell you a thousand times something is gonna be good for you, and it’s really helpful, but you don’t believe it just from those conversations. You can only get to that moment [by] yourself.”
Gretta Ray’s ‘Begin To Look Around’ is out August 27