What a glorious time! It’s release week for Gretta Ray. Her debut album – Begin To Look Around – will finally emerge tomorrow, and let’s get the platitudes out of the way up front – it’s a hot contender for one of the pop albums of 2021. It’s got the hooks and the flawlessly-written songs to boot, a shiny production, and deep and superior lyricism. The album is an utter triumph for Gretta and everyone involved.
The release of a debut album is a massive undertaking for any artist but, for some reason, it seems even bigger for Gretta. It’s a dream come true for the young artist, the culmination of achievements with literal years of work, tears, patience, growing and building.
As Waxx Lyrical connects with her on Zoom, we immediately begin to pile praise on the record and her demeanour immediately begins to shift, her eyes widen and she becomes visibly moved and excited at once.
“I just got shivers,” she laughs, almost with a sense of relief. “That means so much for me to hear right now. I don’t know what people think of it, I’ve literally only heard a few things from people in promo, but for the most part…” [shrugs].
In a normal world, with no global pandemic, this time between completing an album and its release is incredibly taxing on an artist’s mental health to say the least. After sitting with their own songs for far too long, they’re now forced to wait while the “set-up” occurs with the label, management and everyone else ensuring all ducks are in a row for when the album is released. But how does any team, no matter how talented and hard working, give instructions to any sort of foul when the world is in such disarray, essentially blocking any meaningful promotional proceedings that doesn’t involve Zoom on a lifeless computer screen?
Gretta is clearly a bit impatient with the situation and is itching to explore the world with an album under her arm, and perhaps even get back to her typical globe-trotting - or a trip from Melbourne to Sydney, at the very least, to celebrate with her team. Still, she seems to take it in her stride, shrugging off any suggestion that it could dilute her own excitement for this massive milestone, something that’s not lost on her at all.
“It will take some time for me to wrap my head around the fact that we finished this album,” she writes in her album liner notes. “After 18 months of co-writing and countless international flights, followed by a global pandemic, my growing impatience for Sydney to reopen their borders and copious amounts of Zoom calls from London to Melbourne, Begin To Look Around has come into its final form I could not be more proud of it.”
Gretta calls it a coming of age record. She wrote these songs between the ages of 19 and 21 after all, which makes speaking with her now very different to how it might’ve been had she released these songs sooner. Now, at 23, she’s a different person, has moved passed those particular emotions of which she sings about on the album and is an emotionally mature, confidant and incredibly switched on individual with a remarkable grasp on the inner workings of the industry and a great deal of gratitude for the team and collaborators around her. No surprise really considering her career trajectory to this point was not a short one. At five, she was singing in the Young Voices Of Melbourne choir and began playing piano at eight. At nine, she was designing her own album covers and sequencing track lists of her own songs in the backseat of her parents’ car. At 10, she was teaching those songs to that aforementioned choir and, with acoustic guitar in hand, played her first solo gig in a small club in her hometown of Melbourne. She independently released her first demos as a debut EP – Elsewhere – when she was 17.
Gretta’s final school year saw her career leap forward significantly, taking her from the humble singer/songwriter-that-could to a “blur of dreams-made-real”. Electronic artist, go-to producer and all-round nice guy Japanese Wallpaper welcomed her as a member of his live band as they toured Australia, providing not only valuable experience, but also, fuelled the young artist’s passion for the road. But then in an event that changed everything, triple j’s Matt and Alex crashed her solo performance of future breakout single ‘Drive’ at a school concert to crown her their Unearthed High winner of 2016.
That same song went on to win the prestigious Vanda & Young Global Songwriting competition and racked up 13 and a half million Spotify streams. She soon signed a label deal with EMI Music Australia, played shows in the UK with Mumford & Sons and in the US with Gang Of Youths and a crack-team of top shelf professionals came together around her in a whirlwind of activity that essentially leads to this point, poised on the release of Begin To Look Around. If all that gave her a formative time to shine, the release of Begin To Look Around will undoubtedly provide another, much greater chance.
Unashamedly a pop album, Begin To Look Around is a journey on which Gretta is everything – she is the protagonist, the antagonist, the storyteller, a preacher, a student, lover, fighter, a victim, the scorned and - most importantly and victoriously – the fearless hero. Most impressively, she never appears to hide. She’s an open book and, even right now during our interview, she candidly talks about things like “crying all night before a session” or not knowing herself outside of a relationship. She doesn’t shun any emotion, something that only makes the album and the artist herself all that more relatable.
“Maybe I didn’t realise this at the time,” she begins, “but particularly now in hindsight and knowing that the record is about to be released and people are going to start hearing it - I feel like speaking about it more has made me realise just how universal a lot of the emotions unpacked on the record are.
“One element of the way that new music is being digested now, is that people seem to often listen in such a private way, such solitude: “I’m just going to put my headphones on and go for a walk and listen to this album.” It’s so personal, probably more so now than it used to be. I think that with the idea of live shows, and because we’ve lost them, there’s all the more sense of gratitude when you can celebrate that together as a group. But I do think that the way it’s processed at the moment is really a one on one experience with the record. I am really looking forward to people being able to have that experience with Begin To Look Around, because of the simple fact that I’ve moved through that part of my life which I wrote the record about - I’m excited for people to have that journey with it too.”
Being snapped up by a label at such a young age and put to work to write a debut album for the last few years, it’s really surprising to learn that Gretta is yet to play these new songs on stage.
“I haven’t experienced playing these songs live yet,” she says. “When there’s an audience there, there is always a certain vulnerability that you can tap into when you can see people watching you. But at the moment, with everything only coming out on social media and being online, there is this weird protective barrier because we are only connecting through a screen. Maybe in person that wall will fall away and it will feel different, but also just because the songs were written in 2019 and I’ve moved on from those emotions so I can look at them in hindsight as a really relevant learning curve in my life and celebrate them. It’s just really nice that when I do talk about the songs, and if I am honest on what they’re about, it’s much more opportunity for my audience to come to me over DMs or however we connect and be like “Me too, me too” and that really is everything. That’s all I really care about because that’s what music is supposed to do – connect us and make us feel the same way.”
The lead-up to the album’s release has dodged the typical roll out of singles, instead opting to innovate and release three pairs of songs Gretta calls ‘duologies’. Much like the A-side/B-side of old, these releases essentially share a thematic and emotional connection, and have given fans an opportunity to preview a whopping six songs before the album was even released – ‘Bigger Than Me’/’Readymade’, ‘Human’/’Passion’ and ‘Cherish’/’The Brink’.
It’s a fascinating exercise, as there is still much to discover within the album, there is no shortage of perfect performances and a strong display of songwriting throughout. The opening 1-2 punch of radio singles ‘Bigger Than Me’ and ‘Passion’ virtually leap from the speakers. It’s Gretta’s vocal, all calm and assured-like with a seemingly sharp focus on lyrics that strikes, immediately commanding the spotlight. The sequencing of the album or “the emotional arc”, as she calls it, is crystal clear and quickly presents itself on subsequent songs - a staggering 15 in total – and highlights are a-plenty. ‘The Brink’, ‘It’s Almost Christmas In Philly’, ‘Worldly-Wise and, perhaps the album highlight, ‘Love Me Right’ are just a handful of cuts that are spread out through the course of the album, making the listening experience effortless.
“I’ve fantasised about my track listing since I was a nine-year old,” she laughs. “I was just deeply obsessed with writing songs and I would sketch potential album covers, in the back seat of the car, in my notebook and list all the songs I’d written and try and order them. It was always something I obsessed over. It [the tracklist] did change a couple of times, but now the emotional curve of the record really does come across right with the way the songs have been ordered. I think that’s cool.”
The abundance of material across the course of Begin To Look Around, displays the sheer depth in which Gretta and her co-writers took these songs, the unique way in which she views the world and communicates emotion. There are, of course, the songs that arrive with sheer brilliant, pop abandon, but then there’s the other, deeper side of the singer. She is careful to explain that she never wants to fall into the trap of focusing solely on writing songs that will crack the radio.
“I never went into a writing session – and I hope I never, but probably will – thinking that “I want to write a single today”. It’s never an assumption and I’d like to say that that’s never the goal. You just want to write a really great song. Those things that “check the boxes”, you know with what a “single” is in pop music - it’s a good challenge to follow that formula and those rules sometimes, while also incorporating your own authenticity into it. But also, some of the biggest singles we’ve seen in the last couple of years have not done those things or followed those patterns – the main example out of Australia is the Gotye song, ‘Somebody That I Used To Know.’ That didn’t get to the chorus for so long, it’s a long song – there are so many things about it that weren’t predictable and that’s what made it so great. I want to be careful with that terminology because I think it can be limiting to my creative self. Following those pop formulas and trying to write a single is a challenge in itself, but I’d never want my project to get to a point where that was an expectation in sessions because I think there is a lot more to me as an artist than that stuff.”
Songwriters through the ages have often said that songs can fall out of the sky, they’re not written, they’re given to you as an offering and if you don’t accept them, they might just go to someone else.
“I feel like if the idea is worth it, it will come back around,” Gretta laughs with an air of contemplation. “One of the books I read while I was writing the album that I think inspired the direction of it was this book called Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. There are some really amazing and profound stories in it, like “I had this idea and then I wasn’t going to write that book for a while so I put it aside” and while she was away from it she finds someone who was writing the exact same book with a crazy parallel narrative. When did that happen, how did that happen, that idea being transferred to you. I totally believe in that and it’s worth exploring when it comes back to you, if not months later.”
The album was made over 2019/2020 in Melbourne, Sydney and her adopted home of London with an array of writers and producers who would assist Gretta in bringing her colourful pop vision to life. The resumes of London co-writers Jonny Hockings,
Chris Zane and Matt Hales include the glimmering likes of Hannah Jane Lewis, Lilly Ahlberg, Lianne La Havas, Bat For Lashes, Passion Pit, Friendly Fires and Brooke Fraser. Back home her in Australia, her producers and writers Roberto De Sa, Dylan Nash and Kyran Daniel have previously worked with the likes of G-Flip, MAY-A, The Veronicas, Dean Lewis, Tash Wolf and Lakyn. Gang Of Youths’ David Le’aupepe sings backing on ‘Worldy-Wise’, which also features additional production from his band. Early career-collaborator Josh Barber makes a return as well as newer partners Ned Philpot, Laura Welsh, Daniel Neil McDougall, Chris Collins, Duncan Boyce and Jonah Stevens.
“I loved all those sessions so much,” Gretta enthuses. “You couldn’t put two of them in the same category emotionally. When we [Dylan Nash and Ted Philpot] finished writing ‘Bigger Than Me’, that was a real moment, like “I think we just turned on a switch here.” I think after sending it to my team, it was like “right we are writing the record now.” We had landed something. I had finally fallen into this comfortable place of co-writing and there was a real special energy in that room, because we were writing about creativity and that thing, that creative force is in that room with you as we were addressing it in song. So that was such a weird, cool thing.
“Writing ‘Paris’ was another moment that was like “ok I am in the groove of this now,” she continues. “I remember when I was recording the demo vocals and arranging the harmonies, there was a feeling of “Oh my God, this song’s awesome, I’m so excited.” I was in about the middle of the writing process for the record and I was just feeling really great about how natural it was beginning to feel to let all of my feelings and perspectives out into a room with someone who maybe I had just met, but also the ability to take on their advice. I really loved that process and being able to trust my collaborators and for it to feel so right to meet in the middle.
“Writing ‘The Brink’ with Chris [Collins], that was the most panicked session, in the sense that I was so fragile. I thought I was going to spend that whole session crying, because I was in such a bad place. I was having a really terrible week in my personal life, but we went out to lunch before the session, spoke about it and then got into the writing room and he started playing those chords in the pre-choruses and I was like “Oh my gosh – the drama” and I realised that this was going to be great and then the song just literally fell out of the sky, into my lap.”
Perhaps the most key collaborator in the process of Begin To Look Around is producer Roberto De Sa. Gretta almost hands ownership over to him during our conversation and clearly holds their relationship in high esteem.
“There’s a guitar solo at the end of the record, on a song called ‘Care Less’,” she laughs. “We threw that in there last minute because Robby is the most incredible guitarist, he used to tour with Tina Arena as part of her band. He just started messing around and playing this solo over the outro and I was like “Oh my gosh, can you please do that” and he thought I was joking, but I thought “no it would make so much sense to close this record with a solo by you, this is your record too, have the moment. Go!” Every time I hear it, I feel so grateful that I got to make this record with Robby because he is just the most ideal collaborator who totally brought my pop visions to life in the production.”
Gretta Ray is one of those rare artists with a firm grasp of her destiny, leaving little to change and instead projecting her gifts for future-celebrity humbly, meaningfully and gratefully. She's already stacked up some serious accolades of late, including a set at Splendour XR and a triple j Like A Version during which she covered her "big brothers" Gang Of Youths. It's all up from here for Gretta, and we are excited to watch every magnificent step.
Gretta Ray's Begin To Look Around is our very first ever Feature Record, and we can confirm that she is giving us the royal fan treatment. Every club member in September will receive her twin LP on pink vinyl, a pressing that is only otherwise available direct from her own website and not via the usual stores.
Plus, as a special treat, everyone will be gifted a piece of fabric from the 'Bigger Than Me' video which Gretta has chopped up and signed individual pieces.