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interview: gretta ray is not afraid of heights

Gretta Ray

‘I was noble like a knight, I was lucent like a light, I was taller than a tower when I stayed within your sight…’ 

When you find yourself singing along to a poetic and emotionally rich ballad on the radio, you might not expect the words to be penned by an eighteen year old girl from Melbourne, fresh out of high school, just embarking on her professional music career. Such is this case with Gretta Ray’s latest single Towers. 

‘So now I’m not afraid of heights,’ the songwriter declares at the end of the chorus; and Gretta certainly isn’t, following up her two celebrated singles Drive and Unwind with a track that continues her rise to the top of the Australian music industry.

After winning Triple J’s Unearthed High last year, Gretta Ray has become a familiar name for music fans, her folky-pop voice almost impossible to miss with its high rotation on the airwaves. I recently chatted with Gretta to see how things are going for her now that she has finished high school and can focus on her music full time.

‘I’ve spent a lot of time playing to larger crowds since the Triple J Unearthed win, which has been really amazing, probably my favourite part of the whole thing…’ she tells me, ‘And I’ve been making a lot of important decisions for the future… Just wanting to make sure we make all the rights choices, like who I’m working with, what kinds of things I’m doing, what shows I’m playing… So yes, it’s been a busy but exciting couple of months.’   

I ask her where she gets the inspiration for her melodies and lyrics, given that the depth we see goes beyond most teenage experiences.

She says that when writing these songs as compared to her previous EP, she was listening to a lot more pop music, ‘when I opened that door again and started to listen to these melodies and hooks that had been created in modern pop music I found that incredibly helpful to my writing, and having that influence along with all of the poems and books I was studying for English Literature in year 12, meant that I had this ambition to produce songs that were sophisticated lyrically and utilised a lot of the concepts and metaphors that you study in poetry and literature… I was using all of that in the lyrical crafting while trying to incorporate melodic hooks, things that were catchy and things that would stay in people’s heads.  So yeah, the influences for the songs I am writing at the moment, I owe to literature and to pop music.’

‘Given the maturity of the subject matter, do you feel like a bit of an old soul sometimes?’ I ask jokingly.

‘Yeah, sometimes I just wake up in the morning and go, damn, I am an old soul!’ Gretta laughs, ‘I mean, it kind of takes me by surprise each time, I think it’s probably due to the fact that I spent a lot of time over the course of my life watching people, and observing human nature… it’s just such a big part of my life as a writer… So you get to know your own tendencies, and how you analyse your own feelings and experiences, then you start to do that with other people’s… I feel like when it comes to reflecting on things I spend a lot of time thinking about things, then turning to people to talk about things so, songwriting is a blessing in a sense because I get to take those thoughts and stories and spend as much time with them as I want, and find the perfect way that I can say it. I think that’s what’s so indulgent and satisfying about song writing,’ she says…  ‘It’s also really important to read, because then you have more words that you can use,’ she quickly adds.

Gretta is grateful for the opportunities that winning the Triple J competition has afforded her, but if it seems like she carries herself with the poise of someone who has been doing this for years, it’s because she has. She started her music career at the age of five, singing and touring with the Young Voices of Melbourne choir for twelve years.

I ask her if she has a musical family, and what she remembers best from the soundtrack of her childhood:

‘ Yes,’ she replies, ‘My Dad’s side of the family in particular… Christmas with them consisted of a lot of singing, a lot of harmonies, a lot of playing instruments… I listened to a lot of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Sheryl Crow, Paul Simon, Paul Kelly, Missy Higgins. Lots of different kinds of music… They are all amazing artists, all producing amazing records, so its incredible how unconscious those influences were as a kid, because I was so drawn to song writing  and I think now I can look back and really see that in my work as a song writer, I owe a lot to those records and their influence.’

Suddenly, her honest and poignant brand of story telling makes much more sense, the translation of these inspirations very apparent in her writing style. Recalling the first time I heard Towers and was quite taken by its complexity and deftness, I ask Gretta how that particular track came together.

‘Towers is, I would say, probably my best work,’ she says thoughtfully, ‘And I think what’s really exciting about the success we had with Drive, which was also something I was very proud of, is then you get to share your other projects knowing that people are going to listen. Towers was actually written before Drive was, I had a lot of time spent with those lyrics and a lot of time to construct the song. When I wrote it, it broke a long period of writer’s block for me and it was very different to anything I had done before. It was really exciting getting to share it with people, especially after what we ended up doing with it arrangement wise and with production. I think it sounds quite different to the easy-going pop vibe we went with for Drive.  There’s a lot going on in the production, which got me really excited, along with what we did with the backing vocals, how it ended up sounding a bit anthemic in the end, which I really liked… It made me excited for the fact that when you get to make an album, every song on it will relate to the last one in some way, but you also have the opportunity to make every one a bit different and try new things and to take risks and experiment. Mostly, I’m just glad that everyone finally got to hear it.’   

Gretta approaches music similarly to the way she approaches life; setting herself goals and challenges to push herself to be the best she can. When she talks about finishing high school she comments that even though she knew she would go on to music, she still wanted to get good results:

‘I guess I just felt the need to put in as much work as I possibly could because of the fact that I had chosen subjects for year 12 very specifically based on how they would benefit me as a person and a songwriter. I chose art subjects and music subjects and subjects that would help my writing, so there was no reason for me to stop paying attention to those even though there was a lot of other exciting and distracting things happening in music. I could just put that on pause for a minute and focus on the things that were going to help me in the long term.’

Now, that the ‘play’ button has been firmly pushed and things are charging ahead, Gretta is now similarly driven by specific goals in her music; she likes to set herself deadlines to see what can be achieved.

‘I’m writing more because I have this goal to have my album pretty much ready to go by August or September because I am heading over to Nashville around that period of time to record, or at least start work on it…’ she tells me, ‘I think it’s this weird interplay between creativity, which is supposed to be such a natural thing, but at the same time, because of how much time I spend with things, and everyone’s tendency to get distracted, or start new projects, that you’d never really get any work done if you didn’t have the discipline as well… Something I am learning at the moment is keeping that obliviousness and that innocence of creativity, but at the same time putting yourself under just the right amount of pressure to get something done.’

We close our call and I have the sense that we will be hearing much more from the songstress as the year progresses. She has just recently launched her single Towers this weekend in Sydney and Melbourne, and has scored a coveted spot on the Splendour in the Grass line up.  No doubt, Gretta Ray will continue to stand with both feet firmly on the ground and eyes set towards the future, ‘taller than a tower, and not afraid.’

Image: Emma McEvoy

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