August 2018 saw Australian singer-songwriter Gretta Ray’s sophomore release Here And Now hit the digital shelves, running hot of the back of her 2016 breakthrough single ‘Drive’. Ray combines female-piloted pop-rock of the Imbruglia/Morissette school with a more developed lyrical persona and a sharp ear for melody. It’s the kind of music that stuck up hipsters love to pour scorn over in public, but secretly go home and listen to on repeat because they just can’t get the hooks out of their heads. I fully subscribe, however, to the notion that there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure – Gretta’s got a clearly defined sound, she knows what she’s going for, and in its genre, it’s some of the best work there is.
Gretta Ray is native to Melbourne, Australia, home to one of the most vibrant music scenes on the planet. Involved in music throughout her life, first as a school chorister, singing and touring with Young Voices of Melbourne, and more recently as the youngest member of the If You See Her, Say Hello songwriting collective. Recent live tours have seen considerable advancement for Ray, including support slots for artists as big as Lianne La Havas and James Bay, all the while gathering critical acclaim and even finding time to win the prestigious Vanda & Young Songwriting competition on the side.
Ray first came to our attention when, as a fresh faced 18 year old, she won a national competition with ‘Drive’ – a song which lays the foundations of her sound and style as a writer. Simple, joyful major diatonic chord progressions, often employing ascending motives, coupled to understated country/folk rhythm sections are the bedrock on which the song is built, but the magic’s really in the singing – both lyrically and melodically. Gretta skilfully avoids almost any repetition in the verse, using slight rhythmic variations allowing for her witty and verbose lyrical style, whilst still retaining a familiar enough melodic structure between couplets that the listener never feels lost. It’s almost like you know what the the next note has to be – except that your expectations are subverted often enough that the song always sounds fresh. Gretta also demonstrates superb use of enharmonic change in this song: the effect generated by holding the same note on top of a shifting chord progression, recontextualizing that note between different chords. It’s the musical equivalent of crack – gives you the chills and unbelievably more-ish, and was a technique beloved of Mozart, so Ray’s in good company!
A subsequent high point for Ray has been the release of ‘Time,’ which sees Gretta explore more tense territory. The trademark ascending-descending rapid-fire delivery is still there, but subtler instrumentation hints at unresolved tension. The backbeat and baseline are almost directly quoted from Lorde’s 2012 breakout hit, ‘Royals’, but lyrical themes here are more personal and introspective. Chord progressions are left hanging, the song builds to a climax that never seems to quite arrive and a glittering, delicate piano ostinato is draped over the top of the pensive chorus. It’s the work of a songwriter testing her boundaries, asking how far can she go without compromising the essential pop quality of the work. The production is artful, leaving enough space for Ray’s admittedly maximalist lyrical style. Muffled shakers give the track the forward momentum that it needs to avoid feeling too static, and single note guitar lines from a Fender amp that’s been pushed just over its volume threshold add the tiny sprinkling of dirt that gives the song the bite it needs. Overall, it’s a commanding piece of work, showcasing Gretta’s personal development as an artist.
Prior to Here And Now, Ray’s existing body of work was nicely compiled in her first EP, Elsewhere. Lead track ‘Unexpected Feeling’ channels echoes of Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car,’ but one can still hear Ray’s signature, multi-syllabically rhyming lyrical density bursting through in moments. The lyrics clearly showcase a developing talent, searching for the right vehicle to express itself. The pick of the tracks is ‘Don’t Let Her Love Hold You Down,’ a country-folk waltz, intelligently utilising strings and vocal textures alongside less traditional chord patterns to evoke a darker mood. The song is more emotionally distant and mysterious than the rest of her material, and showcases creative production advances, foreshadowing ‘Time’. It feels slightly like all the pieces are there in Elsewhere, just that the exact ratios of ingredients haven’t found their sweet spots yet. It’s still an enjoyable listen, with much of the enjoyment coming from charting Gretta’s progress – especially in the context of just how good Here And Now is.
Gretta’s not afraid of cliche, which plays strongly in her favour when the song’s as heavy a hitter as ‘Drive,’ but I’d personally like to see her experiment with a more sparse lyrical style, as the rapid-fire delivery can sometimes tie her hands when it comes to the kind of rhythmic and melodic patterns she can use in the vocals. However, it’s clearly a matter of personal taste, and within the confines of what Gretta does, she’s a master. Ray’s clearly got a lot more stored up in her locker and with such prodigious talent, it’s only a matter of time before we see her taking up her rightful position as a leading indie-folk chanteuse of the modern age.
Gretta Ray will be touring the US this December, kicking off in Philadelphia on Saturday 8th and culminating on Saturday 15th in Indianapolis. More information on upcoming tour dates can be found here.
Photo Credit: Michelle Grace Hunder