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Gretta Ray on The Songs that Inspired ‘Begin to Look Around’

Following an exceptional year of milestones, Gretta Ray has shared a ten-track mixtape of the songs that inspired her debut album.

Image of Gretta Ray

Alexander Gow

While 2021 may have been a dull 12 months for some, it was certainly a banner year when it came to the amount of brilliant music that was released. Of course, when it comes to powerful albums, stunning debuts, or full-lengths that continue to resonate, it’s impossible to go past Gretta Ray and the majesty of Begin to Look Around.

Her first full-length release following numerous singles, a pair of EPs, and plenty of acclaim, it was an album that Rolling Stone Australia described as “a turning point” in her stellar career.

“Recorded in Melbourne and London a year before and during the global pandemic (in 2019 and 2020), the album marks a turning point for Gretta Ray,” wrote Poppy Reid. “While very much written with the fan in mind—a voracious music lover of all genres who wants to live life twice—it’s also clear this record is an indulgence for Gretta, an opportunity for her to explore new terrain and touch on the things that scare her.”

Truly, it was an album that came paired with plenty of career highlights for Ray, and one which fans will undeniably continue to discover new reasons to love in the coming years.

Now, with 2021 behind us and a new year of opportunities beginning to unfold, Gretta Ray has taken us back to her debut record, sharing an eclectic mixtape full of the tracks that inspired its composition. From Rufus Wainwright to Laura Marling, it’s a collection of songs as gorgeous as the record they inspired, and the sort of mixtape that only Gretta Ray could curate.

“Overnight” by Maggie Rogers
When I started writing Begin to Look Around, I wasn’t really sure what the record was going to be about. I just knew that I was ready to make an album, and that I was going to learn how to write a great pop song from consistently co-writing, and learning from my new collaborators. In the summer of 2019, I was on my way across Sydney to a writing session with Dylan Nash and Ned Philpot. I’d been staying on the other side of the harbour, and as I crossed over into the city staring out the bus window I started listening to Maggie Rogers’ debut album Heard It in A Past Life. After 45 minutes on the bus I’d worked through a lot of the record, and walked into my writing session filled with ideas.

Maggie’s music makes me feel so uplifted. Her album talks you through her journey as an artist who became extremely successful seemingly instantly, but whilst she is reflective, you can’t find an ounce of resentment, panic or disappointment in her tone. She is grateful, gracious and wide-eyed. I thought to myself ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could write about my relationship with creativity in that same tone?’ I played her song “Overnight” to Dylan and Ned, and shortly after, the three of us were writing “Bigger Than Me”, the song that would eventually open Begin to Look Around.

“Go Do” by Jónsi
So, this wasn’t a song that I listened to while I was writing my album, but it is a song that remains close to my heart. It would be remiss of me not to address how much this record contributed to how I approach making my own music. I listened to the cinematic record Go, by Sigur Rós’ frontman Jónsi for the first time when I was travelling Europe with my family over 10 years ago. I was an eager, flushed face kid taking in the wonders of big wide world around me. Our first destination was Rome, where the skies were a clear bright blue every day. The way that the evening light bounces off of buildings in Europe is an indescribably magical thing.

I think the only song I listened to the entire time we were in Rome was “Go Do”, rugged up in my puffer jacket with my headphones in. The memories that are triggered by listening to it now are wonderfully vivid; I am instantly transported back to that place and feeling. I wanted Begin to Look Around to be a lush, cinematic pop record, and for it to transport listeners to another place, the same kind of escapism I experience when listening to “Go Do” by Jonsi.

“Love at First Sight” by Kylie Minogue
I worked on the first demo of my album track “Happenstance” with John Castle in 2018. Writing wise, the song had taken quite a bit of crafting to feel complete. Even now, structurally it feels a bit all over the place: first verse, pre-chorus, half verse before the chorus… I don’t know what’s going on! Nonetheless, I love it for the wonky little patchwork that it is. When John and I started playing around with production ideas, he recorded the most pop-sounding electric guitar part that I’d ever heard on one of my songs before. It almost sounded like it was filtered, the same way the guitar is filtered in the introduction of “Love at First Sight” by Kylie Minogue.

There’s this excitement associated with that sound for me. Mostly because I listened to Ultimate Kylie so much when I was growing up but also, that effect of filtering certain production elements and then slowly lessening it as the song moves into itself… it’s that unmistakable, energetic, brilliant early 2000s pop. It’s so much fun. When we made this demo I felt so enthusiastic about making a pop album.

“Hard for Me” by Charley
Emerging Australian pop artist Charley has become a very close friend of mine since 2019, when I saw her perform at a showcase in Sydney. Her set of original songs struck me because she was such a flawless live vocalist, I could barely believe it. I felt like turning around to the audience and saying, “is anyone else here hearing this? She’s a freak, she’s an absolute superstar!” She closed her set with a song of hers called Hard For Me”, which boldly sings of that all-consuming feeling of being completely, unashamedly infatuated with someone. As I watched her perform it with a giant smile across her face, I, too, found myself beaming, staring starry-eyed at this incredible new artist.

The following day, I had a writing session with Ned Philpot and Robby De Sa. I remember saying, “I want us to make a song that makes people feel how Charley’s song has made me feel.” We touched on other references as we built the track, songs from Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream and Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour. I wanted the song we were writing to sound like how you feel when you’re laying in the sun… when it’s almost too hot to handle but you’re so relaxed that you’re nearly falling asleep. With that in mind we wrote “Human”, a blissfully dreamy pop moment on Begin to Look Around, that listeners can indulge in right before the dense breakup songs begin!

“Clean” by The Japanese House
I listened to The Japanese House’s EP Clean so much when I was in my final years of High School. I completely fell in love with this project after finding out they’d be opening for The 1975’s upcoming tour that my friends and I had tickets to. I immersed myself in both of their EPs, but it was the title track that stood out to me the most. I think at that point in my life, I was still learning about how profoundly evocative pop music could be. In my mid-teens, I was quite stubborn when it came to digesting new music; I had ruled out the possibility that electro, synth-pop could move me. I could not have been more wrong. I now frequently use a vocoder on my vocals to incorporate additional harmonies, and I feel that many other pop production elements that I use in my music have added a richness and depth to the songs.

As for “Clean”, I’ll never forget hearing the blend of the final chorus and bridge towards the end of the song and hoping that one day I would create something as cool and as creative as that. When it came to producing the second pre-chorus of  my song “Cherish” with Dylan Nash, we pulled up The Japanese House as a reference in hopes to achieve a similar evocative, slightly darker production. 

“The Tower of Learning” by Rufus Wainwright
Poses by Rufus Wainwright is such a timeless record. To me, it doesn’t sound like it was made in 2001 at all. I grew up listening to “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”. With each listen, I was more and more entranced by the shift from major to minor going into the third verse, and how the lyrics parallel with that sonic, emotive change. This album is the perfect amount of weird, but it also includes the most triumphant, soaring melodies which are a joy to harmonise with in the car. When Kyran Daniel and I started writing “Paris”, I immediately knew that I was going to lean into Poses for inspiration, particularly a song called “The Tower of Learning”.

The ascending melody into the chorus is one of those moments in music where you are immediately transported to that place that the song depicts in its lyric. The song is also in C major, a key that I tend to avoid writing songs in. Coincidentally, we found that the piano that Kyran had arranged for “Paris” simply didn’t belong in any key other than C Major. I don’t think I mentioned to Kyran that I had Rufus’ record in the back of my mind as we wrote that song, but when I eventually shared it with him it seemed to make perfect sense. Both “Paris” and “The Tower of Learning” champion that daunting, wonderful feeling of being awe-struck by that city.

“Better” by Regina Spektor
I wrote the piano part for “The Cure” in my bedroom, recording it into my voice notes and humming some melodies that I thought may or may not work with it. I made a snap decision that I would save that piano part for a moment wherein I felt like writing an ‘anthemic’ song. In the middle of April 2019 after a few pretty difficult weeks in my personal life, I woke up thinking about that piano part and knew I was going to take it into my writing session that day. Jonny Hockings and I wrote “The Cure” without producing up the demo; it was just piano and vocals.

When it came to producing the song for my album, I knew it was going to be ‘the band song’ on the record. Again, not only was it in the same key as Regina Spektor’s “Better,” but it had the potential to have that same warm, expansive feeling to it. Regina Spektor’s discography soundtracked my teenage years as well as a lot of my childhood too. It comes as no surprise to me that “The Cure” feels like the most ‘me’ song on my album, with her sound influencing that song so much.

“The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Shadows” by Gang of Youths
One of the reasons I named by album Begin to Look Around, other than the fact that it’s a lyric in my song “Paris”, is that I had countless moments while I was writing the record where I really did have to look inward, give myself a little pep talk and say, “chin up, look at where you are!” I often had these moments when I was on tour, opening for my friends Gang of Youths. One night at a show in London, I was crying on the couch in the green room about a breakup I was going through, only to join Dave moments later on stage to sing “A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell during their set. Naturally, moments like these really put things into perspective. I was so, so lucky to have the opportunity to be processing my heartbreak by watching a Gang Of Youths show every night!

When I hear the chorus of “The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Shadows”, I am amazed at how that song simultaneously encourages one to live life to the fullest, but also not to take anything too seriously because “not everything means something, honey.” The honesty and optimism ingrained in Dave’s lyrics across their entire sophomore record hugely influenced not only my outlook on my own life, but how I approached writing about that period of time (I feel like Go Father in Lightness is the same kind of timeless that Poses is). What were the positive things that I could take away from such a painful heartache? It’s unbelievably fitting to have Dave singing on “Worldly-wise”, lyrics that I wrote that say “widen your horizon and lift your eyes“, when our private conversations would contain this kind of advice from him. I love all of those boys and their music very much.

“Don’t Ask Me Why” by Laura Marling
Laura Marling’s music has been like the big sister I never had since I was about 15. When I heard her song “I Was an Eagle”, it instantly made me want to up my game when it came to my songwriting. You can hear her influence most heavily (it’s almost too on the nose I’d say), in my song “Don’t Let Her Love Hold You Down”, the second track on my debut EP Elsewhere. Since that EP came out into the world, I’ve consistently turned to her records when I need to feel comforted, calmed and inspired. Her songs may not have directly influenced Begin to Look Around sonically, but I wouldn’t write lyrics the way that I do if it weren’t for her records, particularly A Creature I Don’t Know and Once I Was an A Eagle.

Laura is only 31 and has released seven full length records, all of which contain songs that sound like they were written by an 80-year-old, reflecting on a life lived to the fullest. I think it’s healing to not only write about your experiences, but to write about what you’ve learned from them. Laura does this beautifully, and this contemplative way of songwriting has changed the way that I write music.

“One Day Like This” by Elbow
This is my favourite song of all time. Throughout Begin to Look Around, you will hear some incredibly exquisite string arrangements on songs like “The Brink” and “Readymade”, played and arranged by Berlin-based Australian musician Jonathan Dreyfus. I love how ‘mighty’ music can sound, and make you feel. To me, a rich string arrangement makes any song better. “One Day Like This” includes all of my favourite things in music: strings, big drums, a belted chorus, relatable yet authentic lyrics, and a singalong outro. What’s not to love? It’s no wonder that this song has touched the hearts of so many. It has never gotten old for me, not once. It has been in my life since I was a kid, and remains just as epic.

As an artist, my goal is to make music that accurately encapsulates universal emotions. We live in a very divided time, but people are much less divided when it comes to music. No matter our morals, we all want to “drink in the morning sun”. We know exactly what Guy Garvey means when he sings “I’m lying with you half awake, stumbling over what to say“. There’s no denying that songs like “One Day Like This” unite us. I hope to be the kind of artist that makes music that is undeniably inclusive. 

Gretta Ray’s debut album Begin To Look Around is out now.