Gretta Ray

Begin To Look Around. Glorious, isn’t it? Feels like that ecstatic first burst of late-teenaged freedom and curiosity, when all things are suddenly not just possible, but thrilling, urgent, magical. That’s the moment Gretta Ray seizes with both hands on her debut album, crafted on the cusp of arrival and worldly wisdom in a rich, sensuous rush of heartbreak and elation.

“It’s a coming-of-age record,” says the pop singer-songwriter from Melbourne. “I think that’s a given when you write the songs between 19 and 21. I wanted to present a complete, honest portrayal of who I am now, and what brought me here.”

It’s no small story. Gretta was singing in her community choir at five, playing piano at eight. By 10, she was teaching the choir her songs, and soon the school band. She made her solo debut, acoustic guitar in hand, in a small Melbourne club at 16. Her first demos with Josh Barber (Gotye) were released as an indie EP, Elsewhere, when she was 17.

In her final school year, Gretta’s modest ascent as a singer-songwriter turned into a blur of dreams-made-real. A chance meeting led to her first Australian tour as a member of Japanese Wallpaper’s live band. A school concert was interrupted by the crew from national radio network Triple J, crowning her their Unearthed High winner of 2016.

“Weekends were like, do my homework, then play a support show at the Workers’ Club,” she laughs. “I’d be in a hotel room writing my literature essay, then go to soundcheck, hotspot my phone to send off my schoolwork in the back of an uber, play the show to 500 people… then get up at 4am, fly back to Melbourne and walk into class.”

In this way, Gretta managed to nail the country’s most prestigious music award one day then smash her final English exam the next. A remarkably sophisticated folk-pop daydream penned on her bedroom floor, Drive won the 2016 Vanda & Young Global Songwriting Prize, named for the Easybeats partnership of Oz rock legend.

“Drive was the song that accurately captured how pop music excites me,” she says. “I remember vividly hearing the mix and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is the kind of song that the radio might like’. As soon as you get that perspective, I think you grow a little bit more confident and go, ‘Well… how far can I push this?'”

She weighed that question for one more indie EP, 2018’s Here and Now, partly recorded in Nashville, and a diverse trickle of exploratory singles: Re:Stacks, a Bon Iver cover with Dustin Tebbutt; Better with Japanese Wallpaper and her own Heal You In Time: as it happened, her last release in the guitar-picking pop-folk mold of her early work.

“When I was a kid,” she reflects. “I always wanted to be a singer. And when I imagined that, where was I? Playing small club shows? Doing acoustic bedroom videos? No. I was up, dancing, being loud. Movement, colour, excitement. I always had that picture in my head.”

Begin to Look Around is a giant leap towards making that picture real. It’s a bold, layered, colourful pop album made over 2019-20 in Melbourne, Sydney and her adopted home of London with a stellar array of writer-producers working at the vanguard of modern pop.

Her key Australian producers and co-writers Robby De Sa, Dylan Nash and Kyran Daniel have honed their studio empathy and expertise with the likes of G-Flip, MAY-A, The Veronicas, Dean Lewis, Tash Wolf and Lakyn. In London, the combined resumes of Jonny Hockings, Chris Zane and Matt Hales include Hannah Jane Lewis, Lilly Ahlberg, Lianne La Havas, Bat For Lashes, Passion Pit, Friendly Fires and Brooke Fraser.

David Le’aupepe sings on Worldy-wise, which features additional production by his band Gang Of Youths. Josh Barber makes a significant return from those early EP sessions, as well as newer partners-in-creation Ned Philpot, Laura Welsh, Daniel Neil McDougall, Chris Collins, Duncan Boyce and Jonah Stevens.

Begin to Look Around is the sum of all this and more: a thoughtful, crafted, hairbrush-singable body of work that celebrates the bravery and trust of laying bare the bones of your life with fellow creatives and the thrill of new paths — with killer hooks at every turn.

The cohesive nature of the album began to unfold with Gretta’s innovative release strategy, ‘Duologies’: songs released in thematically linked pairs throughout 2021. It’s how fans first came to know and love Bigger Than Me and Readymade, songs in praise of creativity itself, soon counter-balanced by the more physical thrusts of Human and Passion.

They were followed at tantalising intervals by the breathless-then-crushed romance of Cherish and The Brink; the slow-dawning wisdom of Love Me Right and Learning You, and the climactic ‘independence trilogy’, Paris/ The Cure/ Worldly-wise. The debut album includes three more moments frozen in time and set in harmony: Happenstance, It’s Almost Christmas in Philly and Care Less.

“Thematically I think this record really values changing your mind about things,” Gretta says, “realising that it’s OK to not necessarily know that you’re going to make a beeline to this decision, to this person, to this place, that things will evolve and change and you will grow.

“My favorite records are the ones you step away from and feel like, I can’t wait to make something; I can’t wait to make my own music or art go out into the world and feel inspired to move; to just throw yourself into something and take a chance. I hope I’ve made something that makes other people feel like that.”

And as far as her own journey is concerned? “If there’s a big button that I can push to take off,” she says, “this is me pushing it.”