Retro influence, contemporary approach, evocative vocals over a cinematic soundscape. Currently working on new material with producer Liam Watson building a catalogue of distinctive and wide-appealing songs.
Recorded and produced by Liam Watson at Toe Rag studios. All songs written by Robert J Ray.
Born and raised in Manchester, where it was not all that common to find a teenager in the 90s with a rockabilly quiff wearing golf shoes, Robert J Ray is now based in London working with a grammy award winning producer.
‘Golf shoes were the closest thing I could find to 50s brogues in Rochdale. They did a decent job of making you stand out a little even if most of the looks were looks of confusion.’
He grew up channeling music from the 50s & 60s while most other teens where fanatical about Brit-pop and Grunge. After trying out an Elvis album he had intended to give as a birthday present to his brother, looking into the past for new music became an addiction.’
‘The stuff that got me the most was always the blue stuff. The sad songs and the singers who sang with a smile but sounded heartbroken. Singers like Patsy Cline let you indulge in the misery without it having to be miserable, and it turns out I like a bit of melodrama and romanticism’
‘At 15 I got my first guitar for Christmas and discovered Chris Isaak’s wicked Game, which I first heard over the neighbours fence. It instantly grabbed me. It sounded both classic and current at the same time and it was just the catalyst I needed to learn a few chords and starting writing my own music.’
After moving to London to study Psychology, he quickly became wrapped up in London’s vibrant vintage sub culture. Attending Rockabilly raves, 60s Shin-digs and Burlesque clubs he found like minded people and musicians he could relate to. It prompted him to form a band and walk out of a newly acquired 9 to 5 job.
Within a year he had built a reputation as a distinctive act in his own right and was regularly headlining retro club nights in the city. What stood him out from the ‘in crowd’ was an evocative voice reminiscent of crooners like Scott Walker and Roy Orbison and a knack for writing retro influenced originals that appealed people both in and outside of the ‘scene’.
‘The reality is I don’t think i truly ever fit in to any scene. I was just not that one dimensional or crazy about any of them. I liked parts of them all but I couldn’t see me being able to stick to one style. It often involved being quite traditional to the music and fashion and I guess I am just not that much of a traditionalist.’
Paid gigs started to roll in but playing your own stuff was often lost on a crowd and it was essential to keep people on the dance floor to keep the gig. So an eclectic set featured groove based classics from the likes of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Johnny Kidd & The Pirates.
‘I think those gigs were pretty crazy looking back. Playing wild songs with wild musicians, at wild venues full of wild people! I would have been happy to sing ballads all night but I knew I had to learn how to rock and roll, and I’m glad I did’
Having secured a lengthly residency in Camden weekly gigs were attended by celebs, rockabillies, mods, hipsters and of course random tourists!. It was a strange cocktail of people that only London could provide.
‘One of my highlights from that period was meeting Amy Winehouse. She was often around and was a big Elvis fan, so a mutual friend set us up to meet before the gig. She was really nice to me and surprisingly tiny. It made me realise that my original music was what I wanted to focus on and I knew I had to move on’
Deciding to go it alone he began writing and recording with producer Danny McCormack (Imelda May) while working as a session player, songwriter and appearing in theatre shows.
‘It was always a balance between doing enough sessions to cover my studio costs and having enough energy to make the best of that studio time. A life in music can be a bitter sweet and I definitely struggled in this period. I began to suffer from severe perfectionism which prevented me from finishing my projects. It led to some dark times mentally however in overcoming that I’m now able to turn my creativity into reality.’
In 2016 he met Grammy Award winning producer Liam Watson (White Stripes) with the intention of making the record he had always wanted to make. Toe Rag was the perfect fit and a number of singles were self released as the pair quickly hit a groove, crafting a sound that was unique in it’s own right.
The most recent sessions feature guitarist Barrie Cadogan (Little Barrie), Tony Coote (PP Arnold) on drums, Bradley Burgess (Morcheeba) on bass. and Joe Glossop (Tom Jones) on hammond.
‘The new material has a lot of edge to it and a very cinematic feel. Imagery and music has always been important to me and I think each song paints a vivid picture in my mind. I think it’s definitely got a retro vibe, but I think growing up in the 90s has given me a lot of balance in my writing.’
‘The tracks have been described as a mix between Roy Orbison and Nike Cave, and I’m fairly happy with that assessment!’
A new EP is ready for release in 2020 and work is under way in Toe Rag for more music in 2021.