By Poppy Tohill
Music has always been a considerably big part of Dean Ray's life, but since coming runner up in Australia's sixth season of X Factor, Ray has become a lot busier touring the world and releasing singles such as'Coming Back,' which reached number #5 on the ARIA Singles Chart, followed by the release of his self-titled debut album in November last year, which also debuted at number five on the ARIA Albums Chart and has been certified gold in his home country.
Ahead of Ray's great show at the King's Arms in Auckland this week, I had the chance to jump on the phone and talk with Dean about the biggest changes in his life over the past few years, touring, music videos, singles and smashing sculptures.
You grew up in a fairly musical family, can you fill us in a little bit on what your upbringing was like?
When I was a young kid my parents were playing a lot of music, so we travelled around a lot and I got used to sleeping backstage. As I got older I started playing drums and began playing along with them when I was about eight years old. We ended up settling in South West Queensland and continued playing music in the weekends in all sorts of rural places, so yeah, it was a really interesting life style that was different to most people's.
Considering your parent's influence and being so engrossed in the music industry from such a young age, did you ever consider doing anything other than music when you were growing up?
Oh yeah, I wanted to be all sorts of things. An actor, cricketer, astronaut (laughs). I was twelve years old and backstage at a gig when I decided music was actually what I wanted to do. There's people out there who get to about 30 years old and still don't know what they want to do with their lives, so I think I was really lucky to realise where I belonged so early on.
I went to boarding school for a while, playing my guitar and writing songs the whole time I was there and then when I got to about the age of 16 I thought, well I might as well actually start playing some shows now, so I left school and did just that. I didn't have a lot of money so I just often played for meals and drinks, slowly working up the ranks.
I spent a bit of time in Queensland and New South Wales, then I moved to Melbourne when I was 19, which was the hardest part, because there's so much competition there. So I did it pretty tough for about four years trying to get a break through and just working at my craft. I did a lot of busking, playing in bands in bars and then the opportunity for the X Factor arose and I thought, yeah that could work for me... I thought if I could keep my artistry enough to remain who I am then it'd be worth my while, so I sort of went with that and it turned out I could remain myself as an artist, enough, so I used it as a tool to spread the word and get my music out to as many people as I could.
How has life changed for you since being on the X Factor and coming runner up in the competition?
It's good media training, because if you throw yourself on prime time television you're soon going to figure out how to do interviews and how to work with a busy schedule. But I guess the main difference for me is, instead of playing four or five nights a week, I now have times where I play and times where I write. So I might do two weeks of gigs and then two or three weeks of just writing and recording, which is cool. It took me a little while to adjust to that, because I just want to get out there and play, but there's a lot of work that goes into one show behind the scenes. My management office work around the clock to set up even just one show and I've done about 50-60 shows this year already, so we're doing alright!
Many people in the music industry have varied opinions on The X Factor & other such shows, how would you say the show benefited you and would you recommend being on such shows to other young aspiring musicians?
Not young young, over 18 yeah for sure, you have to have your wits about you and have a good work ethic. I just saw it as a modern day Ed Sullivan show. So back in the day that's where all the new talent was being promoted such as Elvis & The Beatles. It's where you showcase your music to as many people as you can, so I just saw it as a new age Ed Sullivan show. The industry is not like it was but you've got to adapt. I wish I was born in the 30s so I was around, playing and doing what I'm doing now in the 50s and 60s, because that would have better suited my personality and music, but you just adapt to it.
You've had a pretty extensive touring schedule this year with more shows to come, how has the touring been going for you so far, and what do you love most about performing live?
Yeah I've been touring for about the past 6 months now. I just get lost in it and feed off the audience. If the audience aren't really involved than neither am I and I just do the gig and get out of there, but if the audience are really involved then I just have the most amazing time and it ends up being really fun.
I'm a bit of a quirky, left-centre guy so only exciting people come to my shows because they know they're in for some fun when they turn up. 'The sleepers' as we call them don't generally show up because I'm too energetic for them and there's just too much going on, (laughs). But my crowds are usually really vibrant and pumped even before I get to the stage, so it's really cool.
You'll be on our shores very soon for some shows - what are you most looking forward to about performing in New Zealand?
Just being there because it'll be my first ever time in NZ! I don't really have any time to check it out because there's something I've got to get to afterwards, but if I do get a bit of time I'm going to go crazy!
It's going to be a very interesting solo show. It can get very energetic at times and then also very intimate.
For those who aren't too familiar with your sound, how would you best describe it?
I'd say it's acoustic, folk-rock. It's really hard to pin point in one genre, because I sort of mix several genres into one, which I've never tried to do, it just happens organically.
There's so much different music in the world I think it's going to become more and more like that now and we're not just listening to one style anymore. Back in the day you'd just be like, 'I like country, swing, I like jazz music, rock music, etc,' where as now there's so many different genres, influences and people, I don't believe in genres so much anymore.
I think they should be cast out in the past and things should be categorised in a different way. See with me for example I'm about six genres in one (laughs), so I think I'm definitely an artist that needs to be seen to be understood.
Not only is your debut single 'Coming Back' a brilliantly catchy tune, it has a pretty great music video that goes with it too. I've got to ask - how fun was it to smash that sculpture?
Aw, thanks, yeah that was pretty rad! It was also pretty nerve-wracking though because I only had one take. We only had one of those sculptures so I was like, 'oh shit, what if I miss?' and they just said, 'don't miss, just hit it!' (laughs) but it ended up being perfect and I got to smash the stand it was on as well, so that was pretty cool (laughs).
The video also shows your pretty 'cool, rockstar' image and sense of fashion. Is fashion an element you consider important to your career as an artist?
It's important for me just as a person. I've always loved leather jackets and weird stuff. I was talking to my dad about this the other day actually because he said to me, 'yeah, you've always been really weird and different,' (laughs). My main jacket is this massive fur collared trench coat. So I just love all that sort of stuff. I can't help it!
My favourite place to shop where I get a lot of my clothes from is 'Vintage Garage' in Smith Street, Collingwood in Melbourne.
Back to the music, a lot of your lyrics are very upfront, personal and emotional, can you fill us in on what your songwriting process is like.
The music usually comes first. So how it goes for me is, I have a creative burst where all the songs come out, then we go back to square one which is having no inspiration whatsoever, and when that happens I just drink, eat and relax while playing my guitar. Then when I'm doing that I start to come across these little melodies so I record them and this happens over the period of about two months. Then vocal melodies start to pop into my head and I get frustrated when I can't think of any lyrics. Then all of a sudden they just come out and I might write five or ten songs.
So that's the process for me and it's been like that since I was about 13 years old when I started writing. It's just been this ongoing cycle of me being really chilled out and dull, then a little bit excited, then frustrated and all of a sudden really inspired before going back to being dull again, (laughs). So I've been doing that month in and month out for about the last ten years, it's pretty annoying! (laughs).
When it comes to writing and producing your own music, who inspires you?
There's not really any other particular artists, as I try not to copy other people. I pride myself on being as original as I can. I do have that similar indie-folk, rock vibe to James Bay, Ryan Adams and the War On Drugs, though I guess, but I just try and do my thing.
The music I love listening to though ranges from John Lennon to Willie Nelson, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Stevie Ray Vaughn and all those cats, but I don't listen to them and go - 'I'm going to write a song now!'
A lot of people copy people, but I think my stuff comes from things I've probably heard from my childhood, such as melodies and styles in my subconscious from my parent's record collection, which luckily was quite vast.
Last but not least, you've obviously got a lot of touring planned for the rest of this year, but following that what is next for you musically?
I've just released a new single called 'IOU,' and after New Zealand I'm heading off to Canada. 'Coming Back' hit number one in a few cities there, so I'm touring over there for a bit and then I'll spend some time in the States just writing and recording. I've got a few festivals lined up later on in the year and by then it'll probably be pushing Christmas so will be time for me to rotate home and eat fruit cake!!! (laughs).
Thursday August 6th: Allen Street Rock Club, Christchurch
Friday August 7th: King's Arms, Auckland
Saturday August 9th: Bodega, Wellington
Tickets via Under The Radar