Australian singer-songwriter Dean Ray won fans on the 2014 season of The X-Factor with his incredible voice – but his musical career started far earlier than that. Indeed, it started before he was born, as I found out when we spoke recently about Ray’s second album, The Messenger, and other things. Originally from Queensland, Ray now lives in Melbourne and tours around the country.
Ray is a fascinating artist, and The Messenger is compelling; I only wish we could have spoken for longer.
You come from a musical family and your parents were performing while you were growing up – what is your earliest music-related memory?
I think it’s a sound memory – it’s not so much something that I saw. The sound of being behind the stage, and the smells and everything that goes with backstage. It’s like a really muffled sound. You can hear mostly bass – a bass sound – from behind the music. That’s probably the thing I remember most, because from maybe the age of one they’d put me to sleep backstage while they played shows. I remember that muffled sound and the smell of the curtains and the equipment.
A lot of kids don’t get to be where their parents are when they’re working. Was there a certain age when you thought, I really want to be out there with them – I don’t understand why they’re leaving me behind?
It did get to that point once I started to play music. When I was eight or ten, I said, ‘I want to be doing that’, because I was already playing drums by then. I started playing drums from birth [laughs]. I always had this natural rhythm and I’d be playing rhythmic stuff on Milo tins and hubcaps. I was always trying to play drums. So I think I started actually playing when I was five and when I was eight I wanted to be playing with them. But I wasn’t good enough – I was a kid. They started us playing three or four songs with them at that age.
Did you ever feel nervous doing it or were you more excited?
I don’t think I was overly nervous. It was more of an excitement thing. I felt nerves more when it came to singing, but as far as playing music, I could be on a stage in front of it wouldn’t matter how many people and I wouldn’t be nervous about just playing music – being a guitarist or a drummer. But being the frontman, I get nervous about that. I still get nervous now before shows.
In some ways you wonder whether it’s good to have those nerves – they keep that edge there, and they suggest that you still really want people to have a good experience in the audience. If you lose the nerves, I wonder if you lose the interest in the audience in some ways.
You don’t lose the interest in the audience but you do lose the high. You want to have those nerves so that when you hit the stage the adrenaline will kick in, and then you get that high. I’ve only played a few shows when there’s been no nerves and I’ve still performed the show just the same but I didn’t get a high out of being on the stage. I got a high from the audience – I felt the vibes – but I didn’t have that adrenaline rush.
Just thinking of you being a little fella and wanting to play drums – it’s interesting that you connected with beats first instead of melodies, given that you now play guitar and sing.
My mother played in bands up until she was eight months pregnant with me, so I believe it’s that. I think it was the subconscious. I just always had rhythm because of that. I was in the womb just getting pounded by the bottom end, by bass – there wasn’t much of a choice! They didn’t play when she was pregnant with my brother but when he was born they’d get him to sleep by my dad playing records like The Shadows – real melodic music. He never had a sense of rhythm but he can play piano really well. His sense of melody is beautiful.
So you two are like a little science experiment, in a way. If you want to produce certain types of musicians …
You can influence certain things, definitely.
And given she was playing when she was eight months pregnant, you really would have been feeling those vibrations.
It would have been so loud [laughs]. I’d have been thumping around from kidney to kidney.
Eventually you did progress to melodies because you started singing – at what age was that?
I was forced into it. I was really, really bad at singing – I’m talking tone-deaf bad.
I can’t believe that, given how you sing now.
It’s because I’ve worked my arse off. Ten thousand hours [laughs[, that’s all it is. It’s a skill, it’s not a gift. People say, ‘Oh, you’re so gifted’, and I say, ‘In what sense?’ They say, ‘Your voice and your guitar playing.’ And I say, ‘No, that’s skill. That’s all skill.’ When I first picked up a guitar, I was shit. And when I first played the drums or played bass, I was shit. And when I first sang, it was bad. It was quite woeful. But I think the reason I was able to get to where I am is because I became obsessed. I think a lot of musicians have a mild sense of autism about them. I did an autism test once and apparently I’m autistic [laughs]. A friend of mine, his son was autistic and he did the test on me and he said, ‘You’re autistic.’ And I said, ‘No? Really?’ But I do get obsessed with things. That’s what I was like and I’m still like now. I didn’t have video games as a kid – we didn’t even have a computer – so I was obsessed with music. I’d be playing drums all the time. And then when guitar came about, when I was twelve or thirteen, that was it for me then – I was just really addicted to that. It was full-on, all the time. My fingers would bleed and I’d have to Supaglue them back together so I could keep playing. Singing – I’d started writing songs and I think I was fourteen when I first sang. Dad forced me into it. I’d written a song and he said, ‘Well, are you going to sing it?’ And I said, ‘Oh no, man – hell no.’ He said, ‘How are we supposed to know what it sounds like?’ And I said, ‘It sounds like shit. I know what it sounds like and I’m not going to sing it.’ Anyway, he talked me into singing. I stood in a corner and sang it – I couldn’t face anybody. And it wasn’t long later – I think the first time I played in front of people was on the Gold Coast at Lloyd Nugent’s house. Lloyd Nugent made Moccasins, which are the shows that shearers wear. And we were there at his place, with his family, and I sang in front of about 30 people. That cured it then – I wasn’t nervous singing in front of people again.
When you wrote that song, and wrote other songs, who did you think was going to sing them?
Not me. I was just doing my job, I guess. I was channelling stuff and writing it down. I hadn’t thought any further than that. I just thought, I’d better write this down.
That idea of channelling – did you obey that urge to write things down when it first came to you or did you have it for a while before you began writing?
I met them when I was probably eight. I met these strange characters that weren’t from around here, you know? They gave me certain knowledge and energies and things, and they’ve always guided me through certain situations. They’ve guided me through everything. That opened me up to all spirituality, not just hierarchy spirits. Which was quite dangerous, you know – it’s a very dangerous thing to be open to everything spiritually. You need to be able to protect yourself otherwise you get hit with negative energies, forces, whatever you want to call them. There’s different strengths among them. I never had any trouble with it, though, until I was older. But they’d just take over and you’d write a song. You don’t remember writing it, you just know that the time had changed – the time on your watch was different to what it was before.
That idea of protecting yourself – if you’re open to that you’re open to everything, and it takes a lot of practice and discipline to protect yourself. Is there a correlation between the practice and discipline it took you to play instruments and become a great singer, and learning to protect yourself? That recognition that work is required, I guess is what I’m trying to say.
I don’t’know if it’s discipline – it’s not too hard to protect yourself. I just didn’t know how. If anyone is reading and struggling with something like that, they f*cking hate crucifixes. I have crucifixes all over the place, and I’m not Christian. I take bits and pieces from all different religions, but as far as religions themselves, I think they’re a man -made thing to control people. It’s no different than a government now. Religions were the government back in the day – suck money out of the poor. There’s a lot of truth to all the different religions and their writings, but a whole lot of it is manipulative bullshit.
Designed to keep people in line.
To keep them suppressed. Keeping people in line and keeping people are down are two vastly different things. The issue with the world at the moment is that they’re obsessed with keeping people down, which is why 10 per cent of the world make most of the money. And they won’t share it. They have no intention of sharing it. Why the f*ck not share it? If you’re sitting there with 70 billion dollars in your bank account, what good is that? There’s so many people starving around the world and there’s so many people sitting there with stacks of cash. Gene Simmons is incredible – the bass player from KISS. He’s gone out and made squillions of money, and he’s set up all sorts of schools all through Africa. The kids can go in – they’ve got clean, running drinking water and he supplies breakfasts for them when they get there, lunches, dinners, sends them on their way. That’s what you should be doing with the money.
I would happily talk to you further about all sorts of things, because I’m sure it would be interesting, but I should go back to your music. And the topic of channelling the songs. You’ve said elsewhere that a lot of the songs aren’t about you personally – they’ve come to you – but all the songs on the album have the same sense of emotion and power behind them, as if they’re all occurring to you. Is it ever hard to summon that each time – each take you do – does that ever feel like it’s draining, or does it come back to learning to protect yourself?
It’s draining as shit [laughs]. It’s so draining. It’s one of the most tiring things I’ve done, what I do now. When I perform I have this rapid meditation before I go on. It only lasts about 30 seconds and I pull in as much divine energy as I can and charge myself up. There’s pictures that I’ve seen that people have taken at shows, of the aura that’s around me, and I charge that up and give it all out while I perform. But I don’t like to leave the stage unless I’ve given it all out. Which is why people feel good at the shows. They get the goosebumps and they feel this mysterious force going on -it’s because there is a mysterious force going on. It’s mysterious to them. They’re unaware of what the bloody hell is going on. But I’m feeding them not just songs. There’s an energy play going on.
That’s a massive commitment from you, so it’s no wonder you’re drained.
Yes, but it’s my purpose. People think that singing and guitar is my gift, but it’s not. I was given a gift and I remember the moment and the beings that gave it to me, and it was the gift of energy and knowledge of being able to communicate that. That’s my gift. My gift is not the music. My music is purely a foundation in which I can spread the knowledge that they’re telling me. I’ve had to get good at it so people will listen to it [laughs].
But it’s also feeling that responsibility to the knowledge you were given and also responsibility to the audience to bring it to them.
Yes. I try not to focus too much on responsibility and feel the pressure of everything, because at the end of the day I don’t write the path. The path is written. People think you can change it because they say, ‘No, I won’t do this today – I’ll do that. There you go, I’ve changed the path.’ No, but it was written for you to change. It’s always written. Nothing that I can do – except do the best I can.
I now understand better why I keep going back to your album. Musically it’s terrific but there was something else going on, and now I know what it is. So thanks for creating it and thanks for your time.
No worries. Thanks for your time.
The Messenger is out now.