Hometown: Essex, England
Album: Lights Out Zoltar!
For Fans Of: The Shangri-Las, Johnny Cash, Ennio Morricone
In late September, minutes before her second performance in New York City, British chanteuse Gemma Ray politely approaches a venue bartender. After brief exchange, he leaves and reappears, handing a shimmering 5-inch steak knife to the stunning brunette, who quickly disappears backstage.
This is a common ritual. “Everywhere I go, I need to borrow knives, because I can’t bring a drove of them,” Ray laments over a rum and coke. “I used to play my guitar with a metal pipe, finding different thicknesses and kinds of metals. I ended up with a better noise coming from the back of a big chopping knife. It’s more of an atmospheric thing than a vicious thing. Though, I narrowly missed my guitar player’s toe once after throwing it from excitement… It was his first show as well.”
Ray’s American debut, Lights Out Zoltar!, is no less dramatic than its creator’s blade-welding tendencies. Her style has been termed “indie noir,” a cinematic blend of flamenco, rockabilly and vintage pop that would fit nicely on the scratched celluloid of forgotten exploitation films. Appropriately, Ray dresses the part a 60s femme fatale—hair plastered vertically into a modern beehive, figure draped in pastel sweaters and skirts, eyes ringed with obsidian mascara, she looks an awful lot like the music she plays.
For the 29-year-old Essex native, concocting a musical lexicon of obscure influences was an artistic process fueled by curiosity and boredom. “I’m always drawn to the way things sound and look for what they are, and they always seem to be from bygone eras. I prefer old-fashioned pickups on guitars because they just sound fat and warm. I like analogue recording. I like old clothes because they just have more style,” Ray says. “I don’t want to recreate things—I just want to mix up all my favorite things and see how it sounds. It’s an instinct.”
Her inspiration comes from odd classics—the Dolly Parton mix tapes her father used to play in the family truck, the warped audio manipulation of Sonic Youth and Pink Floyd, Polish composer Krzysztof T. Komeda’s soundtrack to Rosemary’s Baby. But Ray is bluntly appalled by the idea of being the poster child for any retro-cliché, especially with the recent commercial soul revival in her home country. “The people I know who make great music from that era with real soul and real instruments are still doing what they were doing a long time ago. The Duffys of the world just appeared and are being groomed,” she says. “I don’t think it’s a real resurgence—it’s just major label bullshit.”
Watching her perform, with her luminous voice and oversized cutlery, there’s no doubt that Ray is blazing her own silvertone trail. Even the title of her debut invokes resistance to the status quo—Zoltar is the name of so many machinated gypsies who impersonally foretell fates on tokens at arcades and amusement parks. “It’s an idea that I quite like—take control of your own future,” Ray says. “If you haven’t got any money, record an album in your friend’s lounge. Create your own fate.”