After forty years in the music business, singer-songwriter Ray Sorenson is about to release his debut album, Silent Writer, and its first single is the wonderful ‘Blue Haze’. Recently I spoke to Ray about his background in music, and about the best time of day to write.
You’ve been a working musician for quite a while – for a few decades, in fact. So I’m just wondering if you can talk about what form that’s taken in terms ofhow you started, whether you’ve been playing solo, whether you’ve been playing in bands, all that sort of thing.
Right. Well, I’ve been playing since I was nine. And I started getting a repertoire of covers together by the time I was 18 or 19. I was playing at parties. And then, because I had such a variety of different songs I could play anywhere, in beer gardens or, you know, to any type of people, because I didn’t want to stick to one style. And, yes, I did a lot of solo work because I couldn’t get along with band members because of this – getting the talent was right but getting the ego was always a problem.
And so I stayed solo most of my life. And then I met Steve James, the producer of the album, and an ARIA award-winning producer, and we decided to put this album together. And, yeah, I’ve been rehearsing with the band in Byron Bay and hopefully we can get out there on a tour.
I guess the thing about playing on your own is that you can always rely on yourself to pull off the gig, and I guess that’s one of the tricky parts of playing with any band, even if it’s people you’ve known for a while. You can’tnecessarily rely on everyone having a good night at the same time.
Well, that’s right, you are restricted, and unless you’ve got a very, very super-versatile band that’s been with you for a long time and know your ways, it’s very difficult for somebody like me, who likes to read an audience and whatever’s written down to play the next song, that may not be the right song to play. So you have to swap and change to the mood of the audience.
And so when you were nine and you started playing, I presume you picked up a guitar and started playing then?
Well, my father played guitar and my mother sang, so I was brought up around music. And I started plucking away about 9 and when I was about 11 I got taught three chords by a friend called Geoff Dutton, and I took it from there. I just used to ride my pushbike up and watch them play guitar, playing in a band – through the window. And then have a look at what he was doing on the neck and ride my bike home and try it out on the guitar and do all that sort of stuff [laughs].
So do you read music now or do you still play by sight and by ear?
Oh, no, just always sight and by ear.
And when you were that young and starting to play, what music was motivating you? Because obviously there was some music that you loved enough to want to play.
Oh, there was all sorts of music coming out, like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, America, Eagles, Lobo, The Beatles, Moody Blues, there was quite a large influence. If the song appealed to me and other people liked it, well then, I’d learn it because then I’d know it was a favourite at a party.
So at this stage of your career, given that you’ve been playing for so long – and I wouldn’t mind betting a lot of those shows have been three-set shows – you’re used to playing long gigs, so that’s a lot of career basically. And this is the first time you’ve recorded an album. What’sbrought you to record the album now?
Well, finance, and just encouragement from my producer. He felt that no-one is writing songs like that anymore becausethey’ve all got a story and I’ve put them in such a fashion that they’re not very obvious, you know, you can get different messages from them.
And I would think also you had quite a collection of songs to choose from, from the album.
So how did you make the choice?
It was like drawing a graph, you know, how would you like to be brought into the album if you’re an audience, you know, and then level it out and then bring them up in the middle and then level it out again. And it was like a theme, and out of 45 originals I had to pick 13 of them. And I picked 13 different styles – well, six different styles out of 13 songs because I didn’t want people to think that I was just a writer in one style, I can write in all styles.
Do you thinkmany people put albums together like that anymore? Sometimes to me it sounds like albums are a collection of songs rather than a story but you’reobviously telling a story with the album’s construction.
Yeah, it is a bit of a journey [laughter]. I’ve never really looked at it like that but there is a definite theme there in the selection of songs.
I’m still thinking about all those songs you had to leave behind. Presumably though, that won’t go to waste, you can play them live and you’ve got them for a new album.
Well, that’s right. I’ve got enough for another couple of albums but doing them live you have to have them pretty well close to what you’re going to record them like becauseotherwise you’ll get in a bit of strife if you record it differently compared to what the audience is used to listening to it.
Right. And you were talking before about reading an audience and how you do that when you play. And I would imagine you’re doing that as well with your original songs. But is it tough to watch people’s reactions to songs if they’re not what you’re hoping for?
Well, this is the whole thing: I’ve taught myself how to let myself down, you know? I mean, you laugh about it, there’s always going to be somebody that’ll like it – that may not. You’ll never come across where 100% of the audience don’t like the song, it would have to a terrible song.
But I do six covers and put one of the originals in between one of those covers so it will be sort of hidden and it sounded a bit like a commercial song anyway, because somebody would say, “Who wrote that song?” and I’d say, “I did.” “Oh, wow,” you know? And plus while the people are still clapping you can throw an original in there and you always get a clap as well. So it’s the tricks of the trade, but I’d never get up there and sing six originals one after the other, that’s just too fresh – by myself, I mean. But with a band, making it sound full, and people have come to see you, that’s a different story.
So it sounds like you have developed quite an idea of stagecraft and performance so it’s not just, you know, “I’m standing here with my guitar”, it’s actually – like a lot of great country music artists – that idea of “how am I delivering the performance to the audience and how can I best entertain them”?
Well, this is right. As in the video clip for “Blue Haze”, on YouTube, I’m not showing any emotion because I don’t want to strip anybody of what they think or what they get out of the song. So it’s only my version of the songs, I feel the songs come through me, not from me and so I haven’t got much say in the matter. But I’m very proud of what we’ve got here at the moment.
Now, I was reading about “Blue Haze”, that it came out in a rush and in such a rush that you looked down and thought what you were looking at was like a doctor’s prescription pad.
Yeah, they all come out like that [laughter].
So does that mean they come at odd times that you’ve got to take a notebook with you just in case something strikes?
No, it’s usually about 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock in the morning – I call it my cosmic library gates are open. And my wife just didn’t believe me at one stage, that I woke her up one time when an inspiration came through. And we sat at the kitchen table for half an hour and nothing happened with it and then she went to bed. But it came out in such a rush, and when it comes out it’s really like a scribble, and if I go back to bed and wake up in the morning it’s just – I don’t understand what I’ve written, so I’ve got to stay there and try and work out what’s written.
I love that idea of the cosmic library gates. I’m wondering, though, do you stay up until that time in the morning or do you tend to get up and get out –
No, no, it gets me up.
Well, it’s the witching hour, I guess, 3 a.m.
Yeah, they do believe it’s the clearest time for the mind.
I don’t know that a lot of peoplewould have the discipline actually to get up when they’re called. But I guess that’s the difference between peoplewho can actually get their work out and those who can’t is that you’re prepared to not only hear the call but heed the call.
Yeah. I know a few business males and females that get up at 3 o’clock in the morning and work out their daily plan because it’s fresh, and then go back to bed and it’s all done for them when they wake up.
Mmm. Sorry, I still just really love this idea of the cosmic library [laughter]. So you’ve always written that way, it’s always come out in a rush?
Yeah, yeah. It’s always come with “don’t ask questions”, it’s very adamant about that.
And so for you, obviously, songwriting is the form that this storytelling takes. But have you ever written any other way?
I have tried to purposely write a song and you can definitely tell the difference. You know, it’s a bit pretty corny or – Steve, my producer, he let it come with the next album [laughter]. There’ll be some tricky ones on that one.
Well, I guess those other sorts of songs, you’re forcing from a different place rather than letting them flow.
Yeah, yeah. It can come through heartbreak, it can come through – you know, any emotional jolt will open the door. So I haven’t written a song for about five years because no-one has hurt me [laughter]. My producer reckons he’s going have to start hurting me a little bit [laughter].
Oh no, I’m crossing fingers for you that doesn’t happen because that’s not a good thing to wish for anyone [laughter].
Now, “Blue Haze” is a song that could actually be a sad song, given the time around when you wrote it and what the subject matter might be about. But it actually sounds like an upbeat song to me.
Yep, yeah. As I said before, it’s only my view of what I think it’s about. I would like people to feel that it’s a happy song actually, because you can, you know? Just because it says, “Soon at the end of time,” well, I mean, everybody – if there’s only a beginning and an end but it doesn’t necessarily mean death. It can mean anything, that’s why we’ve selected that as the first one because it can’t be pinpointed what style I’m doing. It’s not a country, it’s not a folk, it’s not rock. I don’t know, what style do you think it is?
Well, look, because there’s some steel guitar in it, I think that earmarks it as country, and I usually tend to put any kind of honest songwriting – storytelling songwriting – into country, becauseI think that’s the home for it and that’s where the audience is.
But, really, I think it’susually when we put labels on things it’sabout what the audience will think it is, if that makes sense.
Yep. Well, I’m hoping that the album will cover quite a variety of audiences. That’s why we put in such a variety of songs.
And, talking of country, you’ve got Lawrie Minson playing on the song and you have quite a few other impressive musicians on that track. I’m not sure if they’re playing on the rest of the album because I haven’tseen it. But did Steve collect all those people?
Yeah, they’re all handpicked. We got the bass player and the lead guitarist there out of Skunkhour, Dean Sutherland and Warwick Scott, and Lawrie Minson on pedal steel and slide, and Andrew Clermont, we handpicked him for fiddle. And Shay Henderson, he’s a young drummer and plays all the way around the world, and Bruce Hudson a fantastic drummer, Gary Steele on keyboards and piano accordion, Ray Scott on harmonica, one of the best in the world – well, one of the best in Australia as far as I’m concerned. And I think there was 11 musicians and 13 instruments actually.
Becauseyou’ve been playing these songs on your own for a while and some of them – “Blue Haze” has been with you since the 1980s, just from what the press release was saying.
Is it strange to actually now have a definitive version of these songs? Becauseobviously it’s one way to interpret them, the recorded version, but it’s not the only way. Does it seem a bit odd now to have this definitive recorded version?
The song hasn’t changed much from the very time it was written. I’ve always believed that the music circle would come around one day or other. You know, we went through the early ’80s of heavy metal and disco and everyone else like that, and I didn’t change my repertoire at all. But all of a sudden, now, people are starting to listen to America and Eagles and Bob Dylan and Neil Young and all that. It’s just done its full circle so as far as “Blue Haze” is concerned, when the songs come through, if I’m lucky the music progression will come through too and what sort of instruments I’m hearing. And Steve has just asked me what did I feel needed and it was exactly what we’ve got on there, it was just perfect because of how it all came together.
Q: Yeah, it’s a terrific song and I do think the video is great as well. And I had realised that you weren’tshowing any emotion in it but I didn’t realise it was for the reasons you’d said, but I think that’s a good reason.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. See, the last note on it, “I will see you there,” I hold the note, “see,” I think it’s for about six seconds [laughter]. It’s a long one [laughter].
You live in the Byron Bay area and there’sa lot of creative peoplethere. I’m just wondering what it’s been like though for you as a working musician, what the audiences are like there.
Well, I’m based in Kyogle now, that’s about an hour west of Byron Bay. I haven’t been doing any gigs around the area for a long time but I’m just starting to feel it out a bit. It’s changed quite a bit, there is quite a demand for original music, which is good, in certain places. But, again, you’ve got to have a really nice sound and a lot of promotion behind you because it’s best to have people come to you – you know, want to come to your shows than have to turn up to the whole group of people that don’t know you.
I know, it’s tricky getting people to discover anything I think, music, books, whatever it is; discovery is a very hard part.
Yeah, I think, starting again at my age, even though I’m well-known here up in the North Coast, one of the avenues we’re looking at would be support acts for country tours and stuff like that.
The country audience, I think, is just amazing because it’s the audience that’s the most embracing of new music, regardless of where it comes from. And so it doesn’t matter what stage of your career – you’re releasing your first album or where you’ve come from, people are very receptive. So for my last question I’m going to ask you if you’re planning to go to Tamworth.
Yes, yes. I’ll be taking my band over in January to Tamworth to promote the album.
I think you’ll go down a treat in Tamworth, just quietly.
Thank you very, very much.