Finally giving it everything
After his father died, local blues player Michael Ray doubled down on his music career
Local singer-songwriter Michael Ray is a little reluctant to get into his back story for fear of its being perceived as a “sob story.”
In 2013, he lost his dad to cancer. This is after having a stroke a few years earlier, which he recovered from. Around that time, Ray’s apartment burned down, and with it nearly everything he owned. He also got married and then quickly divorced.
Ray felt like he was floundering, particularly with his music, which he’d approached with half-assed enthusiasm. Seeing his dad pass away at 53 completely changed his perspective on his own mortality.
“I had failed in whatever avenue I had tried to go in life,” Ray says. “It was, in a weird way, liberating because I felt like I had nothing.”
Ray realized that his life could just as easily end abruptly. In 2014, he made the decision to go all in with music. He sold everything he still had that wasn’t music-related, including his much-cherished Xbox game console. (“I can play this game for four hours, or I can put that into recording something.”)
These days, Ray lives in Midtown, where passersby will often see him walking around with a guitar strapped to his back, probably on his way to a performance. Since his decision, he’s done his best to fill up his schedule with as many shows as possible. He books solo gigs, and when he can afford it plays with his band.
“It makes no sense to say you’re going to be a musician from a financial point of view. If you’re going to be in, you have to be all in and then some. You have to dive into the pool from the top of the high-rise,” Ray says.
Music has always been a part of Ray’s life. He started playing the harmonica at age 8. By 12, he was playing the guitar. The blues were always his style of choice, but his interest in hip-hop led him to release a rap album while still in high school. These days, he’s back to the blues and fostering a local draw. He released his second EP—and first studio record—Dope on April 14 at the Torch Club.
The Dope EP is a mostly stripped-down version of Ray’s bluesy sound. His prior release, Live at the Old I, was a live recording with only him and his guitar. Dope has some instruments layered in, but it’s still quite low-key, with an unexpectedly upbeat sound. Despite the darkness of the lyrics, there’s a punchy pop energy behind Ray’s intimate guitar-strumming style and conversational singing.
As clearly as Ray’s blues influences are, he never sounds like a parody of someone playing Delta blues or a corny copy of Muddy Waters. The stronger pop elements and bouncy soulful grooves give it a modern flair. Plus, he crams more words into his tunes than is typical for the genre. Ray attributes this to his hip-hop background.
“If you look at a blues song written on paper, it can be seven minutes, but a half page of lyrics. A single rap verse is going to be longer than that. I feel like that gave me some freedom,” Ray says.
This EP release is the start of something for Ray, even if it’s been nearly three years since he made the decision to go all in. He’s got his eye on playing bigger and better shows this year. But in the end, it’s about living in the present.
“Music is literally my favorite thing in the world,” Ray says.