British pop music has plenty of retro-soul and R&B acts, but the recordings of singer/songwriter Gemma Ray reveal a more complex and restless artistic nature than most. Reaching back to pre-Beatles rock for inspiration -- but tossing in a jumble of influences including the torch songs of Billie Holiday, film scores, flamenco, and beyond -- Ray has sculpted a sound that is familiar and warm, but also appealingly off-kilter and full of noir-ish touches.
The Essex native released her first album, The Leader, in early 2008 on the U.K.-based indie label Bronzerat. Aloft on a cloud of positive reviews from the British press, she was about to embark on a tour when she became ill and had to cancel a number of profile-raising shows. While recuperating, Ray wrote a batch of new songs and recorded them in a modest home studio with co-producer Michael J. Sheehy. The resulting Lights Out Zoltar!, released in late 2009, was an ambitious work that belied its homemade origins by boasting an expansive concert hall sound. Ray took the opposite approach for her third album, It's a Shame About Gemma Ray, which found her covering 16 songs (ranging from Buddy Holly's "Everyday" to Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm Sick") in spooky, stripped-down versions. She continued to stretch out artistically on her more pop-oriented 2012 album Island Fire, which found her not only covering two songs by Sparks, but also collaborating with the band. A year later she released the vinyl-only Down Baby Down, a more experimental record with help from Thomas Wydler of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. The prolific run continued in 2014 with her fifth album, Milk for Your Motors, recorded upon Ray's relocation to Berlin. ~ Paula Carino