With Nights Like This, Jack Gray may be Australia's next pop force
On his self-produced debut EP Nights Like This, the Queensland-raised musician establishes himself as one to watch.
We've said this plenty of times before, but there's no pop scene as exciting as Australia's right now. Throughout the last twelve months, musicians including Amy Shark and Mallrat have positioned themselves as international forces-to-be - the former attracting Zane Lowe's much-desired nod of approval while the latter counts fans in Charli XCX and Maggie Rogers - while the cream of the crop at home continue to flourish in the form of CXLOE, Thandi Phoenix, Ruel and newcomers like Tones and I. It's a market that seems to grow exponentially - when one artist 'flops', ten more take its place - and while some argue that Australian pop will never be as commercially successful as international powerhouses à la Ed Sheeran and Katy Perry, the talent is there - it's just a matter of letting international audiences find it.
Jack Gray is an artist bordering that 'international break-out' edge, even if his commercial rise at home isn't so clear-cut and distinct as those commonly associated with Australian pop success, like those aforementioned. At home, he doesn't quite have that runaway triple j success story, where acts like Amy Shark and Mallrat become commercial, cross-country hits after being pushed through triple j's trusting audience into this success. At the same time, however, he isn't an artist on high rotation on mass-accessible 'commercial stations'. Instead, he seemingly bridges the gap and takes audiences from both sides, establishing his name and accompanying music by keeping it broad and versatile; offering something that everyone can take something from.
Since his 2017 break-out single Red Rental Car, the North Queensland-raised musician has come to spotlight this, straddling this fine line between pop darling and indie mastermind as he takes moments from pop music - bright hooks, catchy songwriting - and intertwines them with mannerisms deemed more 'indie' or DIY, like how his work is almost entirely self-made ("I had the ability to obsess over every guitar part, every bass line, every drum beat and most importantly, every lyric," he says in a quote accompanying his debut EP Nights Like This). Resultedly, his work appeals to both sides of this divide, using his versatility and freedom as a musician in the director's chair to produce captivating music as accessible as it is forward-thinking, something that really shines on his debut EP.
Spanning five tracks, Nights Like This encompasses the many sides of a multi-faceted artist beginning to blossom. Fools, for example, showcases Gray's maximalist and pop-centric sound, with thickly-layered melodies and bright hooks combining as he grasps a sound that feels almost-stadium-friendly. Meanwhile, Drunk Talk - a single that reaffirmed his early rise on release at the start of this year - is more stripped-back and intimate, focused more-so on lyrical storytelling than creating something catchy and accessible - not that these qualities feel lost in the process (in fact, it ends up being one of the EP's catchiest after a few listens). Down Side Of Up welcomes a sound more built upon guitar licks and percussion fills, while the EP's closing track Take Our Time continues to deepen the larger project's range, giving a taste of Jack Gray's ballad form as his voice swells above twinkling synth and soft keys.
Going deeper, however, is where you find Nights Like This' golden moments. It's as relatable as it is intimate and honest, tackling the messiness of growing into adulthood and the complexities that surround it through the perspective of someone actually experiencing it and learning as he writes, presenting something that feels a lot more authentic than what you'd get from someone trying to capture these feelings through iffy nostalgia and a lack of vulnerability. My Hands, an earlier track not featured on the EP, conceptualises "the idea of sexual benefits outweighing an unhealthy relationship" through the lens of someone learning these lessons at the same time, while Bullet - seemingly a coming of age song that perhaps summarises the entire EP - actually goes beyond this, toying with the complexities of mental health and the feelings of selfishness that come sometimes accompany it.
In saying that, Jack Gray isn't your standard young adult, writing about young adult things. For example, while his friends were transitioning into further studies post-high school and welcoming the chaotic lifestyles this may bring - learning curves, personality growth, the idea of 'finding yourself' - Jack was touring Australia and anticipating international shows with Dean Lewis. While some 'young' artists may ignore this and continue to write about their 'standard' growing up stories to find relatability (despite the reality being the polar opposite), it's where Jack's authenticity shines. See Take Our Time, for example, and how it's a nuanced and understanding reflection of balancing 'fame' with friendships, relationships, family connections and your stock-standard life. It's not something everyone goes through - in fact, Jack Gray is definitely the minority here - but he spins it in a way you can still find comfort in. It's something Billie Eilish's songwriter - and brother - FINNEAS excels in, and a trend you can see Jack Gray moving into as he continues to grow not just as a person, but as a songwriter too.
Reflecting on the release of his debut EP, we chat to Jack Gray about everything it encompasses - it's sound, meaning and creation - while discussing the complexities of his music, his live show and his future as one of Australia's blossoming young pop acts.
We originally interviewed you over email, around the release of My Hands last year. Since then has been somewhat chaotic for you: multiple singles, a full-length debut EP, international touring, support slots for Dean Lewis, headline shows and everything else. Does it feel like you've been thrown into the deep end with your music?
There definitely is that feeling. Every now then you just get this weird, overwhelming feeling of being under pressure or that anxiousness that can come with feeling that way, but I've built up to this my whole life. I've been playing music from my bedroom my whole entire life. I've been surrounded by it and I've done a billion gigs in pubs, and I've definitely grown into where I am now. Do you know what I mean? It's not like I'm just a random dude who gets discovered at a café shop and the next day I'm doing thousand capacity shows. It's always been "you're gonna play music, get big, get on stage in front of everyone tonight and maybe one day tour around the world with Dean Lewis." I've been building to it, so it's fine. I feel ready for it.
There must be some serious learning curves that comes with being thrown into the spotlight like that though, especially for someone still quite young.
There's been a lot - saying yes to some things, saying no to others. One of the biggest things I've taken away is learning how to take as many opportunities as I can; just grabbing them by the balls and just going for them. That's been really helpful for me and that's how I got all of my deals to get me where I am. I stepped out of my comfort zone and did songwriting that got me a publishing deal. I stepped out of my comfort zone and went to America, where I found people that I really want to work with, and some I have since. Taking opportunities, running with them and just putting your all into them is everything. Being on that grind is, for me, the most important thing that I've learned
Have you had the opportunity to implement some of these learnings into your debut EP - whether that be its release, creation or whatever else - or was the EP finished before your break-out?
This EP is a cumulation of everything I've done over the last few years, so I haven't had the opportunity for much that unfortunately, but there is in its creation and writing in a different way, I guess. Working on storytelling would be one of them for sure. I've been in this caravan on the Gold Coast and I've been in my bedroom on the Sunshine Coast, going between these places writing song after song after song about things that I was going through; about things I was feeling; about people I was hanging out with. This EP is just a bunch of stories and moments of my journey over the past few years, and I've definitely refined that over the years.
The production of it is another big deal for me. You'll notice that between a lot of the songs, nothing really sounds the same, and that's the point. I just want to make whatever I want to make and that's what I think this EP encapsulates.
You can totally hear that across the EP. Some tracks feel more pop-centric, some feel more guitar-backed and indie, and then you have some that sound like James Blake-esque R&B ballads.
Yeah. I've had so many influences in my life and I just want to be able to make whatever I think sounds cool and not be stuck in this box. A box is so fucking dangerous for an artist.
I was reading about how the EP is basically entirely self-produced - you did every vocal, every instrumental melody...
Well, 95% of it is totally me, because I love writing songs with my friends. Sound-wise, I recorded every sound and every instrument on the record, but in terms of writing, I love writing with my friends. I love learning from them. A few of the tracks I fully wrote and produced myself, and then there are some - like Take Our Time - done in little songwriting sessions at camps. For that one, we came up with an idea on a camp that was very basic - just keys and vocal. I wrote it with a friend and then six months later, I totally forgot about the song. It wasn't until my manager flagged it as something I should revisit and have a look into did I actually flesh it out into what it is now. It turned out to be a pretty cool track.
I've had this chat with artists before that have self-produced their whole release, and one thing that keeps coming up is how obsessive you get over it and how you never know whether it's finished or when to just be like "Okay, this is done now."
That's the thing. You don't know to stop because nothing's ever perfect and sometimes if you strive for perfect you just run around in circles chasing your tail. It can be dangerous, and you gotta know when to stop. That's something that I'm slowly learning, beause you have all the time in the world to work when you're not paying a producer or studio time, you know?
How did you go about identifying when the time was to be like "Yeah this is done. I'm finished with this. I'm gonna write final next to the title and then leave it"?
That's a good question. Sometimes you've got to stop yourself, and you know when you know. You have to have that listen to where you're like, "I didn't hear anything I want to change." If there's nothing you want to change, that's when you stop. Where the cycle can sometimes start, and where it's a trap, is when you'll stop if you can't hear anything you want to change, and then you give it the test of time. You wait a week. You listen to it every day for a week, and then at the end of the week, there's probably another thing you want to change, so then you're like, "Fuck!" and then you go change that and then there are more things you want to change. That's kind of dangerous. If there's something you want to change, you've shown it to people you trust, your friends and your family, and they really like it, I think you just have to say final on that one.
There are a million songs out there to write. Move on to the next one.
Let's talk about Take Our Time. I was reading about the bittersweetness that comes with living your dreams and touring the world, where on one hand you get to do all this ...
Amazing stuff. Yeah.
... But, on the other hand, it's a struggle to maintain friendships while you do that.
Exactly. That's exactly what the sentiment of the song is.
Is that something you've gotten better with over the past six months?
Honestly, it kind of gets a little harder every time leaving the ones you love. It's in some ways easier because I know how long the trips are now - they're like three months at a time - but it keeps getting longer and longer each time, and knowing deep down that you're going to be gone for a bit longer next time hurts. It's just like, "I just went through that and I've only just gotten to see you again, but I'm gonna go away for a lot longer now, so let's just make every second we have together last. Let's try and take our time with this because it's gonna be a minute before I see you again."
Is that how you're trying to approach maintaining that balance between touring and everything?
Yeah. There's like what I was saying before about the grind. You want to be able to maintain a healthy lifestyle and your sanity in some respects. You want to be able to enjoy your life because you get one life. You don't want to just be a workhorse, but at the same time, you kind of have to be a workhorse. It's this weird predicament - it's a catch 22. So I don't know, balancing those two things is challenging, but I feel like I'm doing a pretty good job of making time to see my friends and family and also really putting in the hours into my music and this whole thing.
Moving on a bit, you've got these shows on the east coast in June. I'm gonna assume that the majority of people out there have not seen your live set. What goes into translating a majorly self-produced, self-written EP into a full live show?
A lot goes into it, man. I have to bounce out each individual bass, synth, guitar; everything that I want to have supporting the band I have to bounce out individually, program it into a new session. I have to come up with new interludes, come up with covers, produce the cover, and bounce it out for a live version, and then get the players in, rehearse it every fucking minute of the day for three months. It's gonna be big ... I'm really excited, because [these tour dates coming up] are my first headline shows, so this is the first time I really get to experiment with a show and do it my way, and I'm fucking pumped. I'm ready for it, and I think I'm taking the band over to the States and we're gonna rehearse it for a good month and a half straight.
How does that set-up look?
I have moments at the mic by myself, I have moments with guitar, moments with keys, or with the band. The band will look like a drummer with his SPD pad and the hidden electronic stuff, but just also rocking out, and a bass player hopefully with a keyboard, holding down some of the keys parts and the bass parts, and yeah me, - so it'll just be like a trio. A power trio.
Once that's done, you've got first headline shows and the first EP out of the way; major support slots and so on. How do you see that next stage being? How do you build off that?
Well, I've already started, I'm halfway through my first record I guess; my first album.
Whether it turns out to be an album or not, I'm not sure, but I've been writing songs away for that. How we release it, I'm still unsure of. The way people release music these days can be so confusing and such a daunting thing to think about, but yeah - I've got so many songs that I'm so excited about. It's an evolution of what I'm doing now, but it just feels a bit bigger, better, and cooler. I'm ready to hammer those songs out as soon as I can and just keep the songs pumping. Bigger, better live shows. I just want to keep evolving in every aspect. Better live shows, better songs, and keep touring.
And sound-wise, is that sort of mish-mash - indie, electronic, everything - something you still want to pursue when you're tackling like a longer form? Or are you gonna try to hone in on one sound, not that there's any need to?
I think I'll do whatever I'm feeling at the time. The five songs that I've got for the record at the moment are all pretty different. So, yes you can expect a diverse sounding record.
Thursday, June 27th - The Gallery @ Oxford Art Factory, Sydney
Friday, June 28th - The Grace Darling Hotel, Melbourne
Saturday, June 29th - Greaser Bar, Brisbane
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