Ray Stern is the vocal powerhouse and creative force behind The Universe Featuring Ray. At the young age of 18, Ray was nominated for a Toronto Independent Music Award with her then Electronic duo The Peace Leeches and quickly gained the spotlight opening for notable Canadian acts such as Finger Eleven, The Trews, Sloan, and the Arkells. 519 had the pleasure of talking with the fascinating and multi-talented performer recently.
You have an interesting name, is Ray Syd Stern your real full name?
It’s my full real made-up name! No, it’s mostly real. I think it’s cool to make up whatever name you want, like why can’t we just name ourselves and rename ourselves our whole lives? Ray is a nickname I’ve had forever and Syd I chose due to being obsessed with Syd Barrett among other things, but Stern is the last name I was born with.
You’ve been around the London and Windsor music scene for about 10 years. Tell me about your first band, Peace Leeches.
Well 2019 is the 10 year anniversary of The Peace Leeches full-length album release so that’s pretty cool. I wish I would have planned ahead for a 10 yr reunion show because I am asked about that all the time from Peace Leeches fans. At 18 y/o Corey and I began writing songs and gained momentum really quickly. I think we were so successful because we were so original and unique at the time for this area. I made unique stage clothes for us, we used body paint and I always had a pair of eyeballs painted under my eyes so I was always looking at the crowd. It was super wild and fun and the music was danceable and positive but kinda dark too which is generally how I like music. What a good time though, in our short run we opened up for so many big named acts, Finger Eleven, Ill Scarlett, The Trews, The Arkells. I feel so lucky and grateful for the success we had in such a short time.
Your shows are very visual with your art and stage props, where did the inspiration for this come from?
I just had this realization not long ago about what inspires me. Like, so many things are inspiring, just one word in the English language is enough to spur an entire song or movement in the world, but for me, I’d say my biggest inspiration is boredom. Ha-ha sounds like I am easily bored but it’s more like I have a lot of energy and its best put to work being productive and creative so I just mess with arts and crafts. My music also is the big inspiration for the art. I think wanting to promote my music creatively has inspired a lot of my stage pieces and art backpacks and stuff.
You have a great connection with your audiences and your song writing is soulful, clever and witty. What is your process for song writing and where does the inspiration come from?
My writing process has changed over the years and from song to song. I usually always start with the music though, because that is the energy creator. I feel like there’s a whirlpool of material floating in the ether above our heads and when I lose myself in the present moment and disappear into the music that I’m creating, there’s those sweet moments where it’s like the vortex opens up and funnels the gold down into my mind and it just flows effortlessly, like a “Flow State”. It’s a completely different feeling then sitting at a white paper with a pen trying to make something brilliant happen. That works too, but there’s usually less soul in those moments. We can sense those things. I like to feel through music rather than think through it.
You wrote the song My Superpower for Positivity Day in 2018. Would you say that’s a big part of who you are, spreading positivity?
I do think that is a big part of who I am. I’m not a positivity warrior or anything; I think it’s just a well developed aspect of me. I did the positivity day song from a self reflective view point like I do with a lot of my songs, because I think positivity starts within, starts with positive thinking. There is definitely a thread of positivity weaved within even my darkest, painful songs because my writing is very true to who I am and I’ve always known, or had faith that there is light after the dark so I hope that can help people in pain.
I used to think you must always be positive, and I think that is a good goal but it’s not realistic, negativity is a great learning mechanism to teach you about yourself so now I allow myself to feel negative if it’s how I feel in that moment, but striving to see the light in those situations always helps the negativity pass.
How did you get involved with Grown Up Avenger Stuff and what was that experience like?
Oh man, it was definitely crazy. Like right up my alley kinda crazy ha-ha. This family band from North Carolina messaged me on Facebook saying something like “Hey I know this sounds crazy but, do you want to move to North Carolina to join a rock band?” Classic me was like, “Hell Yeah!” I love crazy impulsive decisions.
I also thought it was a manifestation of what I was wanting for myself. I wanted to focus on music, not have to be in charge of everything, see more of the world, and have a tight bond with new people. I went there and we recorded and wrote a lot. We made a few of my fave songs I’ve ever written, very much rock music, we called it “Heavy Indie”. Toured and saw a nice chunk of the mid-east coast of the USA. At some point I felt that even though my team went from just little old me to a 4 person group, we still weren’t working hard enough on what I thought mattered and I ended up realizing I could be putting all of my eggs in my own dream basket instead of someone else’s. You know, I realized that who I am (rainbow, wild, artsy) has to be expressed or it will be repressed and because those vibes weren’t true to them as a group… I decided to give my dream everything I could, so I left home to pursue my dream as The Universe Featuring Ray. I learned a lot from them though and am so happy it happened!
What is the craziest thing that’s happened at one of your shows?
I’ll leave some minor details out (laughs), but one story I can actually recall is when we opened up for The Trews at a festival, we were backstage in a tent with some friends who probably shouldn’t have been back there, definitely inebriated, and there was a gorgeous guitar just sitting there with some strawberries, you know when you can tell something is important, this guitar seemed important. I was munching on the fruit and laughing at my friend who then knocked over his beer and it started to travel under the guitar. We’re like “Oh shit!” so I grabbed the guitar and start wiping it off and at the same time the wife of one of the Trews members looked in and was like “WTF is going on here?”. Caught redhanded but not really doing anything. She said it was the singer’s guitar and grabbed it and the fruit from us. They cracked down on backstage passes right after that happened.
You’re about to release a new album with songs from multiple producers, tell us about it and what it’s like working with different producers on the same project.
I’ve been messing with these songs for years and have been focused on recording them and getting them out to the world so I tried a few different studios/people out and even have a few songs that I produced myself with some co-production mixing in studio so, there’s several brilliant minds sprinkled into the mix. I started recording some tunes with Michael Hanson from Glass Tiger back in 2018 and then met up with José Contreras from By Divine Right last fall to get a demo together which has now turned into a bunch songs on this record. There’s no rules in the music industry, or in life, just guidelines so I said screw it, I’ll put a mixture on this record cuz I wanna get my best stuff out asap. The songs range from light happy acoustic jams to high energy angsty rock to super emotionally charged painful expression. Just a whole crapload of Ray.
Do you have a title and release date for the album?
The CD is called Co-Create because it’s a big co-creation with a crapload of people, producers, friends, family, artists, and most importantly… The Universe! Nothing is done by one person alone, there’s so much inspiration and effort added into my project by a number of people so it’s important for me to honour that by seeing the accumulation of this as a group effort and I am so grateful! There is no release date yet but most likely early September.
For more on Ray Stern and The Universe Featuring Ray, visit www.theuniversefeaturingray.com.