It is approximately 532 miles from Detroit to Nashville.
Motown to Music City.
And it's a journey that Ray Williams knows like the back of her hand, both physically and musically. Give one listen to her debut single, "Sing Me Home" and you'll be wishing that you too hailed from Detroit.
It's an unlikely ambassador for Detroit music, standing barely over 5 feet tall with big red hair and comedic timing above most her age, but therein lies her charm.
Ray Williams is a powerhouse, bending genres with lyrics and a vocal delivery that'll leave a sting. The songs are perfectly crafted as both catchy enough to sing a-long with and stirring up something deep, whether you're ready for it or not. Propelled by a production reminiscent of the Motown grooves we are all so nostalgic for and Nashville's songwriting sensibility, it FEELS good because it IS good. A blend of two cities who's music changed the world.
"I was raised on everything from The Judds to Aretha, from George Jones to Bob Seger. I found my roots in the stories of country music. I found my spirit in soul-torching singers and sequins. I've always felt at home in both of these places so why should I choose just one?"
Ray started her journey as a teenaged-phenomenon just outside Detroit, singing all over Michigan and surrounding states with a voice that rang from the rafters. She gained national attention when she landed in the top 10 of the singing reality show, Nashville Star. Fresh from high school graduation, she made the move to Nashville with nothing more than what she could fit in the trunk of her Ford Escort and $1000 of graduation money.
From there, she plunged into the "Music Row" life, head first, as a country artist. Singing demos all around town, showcasing for music industry professionals every month, writing with hit songwriters, touring the country and opening for acts like Jason Aldean, Wynonna, and Trace Adkins. Ray released 2 full-length albums and 2 EP's as Rachel Williams (all available on iTunes) and kept at it.
Until she couldn't.
"I could feel the wheels coming off. I'd spent my late teens and early 20's defining myself by what will work in Nashville and what won't work in Nashville. I dyed my hair this or that color to look 'softer', I wrote with all big writers I was supposed to, I sang everywhere around town, I played the game just like the industry told me to and yet, I was still stuck. I felt defeated and resentful. And like a musician's cliché, I rebelled."
Her new album gives a detailed account to self-sabotaging spiral down. And yet, at first listen, with the commercial grooves, the swell of the horns, the "come to Jesus" background singers, you don't understand the depths of her despair unless you listen closely.
"A year before I started recording this record, I was out of all of my legally-binding contracts and working double shifts at a Nashville sports bar to pay my rent. I was in and out of one toxic relationship after another and completely lost in how to navigate my next move on any front. It was either, do something different or give it up."
So she did something crazy.
She gathered up a bunch of unreleased songs she'd written, ranging from country to gospel, some just guitar-vocal work tapes, with the vision of showcasing these songs in a light that no one on Music Row was doing.
Ray mustered up the courage to reach out to Grammy Award-winning songwriter/musician/producer (and Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band member), Jim "Moose" Brown to help produce her this ambitious creative endeavor. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, they started work on what would become "the reinvention" of Ray.
"Neither one of us knew what we were getting ourselves into. How far was too far left of center? Also, we didn't know each other very well when we started, so it was a lot of trust on both ends. Co-captaining your own record is terrifying, especially when you're an emotional shit-show in your 20's. But we followed what felt good. And thanks be to God (and the musicians), that has resonated with other people."
"Our first tracking session, I showed up and didn't recognize a soul besides Moose. Having sung in studios all over Nashville for years, to not see a familiar face stopped me in my tracks. I played them an acoustic work-tape of a song I'd written called, 'All This Love' and I gave them the vague instruction, 'Give it a Marvin Gaye vibe'. I vividly remember standing in the vocal booth, first take of the song, listening to the musicians, and barely able to sing along because I was moved to tears. I couldn't believe that it sounded just the way I had envisioned, right off the bat."
But not everything would be as effortless when bringing these songs to the light.
"Both of us were on tours while we were trying to coordinate recording sessions. The album was costing more money than the Kickstarter had raised so I was hustling. Killing myself working double shifts at a sports bar whenever I was in town so that I could pay my background singers or my horn section. I was involved in these other projects in L.A. and Detroit that put my record on pause. I was tied up in a contract that stiffled the release of the record for awhile. I mean, I'm Polish and patience really isn't my strong point but I didn't have a choice if I wanted to finish what we started."
And it eventually, it paid off.
Answering a last-minute call, Ray lent her vocals to a demo being produced for Motown Records artist, Kevin Ross and the ball went rolling again. In a new direction.
Ray was flown out to write and sing with several Motown Records' artists including Sebastian Kole, Kevin Ross, and Chrisette Michele. And when the opportunity presented itself to be a featured artist in Motown's upcoming documentary about the future of Motown Records, with a relocation to Detroit to film, she jumped at the chance.
"Living in Detroit was both liberating and totally paralyzing. In Nashville, I knew exactly what my day looked like and who my friends were. In Detroit, it was a blank canvas and I wasn't sure I wanted that responsibility. But The Universe heard me, and within weeks I started painting a life that opened my eyes to a whole new musical landscape and I continue to soak it in. It's my home, just like Nashville is. How lucky am I? I just needed them both to finally find peace."
And so, the metamorphosis from Rachel to Ray found it's wings, but the evolution continues.
"I needed to shed the old skin, the old mindset, the old habits... Like unbecoming all the bullshit that wasn't really my heart. I'd lost my confidence somewhere in that blur of years and I had to take it back in order to keep making music. Starting over handed me my confidence and my purpose back on a silver platter. I just had to believe in it enough to take it."
Ray's debut single, "Sing Me Home" featuring Detroit artists Tosha Owens, Brandon Calhoon, Alicia Michilli, and Shane Sanders finds it's official release in February of 2018.