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POP Montreal: Sister Ray talks about their untethered, conversational, lyrical style

Interview réalisé par Stephan Boissonneault
Genres et styles : Indie Folk

renseignements supplémentaires

One artist from Alberta, Sister Ray, might be finally getting the recognition they deserve. The debut album, Communion, was released this past May on Royal Mountain Records and is still a shining stalwart example of the intricacies and simplicity you can achieve in the indie/ alternative folk genre.

Behind Sister Ray is the songwriter, Ella Coyes, a musician who cut their teeth in Edmonton and beyond by touring with a mostly improvised set of solo guitar music. The lyrics of Coyes are deadpan but visceral, pulling back layer after layer of personal history and reconciling with the past.

We had a great chat with Coyes about songwriting and finding a funny side to otherwise, existential, powerfully dark, and personal lyrics, before their set at this year’s POP Montreal on Sept 30.

PAN M 360: Hey Ella. It’s pouring here in Montreal. How’s Toronto?

Ella Coyes: Hey, we have an overcast day here and I’ve been enjoying it a lot.

PAN M 360: Yeah you’re from Edmonton too. So am I. You don’t really get Fall there at all.

Ella Coyes: Oh my God, when I first moved here it was in the pandemic. I moved in 2020, which was funny, but Fall came and I was like, ‘I’m fine. This was a great choice. I have a long fall.’ And I love it so much.

PAN M 360: What prompted the move? I’m guessing music?

Ella Coyes: Well, I was supposed to move in March of 2020. To make a record and play music. Like I got a Canada Council Grant. And I was ‘OK ‘I’ll move. I’ll make this record.’ And then it just got delayed for a little bit.

PAN M 360: You used to play improvised guitar sets back in Edmonton and toured them a bit. Is that kind of like how some of the songs on Communion were written? Just like you playing them differently and improvising them over the years?

Ella Coyes: Yeah, it was the beginning of a few of them. It’s like, two-thirds of “Crucified” was written that way. And then, a few other tracks, kind of started at those shows. I’ve had a couple of them for quite a few years, a couple of them I wrote between, March and September of 2020. I think just out of not having, you know, really anything else to do? I was writing so much. So they come from a pretty long, long period of time.

PAN M 360: Would you say you learn more about yourself from writing these songs about your past?

Ella Coyes: I think something that I’ve really felt from playing the shows again, and touring a bit is I have learned from them over such a long period of time. I think I’ve got it sometimes. And then now that I’ve been on the road a bit more, I am realizing maybe even how little I knew about them when I wrote them, which is really exciting for me. The song “Justice” has really changed drastically for me from the time I wrote it.

PAN M 360: Lyrically?

Ella Coyes: I think lyrically … I love making music, but so much of it for me is about the lyrics. Because it’s an opportunity to communicate in a way where there’s phrasing involved. It’s like we’re talking in a different way. And for me, it really sits in a different place. And I think I’m asking myself different questions now when, when I play that song. I think some of my favourite songs are the ones that kind of give me an avenue, to be honest with myself. And sometimes when I write them, I’m not quite ready to be as honest with myself as I am once I’ve been able to kind of look at it for a while and observe it and experience it with different people and in different places.

PAN M 360: And Communion is a very vulnerable record and it seems like much of the lyrical content is derived from your personal experiences. Having said that, have you ever thought ‘maybe I’m being too personal?’ Or on the flip side, not personal enough?

Ella Coyes: Yeah, I think about that all the time. Sometimes, I really will listen to myself play the songs, like when I’m practicing at home. And I really think about what they’re about. And I’m like, ‘Jesus, I could have dialed it back a little bit.’ But not actually I don’t think that’s the true path. But yeah it’s very personal. And I hadn’t put out a record before, so it was I was kind of stunned at this point. When it came out I was like, ‘Oh my God. I did say that.’ I put that on a record’ (laughs).

PAN M 360: Did you grow up religious at all? Because there’s a bit of religious imagery within the album. Especially in “Crucified” to Communion you know, just those words. How did those kinds of things make their way into the lyrics?

Ella Coyes: So I definitely grew up Catholic. And like, more specifically, I grew up Metis-Catholic which is like the intersection for me that I find always very interesting. There just seems to be a lot of conflicts there for me a lot of the time; about being both of those things, but then really going together. When I was a kid, I loved being Catholic. I felt really close to God when I was a kid and when I was a teenager, it was a huge part of my life. And kind of later in my teens, I went pretty late in my teens until I started to not have had that in my life as much anymore, and at this point, kind of not at all, but I think it was just like I was going through some feelings of loss with it.

And those words, in particular, I find those words to be really full in my mouth. I really liked those words a lot. In a lot of songs, I’ll start with one word that I really like and grow them into a small phrase that … I don’t know any other way to say it, but that just fills up my whole mouth. And a lot of those words really feel really whole and complete to me when I am saying them but especially when I’m singing.

PAN M 360: The language and just the cadences you sing in are very conversational. As if you’re speaking to the listener like they’re a long-lost friend over the phone. There’s that one line in “I Wanna Be Your Man” that always sticks with me. The apostle line.

Ella Coyes: Yeah where I talk about tonsils? [Full Line is: I wanna be your man/ Be a very good apostle / Reach in deep inside for your tonsils / Maybe there then I would find only you]

PAN M 360: Yeah the first time I heard it I was like ‘Woah. This is very vivid and I have no idea what to make of it.

Ella Coyes: That’s so funny that you say that because when I went to SXSW by this year, and I played that song, someone laughed very loudly in the audience, which is really funny because that’s not really something that happens. I’m playing solo guitar music, so I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of laughing.

For me, my favourite shows are the ones where I feel like someone is kind of talking to me and having a conversation with me. And that’s what I like about music; is that it’s obvious we’re not having a conversation. But when I feel like someone is kind of just chatting with me, I really like that a lot. But yeah, the lyrics are like the thing I spend the most time on when I’m writing and I really enjoy them and kind of the like, the intricacies of them.

PAN M 360: They’re also very deadpan, the lyrics, but also very mystical and light-hearted which is refreshing because you’re singing about some pretty heavy topics.

Ella Coyes: Yeah if it’s too serious, it doesn’t feel right. And I don’t think that is the best way for me to communicate to be super on the nose serious all the time, even though I’m talking about quote-on-quote “serious shit.” Because I feel like I need room to breathe a little bit being in it and not just have like a feeling of I don’t know constant dread or something like that. It just doesn’t sit right. I like the lyrics to have little moments. Like when that person laughed. I was like, ‘That’s right. That’s how I feel about it.’ Also, I am laughing a little bit when I sing some of those lines. On the inside.

Sister Ray Plays Pop Montreal at Casa Del Popolo on Sept 30. Tickets HERE

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