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Saya Gray - photo credit Jennifer Cheng
Saya GrayPhotography Jennifer Cheng

Saya Gray’s music is for people asking ‘what the fuck is going on?’

Previously musical director to the likes of Willow Smith and Daniel Caesar, the rising Canadian-Japanese artist talks existentialism, having a weirdo childhood and confronting the toxic music industry

“I think I was playing piano before I could speak,” says Toronto-based singer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Saya Gray. Born and raised there by a Scottish-Canadian acclaimed trumpeter father and a Japanese mother who founded one of the city’s biggest independent music schools, music was always a certainty for her. But having played in countless bands throughout her childhood, and working as a musical director for the likes of Willow Smith and Daniel Caesar as they toured the world, it’s on her latest single, “IF THERE’S NO SEAT IN THE SKY (WILL YOU FORGIVE ME???)”, taken from her debut project 19 Masters, that she announces her arrival as a fresh and uncompromising artistic voice of her own.

From the first few notes out of Gray’s mouth, there’s a sense of feverish urgency as she declares: ‘this is my last life, this is the last chance for you and I’ over thrashing guitar chords. Eventually, her voice and the asymmetrical production morph into a beautifully chaotic tapestry of strings, harmonies, voices and ad libs, birdsong and text notification beeps – ebbing and flowing unpredictably but with moving ease. It’s an amalgam of punk, rock, folk, jazz, hip hop influences but twisted and warped into something less definable.

Visually, Gray sets an equally defiant statement. The video is a visceral collection of physical (and metaphorical) toe-curling, hair-chopping and gum-swapping vignettes interlaced with her pacing impatiently around a plastic-clad studio and staring fiercely down the lens. It’s an exhilarating reintroduction to a new self-sufficient artistic voice that’s bound to push, jolt and reinvent. Here, she tells Dazed about the inspiration behind this statement of intent, the beauty and struggles that inform her art and resisting definition.

“If There’s No Seat In The Sky” is such an arresting song. What inspired it?

Saya Gray: Honestly, depression and hitting that wall of self-inquiry… Existentialism!

The visual for it is super entrancing, too. What was the process like of putting all that together?

Saya Gray: [Director] Jen Cheng and I have been creatively brainstorming for a few years now with countless noodle dishes and ramen nights. “Seat in the Sky” came conceptually as a feeling and we collaged the pieces of the storyline together from there. She’s unbelievable to work with for me because I come with a nimbostratus cloud of ideas and she has the very special skill of being able to decipher what the hell I’m talking about and execute [it]. Fun fact: most of the cast are actually my family – my baba, aunt and uncle, cousin…

What was it like growing up in such a creative household? Did you always want to make music?

Saya Gray: [Music] was basically another form of communication in my household growing up. I was lucky to have such a normalised artistic life, it was just the way we lived. My mom’s house is literally like a Japanese version of Diagon Alley with crafts up every wall and shit. She’d be like, ‘oh, you want to paint the walls today? Here’s acrylic, oil, pastel, 40 pounds of fuchsia glitter to choose from.’

And you never felt the urge to resist it?

Saya Gray: [At one point] I thought I’d go into fashion but I didn’t even last a day at university. I can’t do small spaces with lots of people, I turn into a potato.

Both Toronto and the household that you grew up in seem to be these incredible places of blended cultures and arts. In what ways do you believe the places that have raised you have shaped you as an artist?

Saya Gray: Toronto is super progressive. Culturally, it’s like a fusion hotpot. Most of my friends are mixed with immigrant parents, so there’s gratitude and an immigrant hustle that gets passed down a generation from seeing our parents work so hard to get to Canada and set up the life that a lot of us live now.

And what was young Saya Gray like?

Saya Gray: Also weird as fuck. Quiet – I had these thick-ass 2005 front bangs that I would creep through. There’s some intense photos of me on bass as a literal infant that are lurking around somewhere on the web. I’ll have to resurrect one day…

Tell us a little bit more about this era of Saya Gray – what can people expect from your debut project 19 Masters?

Saya Gray: 19 Masters is a battle of self-preservation and an ode to the human experience. It’s a look at double entendres and the subconscious influence our language can have on us, especially as a reflection on how toxic the music industry can be for artists who are ill-informed and being taken advantage of. Basically, I couldn’t hide from this project – it’s just raw, flaws, and all. Most of it was honestly done on tour with iPhone voice notes. My best friends and family are basically the only others on this album. My dad on trumpet, my brother on electric guitar, my mom narrating – ya! And with the ‘19’, ‘1’ is the beginning and ‘9’ is completion (last of the single-digit numbers).

Your music feels like a definitive rejection of those expectations and conformist rules in that way. Was it always that way, did it ever feel less harmonious to come to terms with your identity in social contexts?

Saya Gray: I dealt with a lot of racism and isolation as a child, mainly because being mixed in the area I grew up in wasn’t common. I’ve never consciously gone against the grain but I just felt spooky trying to be anything else. I’ve tried to conform before and ended up acting unhinged lols. The music is just my human reflection of that… it’s just a channel of what needed to come through at the time. That being said, I definitely shine light on all the BS I’ve experienced and seen including the cultural fetishisation – I am not one to be hush-hush [laughs].

How did you get to that level of freedom of expression and uninhibited, layered self in an industry that does often seek to reduce, simplify and categorise?

Saya Gray: Honestly, I feel I was able to get to this place from so many years of being reduced, simplified, categorised. All the crazy experiences have added nourishment and insight. I’ve also had a lot of rebellious mentors along the way that were like ‘WTF Saya, do your own thing, produce yourself,’ so I’m extremely grateful for that.

What’s the one thing you hope people take away from listening to your music?

Saya Gray: I would love for anyone who is consciously looking around them asking what the fuck is going on… to know they are nay alone. I am asking the same questions!