Five years ago, singer/guitarist Harrison Ray was writing guitar pop songs and tender ditties in a noise/pop project called April Invention. He soon switched gears and created a more roots-based, alt-country combo called the Wagoneers. A year later, the name and style changed again into the Heartpiners. It started getting difficult to keep up with his ever-changing aim.
Until last year, Ray performed mostly as an acoustic solo act under the name Harrison Ray’s Magic Ghost. This year, armed with a self-produced full-length solo album titled El Paraguas, Ray is back to being Ray.
“I don’t think it’s a conscious effort to keep changing what I’m doing,” Ray says. “I write a lot, and when you write a lot, you’re going to get some garbage in there, so I’m not afraid to throw away a song.”
Ray, 33, started tinkering with instruments and melodies when he was a kid. “I used to pull out the old refrigerator, put on a devil’s mask, grab a plastic Elvis guitar, and put on a show for my dad and his friends,” he remembers.
As a teen growing up in the rural Midstate town of Barnwell, he’d drive up to Aiken to hunt for cool albums on cassette in the local record shops. There’s wasn’t opportunity for him to collaborate with like-minded musicians in his hometown, though.
Things changed when he hit the Lowcoutry. Since moving to Charleston in 1999, Ray has concentrated mostly on arranging original songs within classic pop, folk, and roots genres. His output over the years was stylistically all over the map. Changing colors became habitual, but it wasn’t a conscious effort.
“I tend to listen to talk radio and I read lot,” he says. “I hate to say this, but I don’t listen to a lot of new music. The only record I’ve listened to in the last few weeks is a Mimi Farina album.
“I’m not sure how writers will classify this,” he adds, referring to El Paraguas. “I just went back to basics. With the projects of the past, I tried to make everything sound big and loud. This stuff is different.”
Ray recorded everything on El Paraguas over the course of two years in one room (“full of books and dogs”) with two microphones, straight into a recording program on his computer.
Some songs have a whispery, dream-state sound, while others thump along with more traditional rock band instrumentation. Lyrically, Ray sings about everything from loved ones to green fairies and the Wild West.
“There is a theme to the album and I go back to my childhood with it,” says Ray. “This sounds strange, but I always had these images, and I could see things, sometimes like prophecies and premonitions. I once had a dream that my family’s house was going to get shot. Two days later, it did, exactly how I saw it beforehand. I’ve shied away from spirits and stuff because I used to always see them in my old house. I used to be able to communicate with them in a way. I think they follow some people around, too. I tried to channel some of that into this.”
Guest players on the album include Trey Cooper on piano, Katie Hovis on cello, Wally Reddington on drums and bass, and Joe Marlo on viola and violin.
“Some songs on the album are just guitar and vocals, but others are more layered,” says Ray. “The CD release show at the Tavern will be very stripped down, though. Wally will be there, and possibly a few other guests. I’ve had the most success just being me.”