IT seems strange to be discussing a debut album with Gretta Ray.
She's a name and a voice that feels like it's been floating around the Australian music scene for an eternity.
Of course, she's best known for the Americana pop-styled hit Drive, which Ray released aged 18 in 2016 while in year 12. Drive would win Triple J Unearthed High and the prestigious Vanda & Young Songwriting Award, joining an elite club with Megan Washington, Kimbra and Amy Shark.
The Melbourne singer-songwriter appeared poised to explode with albums and heavy exposure once her school commitments were complete.
Ray did release the EPs Elsewhere (2016) and Here and Now (2018), but she also made a concerted decision to enjoy being young.
"When everything happened with Drive when I was still at high school it was more of an overwhelming period of time than I told myself at the time," Ray says via Zoom while apologetically munching on a bagel.
"I had a really wonderful group of people around me including my family and my team that kept me very protected and insulated from everything that was going on.
"When I graduated high school and was out in the world doing things I didn't feel this sense of urgency or need to rush into anything and I'm really glad no one was like, 'we're gonna put all the pressure on you'."
Post high school Ray kept playing shows, but she also travelled broadly with friends.
Those memories have only become more vital as the pandemic has cruelled the classic rite of passage overseas holiday for early 20-somethings.
It also provided invaluable life experience which inspired Ray's debut album Begin To Look Around. An album full of love, life and learning.
"Spending time out in the world and getting to know who I was, I'm really glad I had those years," the 23-year-old says.
"When I started to write the record after I released Here and Now, things definitely felt like they amped up a bit work wise. Now I definitely feel like I'm in a totally different place.
"I feel like I have a better relationship with my work. I'm at the forefront of conversations. I feel I have more sense of drive."
Begin To Look Around is a definite stylistic change. For the first time Ray opened herself up to collaborative songwriting.
She co-wrote with Australian songwriters and producers Robby De Sa, Dylan Nash and Kyran Daniel (G-Flip, The Veronicas, Dean Lewis) and Jonny Hockings, Chris Zane and Matt Hales in London.
It inspired her music to shift away from the guitar-based '70s folk-pop sound of Drive towards a grander pop template reminiscent of Vanessa Carlton's 2001 smash A Thousand Miles.
Often the collaborators would write the music, allowing Ray to concentrate on top-lining with her melodies and lyrics.
"I had a very naive perspective that if other people are involved in writing my songs then they're not going to be as personal," Ray admits. "That was the fear. It's just not true.
"In fact, the songs not only stay personal, there's more of a chance that they'll be relatable because you have your collaborators validate certain lyrics that you spill out into the room and they go, 'that happened to me' or 'that was the thing my friend was saying.'
"You remind yourself that we're often writing about things that are pretty universal emotions."
One of the scene-stealing moments is Worldly Wise, featuring Australian rock band Gang Of Youths.
The track was written while Ray was supporting Gang Of Youths on their national tour and struggling with life in the hectic music industry.
Ray and Gang Of Youths frontman David Le'aupepe sing, "Broaden your mind/ widen your horizon and lift your eyes/ Are you ready to roll and go along for the ride?"
Ray's words were aimed squarely inward. A self-motivating prep talk in a song.
"I think I needed to hear those words," she says. "I had a lot of people saying those words to me, just wanting to be really excited and grateful for it and being trusting of that path that I was on.
"It felt like a turning, like a light at the end of the tunnel.
"Having Dave sing on it and sing my words I wrote about lifting your eyes and get ready to roll, was fitting because of the conversations he and I had when I was in those rough times in my life."
Gretta Ray releases Begin To Look Around on Friday.
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