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Sister Ray: Chanteuse Conjures Music in the Moment

Friday 11th, August 2017 / 10:00
By Levi Manchak

Improvisational solo act captures raw emotion.
Photo by Haley Pukanski

EDMONTON – A few months ago, Ella Coyes ran into a friend at a show. The friend promptly exclaimed, “I have a gift for you!”

“Why?” Coyes replied.

“That was the worst thing I could have said,” Coyes thought to herself, as her friend handed over a freshly dubbed cassette. It was the first copy of Coyes debut album for her improvised folk alter ego, Sister Ray.

Later that evening after her own performance, Coyes settled down at a friend’s place to listen to her own album for the first time. Recorded at a live show at Edmonton’s Sewing Machine Factory, every song was improvised. So while she’d technically heard everything within, it still took the musician aback.

“Sister Ray is 80 per cent improvised,” Coyes explains.

“I’ll come into a show with a thing I like on guitar or a lyric I like but that’s it. I’ll do max 20 per cent of the writing before I go into a show.”

It’s a surprising revelation given the cohesive structure and inherent ‘songiness’ of each track on the eponymous, nine-song release. Coyes elaborated that she was inspired after experiencing the power and intensity of celebrated aboriginal throat singer Tanya Tagaq, who performed at Interstellar Rodeo in 2015.

“I hadn’t seen her before and I just started crying and I didn’t know why. I couldn’t stop. I knew how amazing it was to see something that’s just happening; that wasn’t pre-meditated and was really emotional.”

Coyes’ confidence to perform as the improvisational act Sister Ray belies the deep vulnerability in her songs. As Sister Ray, the only filter that Coyes’ purest thoughts and feelings are put through is the audience. This creates a reciprocal experience between her and those at the show.

“I can’t do it without a live audience. I have to feel the feelings of everyone in the room, that’s how the songs are guided, directed and how they move,” she says.

At a Sister Ray show, it’s not unlikely to witness middle-aged rock dudes tear up alongside show-goers closer to Coyes’ considerably younger age. Her emotionality is striking and authentic, and that intensity resonates through the recording. It’s easy to understand how Coyes is able to bring a room to tears every time her voice pushes just a little past its limit and breaks.

The downside to simultaneously creating and performing songs in real time is that it can be counter-productive to building an audience. Coyes points out, “I’ll play a show and someone will come up after and ask ‘what was that song where you said THIS’ and I’ll have no fucking clue. How am I ever going to know that? Sister Ray doesn’t work that way.”

The talent and sensitivity Coyes uses to hone an ephemeral thought or feeling into a shared experience takes a certain amount of bravery to even attempt. It’s probably not useful to ask “Why?” when confronted with her gift. It may just be better to just lean into the moment and share it along with her.

Sister Ray’s debut drops on August 18 via Double Lunch Productions. Pick up a copy of the cassette that evening during her release show at the Sewing Machine Factory (Edmonton).

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BEATROUTE AB E-EDITION

Alberta

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