- Words Matilda Carnall
In celebration of the launch of their latest EP ‘Teeth’, Sister Ray discusses their musical firsts, from meeting Ben Howard, to finding healing in songwriting.
Thanks to TikTok, folk music is having a resurgence. Following the popularity of artists like Noah Kahan, Big Thief and First Aid Kit, Sister Ray offers a new voice with their raspy vocals and heart-breaking lyricism. Their new EP, ‘Teeth’, follows on from the success of their debut album ‘Communion’, in which they were long-listed for the 2022 Polaris Prize.
Sister Ray is the alias of Edmonton-born songwriter Ella Coyes, a pseudonym which sparks memories of The Velvet Underground’s 1968 hit off ‘White Light / White Heat’. Growing up in the rural expanse of Sturgeon County in Canada, Ella was surrounded by gospel bluegrass and 90s country music, eventually using this as inspiration for their own music.
The name was born, in part, out of trauma. Music became a way to address Sister Ray’s past with unflinching honesty. Drawing on individual experiences, Ella is able to explore universalist ideas about the human experience. With song titles like “Violence”, “Pressing Down” and “Justice”, they aren’t afraid to tackle complex topics in their music.
Sister Ray’s latest EP, ‘Teeth’, is incredibly vulnerable. With themes centred on intimacy and avoidance, Ella explores their need for space in a world of disconnection. Incredibly, the project took shape over just five days, in collaboration with Ginla, a Brooklyn-based duo that produced the early music of Adrienne Lenker. Their voice perfectly compliments the guitar riffs to produce music which captures the wonders and pains of the human experience.
As they prepare for shows across Canada’s festival season and celebrate their newest EP, we caught up with Sister Ray to talk their most important ‘firsts’, from making music projects at 15 to the experience of playing their first festival.
First song you ever made?
I wrote a song called “Highwayman” about my Dad’s cousin who lived with us for a while when I was a kid. I don’t remember much about it, but it was very influenced by all those classic James Taylor tunes that take you on an adventure through the life of a character.
First song you released officially?
I put out a three song EP when I was 15, burned the CD’s myself and made the packaging out of paper bags. I couldn’t tell you what songs were on it but I was very proud.
First CD or record you owned?
‘Fly’ by The Chicks. I made up music videos to every song on this record in my head and they still run in my brain when I listen to it now.
First time you realised you wanted to be an artist?
Writing, reading, and being in my own little brain have always been my happy place. I remember thinking that if I could do that forever I’d be content. I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but it feels like the origins of that desire.
First gig you went to?
My Nana and Papa celebrated a wedding anniversary when I was five, and The Satellites played. They were a local band from Villeneuve who played lots of the hall parties. I loved (and still love) to jig and two-step, and I was so amazed to hear all the songs I loved in real life.
First time you faced an obstacle in your career?
Sister Ray was started during one of the biggest obstacles I’ve faced as an artist. I was 18 and had gone through a pretty significant trauma and the songs just weren’t coming, but all I wanted to do was play shows. This project started as an improvisational thing where I’d just play for thirty minutes and let it happen. That time so deeply informed the music I make now, and is the origin of a few songs on my first record.
First instrument you owned?
I had a practice guitar with brutal action. I still wonder how I learned to play the guitar on that thing.
First time you felt like giving up?
Oh god. Literally doing multiplication tables in elementary school. I dropped out of high school and the only arithmetic I can do quickly is counting a crib hand so it checks out.
First time you felt starstruck?
The year before I played Edmonton Folk Fest I broke character and approached Ben Howard after his set at that festival. He was smoking a joint on the hill and I don’t think my face went back from red for many, many hours. To this day I have not approached anyone at a festival or out in the wild in the same way.
First time you ticked off a bucket list goal?
I played Edmonton Folk Festival with my best friend in 2015 and it was a true bucket list weekend. I did a bunch of under age drinking and we played a little “tweener” set on the main stage! That was a moment that I will never forget.