Venture Into Saya Gray’s Alt-Pop Wonderland

Photo by Leeay. Image by Chris Panicker.

On a wintry evening, Saya Gray is spiraling down a rusty staircase for a spot of macabre sightseeing. Housed in the basement of a seamy London cocktail bar, the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities promises “Taxidermy, Dead People, Erotica, Magickal Items,” and other chills and thrills. Gray, a shapeshifting songwriter and producer who trades in the outré and audacious, takes one step inside, shrieks, and clasps her mouth. “Oh,” she says, composing herself. “What is that?”

Staring back from a glass enclosure is a monstrous bronze beast: a scaly humanoid with terrible fangs and spindly crab’s legs for whiskers. Gray locks eyes with the dysmorphic creature until a museum-goer tries to pass. “I’ll get out of your way,” Gray mutters, scrunching up to another exhibit. “Closer to this”—her voice sours—“diseased, flaccid penis.”

Dressed in a jumper and kilt over lime green shorts, with vintage stockings, pink and blue socks, and cloven boots, Gray, 28, cuts a suitably fantastical figure for our unorthodox setting. In town in the fall after a performance at Pitchfork Music Festival Paris, Gray chose the venue to discuss Qwerty I and II, her dual-EP scrapbook of a strange year, collaged from mutant alt-rock, experimental pop, and hypnagogic R&B. That discussion will have to wait, because, as she puts it now: “Insects!”

She scurries towards an alcove where several men are solemnly playing Dungeons & Dragons. Lining the walls is a collection of framed beetles, butterflies, intestinal worms, and her personal favorite, mantises. Insect life cycles tie together her fascinations with transformation and the natural world, via the Japanese Shinto faith, she explains. “A lot of Shinto is about death and rebirth,” a theme of the new record. “There’s, like, 1,800 types of mantid, which live for 10 to 12 months—about the same time as it takes to make an album.”

Photo by Leeay

Saya Gray

Photo by Leeay

Gray wrote Qwerty during a year of reckoning and reinvention. She had released her debut, 19 Masters, on Dirty Hit in 2022, after wriggling out of exploitative record contracts (“I have NDAs and shit,” she half-explains) and stints as a musical director for the likes of fellow Canadian Daniel Caesar and Willow. She had felt uneasy in an industry environment that asked awkward questions of her integrity. “People would be like, ‘You’re a hot Asian—why don’t you just wear a bikini all the time?’” she tells me later. “A lot of my friends who are very successful suggest doing some easy thing [for money]. I’m like: But my art! It means I’ll struggle for rent, but...” she makes a retching noise.

Her purist approach to life and music can feel anachronistic, if not curmudgeonly. Throughout our conversations, she holds forth on peeves that range from cosmetics addiction to socialite phoniness and online personality branding. She is alert to the fears that drive our shallower impulses, that prize conformity over oddball self-expression. “Being broke doesn’t scare me anymore,” she says, “because I’ve been broke; I’ve been ugly; I’ve been fat. If I didn’t do everything I was scared of doing, I’d still be working in a restaurant in Toronto. People are so scared of death, so scared financially, that they’re not living their life.”

The occult museum’s curiosities ask us to stare at the squeamish thing until we feel a frisson of recognition, an approach I occasionally hear in Gray’s more gruesome, madcap lyrics. (One example, from “Edible Thong”: “My ovaries spit you out because there are too many tiny people in big houses/Ten cars carrying silicon tits/I just hit my head on a higher purpose.”) Still, even she has her limits. “I am good to not be down here anymore,” she announces, and races back up the spiral staircase.

When we stop at a nearby Italian restaurant on Regent’s Canal, Gray apologizes in advance for her tendency toward self-contradiction, which she claims as a core of her personality. “It comes with the territory of”—she rolls her eyes—“this mental health, or whatever the fuck.” In conversation, she narrowly skirts self-mythology, chronicling episodes of chaos and delirium in a dry, punctured deadpan, like a 911 operator relaying details of a sensational heist.

Gray grew up in Toronto’s quaint Beaches neighborhood, where her pianist mother, whose Presbyterian minister parents moved from Shizuoka prefecture to Canada when she was 10, runs a music school in the family home. The result, Gray says, was an “isolated childhood experience, being raised by someone who had brought a ’70s version of Japan to Canada.”

She learned to play piano before she could talk, and to read people around the same time. “I’ve been hyper-intuitive—extrasensory perception—from the moment I was cognitive,” she says. “I could see through people. I could hear things other people couldn’t. I was composing really young, and had perfect pitch. People say that when I was a kid, I was like a 40-year-old woman, holding eye contact and watching people. It was weird.”

Today, to tune out the world, she lives on the hoof, habitually spending weeks in cabins in coastal Canada or rural Japan. She attributes her ability to thrive anywhere—including a period here in London—to an upbringing of relatively few luxuries, dependent on her mom’s school money and sporadic gig income from her dad, a trumpeter for Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, and the more workaday outfits that kept him on the road. “I come from a lineage of really strong women,” Gray says. “The immigrant experience for Japanese people coming to Canada in the ’70s and ’80s was so racist. Naturally you’re gonna instill that trauma onto your children.”

We pause as a waiter recites a slightly overwrought drinks offering. Gray looks bamboozled.

“Can I just have a Coke?” she asks.

The waiter hesitates. “We don’t have Coke, I’m afraid.”

Gray squints. We establish the availability of a naturally sourced organic cola, which she orders, nonplussed. “What did he think I said?!” Not for the first time, I wonder how this truth seeker got by in such a bumbling, indirect culture.

Photo by Leeay

Saya Gray

Photo by Leeay

Before moving to London for a spell at 19, Gray had dropped out of high school (an “authority issue,” she says) to take night classes “with a bunch of ex-convicts, because I wasn’t thriving in a public setting.” Around the same time, after years performing in church bands, her musical life took an unexpected detour. Her bass-guitar cover of Michael Jackson’s “Ease on Down the Road” went viral in gospel circles on Instagram, prompting national gospel and jazz tour offers based on her videos alone. The shine soon wore off. In hindsight, working for other artists felt too much like school. “I don’t get told what to do,” she says, tearing a piece of focaccia. “When someone tells me what to wear, how to have my hair—eughk. I’m just like, Dude. No.”

After winding down her creative-director gigs in her mid-twenties, Gray went into freefall. Making 19 Masters in London, she says, “I was homeless for the whole year, couch hopping. I was literally having a miscarriage. It was fucked.” The sense of crisis extended to her friendship group. “There were a lot of deaths around me, people murdered or overdoses, people stealing from me. I was searching for something to fill the space.”

What she found was the city—fitness regimes, fake friends, status anxieties, and pole-dancing lessons, broken up by impromptu flights to Tokyo. “I go into manic states when I’m traveling, up and down, up and down, so much bullshit, insanity, drama.” Her instinct was to retreat. Instead she decided, “I’m gonna live a year of this.”

From now on she would be up late in the club and up early at pole, “half naked on social media, to see what it was like in that world.” In her heart, as she remembers it now, she felt no desire to impress an external audience. But she felt a desire to feel that desire—to understand the peculiar craving for validation that she had studied in so many others. She sought out strangers’ approval, tried it on for size. She considered, as an anthropological concern, just being a little sexy. She decided, she says finally, “to be a basic bitch.”

It almost stuck. “I was like, I’m gonna be around basic bitches, be a basic bitch, be online, be influenced as much as possible,” she recalls. Qwerty harnesses the buzz of that lifestyle with a scale that borders the operatic: yearning soul melodies interrupted by anxious ad libs, voice-note recordings, and phone-notification pings, with devious melodic rivulets to link the bustling movements. She laid down much of the source material during a fortnight at Real World, Peter Gabriel’s lakeside studio in England’s West Country, when her Dirty Hit labelmates the 1975 took a break from their recording sessions. A tracklist had been penciled, but she wound up eviscerating a collection of more conventional R&B songs—now set to comprise her next record—to make a sort of pre-emptive remix album.

With both parts of Qwerty complete, she retreated to her cabin in the Nova Scotia forest, ignoring messages from the ghosts of her recent normie past. “Everyone was like, ‘Where the fuck are you?’” she recalls. “And I literally just cried for two months, every day.” As exhausting as it sounds, Gray presents her rebirths as acts of self-preservation, an outlet and cure for her restlessness. “People say I’m a chameleon,” she adds—but rather than camouflage herself, she seems drawn to the extravagant clash. “Next time we see each other, I might be completely unrecognizable. A little boy. My hair will be down to here, and fucking red.” It turns out she means this literally.

A month later, Gray video calls from Tokyo, near Shibuya Crossing, in an upscale hotel café that doubles as a showroom for bright orange motorbikes. Her dyed-red hair reaches the shoulders of her leather jacket. On this occasion, she is wearing spectacles.

That aside, normal service has resumed since the hectic Qwerty era. She has a cat, Genghis, and plans to get a lease, though she hasn’t decided where. The quieter phase dawned last May, when she played an acoustic show at London venue Brilliant Corners. I had attended out of curiosity, expecting an industry crowd or casual hyperpop chasers. In fact, the singalongs came fast, at first awkward and then full-throated. The atmosphere between songs was so reverent that somebody was moved to pierce the tension by blasting an ironic airhorn. “Calm the fuck down,” Gray joked.

Perfectly at home with a virtuoso jazz band, she slingshotted out knotty melodies and stuttering vocal play that were every bit as strange and disarming as the intricately produced records. She was delighted with the turnout, if a little alarmed. “You know those moments when the floor becomes the ceiling?” she dreamily asked the crowd. “I thought nobody listened to my music.”

The show convinced Gray that her perpetual reinvention was on track. “It was 40-year-old metalheads to anime kids to trendy people, all screaming at me,” she says now. Fans had clocked her multiple personalities and were happy to pick one they liked. “Being so constricted my whole life—especially being Japanese, and a woman in the industry—everything you do is watched under a microscope. So my goal for the shows is for people to bring their weird-ass self. That is the space for it.”

One of Gray’s contradictions lies in her hunger for a conflicted authenticity; at one point, she expresses gratitude that the gig “wasn’t a roomful of 17-year-old, unconscious girls who were there to be cool.” Her self-interrogations suggest a more forgiving philosophy: that sometimes we change how we look, or make superficial lifestyle adjustments, to prove that, underneath, we have integrity where it counts—some stranger’s perceptions be damned. “The most important thing,” she concludes, “is that I’m unconditionally myself—goofy, weird as fuck, unhinged.” Another transformation complete: Saya Gray is the same as she ever was.

Originally Appeared on Pitchfork