Saya Gray Is Pulling Music From Her Bones

Saya Gray has, for years, worked as a bassist to the stars — Daniel Caesar, Willow, and Liam Payne all among them. But more than 45 minutes pass on her imaginative and immersive debut LP, 19 Masters, before she takes the record’s first and last true bass solo.

It arrives near the end of “Leeches On My Thesis!,” a guarded bit of confessional pop about navigating others’ expectations of her own success and relevance. Just as the breezy acoustic tune seems to dissolve into a comedown of swirling electronics and shivering static, Gray steps forward on electric bass, gliding up and down the neck with the sort of rolling melodic licks Tony Levin might add. It lasts a little more than 30 seconds, teasing what Gray can do and has done but not necessarily what she ever wants to do again.

“I can’t really learn other people’s songs anymore without doing my own thing first,” says Gray from her hometown, Toronto. “They’re like, ‘Can you not just play bass chords over this, just play the part?’ That isn’t for me anymore.”

Gray, now 26, worked as a session and touring bassist for more than a decade, drawn to the teenage novelty of making 100 quick bucks by showing up at a festival, instrument in hand. “Chick on bass? Gets gig immediately,” she says, noting that her Japanese-Canadian heritage only amplified that allure. The shows and tours grew, alongside the paychecks. But those around her, like Payne’s manager Steve Finan O’Connor or her peers in Caesar’s band, recognized that Gray had more to offer than root notes and rhythms. On the road, she began capturing song ideas with her cell phone or in whatever nearby studio she could access.

19 Masters is a captivating and provocative introduction to Gray, a magnetic singer-songwriter with the restless mind of an expert improviser. The sweeping hooks of “Empathy 4 Bethany” slide into a warped jazz duet for piano and trumpet, while “S.H.T.” flits between a fetching folk tune and electroacoustic abstraction while making space for a Hodgy verse. “Little Palm” is an elegiac country beauty, while “Saving Grace” is a minimalist soul manifesto about uncertainty. Though Gray shies from social media herself, 19 Masters feels like New Weird (North) America updated for the TikTok generation. As tuneful and accessible as it is idiosyncratic and experimental, the record reflects Gray’s acceptance that she’s more than a bass player, even if she’s been one most of her life.

“I was self-conforming, turning into the gig because that’s what it takes to be a session musician. You have to turn into what you’re playing,” she says. “It took me a long time to be like, ‘I’m just going to be my weirdo self — whoever likes it can come.”

That sense of autonomy is so strong now that Gray actually doesn’t remember writing many of the tracks on 19 Masters, and not only because some of them are five-year-old voice memos. When Gray writes, she nearly blacks out, she says, slipping into what she calls “a flow state” that often allows her to go from initial idea to recorded track in about an hour.

The process is less about her head and toiling through a song than viscerally feeling it and giving it room and time to appear. Though she’s struggled with depression and anxiety her whole life, her songs actually arrive when she feels good, when she’s already worked through her struggles. They are artifacts of what she’s endured. It’s so personal and intuitive, she says, that writing with other people in the same room is almost impossible.

“As soon as I start thinking, there’s nothing that will come through of any substance,” she offers. “There are months where I won’t create songs at all because they have to move through my body.”

19 Masters is as musically diverse as it is texturally rich, with kotos and singing bowls and bells all suspended inside spans of noisy squelch or bits of Signal chats of Gray’s friends talking about Asian exploitation or general malaise. True to her isolated approach, Gray plays nearly every instrument on it, allowing her to find unexpected sounds.

Her heritage has been key to the process, too. Gray’s father, Charlie, is a Berklee-trained trumpeter, composer, and audio engineer who has written television themes and performed with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, and Ella Fitzgerald. Meanwhile, her mother, Madoka Murata, founded the Canadian music school Discovery Through the Arts more than 40 years ago.

Gray began playing piano before she could speak, even earning her allowance from her technical progression at one point. She tried every instrument she saw around her before she finally got serious about bass around the age of 10. “My brain barely thinks about music. It’s just in my body,” she says. “It was bred into my subconscious, you know? ‘This is what we do as a family.’”

And though 19 Masters wasn’t made as a family, it was at least made with her family. Just before the album was finished, Gray thrust a phone into her mom’s face and asked her to say “welcome to my world” in Japanese; the sample is the entire first track. After all the paintings Murata had done of Gray over the years, including one where she’s a bass-playing alien, she felt like the favor was the least she could ask. “That’s not something weird for my mom,” she says, laughing.

Gray also recorded several of these tracks in her mother’s basement or father’s closet, using instruments she pilfered from the family music school. Her father plays trumpet on a pair of songs, having diligently written out charts and recorded his parts after the tunes were finished. (“He’s so old-school,” jokes Gray.) These were poignant additions for Gray, as her father retired from performance in the wake of Covid-19 lockdowns.

Her guitar-playing brother, Lucian, appears, too; he’s one of the few people she can stand having in the room while she writes or records. She wants to collaborate more, she admits, but it’s an unsteady learning process. “We have very similar upbringings and influences,” she says of Lucian, “So I know I can trust him if he’s like, ‘That’s sick,’ even if I can’t hear it today.”

Though 19 Masters is Gray’s first full album, it represents an ending as much as a beginning. It closes a period of self-doubt, when she wondered whether or not her ideas were good enough to stand alone. It closes her era of prioritizing other people’s songs. And it collects so many of the tunes she imagined while making money from music that wasn’t her own. “We have these transitions, and we change. We have relationships that end, jobs that end. We just jump timelines and become a different person,” she says. “This is the end of me self-conforming.”

19 Masters is out 6/2 via Dirty Hit.