NewTracks New Artist: Ray Leslie

NewTracks New Artist: Ray Leslie

Who is Ray Leslie? 24-years young with a buzz cut and big dreams according to the Philippine-born ‘pretty good’ rapper’s website. With two EPs plus a couple of albums worth of tracks released under several different names before, Ray Leslie is already shining, hence the sunnies in her video to So Far Freestyle according to the whip-smart Auckland artist. NZ On Air Music included So Far Freestyle on their NewTracks compilation this August.

What’s your given name, where are you from and what instruments do you play?

My name is Marie Gaabucayan and I am from the city of Cebu in the Philippines. When I was younger, I was briefly taught the piano and a few years later, I took up learning the guitar but I’m super rusty now with both.

Was any high school or other music training especially important to you?

I learned how to play the guitar from a really cool music teacher when I was in primary who was also our marimba leader. I think that was important to me in the sense that that experience showed me the freedom and fun in creativity and performing. Our year the group even made our own original project, which is still in my room on the CD shelf. I’ve never been the analytical type so music training to me was less about theorisation and more about the freedom and feeling of it.

Any other projects we might know you from?

Outside of releasing my own music I’ve had the privilege to collaborate with a few artists in and outside the music world. I delivered a verse on Taebz’s Vices alongside Hans and Luke Park which was an amazing experience. I’ve also been a part of the Y$O, Breaking Sound, SoFar & Madcap NZ showcases, as well as a collaborator for the Auckland Zinefest for Yolk & Friends.

What’s the background story of how Ray Leslie came to be as a project? 

Music has been at the forefront of my life since I was young. My dad used to collect CDs, and media in general were always in the house. I started writing songs when I was 10 after my first few guitar lessons. I was initially an indie writer, but by the time I reached intermediate I was finally introduced to hip hop, and artists like Jay-Z, Eminem, Outkast, Kendrick was just coming, as were Cole and Drake.

After that transition I spent the next several years improving my writing, releasing mixtapes that only a couple of my close friends would hear and I would dream. It wasn’t until university that Ray Leslie properly started and I got my first job that I was able to fund my projects and release them officially on streaming services. A lot of it had been on my own initiative until very recently that I’ve been able to connect with like-minded creatives who are now on this journey with me.

How and when did you come up with the name for the new project?

I had many different names before Ray Leslie, mostly I was just indecisive. I would love something and then after a few months grow to hate it. Even back then, I was thinking about longevity which is why I never settled on something that didn’t feel right until this one. When I was at university, I would still be making music whenever I got home, but when I would take the bus all the way to town all I would be thinking is, “I can’t wait for summer because then I’ll get to make music all day, every day.” I wanted my musical identity to be based on that idea, so Ray to me is the sun. Now that I’m doing music full-time, I feel like it’s summer all the time.

How has your writing evolved from your beginnings in songwriting to now?

I was really inspired by the rappers I was listening to when I began writing bars, so much so that I feel like my flows naturally reflected what I was listening to at the time. I think back then, it was about the rhyme at the end of the sentence and the way that I sounded that was my focus in writing. As I evolved in my artistry, I think I grew to focus more on what I was actually saying and being less robotic about my flow, fostering a free-flowing, genuine kind of delivery that I felt was purely me. When I write now, it’s just about being myself, having fun and spitting hard.

Aside from this release, what’s been the big highlight to date?

Honestly, doing my first ever headline gig at Cassette at the start of this year was amazing. My sophomore album came out that same day and after learning a lot about gigs as an opener and a guest for several shows in 2021, I worked super hard co-ordinating everything, scouting and booking the opening acts, marketing the gig and sussing out every last detail, as well as delivering an hour-long set at the end of the night. So for everything to come together like that, and we had over 100 people come to the gig which, to this day, is my biggest turnout for a headline gig, was a really gratifying thing.

What makes So Far Freestyle stand out for you as a single?

I wrote So Far Freestyle after coming back from a three-week trip to the Philippines which is where I’m from. After not having seen the extended family since before Covid, I was super inspired by the end of my trip and I knew whatever I would put out next would be an unspoken oath to the dream and to my northern stars, which are my family. It stood out to me because it was a no-nonsense track that just did what I wanted it to, made a promise to the dream.

What is the story behind So Far Freestyle?

So Far Freestyle is a track in which I reflect the journey I’ve had as an independent artist so far, recognising the work I’ve put in, the sacrifices I’ve made and the realities I’ve lived through as a consequence of being so focused on what’s ahead. It’s also a kind of reassurance that while the road has been long, I’m not tired yet, that I have plenty of bars, ambition and hustle left in me. This song is a reminder that I’m only just beginning.

What’s your favourite moment, musical or lyrical, of the single?

The chorus is probably my favourite part of the track. Diaz Grimm did a great job with the production of this track. I wrote the chorus almost instantaneously, the words just came out of my mouth and I feel the lyrics matched how fun that transition was in the beat. And I especially love that line in the chorus where I say, “I’m always in the dome, always in another rhyme scheme.” When I wrote that line, I envisioned myself physically in a maze of my own rhymes and I thought that was cool.

Who did you write/record the single with? 

This track was actually super spontaneous. I had scheduled a session at Indigo Studios, which was run by Diaz Grimm at the time, with another producer who actually cancelled on me right beforehand. Diaz was already in so he told me to pull up anyway and we could cook something up potentially. He said he had never produced for anyone else so it was definitely just a fun vibe as soon as I got in, but he laid the beat out and I just wrote to it immediately. We got the song finished in less than two hours.

What would you like listeners to take away from this song?

While the song gives off very, ‘I mean serious business’ vibes, it’s also just a super fun track. I’d hope for people to hear this and yes, to feel inspired and feel driven to continue their individual pursuits, but to also enjoy where they’re at because hopefully everyone will get to achieve their dreams one day but the process of getting there is also equally fun.

Who else is in your team?

June of this year, I founded a collective called, Light Beings. It’s comprised of myself, my producer Danny Do, fellow artist Kiwa Maru aka August, Hsarhoo Moo aka Spook and Yong Kweon who are our photo/video editors and Marc Tolentino our graphic designer. We’re at the start of our journey so at the moment, we’re learning a lot and doing everything ourselves in terms of marketing and management. It’s a group of talented individuals with big dreams.

Are there any other musical endeavours you’re working on that we should keep an eye out for? 

I’m currently working on an EP, the majority of which has been produced by Danny, and then a couple by Yong and Marc. Collaborating with GSR Studio, we’re hoping to release it at the start of November so keep an eye out for that.

Can you please name three other local tunes that would fit well on a playlist alongside your song.

  • JJ ShadowWith It
  • Rob the Bank: Lifestyle
  • Mikeyy: Settle Down

Have any previous NZOA applications not gained funding or been included on NewTracks? Got any advice for others out there?

I’ve applied for New Single Funding once with a single titled, Blue Cold which did not gain funding. Close 2 You and So Far Freestyle have been included on NewTracks. My advice for others out there would be to continue making and putting out music that you’re proud of, to keep submitting those to platforms like NZOA and eventually, you will be heard. I also think approaching bigger artists and enquiring with them about the process is really helpful. In my experience, bigger artists have been really helpful and advised me on my journey, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Who did you make the video with?

I got to do this video with Acompany’s Luke Park, who has done two of my previous music videos. He is just one of those human beings with mega talent and mega humility. It’s always a pleasure to collaborate with a creative who just has the vision and the eye for what looks good.