MUSIC | Singer-songwriter Kati Ray brings the sunshine

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You can search with bloodhounds and radar and not find a stronger talent than singer-songwriter Kati Ray. And the amazing thing is that she’s only 25, but has the vocal poise of a seasoned veteran, gorgeously shading notes and executing flawless phrases. It has helped, of course, that she studied at North Central University and had the opportunity to go on a national tour and record with an NCU band, but her innate ability is undeniable. No amount of practice or training can get you what you just ain’t got and, sure as the sun is going to rise in the morning, Kati’s got it: the magic intangible it takes to catch and hold your ear on very first listening.

It’s hard to nail down an exact genre, but she’s got elements of jazz-tinged pop with a hint of country rock. Her lyrics are clean, tight. “He Brings the Sunshine,” for example, a song with a brisk tempo and a poignant melody, goes, “He brings the sunshine with him / Everywhere he goes / Even to Seattle / and he’s never seen the snow / He brings the sunshine with him / Every single day / Hides it in his pocket / Just in case it rains.” When she shows up at Trocaderos on April 23, ask her to sing it. Beg if you have to. It’ll make your night. Kati Ray’s got an EP, Poetry of Possibility, that’s doing double duty as a demo. It is, in a word, marvelous.

Who are your influences?
I love great songwriters. I probably appreciate a great songwriter more than I do a great singer. The radio is full of good singers singing bad songs. I love songwriters that are good at writing a song from start to finish that keeps a cohesive theme. John Mayer is great at that, and so is Amel Larrieux. Songs where the choruses and verses build off of each other to make a complete song. I love Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, Jamie Cullum, Lauryn Hill, Cindy Morgan, Sting, Robin Thicke, Amy Winehouse, and Elton John. I love creative pop and R&B songwriters. Basically anyone that can write a good song about more than going to the club and having sex. Those are very tired themes and do nothing to promote more creativity.

What abuot singing influences?
I grew up on Whitney Houston. I used to record, on VHS, all of her TV performances and watch them over and over. I wore out my Bodyguard soundtrack back in the day. The greatest heartbreak of my life was when Lauryn Hill stopped making music. Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is my favorite CD of all time. The rumors of her new CD ended up being just a cruel tease, and I honestly teared up when I saw her sing on Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. I went through a serious Jane Monheit phase and bought most of her live DVDs. I listened to a lot of old music growing up, and Etta James could sing me the phone book if she wanted to. So could Aretha Franklin. It’s fun to watch people like Christina Aguilera become the divas of our time.

Playing influences?
I wish I was a better player! I was just watching a Diana Krall concert on TV and was seething with jealousy at how amazing she is on that piano. I’m in awe of all the great jazz pianists…they just have a special chip in their brain or something. It’s a unique way of thinking. Herbie Hancock, Jamie Cullum, and Vince Guaraldi are some of my faves. I’m really grateful that I took all the music theory classes that I did in college because it’s really helped my songwriting and playing. I have a much bigger toolbox to pull from.

How pleased are you with Poetry of Possibility?
This was my first solo project and it was so amazing to hear the songs that I wrote, in private, develop and take shape into something that I’m really proud of. My very best friend Karen helped me produce this project, and I had enormous help from a very talented engineer in the area: Brian Ricke. Brian really walked me through the whole process and was so wonderful! I started recording this project after I lived in Los Angeles for a summer just writing, writing, writing! I had only started songwriting about three years before I worked on this project, and I really feel like I’ve found my niche. I can’t wait to get started on the next project, because I already have a lot of new and exciting stuff.

What’s next?
I am working really hard on my live show. I think that having a great live show is absolutely crucial! You have to be able to set yourself apart from everyone else. I think that vocally and writing-wise I definitely have my own sound, and now I want to have a live show that is just as unique. I want to try some new things within that. I love the Minneapolis area; it has such a close-knit music scene and some great opportunities. However, I would love to plan a tour for the next year and I would love to collaborate with some new musicians to get a fresh take and perspective on my stuff.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.

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