Michael Gray Talks Family Legacy & Debut Blues Roots Album

Hidden Stash is a new 6-piece roots rock band led by emerging songwriter Michael Gray offering up rock, pop, blues, soul, C&W and folk with a retro twist. Their debut album Mixed Cassette Tape is a 70’s inspired rock album that takes listeners back in time when people used to listen to albums from start to finish.

Mixed Cassette Tape is expertly co-produced and arranged by Derek Downham (The Beauties), and features Divine Brown, Damhnait Doyle, Shelley Coopersmith, Denis Keldie, Jim Bish, Russ Boswell and a sizzling duet with rising roots n’ roll singer Samantha Martin.

Being the son of Jerry Gray, the legendary folk musician who was a founding member of The Travellers and the brother of James Gray who served more than 13 years’ in Blue Rodeo, Gray grew up surrounded by music.  The band name Hidden Stash comes from the idea that he has kept this hidden stash of songs that he wrote for years and is now ready to reveal them to the world.

What made you not pursue music earlier since your family was so involved? Both my father and my brother were successful and well renowned musicians.  My dad was a pioneer in the folk music industry in Canada, having formed the historic band The Travellers.   My brother James was a tremendous talent, with the ability to fluently play almost any genre of music, playing a wide array of instruments. Living in the shadow of those two, I pursued a more traditional path, working in sales and marketing for high tech companies for over 20 years.  All the while, I played music for fun, jamming with friends, and writing songs, but never pursuing it seriously.   

What was the inspiration to finally work on an album now? When my brother passed away, I felt it was a calling of some sort, and decided to pursue it seriously.  I had written over 40 songs, and was encouraged by the feedback I’d received from my brother and other local musicians, so I decided to take the plunge and see what could happen.  That’s when I got a hold of Derek Downham and we started our partnership. 

What do you think Derek brought out in your music? Derek is someone who I had met a few times through my brother James as they had played together in Stratochief and other bands.  After my brother had passed away, Derek and Glenn Milchem (Blue Rodeo) organized the first James Gray Benefit concert, and invited musicians from all over the city.  Derek was backing up many of the musicians that night, and he was so versatile, jumping from drums to keys to guitars so effortlessly.  I was really impressed with the sounds he was making, and it reminded me a lot of my brother. 

Derek was a well-regarded performer and he was trying to get more into music production, so the timing was perfect.  I sat down with Derek and played him one song after another.  He seemed surprised with the quality and quantity of songs I brought to the table and he agreed to produce the album.  Derek has a great ear for music and he understood exactly what I was trying to accomplish with my songs.  He has the unique ability to take a good song, and raise it to a whole new level. 

What songs mean the most to you on the album and why? There’s a few that have a special meaning.  Chasing Sunsets came from an idea had 20 years ago when I moved out to Calgary and Vancouver to start new chapter of my life.  Don’t Walk Away holds meaning to me as it was the first song I wrote that I thought was a complete song.  But the song of most importance is Sweet Brother James, the ballad I had written a day or two after my brother had passed away.  Usually, the lyrics process takes me a long time, but the song flowed out of me in less than an hour, and is best way I could show my appreciation for my brother.

How did the duet with Samantha Martin come about? The James Gray Benefit concerts got me involved with SHINE, an organization that helps youth living in the GTA who face financial barriers impeding their study or practice of traditional or folk music.  Samantha was a performer at one of the SHINE concerts a couple of years ago, and I was blown away by her performance.  At the time, I had already started working with Derek, and suggested to him afterwards that this is the perfect voice for the duet I had written.  The song “Are You With Me?” is actually my wedding song that I had written for my wife and was performed by the wedding band we’d hired.  Hearing Samantha for the first time, I knew that I wanted her to be on the album.  Fortunately, Derek knew her and was able to make that happen.

What is the first single?  Inspiration for the song? I submitted the song Wasted in the CBC Searchlight Contest earlier this year and even created a video for it.  It was a fun song I had written about an executive who’s on the road and is always chasing his next fix.  I had written it with a Little Feat kind of vibe, and Derek created this really great acoustic slide riff at the top, and turned it into a funky New Orleans tune.  However, I’m going with Chasing Sunsets as the lead track.  I was fortunate enough to have Divine Brown come in and provide background vocals. As a result, her voice soars through the choruses only as Divine Brown can do.  It’s a personal story about finding yourself and chasing your dreams.

Any good recording stories? I hired special musicians to perform on Sweet Brother James.  My idea for the song was along the lines of an East Coast ballad, and wanted to have a unique sound that was different from the rest of the songs on the album.  It’s the simplest arrangement on the album.  I brought in Shelley Coopersmith to play violin who is one of the most underrated musicians in Toronto.  Veteran bass player Russ Boswell brought in his big double bass and I was in awe as I watched his fingers move up and down his instrument.  But the biggest thrill was having Denis Keldie play accordion.  He’s a phenomenal player.  Years ago he purchased an accordion from my brother, and he used it on the recording.  It was one of those special moments that made the recording of that particular song so memorable.

The other interesting recording story involved the song Red to Black, a Tom Waits inspired blues track.  The song was originally recorded at one studio, but we recorded at a slower tempo.  So it was digitally sped up to the right tempo, but unfortunately the song didn’t end up on key.  It’s actually between two different keys.  We hired a talented sax player named Jim Bish to record on the song, but he was having difficulties since it was off key.  So he got some masking tape and placed it strategically on the mouthpiece which flattened the sound.  So he played the song a semi-tone higher than it was written, and the masking tape made it sound flatter which ironically fit the song. 

Tell us about the video for “Wasted”? It was shot by a friend of mine who runs his own video production company Loco Chico Video.  Because Derek was performing on all the instruments on the song, the idea was to have him superimposed playing all of the various instruments.  So it looks like I’m playing with a full band, but it’s really Derek and Derek and Derek and Derek and me.  It’s amazing how many people didn’t realize that it’s Derek playing all those instruments.  It was well done.

What can people expect from your live shows? I’ve put together a great band full of Toronto stalwarts.  We’ve been rehearsing and the band is coming together nicely.  If you’re a fan of roots rock, of artists like The Band, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Bonnie Raitt and others of that generation, then you’ll have a great time at the show.  I bet that you’ll have a few of these songs in your head by the time you leave…and I must apologize for that.

What are your musical plans for the future? The band will start performing in cities and towns across Ontario in the fall and we’ll branch out to other parts of Canada as we continue to roll out the debut CD.  I continue to write new material and have already given strong thought about a second album, assuming people actually liked the first one.  But, I’ve often felt that my songs would have more impact if they were sung by more talented singers, and in an ideal world, I’d also be penning songs for other artists and bands. 

Where can people find you online? http://hiddenstashband.com
Twitter: @HiddenStashBand
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hiddenstashband
Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/hidden-stash
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCF16kXHc9srlE7g5r5kp3oQ

October 11, 2016 4:06pm ET by Diane Foy  

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