One summer night, Marty Gray casually walked into a Marquette bar and unexpectedly experienced a life-changing conversation with a random stranger.
The Ann Arbor indie pop artist, multi-instrumentalist and producer went to Flanigan’s Bar with high school friends to sing karaoke and decided to get a drink. Right away, a 36-year-old regular sitting at the bar started chatting with Gray.
“This whole conversation happened the summer before the pandemic. We went on a Wednesday, and there were maybe four people there. This guy says, ‘You have a great voice. Where are you from?’ I said, ‘I’m from Ann Arbor, but I grew up here, and I just wanted to see what this bar was all about,” said Gray about that infamous night in 2019.
“For the next half an hour, the guy starts telling me everything he’s thinking about. His demeanor was friendly and non-weighted. He didn’t present the information like he was suffering or in a bad spot. It was literally, ‘Hey dude, this is what I’m doing. As long as you’re gonna listen, I’ll just keep telling you.”
The regular told Gray about missed opportunities and regrets in his life, including breaking up with his fiancée, being stuck in an unsatisfying job, longing for the carefree days of his youth and feeling scared about the future.
“He clearly felt like he had missed his life, and it was too late for him to experience those early thirties things that all his friends had experienced. The whole conversation left me in a very different mood. It was really nonchalant, but really heavy,” Gray said.
For some reason, that 30-minute interaction resonated with Gray and later served as the inspiration behind his soulful, introspective concept album, The Regular. It beautifully recounts that memorable conversation and glides through the regular’s experiences, preoccupations, choices and uncertainties.
“The whole very human thing that hit me so hard in the gut was that mentality. This guy had been backed into a corner so many times in the last 10 years of his life, and he was in such a desolate, horrible spot where he was just drinking alone at the bar every night or with a couple of friends,” Gray said.
“There’s something about the way he was talking about leaving and the way he was talking about changing something. The whole sentiment was human and on the same wavelength as a fight-or-flight response. You can either lie down and die or give up, or you can make a drastic change.”
For The Regular, Gray distinctly revisits his meaningful conversation with the protagonist through a vivid, thoughtful nine-track journey. Each insightful track melds spellbinding vocals, infectious beats and meticulous production with rich lyrical imagery about the regular’s past, present and future.
“I don’t think I appreciated storytelling until this chapter of my life, which is working at a studio and being a young adult person. It’s so important to tell a good story well and to tell it truthfully. Passing along that story is important for people to hear,” said Gray, who’s 25.
“I think that’s the thing I never realized – that storytelling is about the people that you’re telling it to. It’s not about what the story is about at all.”
Gray eloquently details the regular’s college frat heyday on “Glory Days,” which instantly transports listeners to a bygone youthful era. Intermittent, smooth electronic drums, ticking cymbals, mellow bass, bumpy electric guitars and luminous, mystical synths open a dreamy wormhole to the regular’s past.
He pensively sings, “Rude awakened clemency/From Saturday debauchery/Crimson cherry plastic cups/And blueberry lips/Flow the halls of milk and honey/Bountiful as parent’s money/Life’s lemons have never tasted quite the same/Quite the same.”
“The whole track is about how he wished he had learned more. He has regrets over not taking the time to actually smell the roses,” Gray said.
In August, Gray dropped a playful new video for “Glory Days,” which eloquently captures the free spiritedness of youth, possibility and progress.
Directed by Victoria Reackhof, edited by Robinson Gonyea and peppered with special effects by George Marshall, David Magumba and Cassie Jenema, the video shows Gray frolicking in Ann Arbor neighborhoods, basements, backseats and athletic fields.
“We just wanted to get the camera rolling, and the most meaningful connection to the lyrics is the choice to shoot at U-M’s frat row and a couple of college athletic fields,” said Gray, who graduated from the University of Michigan in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance.
“There are little touches of ‘fun and youthful’ in the video – backseat with a goofy hat, strutting with a pink backpack, lights and fog, and bottles of wine. We wanted to imbue the video with the ‘college-y’ fun thing, so we just selected the first few places that came to our heads.”
After chronicling the protagonist’s “Glory Days,” Gray returns to his present day on the forlorn, wistful “Thirty-Six.” Vivid, whirring synths, soulful finger snaps, strolling bass, bouncy electronic drums, tapping cymbals and rhythmic electric guitars surround Gray as he absorbs the regular’s heartbreak and despondency.
Gray sings, “Suspended/Above your head/There’s an hourglass with diamond sand/Half-filled/On either side/You wish to smash the thing to pieces/Have you forgotten how to cry?”
“During his whole tirade of what was happening in his life, he kept saying, ‘I’m too old to think this way. Man, I’m 36. I should have already figured this out, I should have accomplished that or I should have done this. It’s too late for me,’” he said.
Despite being “Thirty-Six,” the regular’s ultimate regret includes letting his longtime relationship with his fiancée disintegrate on “The Exact Date.” Sneaky bass, hypnotic strings, thoughtful electric guitar, clacking drums and spooky synths creep into the angsty heart and soul.
Gray reveals, “Could it be/She drifted further/As your body aged/Was your lust/The foolish glue that held you two in place/Fumes of yore/Left untraceable/In the air/Like carbon monoxide/You did nothing.”
“‘The Exact Date’ has a double meaning. It was him trying to find that wedding date, which you wouldn’t ever figure out from reading the lyrics. The song is about having something deteriorate so slowly over time that you can’t see it,” Gray said.
“Breaking up with his fiancée was amicable, but it was so weird. For so long, the reality started to grow and fester in different ways. You can’t say you don’t love each other anymore, especially at first because there’s still a little spark.”
Once he met the regular, Gray typed notes into his phone about the conversation and stashed it away until the pandemic hit. With Gray’s Big Sky Recording engineering role on hold, he decided to write and record his third album, which would become The Regular.
“I had this unique, quiet creative space, and I didn’t have anything to do. I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I explore this more?’ Because I had always thought about that conversation and how it made me feel,” Gray said.
“I think writing the album was me trying to sort that out. The way he described how he felt was so potent, and you have no choice but to sympathize with him. Through this whole process, I realized the reason why his life struck me so much was because I was also afraid of getting old.”
During that period of reflection and creation, Gray spent a year writing, recording and producing The Regular in his home studio. Part of that time included four months mixing the project and another month mastering it before a June release.
Since releasing The Regular, Gray wishes he could share the album with the protagonist. Unfortunately, Gray didn’t get his name during their chance encounter.
“That’s the frustrating part about all of this. It’s something my friends and I talk about all the time. The guy is probably out there somewhere living in a van in Arizona, and he has no clue that some kid spent the whole pandemic thinking about him,” Gray said.
Punk Drummer, Opera Singer and Ficus Tree
While growing up in Marquette, Gray developed a penchant for music at a young age. He took piano lessons as a kid and graduated to a drum set in middle school.
“When I was in fifth or sixth grade, my dad set up his old drum set from when he was in a band. He was like, ‘Got hit that for a while, you angry little person,’” Gray said with a laugh.
“I learned the drums on my own and later bass and guitar. My dad always forced ‘classic rock’ upon us as children, so I grew up with Rush, Flock of Seagulls, R.E.M, XTC and all these alt ‘80s bands.”
In high school, an older classmate recruited Gray to drum in his punk band. Once the band dissolved, Gray joined choir and focused on arranging a cappella music and experimented with FL Studio and Ableton.
“I knew I wanted to do music, but I didn’t know how. I was like, ‘What would be an easy way to get into music school and get a big old scholarship? I figured opera wouldn’t be that hard to get a scholarship,’” he said with a laugh.
“It turns out it’s easier to get a scholarship when there aren’t many fans of the art form you’re trying to go to school for.”
Gray became an opera major at U-M and worked with several mentors to develop his voice classically. By 2017, he released his ambitious, contemplative 17-track debut album, Eyeful, which reflects his prowess with Ableton and personal transition into the real world.
“After doing Ableton for a certain number of years, you get over this hump, and you’re like, ‘I’m excited to be in this space now.’ Eyeful was a direct result of me being in my last year of college and really starting to look at the world through the eyes of an adult,” he said.
Two years later, Gray released his cerebral sophomore album, Ode to a Ficus Tree, to explore the concept of atheism. It’s a fascinating journey into the headspace of a young adult personally questioning the need for religion and spirituality.
“My parents always encouraged me to believe whatever I wanted to believe. It was a very free-thinking, liberal upbringing, but I really did need to spend some time coming to grips with my own version of atheism and how that was gonna shake my world,” he said.
With three compelling albums now under his belt, Gray continues to write and record new material as well as produce for Good Vibes Only (GVO), a local music collective. He’s also working on new videos for additional tracks from The Regular.
“‘Lemons’ is in the works, and Robinson (Gonyea) is directing that one. We recently got a hold of a bunch of old ‘Super 8’ reel footage my opa took in the ‘60s. That’s gonna be sweet. I’m also doing ‘Singapore’ with Vic (Reackhof),” he said.