Edmonton’s Sister Ray has a sober soul and a silence-breaker’s heart
Edmonton’s soulful songstress Ella Coyes (a.k.a. Sister Ray—yes, from Lou Reed) comes in like a whisper and blows through a wall of expectations with her honesty and raw, quivering voice.
Starting out playing folk and bluegrass on acoustic guitar, Coyes was unfortunately a victim of sexual assault by someone in the community early on in her musical career.
Following the assault, Coyes was immediately disappointed in herself for becoming a statistic and not being the strong tower she had expected herself to be.
“I didn’t feel like I had a space in my community anymore that was safe,” she recalls.
While struggling to find the answers she needed for some time, she decided to create her ‘Sister Ray’ persona to sing about her trauma and the darkness that threatened to envelope her sweetness and open heart after the incident.
“It’s kind of my way of pretending that there was some character going on so I could feel a separation from it, but talk about all of the things that I didn’t really wanna think about,” Coyes says. “So the jump [from folk] was made more out of a need … to keep on doing this thing I love—to keep doing my job.”
Available on Bandcamp, her untitled nine-track album is stripped right back to unearth intensity that can only be found when everything else is unvarnished. Sister Ray tells her tales with a voice that exhibits strength in its quivering honesty.
“I just wanted to try something that was unfamiliar and have a space to just figure it out,” Coyes says. “I was talking about some things that scared me a lot and I’d never really seen anyone improvise in that way and do that by themselves.”
Sister Ray’s lyrics cut to the heart, begging for coffee and a cigarette to let yourself back down when it’s all over. Coyes doesn’t like to be pinned down by genre or style and she believes her longer-than-average tracks can only be measured by their length, which all sit around five minutes.
But a few months in, she started wondering if the project was something worth continuing, and became concerned that she would start to get pigeonholed into the young-girl-with-guitar-sings-her-heart that is often taken less seriously in the industry.
“I just didn’t want to get looped into that,” she says, “especially with the content that I was singing about.”
But then Craig Martell—“Edmonton’s biggest supporter of people’s weird projects”—came along and convinced her otherwise, amping the project up.
Sister Ray began having her audience approach her after the sets to discuss their own traumas and experiences. But she quickly became frustrated that she didn’t have the right answers and couldn’t help people more, empathizing heavily with their situations.
Her music became a tool to talk about sexual assault, something that’s greatly needed in times of breaking the silence and blowing the whistle.
“The worst part of it is also the best part of it,” she says. “It’s really nice to be able to connect with people and it’s really nice to be able to make something that’s a little bit more conversational—like it’s not writing the songs before you can step into a space and be really honest even though it’s trying and can open up with people a little more than just going to a show and already knowing what I’m gonna talk about and having banter already ready.”
While Coyes found the raw honestly of Sister Ray trying at times, she finds a quick “bathroom pep-talk” helps to steady her heart and calm her mind mid-way through a set, and in the end, it’s worth it for the long-overdue discussions her music is sparking.
Coming full circle, Sister Ray plans to hit the studio to record some demos this month, exactly one year after her debut album was recorded in Edmonton this time last year. She’s also working on something for the summer—a “problem-solving project” she’s pretty tight-lipped about for now.
Sat., Jan. 6 (9 pm)
Audio/Rocketry with Sister Ray and River Jacks