Sister Ray 

Royal Mountain Records • 2022

On their debut album as Sister Ray, Ella Coyes cross-examines the nature/nurture debate through first-person experiences that are harrowing and heartbreaking.

The older I get and the more interactions with people I have, the stronger I believe that we are all products of our environment. Yes, a substantial part of our fundamental self is based on biology, but there’s no denying that where we live, how we live, and who we live with significantly impact the person we become. Though I don’t know them personally, I feel that singer-songwriter Ella Coyes would agree with me on some level. On Communion, their debut album as Sister Ray, the Edmonton native (now residing in Toronto) cross-examines the nature/nurture debate through first-person experiences that are harrowing and heartbreaking.

A passage on album opener “Violence” catches my ear whenever I hear it. In their smoky drawl, Coyes sings, “It’s so predictable that I’m sardonic and proud / of my misuse of myself,” before addressing their ex: “I know it freaks you out / I can’t help myself / When it turns you on and turns me inside out.” Without being explicit about what misuse they’re speaking of, Coyes connects with their audience, identifying a universal feeling of both fearing and feasting on the pain and suffering of others. They have categorized Communion as a break-up album, but even that description doesn’t capture the extent of Coyes’ storytelling ability. Communion is also about breaking up with the past — who you were, what you believed in, and what you thought about the world — that avoids finger-pointing and proselytizing. 

There is an easy conversational tone to Sister Ray’s debut single, “Crucified,” that is intimate and engaging. “Goddamnit I should have been sleeping by now / so hard when I know you’ll touch me when the lights go out,” is a stellar opening line that’s immediate, riveting, and world-creating. With little more than sparse guitar, the song feels like a folk standard that’s been played for years, instantaneously recognizable in its raw emotions and naked vulnerability. “Power” candidly finds Coyes implicit in the proceedings: “I was inconsiderate at best,” they say in thinking back upon an unbalanced relationship. What’s most striking, though, is that even while making it explicitly clear what the relationship dynamic was, there is no sense of judgement or regret in their words. 

On Communion, it is hard to tell whether the songs are more informed by Coyes’ innate musical ability or the lived experiences that inspired them. Like a photograph or other ephemeral monument to that particular point in time, Sister Ray uses music to capture and communicate the complexities of the moment with honesty and grace.

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