Sister Ray's Ella Coyes: "I love janky gear that’s always living its own life"
BY GREGORY ADAMS
Sister Ray's Ella Coyes is a Toronto-based folk artist that perked plenty of ears last year through the tenderly-strummed character portraits of their Polaris long-listed debut, Communion.
More recently, I had the chance to speak with Ella for RANGE, where they got into the sensually berry-stained allusions and nostalgic yearning of their epic-in-spirit, but bite-sized new EP, Teeth. Naturally, I banked a few gear q's for Gut Feeling, too.
Teeth is Ella's second release with back-up band/production duo ginla (a.k.a. Joe Manzoli and Jon Nellen). While pieces like "Pressing Down" are marked by the near-psychedelic swirl of tremolo-gripped guitar work, the starker "All Dogs Go to Heaven" thrives on the open-air strums of Ella's shortscale acoustic.
Below, Ella gets into Teeth's emo-adjacent tunings; an immensely prolific parlor guitar; and the precarious wiring job of a janky vintage amp Sister Ray — perhaps confoundingly — continues to bring out on the road.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Had you approached these songs any differently than you had on Communion, whether that was through the guitar you were playing or by exploring a different tuning?
ELLA COYES: A little bit, yeah. I’d been learning a bunch of American Football songs — I’m such a sucker for mid-western emo — and I wrote a song in a similar tuning to “Never Meant” [ed. FACGCE].
[Also,] my manager had been telling me for a while, “what if we tried less chords?” So, I was very determined to write a song with three chords, the whole way through, without really having any changes. [Teeth's “Pressing Down”] came out of that, just a real goal-oriented, ‘How do I do this and calm the hell down with the chords?’ That was different than Communion, for sure.
Are you generally writing songs on acoustics or electrics?
COYES: Almost always on acoustic; it’s very rare that I’ll write on electric. Sometimes I’ll even write without a guitar — just [by] singing, or I’ll have songs where I write all the lyrics before any music happens. So, sometimes it’s sans-guitar, but I love writing in a folk tradition, and the purity of acoustic guitar. I really do think that if I can play a song and enjoy how it sounds just [by] playing it on an acoustic guitar, [then] it’s a good song. That’s my proof to myself.
What kind of an acoustic are you playing?
COYES: It’s a little parlor-sized acoustic that I bought for $400 when I was 18. It’s just a cheap, nothing guitar, but it’s the only acoustic on Communion and this EP. I love that guitar.
What do you love about it?
COYES: I wrote so many songs when I first got it. There are instruments that have so many songs in them, [and] that guitar seems to hold infinite songs. It hasn’t run out of batteries yet! And I’m just comfortable with it — I know where I want to go; I know how it sounds; and I know how it feels. We’ve been working together for so long, now, that we’re a good team. We’re locked in.
Does that go on tour with you?
COYES: No, I don’t really ever take an acoustic on tour. I just take an electric, [but] my friends make fun of me because I love janky gear that’s always living its own life…
What’s your main guitar on tour, then?
COYES: It’s a German off-brand situation. It’s called a Klira, and to be honest with you, I don’t know a ton about it. I bought it off of a friend of mine in Edmonton; he didn’t really know a ton about it either. And there’s not much on these guitars online.
The only person I've met that could give me any information was a guy that works in guitars at the Long & McQuade in Toronto. They’re just these weird little off-brand guitars, kind of like the Sears Harmony of Germany.
So, what’s the jankiest piece of equipment you’re relying on at the moment?
COYES: I currently have an amp called a Takt GA-9. It’s a late ‘60s Japanese amp. It’s really small, way too light, and it feels like it’s going to break all the time. In fact, it did break on the last tour I was on. I shouldn’t tour with it. It’s not grounded, either — a widowmaker situation — [but] I love it.
Teeth sees release May 12 via Royal Mountain.