Michael Ray‘s Dive Bars & Broken Hearts is out now. The six-song EP is Ray’s most honest and authentic project he has ever released, working in many ways his entire career towards the new set of tunes, the result of a lot of self-discovery, rediscovery and a new, unfailingly optimistic outlook on life.
“I think it is the first album where it’s 100 percent me,” Ray tells Everything Nash. “I didn’t chase anything. I wasn’t trying to do anything but really be very focused on songs that I wrote, and songs that I got sent that I loved. I knew what I wanted to say. I knew how I wanted the record to be; everything I already had in my mind. And so, because of that, I think that’s why people are gonna hear a difference sonically. They’re hearing a difference vocally. They’re hearing a difference in a lot of ways.”
Dive Bars & Broken Hearts also marks Ray’s first, but likely not last, time working with producer Michael Knox. Known for his work with Jason Aldean, Knox has also produced for artists like Thomas Rhett, Trace Adkins and more, and was the answer to Ray’s quest to bring his musical vision to life.
“I brought Michael Knox on this album ’cause I felt like it was the right time for he and I to work together,” Ray explains. “We wanted to for a long time. But I think I had gotten to the point, personally and professionally in my confidence that I knew that I was now able to work with him, and be able to really utilize everything that I knew he would bring to the table.”
Ahead of the release of Dive Bars & Broken Hearts, Ray dropped the uptempo, feel-good “Workin’ On It,” plus the angst-laden “Get Her Back” and the record’s title track. All of the songs are a combination of the ’90s country music Ray grew up loving, along with his own unique perspective, choosing to honor without just mimicking the music that helped shape him.
“I’m grateful for where country music has gone, ’cause I do believe that there’s a ripple effect that happens whenever country music moves a little bit,” Ray reflects. “People that probably wouldn’t have listened to it years before now are listening to it. It has that ripple effect to so many other artists being discovered. But I just didn’t do that. I think I was chasing; I was just trying to find myself and find a sound, and try to find a way to fit in, and make sure I had a hit at radio. And through all that, you grow. I’ve been fortunate to have the hits that led us to being able to be where we’re at now, to really make a record.”
Ray went through his own share of heartache and loss, while also celebrating a multi-week, No. 1 hit with “Whiskey and Rain.” The highs and lows are evident in Dive Bars & Broken Hearts, unafraid — perhaps for the first time — to let his true self come out in his music.
“I feel like God makes you go through things to put you on the track you are meant to be on. And sometimes to get woken up, you need to get hit by things that you were probably afraid of for a long time,” Ray acknowledges. “But as a person, you gotta take those times and really do some searching … judge yourself a little bit, and figure out how to make things better.”
Ray may have kept some of himself back in all of his previous projects, dating back to his eponymous 2015 debut album, but not anymore. After braving all of his experiences of the past few years, the 35-year-old no longer minds sharing all of himself with the rest of the world.
“I have never been good at showing vulnerability,” Ray concedes. “I was that way as a kid, and I brought that into my adult life. It was very easy to build walls around me and keep things at a distance. I think growing up in a broken home, which was a lot of chaos at some moments in my life, I built that without knowing it, which is why ‘Workin’ On It’ is the last song on the EP, ’cause working on it for me is when I went through all of that. I stood there, and I said this as a joke, but it’s kind of true: when you’re standing there, it’s like Rocky …You realize like, ‘Oh, we survived it. That wasn’t too bad. Don’t do it again. What can I do better?'”
It was going through the hard times that Ray realized other people also had things to deal with. He wasn’t alone, and he wasn’t isolated in his struggles and hardships. It’s a new mindset that comes out in all of Dive Bars & Broken Hearts, but especially the final track.
“I think once you figure that out, you get a lot more empathy for yourself, and for others,” Ray says. “I understand the world, and those people working on it, trying to make it better. So that’s why I put that as the last song. I felt like once I came out of this whole thing, it was like that a-ha moment. The journey was that, and just realizing, the more vulnerable you can be, the more you can help somebody out and realize that none of us know anything.”
After going through so much personal reflection, no one is more eager than Ray to have Dive Bars & Broken Hearts out for the world to hear.
“I truly feel like this is the album where it is 100 percent me,” Ray says. “I’m so pumped for it, and excited for it, and just ready for it to be out.”
Dive Bars & Broken Hearts and all of Ray’s upcoming shows can be found at MichaelRayMusic.com.