Some people are born singing. They make making music look easy. Shoushane Ray, PassinArt’s Music Director for Seven Guitars, is one of those people.
“When you’re given a gift, you’re blessed,” the multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and vocalist says. “It’s your job, then, to bless other people with your gift.”
The gifts Ray brings to this production of Seven Guitars provide a solid musical foundation for a play that opens with an old blues song, and pauses for gospel and Muddy Waters along the way.
Ray grew up appreciating Roberta Flack, Phoebe Snow, Natalie Cole, and Karen Carpenter. These days, she’s listening to Gary Clark Jr and Ruthie Foster.
“Blues,” she says, “that’s where I like to be.”
As a youngster, Ray remembers playing rock-star guitar holding a tennis racquet. The summer before her freshman year, her mom gave her a guitar.
“It’s funny,” Ray recalls. “I didn’t ask for it.”
Her mom saw something because her daughter’s been singing, writing, and playing music ever since. Ray played in some bands – vintage R&B, classic rock, and blues – during her time in New Mexico. And she gigs around Portland as a duo with fellow guitarist/songwriter Michael Conner, their sets a combination of covers and original songs.
Ray wrote most of her songs before the dot.com boom. A demanding day job as a software developer temporarily silenced her muse during that era which, fortunately for music lovers, didn’t last long.
Ray’s songs can be described as folk, punk rock, blues, or neo soul depending on what instrument she’s holding and “on what I feel like expressing,” she says of her music-making process. “It’s what comes out of me. I try to let it become what it’s going to be.”
As a teacher and coach, “I tell this to artists all the time,” she says. “What is in you needs to come out. And what comes out, somebody on this earth needs to hear.”
One song Ray’s especially proud of was written when she learned a friend in a distant city had been diagnosed with cancer.
“I didn’t know how to talk to her,” Ray recalls. “So I wrote a blues song about her talking to the cancer.” She wrote Ain’t Got A Hold On Me and “I played it every day like a prayer for her.”
When the two friends finally did get together, Ray sang it for her again. “She was in remission at the time,” Ray recalls. “She’s still in remission, going on six years now.”
In addition to directing the music for Seven Guitars, Ray will be performing as the understudy for the role of Louise.
“When I hear her, she sounds familiar, because I grew up in a Black family,” Ray says. Louise “says what’s on her mind. Her forthrightness reminds me of my Aunt Ethel, my mom’s sister. She has that attitude.”
Louise is wise in the ways of love. “She’s seen some things. She doesn’t need a man,” Ray adds, quoting Louise: “A .32 is all the man I need.”
Seven Guitars is Ray’s second time acting on stage. Her first, in 2020, was in Dreamgirls, a collaboration between the African American Performing Arts Center and Musical Theatre Southwest.
“I played six different people!” including Tiny Joe Dixon, Jerry Norman, and unnamed ensemble parts that still required costume changes and characterizations.
“After that production I thought ‘I’ll never do this again.’ It took over my entire life,” Ray says.
“I almost didn’t take the Seven Guitars project. Now I’m thinking, ‘I already want to do this again!’”