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The Misadventures of Carsen Gray 

How one Haida artist navigates motherhood, creativity, and the precarious nature of life itself.

by Kayla MacInnis

Photos by Jordan Did It

At the world’s edge, more than 90 nautical miles off the north coast of British Columbia, is the spiritual and sibylline Haida Gwaii Archipelago, home to the Haida people for many thousands of years. There is a sense that something within this isolated landscape, where the forest meets the sea, stimulates creativity within the local community. With an unrelenting hope, playful nature, and deep connection to the natural world, homegrown talent Carsen Gray’s journey as an artist is one such example. 

Born of Haida Indigenous and mixed descent, Gray trusts there is a symmetry between our experiences and our dreams. Her pursuits in singing, acting, and as a co-writer of a children’s book, for which she and her mother came up with the concept, can be credited to the support of her family. And family remains the beacon in which all endeavours revolve. It was her mother who instilled in her the faith and drive to follow her dreams, and now, it is her husband, Joey Stylez, an Indigenous musician, songwriter, and producer, who continues to collaborate and embolden her in the realms of the musical world.

At a young age, when her mother recognized that Gray had an aptitude for singing, she brought her to learn from her uncle Bobby Taylor of Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, a soul band from Vancouver in the 60s which famously boasted Tommy Chong as a member at one point. She tells me that her uncle would sit with her at the piano, where they would sing old songs together, remembering how much the time spent with him helped to shape her sound, a synthesis of pop, jazz, gospel, and the spiritual. Before he passed in 2017, he told her, “If this life is what you really want, you’ve got to be practicing. You need to like waking up early, warming your voice, and singing every day.” 

Though she operates with a level of commitment that is often punctuated with seasons of production and time spent in her home studio, when the floods of inspiration inevitably rush in, she can’t always lay down a track in those moments. Because of this, she takes to writing notes or texting her husband with ideas while working to organize childcare, so they can sit down and collaborate when possible.  

On the other side of the phone line, I hear the sweet voices of her children asking questions. She politely asks me to hold on and speaks to them softly and with assurance. Gray believes that it is possible to hold various parts of the self in your hands at once, and it is clear to me that she has found a way to balance these two crucial aspects of her being and that these threads of her life are what sustains her as an artist, mother, and member of her community. “I create whenever I’m inspired. But, because I’m a mom, I try to always put my family and my kids first before anything,” she says. 

Her latest album, Misadventures, brings forward an ethereal yet earthy tone, in which the video for her single “Long Overdue” solidifies Gray’s connection to the serene and sacred landscape of her ancestral territory of Haida Gwaii. Consumed by wonder and gratitude, Gray sings, “All we have is now,” making the listener feel as though they’re being held by the nature of this slow lullaby with its tender piano ballad and vocal swells. 

Gray is currently reckoning with anxiety about the state of the world, but it is her refusal to let that darkness pull her down, seeking out the light, or rather, keeping it in her sightline to contemplate while she invites fear into the conversation to create a space that allows her world to be emotionally altered by the experience of facing the darkness.

This new paradigm shift has caused Gray to question what lessons the hard times are trying to teach us and to “turn your hardships into triumph.” She believes every misstep and obstacle we encounter on our journey will eventually contribute to personal growth. There’s that old legend of the two wolves (often attributed to the Cherokee Nation, but it is difficult to trace the origins) that tells of a good wolf and a bad wolf fighting within. When asked what wolf wins, the old man responds, “The one you feed.”

In the time since the pandemic and this album’s release, Gray has found that navigating life’s unpredictability with this level of openness has led her to question the lessons within. It isn’t always necessarily the hard times that determine the outcome. It’s how you decide to handle it. Perhaps this requires an ethos of curiosity, patience, and persistence to hold steadfast and face these obstacles head-on. Whatever the case, Gray has learned through her questioning not to take life too seriously and to be thankful for what you got.