For Ray Dalton, the Seattle singer with the wood-grain voice, who rose to fame performing the hook for the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis song, “Can’t Hold Us,” it’s a big deal that his sister likes his new single. Dalton jokes that he’s not sure if his sister really likes his music, which of course, is hard to believe. Dalton’s voice seems destined to repeatedly top charts and inspire dance moves in myriad apartment kitchens. But family can be tough critics. Thankfully, for the multi-billion streamed singer, he’s now making inroads there. But Dalton’s sister isn’t the only person taking notice. The crooner released the recent single, “In My Bones,” in November and the track has quickly amassed millions of streams since. For an artist who rose to prominence on hooks, Dalton is now telling his own sonic story.
“This is the music I want to be putting out,” Dalton says. “When my sister says, ‘Oh my gosh, I love this song! What was it about?!’ When she’s bumping it all the time and sends me videos with her girlfriends singing it, that makes me feel great.”
The new song, Dalton says, is also in a way a nod to Amy Winehouse, a vocalist he was obsessed with in high school. Her effortless, room-filling voice, her knack for style and pizzazz, these are some of the qualities Dalton noticed in the soulful singer. In a way, Dalton has always been a student of music. He’s always loved to sing. At 6 years old, he joined the Seattle Children’s’ Choir and at 16 years old, he joined the Total Experience Gospel Choir of Seattle, which Dalton performed with for ten years. He received classic music training and studied gospel. At home, he absorbed the records his parents would play. His mother is Mexican and his father is Black and their tastes are impeccable, Dalton says. He was born in San Bernardino, California, but moved to the Emerald City with his family when he was six. But by his mid-twenties, Dalton was getting paid $40, $50 to sing the hooks on rap songs.
“It was perfect timing,” Dalton says. “That’s when I began to get serious about pursuing a music career. Having that influenced me to want to become an actual professional recording artist. Being in gospel choir and transitioning into writing hooks for rappers really changed my life. It grew like a plant out of soil.”
In the purist sense, Dalton loves to sing. He’s read studies that show singing helps the heart and it’s a beneficial way to relieve anxiety. But it’s also a way of experiencing his natural talent, a way to indulge his keen ear and his dexterous vocal chords. As he began to work with more and more musicians in Seattle, which is a city known for its songs and its DIY energy, Dalton began to meet more and more people of influence. One connection led to another and eventually he was in a studio with Macklemore (a.k.a. Ben Haggerty) and Ryan Lewis, working on hooks.
“I’m a melody nerd,” Dalton says. “I think I was writing stuff about love when Ben came in and said, ‘You have to read these lyrics with that melody you were just doing.’ We just built it up from there and made it bigger and added harmonies and claps. I got some of my friends from the choir to sing—it just became this monster that we created. Then two-to-three years later, we released it.”
The track blew up. Today, nearly ten years after its release, it’s still played in NBA arenas and on television commercial—often you can hear Dalton’s voice glide like a confident surfer on the frenetic rhythms. It was a dramatic shift for Dalton from the days prior where he was getting a few bucks for his talents. Now, he was touring the world with one of 2013’s biggest hit songs, performing with the friends who made it in those long studio days. But with that rise came something of a tumble. When your first big hit earns a billion plays before your next birthday, that can be a big bite to have to digest.
“I was trying to figure out the next steps, where I wanted to go,” Dalton says. “I was in Europe for a minute writing songs but I just had this pressure about releasing songs that didn’t live up to the collaborations I’d done. I was in a bit of a scary hole for a little bit as an artist. I was sabotaging myself, thinking every song needs to be like that. But that’s just unrealistic, that doesn’t happen.”
Today, whatever hindrance Dalton had created is now removed. He’s put aside past issues and his pushing forward, gratefully. It’s as if he’d been running through bookshelves trying to find the perfect book to read to his fans when the story was in his pocket the whole time. Now, his life is on his lips.
“I’ve always been on hooks and hooks and hooks,” Dalton says. “So, it’s beautiful to have a song that I wrote for myself and was about me and telling my story. To see what it’s been doing has been insane.”
Outside of the studio, Dalton makes sure to find time for himself, too. While music is the ambition of the highest priority, he also realizes that he can’t spend all of his time on the craft. A life-long athlete, Dalton makes sure to get away from the music long enough to blow of some steam on any nearby tennis court. Volleying, serving and stretching for lobs creates a place where Dalton can let life’s frustrations out so he can come back to the vocation refreshed.
“It’s something I have that’s just for myself,” he says. “I call it ‘feeding the beast’ because I am very competitive. I love to play at a high level and it’s nice to have a place where I can be obnoxious and yell and throw my racket and hit the ball as hard as I want!”
When Dalton first began to sing, he was a soprano. As his voice changed, more people began to take notice of what he could bring to a chorus, a studio session or a live performance. As he continues to plan out a path forward, he’s armed with recent success, past accolades and a renewed ability to take control of his life. When you’re a solo performer and the forehand slice comes back at you, you’re the one who has to get it back over the net. Dalton, who says he will be releasing more singles in the coming months, is embracing that reality with each new track.
“There’s music for every occasion in our lives,” Dalton says. “That’s why I love to make it, to feed every emotion that there possibly can be.”