He spent many nights in the Sunshine Coast entertainment scene as a musician just starting out. Now, Dean Ray is back in a big way. Anna Rawlings chatted with the X Factor 2014 runner up when he hit the Coast as part of a stellar Queensland tour.

“I got shown a ‘D chord’ and I played it for three hours straight, I was strumming the hell out of it and it was this magic moment,” muses Dean Ray of his first foray into music.

“That’s what it was, and still is, just this magic, when the inspiration’s there, it’s like a drug, you do anything to have that.”

I’m interviewing the dark-haired, dark-eyed musician in the ‘green room’ of Ocean Street’s live music venue, Solbar, as his band warms up in the background for the evening’s show.

The Dean Ray sitting on the artist’s couch with me is a stripped-back, calmer version of the character that will take the stage later that night, bursting onto the stage to the amplified sound effect of a motorbike to join his two guitarists and drummer in a blur of black clothes, heavy eyeliner and mongogrammed guitar strap, breaking up his edgy covers and soulful acoustics with guitar solos and hilarious crowd banter.

“It’s like a gift, it’s like a lot of these songs are handed to you from somewhere else.”

It’s been barely a year since the talented 23-year-old hit the national stage following his appearance on X Factor 2014, finishing as runner up of the series; and now he’s landed 13 songs in the top 200 on the ARIA Chart and reaching #1 twice, with his debut album reaching #2 and #1 on the Sanity Music Charts.

A captivating lyrical storyteller who doesn’t just sing, but performs, Dean is quick to point out he isn’t defined by genre.

DR01“I don’t really fit a certain style, I write rock stuff, indie acoustic, blues, folk so I think what I do is very much a style in itself, and its own genre,” he affirms.

This self-interpretation is consistent with who Dean is as an artist, chronicled from his early days as a singer to the somewhat unconventional runner up, who crooned covers while attired in open-necked flowing black tops, leopard print pants or ripped jeans, piercing gaze down the barrel of Network Seven’s production cameras on the normally mainstream X Factor stage.

It was that appearance on the popular talent search show that launched Dean from years of doing the rounds of pub gigs and busking appearances around Australia, including the Sunshine Coast, into a lucrative artist.

Dean grew up in the rural, tiny town of Meandarra, Queensland as the son of “musical parents”, a childhood of music, venues and rustic memories.

Now with a talent on the guitar to rival his vocal abilities, Dean left home at 15-years-old saw Dean drift and tour around Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria.

“I’d have a job for a bit, a builder’s labourer or something like that, and then I’d go play some shows, hitch around and then come back,” he says.

Two years later, at 17 years old, Dean moved to the Sunshine Coast.

“I thought, if I work into playing cover gigs fulltime I could have a beach holiday for like a year. I lived on Ocean View Avenue in Mooloolaba and partied like there was no tomorrow.”

From playing gigs to partying until the dawn hours of the morning, Dean’s coastal sojourn was intoxicating both in substance and performing, but it gave him perspective.

“I knew I wanted to do music at a higher level but I just had to have a bit of fun with it first,” he says.

“It dawned on me overnight that I had to make some changes, so within four days I’d packed up all my stuff, and moved to Melbourne.”

“It was far harder than I imagined. Just a lot of knockbacks and I found myself with nowhere to live, I had no money and I was sleeping in my car…”

After nights spent in packed local bars and heavily imbedded in the Coast’s nightlife scene, Dean admits his move down south saw his musical career come to a “grinding halt”.

“It was far harder than I imagined. Just a lot of knockbacks and I found myself with nowhere to live, I had no money and I was sleeping in my car and I got a job cleaning toilets.

“Luckily, I started to get some gigs happening and I started playing full time in Melbourne, busking and playing the open mics,”

It was during this time in 2014 that Dean was approached by a producer at Freemantle Media – the production company responsible for X Factor.

Despite initial reservations, Dean auditioned, and was called back to go through to the live auditions, which saw him sing Bette Davis Eyes in front of the panel of Ronan Keating, Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Dannii Minogue and Redfoo.

DR02Ultimately, Dean was runner-up on the show after battling alleged production edits of his character, and criticism of his attitude in the wider public perception, followed by scrutiny of a now finished relationship.

However, something about the crooner struck a chord with the Australian audience, and post-show, his energetic performance style, gritty lyrics, captivating covers and enigmatic persona has seen his fan base grow.

“Touring, having songs on iTunes, it was never something I’d thought about before, I focused mainly on making good music,” he says.

“It’s good to come back up here (to the Coast) and play proper shows, I used to just play pub gigs and restaurant shows here so to do ticketed venues is something I wanted to do for years,” he smiles.

Self-assured and with the coolness to carry off dressing in anything from leopard to leather on stage, the charismatic singer’s reputation of “mystery” precedes him.

“The moment the creative mind hits it’s like some energy falls over you. After a while you get to know the difference between being excited about a song and being in that creative mind,” he declares.

“It’s like a gift, it’s like a lot of these songs are handed to you from somewhere else.”

The hype of touring the country to rapt crowds with a “solid” band is a hard act to follow, as I ask Dean about life at home in his Melbourne base.

“I spend a lot of time in my man cave listening to vinyl, I don’t own a TV, I like my house to be like you’re stepping into the ‘60s,” he reveals, “and I love camping and hiking, I’ll go out and make memories, which is a value of mine.”

A world away from the lifestyle of a musician who at the time of our interview has been number one in Canada for six weeks, is currently preparing for a Canadian tour, in talks with his management and label and has just released new track I O U (A Heartache).

“I want to take my career as far as I can, I’ll most likely have to leave Australia, it’s how the industry works. INXS got burnt for doing that but if they didn’t do it, they wouldn’t be one of the biggest bands. I’ll always be back and base out here,” he shares.

And on that note, as the thump of the drum kit being warmed up gets louder and Dean is called for his sound check, that’s a wrap.