ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Rare is the artist in any medium whose creative output can easily appeal to both adults and children, connecting to the disparate audiences at their own level. And yet Mr. Ray has been doing just that with great success since 1994. Ray Andersen is a popular rock ‘n’ roll musician who has been a musical fixture on the regional and national scene for more than three decades. He has toured and performed locally and around the world with such notable acts as Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Matchbox Twenty and Meat Loaf. In his alter ego as Mr. Ray, the New Jersey native is at the forefront of a growing genre of music called “kindie rock,” which melds the mature sensibilities of the singer/songwriter with an avid fanbase of children under the age of 10.
A recent conversation with Andersen delves into his fascinating past, his busy present and his engaging future, including a discussion concerning a new project which tackles the disturbing and sadly prevalent topics of bullying and intolerance.
DV: If I’m not mistaken, don’t you have strong childhood ties to Essex County, including a very interesting musical link to a legendary and prolific songwriting duo?
RAY: Yes. I grew up in West Orange near Pleasant Valley Way, in the actual house that singer Carole King and her husband, Gerry Goffin, lived in with their daughters. My parents bought it from them in 1967 and we lived in that home until 1987. It’s where they wrote the huge (West Orange-inspired) smash hit “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” recorded by The Monkees, and where Carole wrote much of her groundbreaking “Tapestry” album. A cool little-known side note is that our front doorbell rang to the melody of their classic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” I can still fondly recall my very first gig as a musician with my band at the South Mountain Arena, set up at the end of the ice! People would be skating by to the amateur sounds of four teens pounding out “Smoke On the Water.” They even put our name on the marquee outside. It was such a thrill.
DV: Your official bio states that you were inspired at a very early age to start singing, writing your own songs, playing piano, guitar and drums, all without the benefit of a single lesson. What were your earliest musical influences as a child?
RAY: A long time ago an older cousin of mine raved about this up-and-coming band called The Beatles. She played me their “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and I have been undeniably hooked on music and The Fab Four ever since. That introduced me to the entire British Invasion of acts like The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Who. Back then you could watch the new artists on all of the television variety shows. That was our generation’s MTV.
DV: For much of the 1980s you were a member of the critically acclaimed Stone Pony house band Cats On A Smooth Surface, performing regularly at the iconic Asbury Park nightclub. In the ‘90s you toured the globe as half of the pop/rock duo Blue Van Gogh, sharing the stage with some of the biggest names in the business along the way. Looking back, what are some of your favorite or most memorable musical accomplishments?
RAY: I would have to say that performing my original kids’ songs at the United Nations in 2009 was a real thrill for me. Being a part of Meat Loaf’s band from 1998 through 2002 landed me in some really cool spots, like playing live on major network TV shows such as David Letterman, Jay Leno and The View, and huge venues like SSE Wembley Arena, which was formerly known as Empire Pool. Being on stage with Bruce Springsteen over the years in various band situations has always been an amazing experience. And every now and then I travel to London to perform my kids’ songs for families. Outside of New York City, London is my favorite city in the world. It’s steeped in rock history!
DV: Let’s discuss the beloved musical entity known as Mr. Ray, the kid-friendly persona who has in many ways commandeered the last two decades of your career. How did Ray Andersen become Mr. Ray?
RAY: It was 1994 and my ex-wife was temping at a daycare. She called me up on her lunch break to see if I would like to perform for the kids that afternoon. They were a particularly rambunctious bunch that day and I thought I could calm them down using the power of music. The pre-school director peered into the room and, right on the spot, asked me if I wanted a job performing for her children on a regular basis. I started writing my own songs for them and the kids immediately started calling me Mr. Ray, and the name stuck. Parents began asking me to make cassettes of these new tunes that their children were coming home singing. I’ve been blessed to be able to make music for kids, primarily ages 2 through 7, for over 21 years now.
DV: According to Billboard Magazine, Mr. Ray was a top-10 best-selling kids’ artist for 2013 and 2014 and your original songs have run the range from lighthearted to thought-provoking. As an adoptive parent since 2004, you obviously understand the significance between a child’s safety and their overall well-being. Was this a driving force behind your latest musical adventure called “No Room for Bullies” or was there something else that motivated you to tackle the topic?
RAY: About five years ago, the news of the suicide of a Rutgers student that had been bullied by a fellow student really saddened and moved me. That incident combined with the physical and verbal abuse a close family member had endured by her then-boyfriend. I was bullied as a kid; most of us were in some way. And I’ve always stood up for kids that got it much worse than I did. So I decided to dedicate an entire collection of songs aimed at children age 8 and older, to anti-bullying and diversity which I have called “No Room for Bullies.” With these new songs, and the related videos like “The Rainbow World,” I am hoping to bring greater awareness to this epidemic problem. And more than that, I want to help empower those kids that are being bullied. By listening to the lyrics and watching the videos in the hope that they will see themselves not as a victim only, but as someone who can rise above what they’ve been through. Plus I am currently booking anti-bullying assemblies for fourth- and fifth-graders starting in October and will be performing at some of them in the northern New Jersey area. If you are an educator or hopefully a new fan, you can visit this project at noroomforbullies.org.
DV: Well, I’ve already experienced in person the talented and versatile rock ‘n’ roller known as Ray Andersen playing for the grown-ups at packed clubs down the Jersey Shore. And my young niece and I look forward to catching you as Mr. Ray in the very near future.
RAY: Thanks, pal. See you soon.
For more information regarding “No Room for Bullies” or to purchase additional Mr. Ray music and merchandise, go to www.mrray.com.
David VanDeventer is an entertainment correspondent for Worrall Media and can be reached at email@example.com.