by Mike D’Onofrio
Julian Blake Ray, 28, unexpectedly discovered his big break on social media. That’s how the singer and songwriter learned that Grammy award-winning artist Chris Brown would cover his original song in Brown’s recently released album, “Heartbreak on a Full Moon.”
“I was just completely blown away. That’s just an absolute dream come true,” said the Erdenheim native, who goes by Blake Winters, while sitting in Rotation Record’s new studio on DeKalb Street in Norristown.
In an Instagram post in May, Brown offered fans a sneak peek of the songs that would be on the album. Listed 10th among more than three dozen songs and handwritten on two pieces of lined notebook paper was Ray’s song, “Even.”
Brown released his 45-track album on Halloween. It has since become a Gold Record, selling more than half a million copies. The album was No. 1 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and reached No. 3 on Billboard’s Top 200.
The first vocals heard on Brown’s cover are Ray’s, and the local artist’s voice can be heard singing backup throughout the rest of the track.
Ray wrote “Even,” which was produced by Laney Stewart and recorded at Rotation Records two years ago. The song was inspired by Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time.”
Music has always been a part of Ray’s life. A 2007 Springfield Township High School graduate, Ray grew up in a household with a mother who was a singer and a father who was a musician.
But the weekends he spent attending the Philadelphia-based Prolific Praise Worship Center influenced how he hears and approaches music. That’s where Ray encountered Deveron Patterson, the church’s minister of music, “who I would say is one of my biggest musical inspirations. I was literally born and raised in this church.”
Patterson demanded precise pitch and tone from his church singers, which Ray, who sang in the choir, said remains with him to this day. “We didn’t allow people to come up and sound bad; it just never happened,” Ray said with a laugh.
“It was a certain pride that we took into making sure that everybody was in tune. Just being around that changed my awareness of music and probably made my ear a little more accurate and specific on notes and shaped the way that I hear my music.”
When asked what he thought of Brown’s version of his song, Ray said it maintained that musical precision he strives for himself and was “bigger than what I could do by myself. When I hear Chris Brown’s delivery and the way that the engineer used his voice and made his voice basically identical to certain parts (of my version), I think they brought it out. I had never heard one of my songs be really seriously mastered.”
Ray continues to live in Erdenheim with his wife, Da-Neisha. He still attends the Prolific Praise Worship Center and sings there, which he said will always serve as “a staple in my life because it brings me back to a centered place in my life. It makes me grateful and humble.”
Ray said he’s now focused on doing more by doing less. Over the years he has worked as songwriter, singer, performer, singing coach, sound producer and engineer, among other things. He co-founded the production company Good Thief Music a few years ago with artist Yufi Zewdu.
Good Thief Music and Rotation Records are a partnership, and they give back to the community, including motivational talks at local schools. Good Thief Music also donates upwards of 10 percent of its profits to local causes and organizations.
When he’s not in the studio, Ray is a lead singer in the big band Milan 77, which plays weddings and other events on the weekends. “That’s where I get a lot of performances done and a lot of practice,” he said.
But since Brown released the “Heartbreak on a Full Moon” album, Ray feels a “burden that I need to shift gears and do what I do best” by focusing on songwriting, releasing more of his own music and building his brand. Ray expects to release an album in the coming months and at least one more in 2018.
Ray can be reached on Twitter at @TheBlakeWinters.