After the likes of The Sun and The Wolf, Tusk and Jasmina Maschina we’ve yet another import from Down Under, but that’s really all that Ray Mann has in common with the former, at least in music terms. He came to us from Sydney last year and immediately set about to make his way in the music world of Berlin.
If you’ve already come across his music, he’s not as easy to classify as one would think. In the past, soul would be a term applied to his music without a bat of an eye lid. These days though, Ray Mann is taking in everything our city has to offer and drawing inspiration from just about everything around, which inevitably affects his sound. He’s not afraid to move away from his musical roots, to add elements that are foreign to soul and mix genres.
His project Sketches is a kind of video diary of this shift. He, with the help of his fans, painstakingly came up with nine videos that were developed simultaneously to the songs they would later feature. What resulted are not only visually and conceptually interesting clips but also a collection of songs that formed a complete album. It’s about to be released and I thought it’s a great opportunity to talk to him.
Why did you come to Berlin?
Ray: I visited here about 8 years ago on a holiday, just going around Europe and when I arrived in Berlin there was just something about the city (that) engaged some part of me. I can’t really explain it. I knew I needed to come back at some point and stay for a while.
Were you already a musician back then?
Ray: I was. I had the idea for the kind of music I wanted to do and Berlin played a big part in shaping that vision that I had. At the time there was a lot of soul music playing in the little bars, sort of night spots that I’d like to go to so I made the decision at that point I could either stay in Berlin and spend the next couple of years looking for the right people to make that music with or I’d go back to Sydney where I knew who I would play that music with and just spend that two years developing the sound, and then hopefully coming back here with that. I went back, started straight away and couple of years later recorded the first album. Life happened, so it took me a lot longer to come back here than I originally imagined.
How would you compare the music scenes in both Sydney and Berlin?
Ray: While I was in Sydney, cos it was quite a few years (ago), the so-called scene changed a lot – or maybe my goals changed a lot – I started to feel less and less like I was really drawing inspiration from my supposed scene. Coming here I found I’m drawing more inspiration from things that aren’t related to music so I couldn’t really speak much on any soul music scene here. The little bits that I found bear a lot of resemblance to the things that in Sydney stopped inspiring me. In Berlin I’m drawing a lot more inspiration from visual art actually than I am from music and the music I am interested in doesn’t really sound a lot like what I do. Certainly I wouldn’t be classified in the same genre as a lot of the music that I get inspired by and wanna listen to.
Why do you think you started making this shift from soul music?
Ray: Hmmm…it’s a complicated thing.
Is there something about the music that you used to listen to and were surrounded by that made you grow tired of it?
Ray: Sure. I mean it’s been almost a decade, and tastes will change, and new things are happening in culture that become more exciting. A lot of the soul music that I originally drew inspiration from is still very close to my heart, but you know, you move on. You discover new things. I think as well, and this is really why I stopped drawing inspiration from any soul music scene, is that I find a lot of people are sort of content to stay in a period of time in music as if nothing has happened since then and I’m not excited by that. I want to move forward and it seems to be one extreme or the other. It either seems very revisionist or really super future, and both of these things have their appeal. I reckon I’m somewhere in between and I don’t want to make something that somebody else is making – it sort of defeats the purpose.
How would you describe the music you make?
Ray: Right now? I’ve only just put the finishing touches on the new album just before it’s being released. I’m still too close to it to speak about it objectively. The first album, I can tell you, yes, it was a straight-up soul record. It was very directly referencing a lot of the things I was listening to from the 60s and 70s and right through the late 90s, early 2000s. And then this record, I think it reflects a little more how more diverse my listening is. It still is a very much a progression of that first record. The first record fits squarely in soul music, albeit very minimal and very organic, and this new record is a bit more… it’s got those elements, but some new elements in there as well like a bit more indie, and a bit more psychedelic, some electronic elements and stuff. Ask me in a year and I’ll probably be able to say to you “Oh yeah, have you heard of that guy? That’s what my music is like”. Right now I can’t see that.
Your album Sketches is coming out soon and parallel to working on it you have been releasing the songs, that ended up in the album, in form of videos. Tell me more about that.
Ray: The Sketches project, I started in September of 2011 and that was a couple of months after I’ve moved to Berlin. In Australia it had been three years since I released my first album, and I didn’t want to disappear for another year and then come out with this album (…) I had to find some way to stay in touch, let people know I still exist and, especially for the audience that I already have, to find someway to talk to them and share things with them. (…) The final inspiration for it (the project) came from hanging out with a lot of friends in Berlin that were in the electronic music scene. Their whole culture is about constant output, and it’s all online. (…) I found that really interesting. I thought: “Is there a way to do that, but when you’re not in that genre?”. I like to make videos and the visual side of things as well, and I thought, “Alright, what if I ease people into the new material? Not only is it going to develop from song to song, but what if I developed each song on its own in front of people, and do it by way of visual accompaniment as well?”. And so each month, at the start of the month I’d post the demo and a rough visual idea together as a music video, a really short one, and each week update it, develop it more, and by the end of the month the song is done and whatever video element is done as well.
With the project I decided to share myself with people and open up to them. A big influence of that is what Berlin is like. Everybody that I meet here, certainly creative people here, everybody is going through something, asking big questions. There’s an almost existential crisis that everybody is going through. (…) People here really encourage others to open up and share personally and open up in one-on-one conversations. I thought, “Maybe I can do that with my art. There’s something compelling about that for an audience to see and maybe actually there’s something in that for me as an artist and as a person as well”. (…) It’s a first time in my life where I started something without having a clear idea of where it’s gonna finish. It terrified me, absolutely terrified me. (…) I took a risk, and even if nobody else is impressed, at least I’ve learned something. So the fact that an album came out of it is the least of what I can say that resulted from this project, at least for me.
You now have a band here in Berlin. Will you have shows at the beginning of the year?
Ray: Yeah. The way it has worked out now is, like, I have my band in Australia and I’m going back there at the end of this year to promote the record, and in the meantime I’ve put together a band here in Berlin with local musicians. (…) and we just played our first concert at Berlin Music Week. It’s exciting. In Australia, I have a collective – not a band actually, as my band fell apart a while back – of different musicians for different shows. So I’m constantly having to work to the strengths of the people on stage with me, and that makes each show’s lineup bring out different things in the same music. It’s exciting for me because it challenges me each time. Making that progression here in Berlin was a very familiar situation for me to be in. (…) They (the Berlin band) really wanted to work hard to learn to play the material as it was, and I said “Well, no actually. I don’t want this to be ‘Ray With Some Dudes’. I want the three of us to play this stuff together. Learn the songs and then forget them, and then just do what feels good for you”. That makes it better musically, and makes it more satisfying as a show, and makes it more interesting for me.
Sketches will be released on 18th September. The album will be available on iTunes and in the meantime the CD version will be shippable from Australia. More details on Ray Mann’s