RY X interview: 'As an artist you’re not bound by culture or nationality'

Australian, LA resident and honorary Berliner on how music has no borders, performing in the city’s famous Konzerthaus, and what he’s doing next

Roisin Oconnor
Friday 16 June 2017 13:12
‘It’s very personal to me, when I write. Even things that I wouldn’t sit and discuss with a friend, I’ll put on the record. It’s a weird thing to do’
‘It’s very personal to me, when I write. Even things that I wouldn’t sit and discuss with a friend, I’ll put on the record. It’s a weird thing to do’

In person RY X is perhaps not the person you’d imagine is behind those wintry, haunting vocals.

Tanned and with a wonderful, warm disposition, he sits in a dressing room where he’s resting before his first show at Berlin’s Konzerthaus, an imposing, ornate building in the city’s central Mitte district.

“I’m just trying to rise to it, you know? It’s pretty crazy. I’ve been trying to make a lineage for myself playing really beautiful, non-traditional spaces. And we’re kind of pushing the boundaries now, aren’t we?” he says laughing.

He’s determined to create something that makes people feel a change as they walk into the space, before the music has even begun.

“Walking into a concert hall… there’s a reverence, a humility that comes with it. I still feel like Berlin is my home in Europe. But when you tell people who’ve grown up here about playing Konzerthaus they’re like, ‘wow’.

“It’s very strange to get out of a cab in front of it, with thousands of tourists posing on the stairs, and to walk up that red carpet and into the venue, then go, ‘Hi, I’m performing here’.”

Before he came onstage, dancers gave an exquisite performance that transitioned smoothly into the music – a visual expression of what he tries to do with his work. And the performance itself is exquisite: RY X is backed by an orchestra as his voice fills this stunning venue, with the audience holding their breath until the very last note of a song.

“With dance you definitely get a lot of emotion,” Ry says, noting that it’s something that he’s often used in his music videos.

“For ‘Berlin’, the woman in the video was my partner at the time, my lover, my girl. So it was this dance of love that was very organic, there was nothing orchestrated. I think there’s a way to move through life in that kind of way, to be poetic.”

There’s obviously something about the city that appeals to him quite strongly – he believes that it’s a sense of freedom and acceptance, “not just for me but for everybody”.

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“You get that in London or New York but there’s more of a judgement. I think the key to that, the way that it feels here, is that it still feels like the people control the city,” he says. “It’s a really beautiful place to belong to.”

With one of his frequent collaborators, Frank Wiedemann, he organises a small festival called Sacred Ground on a farm west of Berlin.

“It’s a lot of work, Frank and I invite our favourite artists to come, it’s very egalitarian, all the artists get paid the same amount,” he explains. “All the food is organic, there’s a very low environmental impact. It’s really cool.

“We tend to get people who are much bigger than we really should, people who headline the bigger festivals around Europe. There’s a sense of freedom though, I think, for artists not to feel the pressure of performing in front of 20,000 people.”

Born in Angourie, New South Wales, the artist born Ry Cuming now lives in LA, where he can go surfing before heading over the studio.

“It’s a crazy f***ing place,” he says. “I don’t really adhere to Hollywood at all, I live on the outskirts. But there’s an amazing artist community there.

“There’s been a mass exodus from New York to LA recently. People like Si [Bonobo], we’re label buddies on my other project with Frank, and it’s quite lovely to be able to run in to him, talk about what we’re doing. There’s no competition. I think it’s really nice to have an eclectic community of international people.

“It seems ridiculous to create borders. I think the reason people are trying to do Brexit or Trump trying to build his wall is out of fear, because the world is opening up, people are becoming more egalitarian and connected in so many ways. The key is for artists to band together, for people to say ‘let’s get engaged’.”

‘There’s so much richness in music and culture around the world, why would you limit yourself as an artist?’

Several artists have noted an irony in how music is becoming “borderless”, as they draw on influences from around the world and audiences, in turn, become more willing to listen to other cultures, other languages.

“In modern pop you hear influences from India, the Caribbean… it’s really prominent,” Ry says. “You can have these aspects of place that comes into your scene, and people are like, ‘this is English’. And you say, ‘it’s not!’.

“As a real artist you’re not bound by culture or nationality. It should be about whatever expression you like. You hear it all the time in music, in something like pop that draws on reggaeton. Whatever you’re referencing has a lineage, but as an artist you don’t want to be judged on what the style is, you want to be judged on how it makes you feel, what the reaction is.

“It’s easy to say it’s appropriating, but there’s so much richness in music and culture around the world, why would you limit yourself as an artist? The difficulty in the pop world, which is why I’ve stayed out of it, is that people feel like they have to be successful, so you start copying what other successful artists are doing.”

He has some experience of the pop world himself, having toured with Maroon 5 and witnessed Sam Smith perform a cover of his song “Berlin”.

“I think it’s cool when the pop world comes knocking on your door, and it’s happened more often than you’d think,” he says. “Rihanna asked me to remix a song, other high-profile artists have asked me to write for them. For me it doesn’t matter at what profile it comes in, it’s the work that matters.

“Someone like Sia, who I know, came up to me years ago, and said she wanted to write pop songs. And I wasn’t there yet, but she went for it. And I think it’s amazing when someone goes, ‘I’m ready’. She’s authentic, she’s honest, she creates environments for people.”

He’s writing a lot himself at the moment and says he has around “20 or 30 songs” under his RY X moniker, plus a dozen more for each of his other projects.

“I think the next RY X album is about shifting the sound a little bit, finding a new energy without losing the emotion in the lyrics, that authenticity. It’s really nice that people connected to the honesty in it.”

All bar one of the tracks on his debut Dawn had one-word titles, as though he was trying to express a singular emotion through one song.

“I don’t think anybody knows half of what I’m saying lyrically, and that’s alright,” he muses. “I think I write in a lot of metaphors and analogies. It’s very personal to me, when I write. Even things that I wouldn’t sit and discuss with a friend, I’ll put on the record. It’s kind of a weird thing to do,” he adds laughing.

“Next year there’ll be a full album, and probably two or three songs out before that. An album is years of work. And at some point you wake up and think, do I still feel like how I did 18 months ago? That’s why I really like the A- and B-side platform too, like how hip hop’s done, and house and techno music as well. Over the year you might release 10 singles, and that might become an album.”

After touring almost non-stop for four years, he’s exhausted, but also “very humbled”.

“But I think it’s time for me to get into a sort of cocoon,” he decides. “Make a bunch of work, and find out what the new heartbeats and energies are.”

RY X plays the main stage at Citadel Festival in London on 16 July. His new single “Beacon” is out now

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