“I first visited Berlin ten years ago, during a year-long trip around Europe. I only stayed for a month, but something about it affected me deeply…”
Spire Focus magazine chats to Ray Mann about being an artist living in (and occasionally escaping from) Berlin.
Sydney artist Ray Mann has been writing and releasing music from his Berlin base now for over three years. Overcoming the constant adversities that come with a move abroad, Ray’s previous soul infused LP saw him push the boundaries artistically: The album was created as part of an ongoing audience collaboration series called The ‘Sketches’ Project (with a link here for the nine videos that accompanied the album and the process of how it was created.) I have been keenly following Ray’s creative path, and while in Germany I caught up with him to discuss Berlin, relocation, and new music.
Cities often come and go bearing the title ‘musical hotspot’. Why do you think Berlin has been able to hold onto this moniker longer than others? Or do you think this is just a sensationalised misconception?
It’s been three years since I moved to Berlin and I’m still asking that question. I think, like a proper rock star, Berlin’s reputation has endured because there are bits of truth within the mythos. The city both does and does not live up to the hype. It’s certainly a creative hotspot – not just for music, but also for visual art, and more recently for startups. But I think Berlin’s draw has less to do with the overall quality of the stuff people create here (sure there’s lots more going on, but that can also mean lots more that’s very ordinary too), and more to do with the relative lack of restriction here.
The potential is limitless, but opportunities to realise that potential are limited.
What was it about Berlin that initially drew you there?
I first visited Berlin ten years ago, during a year-long trip around Europe. I only stayed for a month, but something about it affected me deeply. That lack of restriction I mentioned, from the art scene down to the little things in everyday life. There was also the draw of a city full of international misfits, nomadic personalities, cultural orphans – different arty types united by difference.
For someone who never felt entirely at home while at home, this immediately touched me.
For one thing, it inspired me to start The Ray Mann Three, which I went back to Sydney to do – but I always had it in my mind to return to Berlin one day.
Was the experimental nature of the ‘Sketches’ release a product of your time in Berlin, or does it directly reflect who you are as an artist?
I’m a time + place + resources artist: what can I create that I could only create at this time, in this place, with these people, and with what I’ve got at this moment? ‘Sketches’ was about finally arriving in Berlin, and about being, for the first time in my life, “just” an artist. The ‘Sketches’ Project spanned my first year in Berlin. Content-wise, the songs and videos as a collection can be read as a journal of settling into a new life while breaking up with an old one. Artistically, it was about me trying to get out and establish myself in this new city, one I’d been looking forward to for years, that seemed so full of opportunities for creative expression. I’ve always been a multi-disciplinary artist, and this felt like the moment to really go all out with that – to produce not just music, but also video and other graphics, and trying to treat social media as a stage for interactive performance art. The format – an online series – was very much inspired by the electronic music scene I encountered over here, for which online artist-audience interaction is lifeblood. So in terms of time, place and resources, ‘Sketches’ is very much a snapshot, my “wish you were here” postcards, my rescue-from-a-burning-house photo album.
What’s been the hardest thing you have experienced as a musician in Berlin?
Of all the challenges I’ve faced as a musician in Berlin – the lack of money, the humbling process of starting from scratch again, the wild west randomness of the live scene – the hardest thing has been: letting go of “home”. There’s still a big part of me that measures my progress by this totally irrational, imaginary yardstick of what I could or should have accomplished back in Australia by now – as if outdoing that is the only thing that will justify my move away.
It’s taken me three years, and three visits back to Australia, to appreciate that the biggest impediment to my artistic development in my new hometown is my reluctance to let go of my old one.
Can you explain your live format?
As I mentioned, the live music scene in Berlin is like the wild west – and to really engage with it, I’ve had to adapt. So now I have three live modes: solo acoustic; a Berlin band; and a new solo electronic setup. Band gigs are a struggle, either due to noise restrictions (Berlin’s are even worse than Sydney’s), or limited availabilities of my busy players. Meanwhile, there are plenty of opportunities to play solo, with as electronic a setup as I like – beats, vocal effects, visuals, etc – and if there’s one thing the kids here can get into, it’s a guy pushing buttons and calling it a show. What began as me remixing my songs live has become a crucial part of developing my new songs. And so my new songs are, not surprisingly, unfolding in a more electronic direction.
How have you changed as a songwriter since The ‘Sketches’ Project?
I don’t know yet – I’m a bit too close to it right now. I’m in the midst of developing new material, and trying new approaches to creating. Because that, apparently, is what I do:
I can’t just keep it easy and straightforward for myself, I always have to reinvent my own bloody wheel.
Though I don’t know exactly how just yet, I can feel that I’m changing as a songwriter – partly because of my new live setup, and the new sonic vocabulary that allows me to express with, and partly because of ‘Skratches’, the ‘Sketches’ Remix Project. It was really interesting hearing what other people did with my tracks – and hearing my voice in more electronic contexts gave me lots of ideas. It showed me my limitations as a producer, and also highlighted for me some of my strengths as a vocalist and songwriter. All of that is feeding into my current songwriting – and I hope to be able to share some of what’s coming out real soon.
I read you recently went on a writing retreat with other artists. Is this how you would normally approach writing? Are you collaborating on any new material?
The artistic getaway is not something I’d ever done before, but now I find it invaluable. We call it our “Beat Retreat”, and it’s something we do every few months.
The “we” is a bunch of friends from different creative fields – electronic music, video art, radio production, street art, etc. We escape Berlin for a few days, hole up somewhere and just make stuff. It may contradict the image of Berlin we were talking about earlier, but after you’ve lived in Berlin for a while, people do actually need to take a break from the city. For most of us guys, our day-to-day involves working in isolation – so it’s nice to be around others. Even if you’re just doing what you’d usually do anyway, there’s a different energy to things when you’re sharing a creative space with others. Every time I think of taking a break, I look around and see these guys all charging along with their own projects, and that kicks my butt to keep going. The odd moments of collaboration take place, though they’re not the main purpose. Some of those collaborations have made their way online already – from my end, you can check out the ‘Skratches’ remixes from Deepchild & AUTO64 and from Schuftronic (a.k.a. Craig Schüftan).
Can you tell us about any new releases on the horizon?
I’m still too deep in the primordial stage of writing to consider releases at the moment. Though, to be honest, I’m rethinking that side of things a bit too, as I did with ‘Sketches’. That is to say, I don’t expect I’ll release things in the same way that I did with ‘Sketches’, mainly because I’ve already done that; but rather, I’ll be looking to release things in a way that makes sense in terms of the way I’m working right now, and the things that interest me at this moment – the time + place + resources thing once again…
Any local Berlin artists you are digging?
Music: Krts, a hip-hop producer with a dizzying live show; Kyson, who makes beautiful electronic music (and is another Aussie expat). Visual art: Damien Vignaux, incredible photographic artist; James Bullough, mural artist and illustration genius.
Any plans to visit Australia again soon?
For sure. I’ve been back to Australia to tour three times in as many years since I moved to Berlin. I look forward to playing with my guys and spending time with my folks. Each visit has happened differently and unpredictably – whether the opportunity has presented itself, or I’ve created it – so I don’t know when or how just yet, but I’m sure I’ll be back to visit soon.