Continuing this project has been harder than you know or perhaps even suspect. And maybe now, finally, it’s ok to talk about why.
The “sophomore slump” refers to an artist’s struggle to make their second album: “You have a lifetime to write yr first,” we’re told, “and six months to write yr second.” A similarly popular idea, which I find similarly annoying: the romanticised “tortured” artist.
David Lynch has spoken about his need for peace and happiness in his home life in order to create the haunting and surreal in his art, writing “It’s common sense: the more the artist is suffering, the less creative he is going to be… and less likely that he will be able to do really good work”.
Immediately following the release of my first album, my professional and personal lives became unstable – and my struggle to maintain balance outside of my art made it a struggle to continue to make my art at all. This, I was told, was that sophomore slump. As determined or even single-minded as I may seem on certain things, my default is to assume industry people “know better” – and so, when they referred to my very real, very personal, very balance-tipping struggles as simply the same old artistic struggle, I listened.
That, I’ll now tell you, was horse shit.
If I was having that artistic struggle, it was lost in the noise and tumult of my professional and personal ones.
It must be lovely having a team who looks after you, keeps you in your creative bubble just long enough to do what you do so that they can do what they do – management who isn’t confused about which of you is supposed to be the rock star; who treats their professional partnership as a team side; who can work in the interests of their artists and not in conflict with them. It must also be lovely to have a partner who treats your relationship as a collaboration and not combat; who at least sees you as a kind person and operates from the base assumption that you’re both on the same team; who can practice the kind of “support” they preach and demand, or who at least isn’t so battered by their own struggles that when they hit back, they hit you.
I had to make my second album while engaged in trench warfare on two fronts, over the two years that my first album was just beginning to get the kind of notice that makes a follow-up so important. I wasn’t stuck for ideas – on the contrary: as personnel dipped in and out of the picture, as i fell out of favour with some people, while others i depended on flaked out (and occasionally even struck out), i was forced to repeatedly create concepts, art and business plans for new scenarios every few months at first, and every few weeks at last – plans which couldn’t depend confidently on anyone or anything remaining steadfast long enough to actually get things done. It’s difficult enough when everything around you is on fire – eventually, you might start thinking those fires are your fault. As my mathematician father might put it: an equation made of no constants, and only variables, can never be solved.
The 15 audio tracks and 9 music videos which comprise Sketches were sifted near-single-handedly from maybe a hundred musical and visual ideas – not all amazing, some better than others, but all ideas which were born in a snow flurry that obscured sight, sound, touch and tone for me. It wasn’t the struggle to follow-up on the music I’d already released; it was a struggle to create on a foundation which was at best wobbly, and at worst crumbling.
‘Sketches‘ exists despite everything my personal and professional lives threw at me. It is absolutely, literally, a divorce album.
During the time that birthed my second album, I split from my wife and from my manager; I lost label partners, bookers, promoters, and publicists; I became estranged from friends with whom I didn’t know how to share what I was going through (many of whom it’s taken all these years for me to reconnect with); and I relocated to the other side of the world, a dream I’d been looking forward to for years, amidst an existential nightmare. It was an incredibly isolating time, and one from which i’m still trying to learn, and one of which I’m still trying to make sense. A lot of what I did learn was about the stigma and stink that vindictive former partners, be they personal or professional, can actively work to contaminate you with long afterward; to muddy the waters for you because, for them, their survival means your desolation; and “saving face” for them means actively sabotaging, discrediting and humiliating you. I learned that some people are so intent on prolonging misery in others after they’ve lost; that they must be so deeply unhappy that unhappiness is the only activity they understand.
Sketches was me pouring everything I didn’t know I had in me into everything I had left: not just my music, but also my video, my visuals, my performance, my self-promotion, my life savings. And it might have paid off, too, had the personal (and personnel) drama ended there: but more associates dropped off, turned backs, went MIA without explanation; more self-doubt, more self-recrimination, because surely I must be that bad, or at least just not that good, as an artist or a person. I learned about the surprisingly common presumption and prejudice in people, across genders and cultures, about a man who’s separated but not yet legally permitted to divorce (fun fact: did you know there’s a legal minimum 12 month waiting period between filing for and actual divorce? Most people I’ve met don’t).
My reward for pushing through, for doing five times the job with one hand tied behind my back (or, more accurately, with one hand fighting off each new unforeseeable, unfathomable, unbelievable, vindictive challenge), was to feel ever more abandoned, and more like there was something horribly wrong with me.
If I’m this awful, this repellent, what am I to do? When years of professional therapy tell me I’m “doing the work” but that won’t make life feel better; when I feel like I’ve already asked too much of my friends, when they often tell me I haven’t shared that much at all; when my shame has sent me spiralling down into the bottom of a hole; when I’ve asked time and again, from different points in time and perspective, whether I’m asking too much of music, whether the happiness I’ve been searching for isn’t to be found where I’d believed and been drilling down toward… where to from there?
There was no third studio album, because what was the point? I’d followed all the advice, and done all the things, and I’d still lost. And if I’d lost what little I’d worked so hard to gain and fought so hard to keep and nurture, then I’d just be playing to myself – and I don’t do the gruelling daily combat of my debilitating self-image just to play to myself.
But if playing to myself is all that’s left me, then that’s, evidently, what I’ll do. It’s certainly what I have done: in the years during and since All The Drawn-Out Divorces, I’ve kept making my music and my videos, in new forms and new projects, with new ideas and goals and ways of working. I’ve created my own island – and most importantly, I’m neither depending on nor waiting for anyone to support or work with me to get it out into the world. I’m not even sure I want to “get it out into the world” in the ways I once did – because my experience has taught me that attempting to do so could kill my very desire to make any art at all, and making art is what’s most important to me; and because i’m older now, old enough that the very idea of going through that again seems laughable professionally, and exhausting personally. And as Ray Mann / The Ray Mann Three, I’ve found a happy little island within which to continue: live performance – with my guitar and my voice, and with the world-class musicians, on both sides of the planet, who honour my songs and flatter me.
Only recently have I stopped trying to divorce myself entirely from my “Ray Mann” identity, and instead renewed my happiness within it, within that little island, on these newfound terms. It’s why the RM releases since Sketches have been live recordings: to document the happy place, to complete the recorded picture. I spent years building something, and I already lost so much of it in my first two divorces – why throw away what I still have, what’s left of it, the part that’s still mine, while I still have it? One day my musicians may not want to play with me; one day I may no longer be able to play with them, or even by myself. In the scheme of my life, I want to do what I love and what I can, and not allow that to be confused with what’s been poisoned and what I’ve lost.
I’m not suggesting other artists – other people – don’t have similar or worse challenges, or that success is somehow contingent on those obstacles; but they’re not nothing either, and I’ve wasted years being convinced (by my inner critic as much as anyone else) that they shouldn’t be dwelt on, complained about, or even acknowledged. And those are voices that time and experience have proven wrong about many other things, so I’m done listening to them.
Incidentally, my happiest musical place these days is the DJ booth at my local bar, where I get 4hrs on a Friday or Saturday night to play my own beats. It’s the most direct, most real-time pipeline (or, more accurately and importantly, cycle) between creation, release and feedback i’ve ever had in my art. I can make a new beat Saturday arvo, drop it the same night, go to bed with important feedback and a contented feeling of some small achievement, and wake up and continue working on that beat the next day. I’m not tied to album release cycles, tour schedules, or anyone else’s expectations or estimations of what i can or can’t do. It’s now solely about how far i want to push my art and my craft – and the last few years as Ori Moto have been the most prolific of my life.
I want to end this on a hopeful note, because today I feel resilient, and I don’t feel this way every day. Since it began nearly 8 years ago, my life in Brrrlin has been a daily struggle to renew purpose and momentum. More recently, I’ve begun to realise that that renewal can be aided by taking stock, taking credit, taking measure. To others, that may look like wallowing, or fixating on the past, or “playing the victim” (a drearily overused expression i find to be particularly mean-spirited, and one which, funnily enough, i only ever hear from people i find to be uniquely lacking in empathy toward others generally; meanwhile, most people whom I’ve seen behave in a way I might actually call “playing the victim” are way more manipulative and effective than I have ever managed to be).
But not taking the time to review and acknowledge can, I’ve found, do its own kind of damage. Yes, recuperation depends so much on pushing through, being bigger than, overcoming; but, if done carefully, acknowledging the real cause of the injury can also help the feeling of self-worth and capability. Some limitations are not your own; sometimes yr just dealt a bad hand. Some sensitivities are a liability; others are to be protected, nurtured, even cherished. I’m fiercely protective of friends whom I feel are treated unfairly, not least when it’s by themselves; I spring into action, pointing out to them the context of their situation, and I make a point about them being “fair” to themselves. I try to do this with myself every day – and every day, it’s a different struggle, a different conversation, with a different outcome. Today, I rolled out of bed earlier than I want or need to, in order to write this to myself, and maybe even (I haven’t yet decided) share this with you: I’m tired, I’m angry, and I’m disillusioned; I’m also healthy, I’m fortunate, and I’m not yet done.