Blog 1405: Intentions Ain’t Shit

Despite my artistic intentions, I suspect I’ve mostly just confused a few people, and slipped under the radar of most…

I like to think I’m all educated about my position as an artist. Reading Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author in my uni student days, just as I was beginning to publish my own art, helped shape my ideas about the artist-audience relationship: that whatever my intention in creating my art might be, it becomes irrelevant the moment people come into contact with it; that a listener’s interpretation of my song, or a viewer’s understanding of my video, is just as valid, if not moreso, than my own.

That doesn’t, however, stop me getting really frustrated about it sometimes.

And so, occasionally, I’ll ignore my own golden rule (“if your art doesn’t say it for you, then you haven’t said it, so go try again”) and just spell it out. My new rule: “Curate Yourself. (Coz if you don’t, who’ll do it for you?)”

I make what I call “soul music”, though I’ve always been just as influenced by the indie rock I grew up on: low-fi, DIY, “authenticity”, live playing, dry understatement. My intention is to make art that straddles the two modes – and yet, over the years, I feel like I’ve mostly just confused a few people, and slipped under the radar of most.

My first album, 2008’s The Ray Mann Three, was an attempt to make a soul record I wasn’t hearing anyone else doing at the time: a completely live, stripped-back album of understated songs that owed more to “conscious” hip-hop than to R&B showboating. As further statement of what I wasn’t, each of the no-budget music videos I created for its singles sidestepped R&B clichés of cars and girls (the dancer in “Hook Me Up” keeps her clothes on; “Opa Opa” is all Saul Bass-style limited animation; and even the ghetto in the “Smile” video looks more suburban than “fabulous“). This, also, I was not seeing coming from any other soul / R&B / “urban” or whatever-you-call-them acts at the time.

The result, however, was that The Ray Mann Three was regarded as “jazz” (or worse: dismissed as “funk”) by the rock-dominated industry in Australia. I’m still as confused as ever by that reaction, especially looking back now on other music that was accepted within that world (espcially the music that was described as “soulful”, or “funky” music that was actually celebrated) at the time.

So, for my second album, 2012’s Sketches, I went even more low-fi and DIY. Sketches is an even more deconstructed soul record: it features more rough edges, tape hiss, and overt rock elements (it could be argued that its final third is a rock album). And, to really power the point home, I created not one but nine no-budget music videos in the style of those ’90s videos I grew up on (“Bleeding” and “Hold OntoMe” are the type of insomniac dream sequences I used to catch on Rage at 4am; “Who’s Loving You” is standard ’90s, self-deprecating, unflattering, indie-band-from-the-suburbs super-8 caper). Sketches is more Sebadoh than Jamiroquai (and here’s a long-overdue hint, kids: a great way to shut down a conversation with me is to compliment me on how much my music sounds like the latter’s).

The result: … well, I’m not sure how many people got what I was trying to do at all. It may be fair to say that, in an era of bedroom super-producers, the 4-track sound is so out-of-place now it sounds more like a deficiency than an aesthetic decision.

I make art to connect, to engage, to get a response – to initiate a conversation. Of course I do. I make art that hopefully renders this artist “dead” – but I can only let go if the art has life for others. For me, “self-expression” is not the end of the journey, it’s only the beginning – otherwise it’s a monologue, which I have no interest in giving. (Sketches and its extension, Skratches, which featured audience-made remixes of my tracks, were all about me literally initiating this conversation.)

If I wasn’t interested in what happened beyond my creation of something, then why create anything? If the ideas never leave my head, then they can remain there in pristine condition, in all their potential glory, unsullied by the inevitable compromises in realising them or the criticisms of others once those ideas are “out there in the world”.

But clearly, this is unsatisfying for me – I need to get these creations out, and if I get them out then I need to get something back. I steel myself for whatever does come back, knowing I have no control over it, or that I’ll necessarily like it. And that, for me, is the whole point. That’s why I do what I do.

And that’s why, for all the wonderful and frustrating moments my life of making art brings, even though I count the reasons to quit every other day, I can’t help but keep going with it – whether or not anyone else understands my intentions.

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Ray Mann plays live this month, solo and with the Berlin Three, in Berlin. Dates and details – and a video preview – are right here.

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