Stories Untold: RY X Is Searching For Connections
"Nice little rainy romantic evening about to begin, it seems like!"
RY X is nothing if not ebullient. Little seems to phase the songwriter - real name Ry Cumming - whose outstanding creativity also lends itself to The Acid and Howling.
It's RY X, though, that acts as a holding vessel for his ideas in their purest form, that mixture of languid rhythm and heart-string melody, introspective songwriting and exploratory electronics.
New album 'Unfurl' is out now, a beautiful collection that frames his meditative qualities, while also connecting with the world around him.
Clash caught up with RY X on the phone during a stopover in London, and he's doing his best to avoid checking out reports of the heatwave in Australia while the slate-grey UK rain falls outside.
"I have to turn it into something romantic, otherwise it’s just depressing," he says. "More than the weather, it’s when you see people’s faces and there’s not much happiness there."
- - -
- - -
Is creation a continual process?
Good question! I think for me creation is a continual process. I like to open up the channels of creation for RY X and my other projects. It’s constant. But you definitely grow and change as an individual, and that influences and leans on the work, obviously.
I think this record, I wanted to expand beyond the sonic landscapes I’d been moving in, and also in a more emotional, lyrical, artistic landscape. To just push the boundaries a bit within myself, and also what people know of me. I think it’s quite easy to reiterate yourself again and again, and even do that to popularity. You create a sound, and then you want to keep following up on that sound. I wanted to shift that a bit, grow it, and keep expanding as an artist. It’s important to me.
You tend to keep songwriting as free as possible, but how does that work specifically in the studio?
It’s basically me and one other person who played, basically, everything on the album. It’s setting up a whole bunch of different stations – piano, percussion, synths, guitar – and getting these really beautiful, raw recordings of the song, and then just starting to build around it.
I think starting on different instruments helps – starting on piano rather than guitar, it gives you a different lead in process. But the creative process once you open that channel it has to be free-flowing, and really my engineer always laughs because he’s just got to keep up with me, going from station to station. “OK, let’s record on this!” It’s really free-flowing and then you start paring it back, and start to be decisive about what to use and what not to use. It’s important to me to use that flow-state to get as much information out as you can.
Does editing become a form of songwriting in it’s own right, then?
Of course! It is now, more than ever. I record a lot. I’ll do a single take live, which means you’re locked in, recording through old analogue gear. At the same time, especially with regards to production, you’re kind of writing as you’re producing, you’re creating as you go. What you end up with, how you edit, and how you change sounds afterwards is a huge part of the creative process.
I love the programmes, and I use them all, but at the same time if it’s not good as a song on its own then it won’t be good when you put a bunch of stuff around it. It has to be able to live in its simplicity, too.
- - -
- - -
‘Untold’ was the lead single, what kicked that song off?
That was slightly more inspired. Pretty much everything on the record – apart from this one – I created on my own. A friend of mine had that groove, that little beat, and I just felt really inspired by it. But I thought, how do you strip that down into something more emotional? And it wasn’t until I started getting into the vocal process – which at the beginning were just sketches, but they were so raw and so intimate that it took the song into this really different place. Otherwise it could be quite electronic.
It just somehow sat in a beautiful place with this raw, intimate vocal on it. There are these crucial moments on a track where you’re leaning in, and you’re working on it, but if the vocal doesn’t land somewhere and make you feel something then I just let go of the track, and move on to another one. That’s a defining moment.
That blend of pure songwriting and electronics defines a lot of your work.
And it can be pretty challenging. I think James Blake does it well, I think Radiohead have always been able to do that well, and Bjork too. But it’s not an easy thing to include electronics without it starting to take over. And for me, especially with RY X, it’s really important for me to retain that raw, stripped back nature. Even if I do want to go all the way and turn it into a house track, it needs to be measured, and allow the elements to land in a really beautiful way.
‘Body’ is a good example of that mixture.
There’s ‘Body (Ambient)’ and ‘Body (Sun)’. I mean, I’ve always loved ambient music, and I love making it – in fact, I think I’ll probably put together an ambient record. But I was putting together all these beautiful ambient soundscapes, and then I started developing it more. It ended up turning into that gentle rave at the end of that track.
I love the development – it starts with piano, and that really intimate vocal, and the you hear the chorus, and the strings come in, and you presume it’s going to stay in that territory, but when the kick drum enters it opens you up enough to move in a different way. I really enjoy that development through a song.
A lot of people right now come into everything really hard, right from the beginning, but I’m personally really in love with the development of a song through its five minutes or its six minutes. That’s what I do love, I think – it’s my natural inclination to open these songs up.
- - -
- - -
‘Fumbling Prayer’ is an interesting track; do you feel there is a spiritual yearning in your work?
Definitely. Growing up with a mum who is a yoga teacher, it was a very spiritual household, without being religious. It’s just a natural part of my life, and my work. I definitely view my work as… well, you can change the word around it – heart, spirit, or soul – but it’s really important that all good art is imbued with that in one sense or another. Exploring themes of a more existential nature, exploring the meta… I do it a lot more on this record. A conversation with the self, that process of looking a little deeper, peeling back the layers.
Of course, playing cathedrals, churches, and these beautiful spaces, and making a video in a Roman temple, it’s more about finding reverent spaces, and reverent things that fit the work. It seems to work beautifully together, it seems to fit the whole process of sharing music. For the live shows especially that’s really important to me.
Your work is often heralded for its meditative qualities, is meditation something you explore in your own life?
Of course, man. If everybody had a decent meditation practice… it’s a bold statement but I don’t think there’d be war. There’s a beautiful saying from a teacher that I once had, which is: All pain, suffering, and conflict comes from our inability to sit alone with ourselves in a room. And that’s true, we need to understand who we are on a deeper level. If you get a good look at it then you know how to accept it, and eventually move past it.
If you took these ridiculous leaders of the world and put them in a silent meditation retreat for a month they’d probably come out pretty different, and change a lot of stuff in their lives. I think meditation is an amazing thing for people to have, but it doesn’t have to happen in the traditional sense. It’s just observation, awareness. And if people get that through my music that’s amazing, I’m glad to be contributing in that way.
- - -
- - -
'Foreign Tides' video was set a few miles from the Syrian border. What was it like to film the video close to an actual war zone?
There’s a lot of talk about Lebanon being a warzone but all I felt there was a lot of acceptance and appreciation. I know that there’s a lot of conflict in different parts of the world, but we need to get to a human level when we talk about these things. They open themselves up to Syrian refugees, and it makes you realise that we’re all in this together.
Obviously it’s clear that everyone has their sides and opinions, but I try to stay out of that, and go to a human level. I found an appreciation for art, and creativity, and for being a human being. On a visual level, being in this places is just so incredible, and so humbling; it’s breathtaking. It’s really special.
I didn’t really have fear but there was an awareness that the border was close, and you’re being asked if it’s safe. But I just thought, let’s do it. Let’s experience this. And I’m glad we did it.
Travel must be one of the most amazing side-benefits of being a musician at your level…
I really enjoy the shows, I really enjoy playing, and I also really enjoy travelling, experiencing different cultures, and cities. But the act of touring is really quite challenging, because you’re in Paris for 12 hours, Amsterdam for 12 hours, and Berlin for 19 hours. It’s different, you don’t really get to disappear into it in the same way.
So with touring more than anything I tend to focus on the art, and this service – I don’t make money on tour because I pour it all back in. And the way people respond makes me think we’re doing something right.
It seems like communication is key to this project.
Of course! It’s key to so many things. In music that level of communication can contact a lot of people, and have a conversation with a lot of people at the same time. People get to experience something communally when you share something, so it’s really important to look at what you’re communicating, and how you’re communicating. If it’s done well it can have a really beautiful impact.
- - -
- - -
'Unfurl' is out now.
Join us on Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.