Ray Mann is an indie-soul musician and visual artist. Both solo and with his band, The Ray Mann Three, Ray has toured Australia with Al Green and Tori Amos, and supported the likes of Lauryn Hill, Jamie Lidell, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings and Roy Ayers, both here and overseas.

Ray was born and raised in Sydney, where he founded his band and in 2008 independently recorded and released his debut album, The Ray Mann Three: a collection of intimate, minimal, deconstructed soul songs. In 2011, Ray relocated to Berlin and began work on an innovative, online, audience collaboration series called The ‘Sketches’ Project. The project saw Ray create a new song and music video every month, for twelve months, inviting audience contributions throughout the process. The experiment resulted in: a more eclectic-sounding second album, Sketches; a collection of audience-made remixes called ‘Skratches’; a stream of digital audio and video releases; and award nominations in various European music video festivals.

Ray is visiting Australia this summer for festival dates with his Sydney band, The Ray Mann Three – including performances at Mullum Music Festival.

It’s been over a year now since your sophomore Sketches was released and not too long since we’ve heard some of the audience­made remixes from the ‘Skratches’ Project. As an artist what’s your response been to some of what you’ve heard audiences do with your tracks?

As an artist, The ‘Sketches’ Project was about me engaging with my audience in a new way. I opened up my process to people who are probably used to seeing only the finished product. It was a way for me to let in new ideas that would challenge me, and maybe even frighten me a little. I’d just moved to Berlin, and the project reflected my process of moving on from recent events and starting over in a different part of the world. With each step in the project, I kept trying to open myself up more and more. By the time it resulted in the Sketches album, I realised the ultimate “opening up” would be to give the elements I had created back to the audience who had inspired them and say, “I’ve taken this as far as I can – can you take it further?” As an artist who mostly works in isolation, getting that feedback has been exciting. I got a little addicted to the initial shock of each new remix that turned up in my inbox. Some remixes took the songs places I never would have imagined, and didn’t even necessarily agree with – which was entirely the point. As the ‘Skratches’ Remix Project progressed, I started baiting people: “Scare me!” And I have been happily scared, time and again. 

The ‘Sketches’ Project took place over twelve months, being quite involved with audiences via social media, how much of an effort was it to both complete and collaborate with people you may have never met within a specific timeline?

The ‘Sketches’ Project was huge for me: create a new song and video, from demo to finito, every month; share the process via regular online updates; and invite the audience to get involved in that process. I’d also just moved to Berlin, so I was still getting settled in my new hometown too. I was doing everything myself – not just producing the music, but also creating the videos, running the social media schedule, everything. It was as gruelling as touring can be, in its own ways. After twelve months of that, I was wiped out – and I’d created more new art than I had in years.

And it’s true, most of my collaborators on the project were people I never met – but for me, the distinction between “virtual” and “real life” interaction is an arbitrary one. My closest friends are scattered all over the world – I was the last of us to move overseas – and my online connections with them are as vital as any in my life. So “moving” my performance art to an online stage just felt appropriate and timely. 

What would be the biggest lesson learned from undertaking such a massive project?

I found working within a series so good for my creativity, in so many ways. There was always the next deadline, always the next thing to move on to, and never enough time to dwell on, overthink, or talk myself out of anything. I only had time to take leaps. And with each leap, I got creatively fitter, more confident, and (hopefully) more accomplished. There’s that idea about how you discover your strength in moments of crisis; I fear sliding in the opposite direction too: the longer I go without challenging myself, the weaker I feel myself becoming. My running interior monologue: “So long as you’re healthy and able, why aren’t you doing as much as you possibly can? Stop talking about it and just do it.” The ‘Sketches’ Project allowed me to engage with the world – both online, and in my new hometown – purely as an artist. And that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. Get out there, be weird, solicit help from strangers, throw ideas around, think on my feet, and just create, create, create. And ironically, working within such a strict schedule freed me up in ways that I didn’t expect. It generated work that I was either really proud of, or where I had to be like: “Well, my next chance to do better begins… oh shit, now!”

Would you ever take on a similar project again in the future and extend what you can do further?

I probably won’t do something like it again, because… well, I’ve done it. Part of the point of The ‘Sketches’ Project was to do things I hadn’t done before – so the next thing would have to be different again. If I’ve learned smart lessons from The ‘Sketches’ Project, they’ll hopefully be the foundation I build upon with the next thing.

As such an innovative artist, how important would you say it is to be innovative in the industry and push the traditional line regarding how we make records and do shows?

I think making records and playing shows should ALWAYS be about trying to do something different. I certainly think an artist should at least try to zig where others zag, as often as possible. I am an independent artist with limited resources – no label, no financial support, no “team” behind me – so if I want to do anything, I kind of have to be a creative problem-solver. I am of course inspired by artists I find inventive in different ways, or who treat the things that are unique to them as strengths they can play to (and with). With recording and playing live, I personally don’t agree with simply doing things “the way they’re done” – or at least, not without interrogating them first. There could be a better way, or a way that’s better suited to you and your circumstances, and that can result in something unique and interesting. I think any artist who doesn’t interrogate tradition is missing the point – or at least, they’re missing a real opportunity.

We’ve seen a bit of a trend recently with a number of festivals being cancelled in Australia due to poor ticket sales, why would you say this is happening and in your opinion what makes a festival, an enduring event and one that people just keep wanting to come back to?

Watching this happen from the other side of the world has been interesting. I now live in a part of the world that’s been hurting a lot more economically in recent years, yet where established music festivals seem to be surviving, even thriving, somehow. In many ways, it’s the opposite of how things have been going in Australia. I’m not educated in the machinations of these things, but my simple, uninformed opinion as an outside observer is: if something that used to work isn’t working any more, maybe certain traditions could bear some interrogation too.

What are you most looking forward to about heading over to the 2013 Mullum Music Festival?

I’m coming straight from the start of Berlin winter, so the 40 degree temperature difference will be a reward in itself! The thing I’m most looking forward to is playing with my Aussie band after a year away – the guys get so much better each time I visit. We cannot wait to share our show with the Mullum crowd.

And who do you most want to see?

Seeing as I’ve been living overseas for the last couple of years, I’m most looking forward to seeing friends play: Elana Stone, Jack Carty, Little Stevies, Bobby Alu, the Sketch The Rhyme crew… so much to look forward to.

The Ray Mann Three Tour Dates:

November 10  – Newton Music Festival, NSW

November 21 & 22 – Mullumbimby Music Festival, NSW

November 23 – Queenscliff Music Festival, Vic

November 28 – 505, Sydney

December 14 – The Joynt,  Brisbane

December 15 – Byron Bay Brewery, NSW

Watch the video for ‘Bleeding’

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