About two-thirds of the way into my conversation with Ry Cuming, I mention that we haven’t talked much about his music yet. “We don’t need to,” he says. What we talk about instead, at length, is the tension between the act of making art and the act of selling it. As a certified beardy hippy who grew up on a sparsely populated Australian island, the idea of promoting his work and making money from it sits uneasily with him.
Yet the 32-year-old is succeeding, whether deliberately or not. His song Berlin made his name as Ry X, an atmospheric mix of picked acoustic guitar and cooing vocals that sounds as if it’s been recorded in a resonant church. In the three years since it arrived online, its video has been watched over 4.5 million times, it has been used in a colourful Sony Bravia advert and Sam Smith has covered it on Radio 1. “When I made that song it was one take, live, I just put it out and it connected with people and that’s beautiful,” he says. “But it was never intended to become what it became. That’s when art is at its most beautiful, when it’s authentic.”
He uses the word authentic a lot. He doesn’t mention the Sony clip but intead tells me in great detail about his decision to turn down an offer of USD50,000 to have his music on a Unilever advert. He’s written a duet for the mainstream pop stars Kelly Clarkson and John Legend (Run Run Run from 2015) and last month produced a remix of Rihanna’s Love on the Brain, but is also heavily involved with the Berlin techno scene and runs a tiny music festival called Sacred Ground on a farm near the German-Polish border.
“I’m so glad my music has reached a lot of people, but the essence and integrity of it is what’s important to me,” he tells me. “Whether it sells, or charts, what I’ve discovered is that authenticy resonates with human beings. What transcends genre and style and hipness is rawness and authenticity and vulnerability and human nature. I’m way more excited about exploring that.”
He seems to be following his nose through the music world. When the Berlin single created the kind of buzz that should have been capitalised on straight away with a Ry X album, he instead formed an electronic trio with British producer Adam Freeland and California producer Steve Napela and released a woozy, late night album as The Acid. The debut Ry X album, Dawn, finally arrived this May and gets a deserved reissue this week, before he plays his biggest London show later this month. Dawn is a thing of great beauty, one for the headphones with your eyes closed. Cuming’s high, soft voice is fuzzy round the edges. The sounds he creates are slow moving and spiritual.
He’s had a long journey to get here, sipping grapefruit juice in a café on Sunset Boulevard in LA. He’s been based there on and off for 10 years, but has also lived in Indonesia, Costa Rica and Germany. He now has a partner and two pre-school children, but is still resisting the urge to settle and is considering homeschooling.
He romanticises his discovery as a musician. “I was living in a hammock between two palm trees in Costa Rica, playing music to a bunch of girls who were surfers. One of their boyfriends happened to be a film producer in LA, and he invited me into this idea of making music as a more serious thing. He paid for a layover in LA on my way home, and took me into offices where I played for people. I didn’t wear shoes or a shirt at that point in my life, so I didn’t understand anything about the industry.”
He ended up releasing a much more conventional singer-songwriter album as Ry Cuming in 2010. “It all got kind of rolled up and homogenised and overproduced and whittled down into this sellable thing. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to just leave all that behind. I thought I would never make music for the industry again.”
It was that experience, plus his unconventional childhood, that left him determined to make art for art’s sake from then on. He grew up on Woodford Island in New South Wales, where he went to a school of just 11 children. “It’s essentially on this giant estuary in a river. It would flood and you would be locked on the island for three weeks or a month at a time. My parents were very much hippies but educated, intelligent, choosing-their-path hippies, if that makes sense. It’s hard for me to conform to normal society. Every day of my life is a challenge in that way. I don’t see the world the way that most people see it.”
In LA he practises yoga and surfs as much as possible, and although a frantic city isn’t his natural habitat, there are plenty of like-minded people and endless artists with whom he can work. He chose the alias Ry X intending the X to be a multiplication sign, with another collaborator’s name coming after. “I need the sea and nature, and I grew up with that, but I’m living in a city because I want my art to be relevant. I feel like often, when people shift to leave a city, they disconnect.”
If he succeeds this time – and he should, because Dawn is an extraordinary work – it will be on his own terms. He describes the struggle between art and commerce in a long analogy that puts it well: “Imagine there’s a river, and at the beginning, at the source, you could just step over it. But you have to pick a side because you need to move forward. To the left you have art and heart and spirituality. People like Bon Iver, Patti Smith, Bjork or Radiohead have been able to stay on that path. On the right is commerciality: be in that advert, take the money, it’s good exposure. Every time you say yes, you walk further and further down this road, and I guarantee you every artist at some point looks over to the other side and thinks, ‘It’s not that far away, I could throw a rock over there.’ But there is no way to traverse that gap without walking all the way back to the start.”
He knows which side he’s on now. Come and join him.
Nov 23, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, W12 (0844 477 2000, o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk).
Dawn is out now on Infectious.