Trying and Failing Spectacularly: How Sam Ray Defines the Indefinable

noisey-final-pink--3-Illustration by Courtney Menard

At what point does an artist become an auteur? It’s rare that someone comes along whose sensibilities show vividly on whatever they touch, like wet footprints in sand. Grimes is one such artist: last year she released an unclassifiable album that only she could make, which probably explains why she made it entirely herself. Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo with his unique narratives from an eternal puberty is another. Then there’s Bjork – because there is nobody on earth who could fully penetrate Bjork’s sonic universes other than Bjork. I guess one objective way of summing these sorts of artists up is: they make music, but they also make the music what it is. And if art is an extension of personality, then Sam Ray comes through his writing like a fist through glass.

Like most musicians who blossomed online, the 24-year-old from Maryland has been churning out music for years, hosting everything on Bandcamp and fostering a loose community of bedroom-pop artists through a now defunct Tumblr called ‘420 love songs’. A restless polymath, Ray has done more in the last two years than many artists manage across an entire career. Last year, his unconventional indie-pop outfit Julia Brown gave away their first “proper” album for free via Mediafire (before Joy Void released it physically much later); this month his even less conventional band Teen Suicide delivered their seventh and final album; he’s released a single through Ryan Hemsworth’s Secret Songs label, and assembled more mixes and mixtapes for fun than I did for all my crushes in high school combined. Oh, and he’s also sitting on a follow-up to Three Love Songs, his break-out album with Ricky Eat Acid.

As someone who is constantly creating, often finishing entire albums in the time it takes for one to be released, it’s difficult to talk about Ray’s body of work without generalising, but what ties it all together is the unique stamp he places on everything –a signature that alters slightly with time, but is unmistakably his. Emotive and incredibly intricate, Ray teases soundscapes to evoke vivid imagery and memories; his work functions almost like classical music or a film score where the accompanying scenes are left to the listener to construct. An easy comparison would be a young Conor Oberst: a prolific, sometimes scrappy-sounding but ever purposeful twenty-something messing around in his bedroom with an 8-track, lyrical motifs, and unusual spins on guitar-based music that everyone thought had been exhausted until they fell into a particular set of hands. And if Conor Oberst is the personification of early 00s indie rock hubris, then Sam Ray is the perfect example of the internet-born artist. He creatively fires off in a multitude of different directions at the same time, has little care for the old guard and their structured ways of doing things, and used social media to turn his personality into his own form of PR.

“Sometimes it freaks me out,” Ray begins when I ask him about the new levels of attention that fell on him following Three Love Songs, pulling him out of the boundaries of Bandcamp towards huge features with The Fader and Spin, collaborators ranging from Geoff Rickly to Owen Pallett, and the need for management. “I’ve never been able to think of myself as a serious artist, producer, performer, composer, or writer; [I’m] just some dumb kid who is doing a lot of stuff all the time and following whatever interests him.”

That was back in the summer of 2014, six months after Three Love Songs was released and the first time I spoke to him over email. Now, almost two years later, we’re talking on Skype. His nails are coated in chipped black polish, he’s wearing a longsleeve t-shirt with a golden eagle spread across the front, and is joined by his family cat (“we cycle through names – we’re calling the big one Chapstick right now, but its name is Splatt”). I ask Ray how much he feels has changed over the last 24 months. “It’s always a lot of things coming and going, so it never really feels like a lot of time has passed or anything’s different,” he says, “It’s all kind of like limbo.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who is constantly on the go, Ray is in a constant state of flux. Whether it’s Run For Cover re-pressing Teen Suicide’s back catalogue for a new audience or the gap between when Julia Brown’s An Abundance of Strawberries was written and released, much of Ray’s life for the first quarter of 2016 has been about putting together the pieces that have piled up. By the time it all reaches the public, it feels old. “It’s a weird thing, definitely,” he tells me, “You have to, not pretend, but get a lot more excited about everything than you might be, because so much time has passed. I keep trying to get [Run For Cover] to hire someone to do that all for me. Either get me pumped up about it, because I’m not half the time, or like a hype man. I keep referring to it as a ‘fluffer’ and they hate that.”

Three Love Songs can be loosely pointed to as the moment Ray began to knit his interests together most seamlessly. At this point, there isn’t much of a difference between the long list of projects he keeps separate. There are house tracks on Teen Suicide albums, melodies in Ricky Eat Acid songs that were intended for Teen Suicide, and a similar use of found sound samples can be found in all his endeavours. Each release feels like another step on a linear journey to a sound that coalesces his interests, which is tricky when the spectrum ranges from Red House Painters to Hudson Mohawke. “I start by hearing something that I really like, and I think man, I need to fucking do that,” he says of his writing process, “I need to do it better somehow – and I don’t, but in trying and failing spectacularly it becomes its own thing. It’s like driving a car off a cliff and thinking it’s going to fly. It’s still a cool thing to do – if you don’t die.”

In some ways, Ray is a modern dichotomy. He says he can only listen to music that’s “huge and sounds awesome”, but mostly aligns himself with indie rock artists. He communicates his deepest cares and concerns with a nonchalance to rival Daria, but although he often seems exhausted or unenthusiastic about his own endeavours, he has also built an entire musical universe – and made it available for free – before the age of 25. In many ways, Sam Ray has already lived several lives.

Ray grew up in a suburb 20 minutes outside of Baltimore, a city which has the unfortunate reputation as the heroin capital of America. He was kicked out of elementary school, bullied by the sportier kids at baseball camp, and left to think about his parents divorce (who, weirdly, are two NASA scientists) in his early teens. Diagnosed with depression in fourth grade, his story vaguely follows that of most kids for whom society has decided they don’t fit for one reason or another. Perhaps as a result, he addresses drug use with the matter-of-factness most people would use to talk about underage drinking. It’s there overtly in Teen Suicide lyrics like “I wanna get high with you in my room”, more subtly in Julia Brown’s bleak “how I spent my summer” – which opens with a clip of Ray murmuring “I was doing heroin in my car and listening to ‘Genius of Love’”, with the word “heroin” slightly scrambled – and it’s there in the Ambien-driven recording processes of early Ricky Eat Acid albums like seeing little ghosts everywhere, which Ray doesn’t remember recording most of. “I would black out back then for long periods of time and wake up with these songs written and recorded on tape players,” he says.

“Everyone I know and have ever met here has done heroin at least once,” he tells me, “It’s funny, I’ll go on tour and realise that’s not the case with a lot of people I meet. I was in Boston one time catching up with an old friend and we were talking about high school and someone overheard us and she said ‘I’m sorry to interrupt, but did you grow up in Baltimore or nearby?’ And I said ‘Yeah, we grew up there,’ and she said ‘I grew up in Towson and everything you’re talking about is the exact same way I would describe it,’ and so we laughed about it for a little bit. But that’s not always the case, I guess. A good amount of people I know ended up in rehab or whatever at some point. I’m glad a lot of them are doing better.”

Formed at the age of 18, Teen Suicide’s early years are marred by controversy exacerbated by the fact that half the band (Ray included) was doing a lot of drugs. Originally an outlet for Ray’s unhappiness and tendencies towards self-destructive behaviour, Teen Suicide was a deeply personal project never intended to reach an audience. When it did, the tempestuousness and negativity that informed it in the first place saw them lash out at fans online and at shows, making careless comments about LGBT issues, and each other, that eventually destroyed the band. Ray, embarrassed, tried to distance himself from it. Their formative recklessness is something Teen Suicide has since made an effort to atone for during their hiatus and beyond, owning up to the consequences of growing up, in Ray’s words, “privileged and publicly on social media”. That said, while their new album It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot is intended as a corrective to the past, it’s also building on everything that made Teen Suicide so captivating in the first place.

A mouthful both by name and nature, Joyous Celebration ricochets between punk, noise, country, house, and everything in between, challenging conceptions of what a record could or should be. There are songs about struggling with depression and self-medication, others about the highs and lows of life written from the perspective of someone who’s already dead, musings on what daily life in purgatory would be like – get dressed, get a haircut, go to the bank – and a factual list of all the things a friend suffering from addiction stole from Ray and his mum while he was living at their house, followed by a message of forgiveness. With so much going on musically, the album makes sense by virtue of making so little sense altogether – a fitting epitaph for a band whose intentions have never entirely aligned with popular interpretation. When coupled with the fact that Ray writes in minimal poetry, the name Teen Suicide means their music is sometimes taken as a grand, confessional statement, which skips over the fact that it often has its tongue firmly in its cheek. As if to state that from the offset this time, a sticker on the front of the record advertises it as ‘a 26-song metanarrative about heroin addiction, death, and grocery shopping’.

Unlike some of Teen Suicide’s earlier stuff, there’s no real nostalgia or depressive romanticism to be found on Joyous Celebration. It’s grounded more by the hard-learned lesson that addiction will usually result in either prison or death, but as has always been the case with Teen Suicide, dark tales are spun with dark humour. For example, the layered, country-leaning “Neighbourhood Drug Dealer” is about a group of people Ray used to know who bought Dilaudid from their friend in high-school. The friend ended up in jail, and instead of bailing him out his dad stole all his clients to make more money because he sold Dilaudid too. “Nick is sick he needs it quick/ We let him fix up in the car/ Catching up with my old friends/ That’s what the holidays are for,” Ray sings in harmony with Spencer Radcliffe and Girlpool’s Harmony Tividad. According to Ray, it’s also the funniest track on the album.

“Growing up it’s very hard to separate people that use a lot of drugs and sell a lot of drugs. Like, what the facts of something are and what the exaggeration of it is,” he explains, “[the record was inspired by and] written with this idea of how urban legends end up getting formed among people.” With that in mind, he finds it additionally funny that “the song no one thinks is based in any kind of truth is the only one that’s completely 100 percent true to life”. Instead, “everyone takes these others that are facsimiles or half-truths or exaggerations of things for the effect of writing – they take those completely at face value.”

Obviously deconstructing how or why something is funny is a one way ticket to totally suck the pleasure out of it, but the inherently emotional nature of Ray’s work is sometimes undercut by way he chooses to frame it. For example, Julia Brown’s An Abundance of Strawberries is very pastoral, full of Byronesque lyrical romanticism like “my heart is the leaves, my body the trees”, and sensory eulogies for the woods and parks Ray grew up wandering around before they were replaced by strip malls and housing developments. But it also sits on the domain ‘cool.bandcamp.com’. Not that It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot is entirely without humour as an album title, but this time last year Teen Suicide were joking about calling it Let’s Rid the World of Music.

In some ways, the humour that provides the bedrock for Ray’s songwriting, particularly with Teen Suicide, has more in common with a Harmony Korine film than anything else. Their albums are littered with snapshots of unusual people, places, and circumstances where the meanings can change depending on how you look at them, which is similar to how the protagonist in Korine’s Gummo functions. Ray’s presence is less in his narratives, and more in the lens through which they’re told. “Say you write a novel in first person,” he says, “And you invent your whole world and characters and whatever – not a lot of people are reading it as the author speaking. I see albums kind of the same way.”

Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen describes It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot as being “a party you can hear from down the block and yet still requires a password at the door,” which is as good a simile as you’ll find for an album that is equal parts enthralling and frustrating in its refusal to stay in one place. It’s also an apt analogy for a musician who has developed both as a person and as an artist very publicly, whose work is so personal and yet often so misunderstood, who has taken a huge step back from fighting for what he is and is not and is now letting the chips fall where they may.

“There’s probably a million different ‘personas’ or ‘ideas’ of who I am, or what I’m doing musically at least, which is very odd…” Ray says, “But I think it’s just part of it. You can keep living your life and releasing music and writing, but if the people who save your old records and their idea of it and their attachment to it don’t love what you’re doing now then it matters very little to them. To try and fight against that is insanity. It’s Don Quixote shit. It’s one of my least favourite things of doing anything with music, but you also dig your own grave going in to it. It’s like entering into one of those pacts with the devil, like Mephistopheles or whatever.”

Ultimately, people will only take from Teen Suicide or Ricky Eat Acid or any number of his other projects what they want to. Perhaps the reason there are so many interpretations to draw is because there is such a rich well of feeling there to connect to in the first place. In trying and failing spectacularly, as he puts it, Sam Ray is tapping into the darkest, most beautiful and absurd elements of humanity that are so often felt but difficult to define. He brings a rare literary approach to music in an accessible way, using storytelling to shuck off his own baggage with the benefit of offering respite for others. Even though the majority of people relate to Ray’s work because it resonates with them on a personal level, it’s apparent that tales and myths and legends – factual or fictional or somewhere in between – are what interests him most. What’s interesting to everyone looking from the outside in, though, is his own. With Joyous Celebration, Ray has made peace with Teen Suicide – a project that’s almost like a time capsule for his adolescence – and laid it to rest, with a thousand directions left to go in; multiple lives left to live.

“If I’m reincarnated I’m really hoping it’s as something like that,” he says after I finish telling him about the giant rat found on an estate in Hackney. “The biggest of whatever creature I am.”

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

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