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RY X: An Itinerant Existence Fueled by Music

By Katie Bain
Jun 20, 2018

First you should know about the house in which RY X resides. Tucked in Topanga Canyon out on the rural fringes of Los Angeles, an oak tree that’s probably older than you and I combined leans over the one time hunting cabin. Behind a white picket fence, the grass is overgrown. Cell phones don’t work out here—RY X, the Australian musician born RY Cuming—likes that about the place. Inside, a fire burns in defense against the clouds and threatening rain of this late May afternoon. Cuming offers a hug (a real hug, not a hug you might give to the total stranger who has just turned up at your house), and peppermint tea, which he serves in a weighty ceramic mug that seems handmade. He is bearded and barefoot.

On the coffee table sits a dog-eared copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Herbs and tinctures populate the shelves in the little kitchen that connects to a living room where vinyl is stacked by the turntable, next to the guitar, next to the stack of wood feeding the fireplace. The truck Cuming drives down to the ocean every morning to surf is visible through the window, as is the vintage Airstream he’s refurbishing into a traveling studio. Eventually, the neighbor brings over a puppy, which Cuming plays with as the sun breaks through the clouds. It’s all enchanting to point of absurdity.

And it’s all to say that Cuming’s vibey image is not an affectation, but a legitimate identity that manifests largely through music. Cuming broke through with 2013’s Berlin EP, four dreamily melancholic tracks showcasing his piercing falsetto, confessional lyrics and predilection for lo-fi. His debut LP Dawn was released in 2016, with collaborations including The Acid, a moody electronic project with musicians Steve Nalepa and Adam Freeland, arising throughout his career. The band was just out in the desert recording its next album, with new Ry X LP also forthcoming. The fourth iteration of Sacred Ground, a festival Cuming curates with German producer Frank Wiedemann, happens next month just north of Berlin. In January, Cuming brought his music to Tulum with a courtyard performance at Habitas. For Cuming, it is an itinerant existence fueled by music.

But today, he’s at home in the canyon. We sat down for a fireside chat.   

You’ve lived in Berlin and also on the more urban east side of LA. How did you end up out here in Topanga?

I would live back on the east side with my community, but I live here to have balance because otherwise I can't do what I do. I live here so I can wake up and go to the ocean and meditate and then come back up and jump into things constructively. I think we can over conceptualize sometimes, that we have to do all these things, when instead it can often be quite simple when you find the thing you really connect to. For me, I grew up as a naked boy surfing every day in Australia, so that's what makes me peaceful. And if it's not that, it's being by the ocean. If I'm in Tulum it's like, wake up, do some yoga, swim, run, swim again. I can't be close to the ocean and not be in it. Even in like, Jersey in the winter, I still go in.

I imagine your lifestyle can be jarring in the sense that it's a lot of solitude, and then it's hyper-social when you’re playing shows and touring, and you go back and forth between those opposite ends of the human interaction spectrum.

Sometimes I hide in a closet backstage at my own shows, because after there are all these people backstage, and everybody wants something to some degree, and I just have to re-dress. I have to put some clothes back on emotionally. It is hard, the hyper-social thing. I never go out after my shows. People go out and sign stuff because they make a bunch of money on their merchandise. Fuck that. I can't go out front and sign stuff and smile and take photos. In that context, it doesn't make sense. If you want a t-shirt you can buy a t-shirt. I'm not going to have a conversation to sell a t-shirt. I'll do that with you if you meet me somewhere else, but I'm not going to do it to sell it to you.

It is hard, the hyper-social thing. I never go out after my shows.

Touring can seem like this really glamorous thing, but pragmatically it’s really kind of a grind. Is it typically a pleasant experience for you?

I don't like touring that much. People believe in this model of going out and pounding the road playing like, a hundred shows a year. I just don't believe in it. I don't think you need to do that. I think you need to do really beautiful, incredible, memorable things. They have a lot more impact. A lot more.

Generally, I think it’s interesting that you never quite know what aspect of your work is going to make that impact. I often find that when people give me feedback on my writing, it's never the line I loved most.

It's very personal. You write very personal things about personal feelings, and it resonates with people because we all have the same set of emotions. I also think when I create something, it's not mine anymore once I'm done with it, but it does carry whatever you imbued it with when you created it. So, if you get some magic into something and it takes all that dedication of sitting there for 12 hours writing, but you get that magic and it retains it five years later -- I'm just realizing more and more that [my work] is just that catalyst for people to feel a lot, and to open up in certain moments. Creating that for people means you’ve got to open up, too.

That seems like it could be intense.

I try to just bring my whole heart everywhere. It's not easy. You've got to get naked every night in front of a bunch of people. Something like Ryan X is vulnerable. Walking up there with a guitar and standing there and playing songs, people telling your deepest secrets to a thousand people.

Let's talk about the show you played in Tulum. Eduardo and I have known each other for years, and I did one of the first very intimate shows at his spot here in LA. I like doing stuff like that with friends. When I'm doing it in a space like Habitas, I want to make sure it's beautiful. It was too expensive to bring my crew, so I had to think about how to do something different there. I asked Eduardo if he could find some string players down there, and I'd bring down one guy and we'd do a stripped down kind of performance. 

I try to just bring my whole heart everywhere. It's not easy. You've got to get naked every night in front of a bunch of people. Something like Ryan X is vulnerable. Walking up there with a guitar and standing there and playing songs, people telling your deepest secrets to a thousand people.

How'd it go?

Obviously it's an incredibly beautiful property, and what the guys are doing down there is really special. It's like, how do you align with the space you're in and also curate in that environment? It's just conversations and using what you have. Obviously in Mexico you're a bit more limited in terms of what you can get tech wise, so you just kind of pull all your resources together and try to create the most beautiful thing possible. It can't happen without that collective energy. I can't do it all alone. Even on that day, I remember sound checking and trying to work stuff out for like, six hours. Most people would probably been like, “It’s fine,” but I care about it and I want to try and make something beautiful. And it was really, really special. Eduardo gets it, and it's easy when someone gets it. It was like, "I'm thinking rugs here,” and he was like "I already took care of it."

What advice would you give to yourself when you were starting out?  

Just trust yourself. You don't need anybody else. You don't need crazy studios and major labels. You just need time and dedication to your craft and to pour your heart into it and trust that you can do it. And to trust your decisions of how to create it. And to trust that if it's good, people will like it.

That's a hard one in our culture. People are so used to forcing things and promoting stuff and forgetting that if you’re doing something worthwhile, people are going to get it. It's also consistency and dedication. Discipline. Go sit alone in a room for eight hours and write music instead of going on that trip. If you really want to do it, sit there for a weekend in solitude. It's a weird existence sometimes.

You mentioned how you’ve kind of become a sounding board for big companies and organizations that want to use your music or have you consult. How do you decide what you want to get involved with?

Intuition, always. You just have to sit with it and not rush. That's a big one, I’ve realized. I wake up pretty much every day to a lot of emails from people with ideas, and you just have to breathe and do yoga and do something else first, so you make good decisions.

And so you don’t get pulled into things that might not feel good once you get there.  You can have a lot more impact in one thing that's of value than doing 20 things you think you should do. A lot more impact.