For Darren J. Cunningham, the name Actress naturally came to him early one morning after a restless night of no sleep. Since then, he’s been constantly experimenting with his approach to music by testing and mixing up his sounds and the way they connect to his audience.
Supposedly retiring in 2014 after the release of his album Ghettoville, Actress returned to the world of music once again in 2017 with his new album, Azd, which marked a significant change in sentiment and emotion compared to his previous works. Now, with his most recent project Young Paint, an artificial intelligence (AI) program that acts as a shadow in his musical process – which we've experienced first-hand at Sónar Barcelona and have blown our minds –, the British musician is changing the way how we hear and see the sounds of electronic music.
My first question is pretty much how did you come up with the name Actress? How did that come to you?
I think it’s always been there in a way. I remember growing up having a very close connection to my mom and I always viewed her as an actress. When I first moved to London, during a period where I was partying quite heavily, I was seriously thinking about albums – music had been forming in my head for quite a long time, but I wasn’t making any music. I wasn’t in the practice of making music; I was just in the practice of hearing sounds.
Then, I was thinking about Hazyville and just generally putting records out. I was sprawled out at about six o’clock in the morning with no sleep and being like, ‘yeah, I need a name’. And it just came to me. There was no stress in coming up with it. From there, I figured out what it could mean or what it could do as a word. Or everything connected to it. So yeah, there were a lot of factors in terms of how the name came about but it just felt right. It totally felt natural.
After your album Ghettoville (2014), people thought you were retiring from music. However, you came back in 2017 with Azd. How has your musical process changed throughout your career? What’s remained the same and what’s different?
I don’t think it’s changed very much. When I wrote Hazyville, I would say it involved about four to five years of developing an idea related to techno. How could I make techno sound noir? How could I make it sound like a cover of a lot of my black influences? But in a really abstract way, something that I had never heard before and that I couldn’t contain. A sort of aesthetic, feeling; a different soul. Also, I would say that at that particular time, I was still grieving quite a bit for a grandmother that had recently passed, so there were a lot of things going into that album.
I’m definitely a mood person when it comes to putting music together. I’m into jazz, avant-garde, pop, reggae, ragga, soul. But I’m also into art, the idea of deconstruction, framing sounds, architecture, dimension and things like that – not necessarily connecting that to rhythm, really just relating it to cerebral patterns. I’m usually creating something, but it’s never really with the thought of, ‘I need to make a song’. It’s more about playing with sounds.
Around the time of Ghettoville, I was listening to a lot of DJ Screw, and I think I was just at the point where I tried to treat every album like it was my last just because the process is a toil. To try to expand your practice from where you started and how you’re going to evolve. And then, you have to go back and reverse-engineer yourself. Get back to the essence. So different albums have touched different moments in time for me. I would say I’m much more thinking towards aesthetic now connected mainly to pop music and how it has developed, but maintaining what it is that I do. So just different goals and ambitions.
When you mentioned black influences, I’m interested to know which artists do you draw inspiration from in your music? And do they all influence your sound?
I would say my music is mainly informed by Detroit techno – from Derrick May to Juan Atkins to Terrence Dixon. And then, going into Chicago’s as well – Tyree Cooper, Boo Williams… deep, deep vibes. That’s the black connection in terms of how you put soul into electronic music. After that, in terms of rhythm and mood, I’m always going back to Calypso. I like the tempos to be quite fast. Or, actually, just quite a bit Theo Parrish, a bit moody sometimes. And then, Prince, Michael Jackson, etc. – all the obvious ones. I was into Ninjaman and all these kinds of ‘ghetto’ artists. They influence my mindset more than my sound.
I’ve listened to a lot of records and digested a lot of music, certainly when I was younger. I was always buying music and listening to stuff. I’m still as attentive as I was then, it’s just that there’s so much music these days. Back then, it was much quieter in terms of how you wanted to find music and what you wanted to listen to. Now though, it’s more difficult. However, it’s been good because, ultimately, it’s just enabled me to find a different space in music. That’s why I like performing live. I don’t preprogram all the elements. This AI show that I’m doing is a bit of a battle a lot of the time. Decisions are made by a different sort of ecosystem. The ecosystem is quite dense, so people are listening to my process when I finish a song. I record pieces and stems all the time, and then record them back together. That’s kind of where I am at the moment.
When you are performing live, is there ever a conscious decision of what you’re going to perform? Do you predetermine what you plan to perform for the audience or are you more of just a vibe person?
Both. None of my sets is ever the same. I try to work around some preprogrammed things, so it’s always new to me and the audience. That’s the situation I like to place myself in. It gives me a really accurate view of how things could work. I like to check what’s going on in real time and not think too much about being an entertainer. I don’t see myself as an entertainer in that situation, so it’s good for me and it just keeps me working more than anything else.
Since you don’t consider yourself an entertainer, what type of artist do you consider yourself? What type of artist do you strive to be?
I don’t strive to be any type of artist. I am an artist. It’s just that my medium is sound and has been for a long time, and that seemed like the most futuristic art and something you can’t see. But I want to make it very visual for people. That’s why we do image capture with AI, sort of based on my movements and stuff like that. That enables me to have an interaction with the process and keep me tuned in. But I can tell you the artists that I like and have inspired me, like Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Picasso or Henri Matisse. I like to look at art as inspiration but also look at what’s surrounding me and making the process quite natural. I like concepts as well. I like ‘time’ as a natural idea and to give it some sort of focus. I don’t like to make things without too much of an idea of what I want the final thing to be – kind of why I take quite long to create.
So when you’re making these sounds, you want to make them visual for the audience? Instead of just a listening experience, you want to make it something that they can see?
I want my music to be as far into the sound spectrum as possible in terms of melody and chords, so you almost have to reach into the sound. Usually, things are very linear and very sequenced. My music can be quite disruptive, penetrating, cerebral, ghetto, jazz; it can copy a lot of different things. But at the same time, there’s a certain sort of energy or vibe that I’m looking to achieve when I’m making music and performing it.
What type of vibe do you preferably want to evoke from an audience when you’re performing live?
It’s different every time. I’ll be honest with you: it’s always different because I always change my setup as well. I change it quite a bit and always think to myself, ‘I’m going to have to find the perfect one’. Like it’s always going to be perfect. And never, very rarely, does it get to the sort of point where I imagine it to be. I always try to take the positives out of it, but often, there are times when you just think, ‘alright, I better not do that at all’. I’ve been doing it for a long time now, so I can gauge a lot of the times how I feel about a set. It’s part of the process.
Has the reaction of a crowd ever influenced how you perform your set, changing the direction that you want to go in?
Sometimes. Generally, I’m at different vantage points a lot of the time, and that can be quite influential depending on how far I am. I’ve had different reactions to my music a lot of the times, but most of them have been cool. I just enjoy it to be honest with you because there’s always something at the end of it. There’s always some emotion for me. Either I’m really pissed off with everyone, or sometimes I’m just really content and happy with it.
You started incorporating AI into your musical process. Has that changed how you produce? Is there any difference between producing the music by yourself and then having a computer program that offers its own input?
When I first started making music, I had one computer and a keyboard. That was how I made my first couple of albums. And now, I’ve got seven computers and other things going on. You can’t be at seven computers all the time, so the AI basically gives support in terms of processing something so I can do something else. But it’s always something that I’ve set up. I’m always moving things around and, then, there’s a suggestion. I can decide whether I like it or not and whether I work with it or not. The corpus it reacts to is all based on music that I’ve created anyway. It’s within the same language. It’s like a shadow in a way.
But it can be many things. It can be complementary. It can be collaborative. With the right setup, I can sit, look at the audience, and let it do its thing if that’s the amount of control I want to give it. But that’s not how it is now. At this moment in time, it’s a lot more about circuits. Can I spot where it’s going and where it might go next? Or do I want to be the source directing it where to go next, and it coming up with a response? It can be used in different ways.
Where do you see yourself going next? How do you see your music evolving to the next level?
I will always make music. However, pop music is going to change – people are always looking for different sounds. And, ultimately, the way I view my music is like a galaxy where I’ve committed a lot of time to the art of understanding synthesizers and sound, and creating these different environments. That’s where I get my enjoyment from. But I’ve tried to do different things. I’ve worked with choirs. I’ve worked with orchestras. Marrying electronics with ensembles and singers. Actual words with songs. That’s kind of where I would like my music to be. Just scaling up the ideas more and more.
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