It sometimes seems that mystery is a lost cause in a time defined by uncritical sharing and limited privacy, but Allan Rayman has sought to maintain a little piece of it. By largely shunning interviews and social media, Rayman presents himself as an enigmatically old-fashioned artist; ever so slightly prickly and suspicious, if not actively disdainful, of the lure of fame. And when the Canadian singer-songwriter steps on-stage for an intimate acoustic set, he comes across, unlike your typical rock star, as almost bashful.
With his Chris Cornell locks shielding his face, he barely makes eye contact with his audience. But, in theory, this shouldn’t be anything to worry about. Performing a delicate version of ‘Tennessee’, from his debut Hotel Allan, he sounds great; his voice is rough but rich with grit and drama. Then suddenly, he stops. “Ah… I don’t feel too good,” he says. “That’s all I can do tonight…” And with that, he’s gone. His audience are left with little explanation why.
Allan Rayman told me he was raw, that he feels too soft and struggles with confidence sometimes, but it doesn’t really click until you see it. When we met earlier that day, he was charming and forthcoming; maybe a little shy, but not enough to explain the performance later. But here’s the rub: Rayman also said he likes to perform in character – as the abrasive “madman” Mr Roadhouse – to overcome his nerves.
“It’s nerve-wracking putting your shit on the line,” he says. “Everything I talk about in my music has to be true, but to go out and deliver it, I have to be a character.” So which man did I see that night – Allan or Roadhouse? Rayman admits it can be hard to pinpoint the line between him and his alter-ego. “Sometimes, I play it so well, my friends and family get concerned and worried about me,” he laughs. And sometimes he plays it so well a critic gets worried too.
Later that night, I spoke to a woman from Polydor, Rayman’s label, who was as confused as I was. She told me Allan’s a sweet guy – down-to-earth, with his head screwed on – and not a ‘problem’ artist, unlike some others. I’m inclined to believe her, because that reflects the man I met earlier.
Rayman grew up in Toronto, Canada, around, in his words, “family-like friends and friends like family”. The peace of his childhood made him wonder if he was the right person to be a musician. He was drawn to icons who were consumed by tragedy – see Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse – but saw little connection to his own life. The lyrical inspiration of those artists is clear in his songs, which tell stories of dark passion and loss. But while his heroes were bold and visually striking, Rayman lived a simple life, raised to be a man’s man and working for years in construction.
However, his influences are harder to pin down musically, as he constantly shifts style. At moments, he seems to fit with the moody R&B of The Weeknd, while at others his storytelling comes with a Nashville twang. His latest project, Harry Hard-on, is 80s new wave mixed with grungy guitar tones – think Tears For Fears produced by Trent Reznor.
“I’m not really a fan of music, to be honest,” he reveals casually. Instead, Rayman finds inspiration in film. Harry Hard-on, for example, is inspired by Pump Up the Volume; a 1990 film in which Christian Slater plays an introverted kid who creates a brash radio host persona to secretly communicate his beliefs. The character is Allan’s metaphor for how he lives his life as an artist.
The way he talks about music gives the impression that success is more of a curse than a blessing. It begs the question of why, if performing makes him anxious and fame scares him, does he bother releasing music at all? “It’s like I’m in too deep now,” he replies. “If I had to go and do anything else now, I don’t think I could. I like construction but I don’t think my mind would let myself do it – I wouldn’t be happy.”
But, he’s also aware his aversion to fame is not completely honest. “Of course, I’ll sit here and tell you ‘I don’t want to be big’, but then the other guy is going to come in like ‘fuck that! You’re going to be big, you’re going to be successful and you’re going to take everyone else down.” That conflict, between the desire to feed the selfish aspects of his personality and abide by his humble upbringing, is what connects him most clearly to his idols. “Kurt [Cobain] talks how he didn’t want to be famous but I’m sure he did,” he says. “I’m sure he wanted to be in the biggest band on the planet.”
This is the most confounding thing about Rayman. He says stuff that reads as cliched nonsense on paper – he describes rock music as a “dangerous game” and yearns for when music was “real” – but he’s sharp enough to know it. He also acknowledges that the ‘rock star on the edge’ persona he’s crafting is somewhat cynical. He knows the danger and mystery earns him fans. “If you play into it a little bit, you can really get people concerned about you and that’s what creates the obsession and the cult following,” he tells me.
So did I see the real Allan Rayman that night? Or was he just selling me a story? I’m still not sure. We like the idea of artists, especially men, who are raw and vulnerable, right up until that sensitivity spills out on-stage. And when it does, it’s ugly and uncomfortable. We sometimes want our artists to hurt, then recoil at the reality of it. “In rock n roll music, people want that sad story. It’s almost like they want you to die,” Rayman says earlier. “You become a legend – it’s like ‘oh I saw him before he fell off.'” They want you to die, of course, until you do. Then they want you back.
For the record, Rayman tells me he’s a healthy guy and hasn’t felt the same darkness Cobain or Winehouse did. But more than the allure of the abyss, this is the danger in playing a character; it becomes unclear when we should take him seriously and when we should nod and wink, and say “yes, I see what you did there.” Allan Rayman is attempting to build a mythology for himself and with each release, he is getting ever-closer to stepping out of the shadow of his idols. But questions remain about how he can use that mythology to enhance rather than distract from his music. Although, he is certainly right about one thing – how enigma lures you in and inspires an almost-obsessive intrigue. I’ve been thinking about him ever since he left that stage.
Allan Rayman plays his headline show at Scala (London), tomorrow on Friday 14th of December.
You can stream his video for ‘Rose’, below.