It’s March 20, and most of the U.S. and Canada is a week into COVID-19-induced quarantine. Nerves are fraying, the toilet paper is noticeably low, and … enigmatic Toronto singer-songwriter Allan Rayman is just living his normal life.
The artist, who’s set to release his fourth album on Friday, is famously a solitary figure. He describes himself as shy and solitary: not a participant of the rock star lifestyle. Up until now, he’s done very few interviews and shared little about his life outside of performing.
“You know, it’s not much different from my life in-between touring and being in the studio,” Rayman says. “[Friends are] always busy with their 9-to-5s or their lives. It’s a little challenging when you don’t have a proper schedule that keeps you in a rhythm or routine. It can be challenging, mentally. Now, more than ever, all my friends are going to experience that.”
Like everyone, Allan Rayman—the man, not the persona he wears every time he steps onto a stage—is experiencing some stress and worry. His parents, who run a nonprofit organization that helps people in Africa become more self-sufficient, just made it back from Africa before the quarantine set in, and they’re healthy, but he’s feeling the uncertainty of what will happen next, just like most people.
“We stay positive and hope that we got a good jump on it, but I have no idea,” he says. “It’s a crazy time and I think in the end we’ll definitely learn something from this—and I think we’ll be better from it. … But right now we’ve got to take this day by day; keep active, stay working out, eat healthy.”
Unlike many artists, Rayman isn’t focusing too much right now on engaging with his fans online. He did log on to Instagram Live for the first time—not to play music but to tell a drunken ghost story. He was inebriated; not the ghost. He sees the need to provide his fans with a distraction or something fun to do while they’re cooped up or anxious about the future—but he’ll only do it if he can stretch his creativity. His solitary nature plays into that, too.
“The thing with me is I never really interact too much with fans. I don’t do meet-and-greets or anything. I let the music speak for itself and allow them to get creative and build their interpretations of who ‘Allan’ may be. … I definitely want to do something creative with [online streaming] instead of just going on and taking up people’s time; demanding attention. I just don’t have that kind of bone in my body.”
Allan Rayman the man and “Allan Rayman” the persona are two different people. It’s why Rayman sometimes talks about himself in the third person. And on his new album, CHRISTIAN, that’s never been clearer. The story is thematically based on the Christian Slater film “Pump Up the Volume.”
In the movie, Slater’s character moves to a small town and goes to a new high school where he doesn’t know anyone and feels like a loner. Rayman lived that life when he moved from Wyoming to Toronto growing up. Like Rayman, the character is shy and introverted. But at home he starts up his own pirate radio station and takes on a braver persona and isn’t afraid to share what’s on his mind.
“To me, that’s what Allan Rayman is. Behind Allan Rayman there’s me,” Rayman says. “And Allan Rayman has created Mr. Roadhouse [referring to another of his personas] to be a more confident version of himself. We all create a mask from time to time … to handle different situations.
“I know that I’m pretty shy and not very outgoing. But if I put that Roadhouse mask on, I can go out there and run around and be someone completely different,” he says. “It’s building on that kind of principle, which [Slater’s character] does in the movie.”
And here Rayman comes up with an idea—something he could stream online for fans during the shelter-in-place. Not a music performance and definitely not another drunken ghost story, but his own radio show.
“You can change your voice a little bit and maybe talk a little stranger,” he adds with a rootsy drawl.
At this point, if you’re not already familiar with Allan Rayman, you’re probably wondering, “Who’s Mr. Roadhouse?”
The slinky, soulful and raw CHRISTIAN continues Rayman’s streak of cohesive bodies of work that all live within the same universe. The first two albums, 2016’s Hotel Allan and 2017’s Roadhouse 01, were narrative albums that set the scene and the characters, including the small-town protagonist—“Allan Rayman.” He has his family and his girl, to whom he has responsibilities. But he also has a passion for making music, and has to balance that with those responsibilities.
“Ultimately, he can’t do it because he’s selfish, so he throws himself into the woods to write his music,” Rayman says.
The first thing that “Allan Rayman” writes is angsty, grungy 2017 EP Courtney. It’s his first attempt and he attempts to expand this and make a full-length album in 2018 with Harry Hard-On. But the album remains imperfect. That eventually leads to CHRISTIAN—his “first real album.”
“I call them the ‘name’ albums—Courtney, Harry and CHRISTIAN—that’s Allan Rayman’s body of work,” Rayman says. “Whereas Hotel Allan, Roadhouse 01 and Roadhouse 02 are inevitably the roadhouse albums; the narrative that will tie up the story, and ultimately finish it. And then I can move on to something else, finally.
Roadhouse 02 doesn’t yet exist, but it’s where this story is heading.
But back to the 14-track CHRISTIAN, which took Rayman several years to complete. At least some of the songs date back to the 2017 and 2018, such as jangly single “Road Warrior.” The song can be traced to a 2017 RV tour. Driving from Portland to San Francisco, Rayman and his crew spent one night at a trailer park near the California border, in Grants Pass, Oregon.
“We’d been on the road for a little bit at that point and were feeling it. Had a couple of drinks by the fire, and I started toying around with the song on a guitar,” he says. “We came up with a little four-on-the-floor idea.”
At the time, Rayman was working with Mumford and Sons keyboardist Ben Lovett. The next year, Lovett arranged studio time for Rayman and his producers at Abbey Road Studios right after they flew into London for some shows. All he remembers from that time is passing out with exhaustion while his producers developed “Road Warrior” without him. He didn’t even cut any vocals at that point.
“I’m trying to get better at not taking for granted the amazing things I get to experience because of this lifestyle,” Rayman says. “I regret that one because it was such an amazing opportunity, and I kind of took it for granted.”
Next, he flew to New York, where he worked with Lovett at Electric Lady Studios, before the song was finished with producer Alex da Kid, the primary producer on the new record.
“At that point I was over the song; pretty sick of it. But it found a place on CHRISTIAN and it fits well,” he says.
Elsewhere, Rayman’s vast assortment of musical influences find their way onto the album. Meditative mid-tempo tune “I Talk To My Cigarette” has ‘80s synths and airy guitar alongside his gruff yet syrupy vocals. “Pretty Please” blends hip-hop beats with longing, soulful delivery. Garage rock bursts out of the gate on “Stitch.”
A couple of the songs were written on a sojourn to Alaska in 2018. Not just in Alaska, but the actual bus made famous by “Into the Wild.”
“The midnight sun was just a very wild experience. ‘Into The Wild’ was one of my favorite movies when I was coming up in college,” he says. “It was 3 o’clock in the morning, and the sun was out. Nothing made much sense up there, so we were kind of lost. I’d go back, for sure.”
As much as he loved Alaska, Los Angeles didn’t sit well with him. But he went anyway for the same reason he’s having this conversation now: to make the lives of his team, who have worked hard to get him to this point, easier.
“I used to say no to a lot of things. I used to shoot myself in the foot a lot. But these people have stuck with me through a lot, and I owe it to them to put the work in,” he says. “If that means being in some uncomfortable settings and that actually feeling like work, then I owe it to them to do it. … I think I must be very challenging to manage or to work for as an artist in the mainstream because I’m not very into playing the game.”
Rayman spent six weeks in L.A., where worked with several producers—a big change for someone who’s worked with the same people in Toronto for all of his prior albums. Eventually, he partnered with Grammy-winning producer Alex da Kid, who Rayman says pushed him to grow as a musician, while pushing the needle on what CHRISTIAN became.
From here, the future is currently uncertain. Rayman had a tour booked and had recently put together a band. It’s getting rescheduled now. Most likely fans will get to see the songs performed live late this summer or fall—unless things change again.
In the meantime, he’s financially helping his road crew, which includes his tour manager and lighting technician, whose well-being depends on touring.
“When this all gets stopped, they’ve got to sit tight, so I’m doing my best to help them through these times,” he says. “We’re family, so we help each other out. When we’re on the road, they look after me. When things like this happen, I look after them.”
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