Rachel Mason is the consummate multi-disciplinarian; artist, filmmaker, sculptor and musician, her chameleonic body of work is surreal, inventive, poetic and thrillingly unpredictable. Mason has just released Das Ram, her fourteenth studio album, to great acclaim and we are honoured to present her new video, ‘Roses’, for which Mason collaborated with fellow artists Beck and Col, exclusively on KING KONG digital.
You are in some ways an incredibly real world-focused artist, with projects such as ‘The Ambassadors’ and ‘Kissing President Bush’ holding up a very clear mirror to world events. However you also work within very surreal and fantastical spheres in your performance art pieces, which often features aliens and monsters of your own creation. I wonder how you define yourself as an artist and as a person in relation to these two very different modes of interpretation?
I don’t have a strict definition of the word “artist” for myself, or for anyone else really. And actually I find that the “old rules” don’t apply at all, for artists and even people in fashion or other areas of design. For instance, I’ve been thinking about an installation that I keep seeing at museums in the U.S. It’s called the “Rain Room”, made by a design team based in England called Random International. I read that the founders are these two people but their backgrounds aren’t even noted on their website. Are they Artists? Designers? Producers? Does it even matter? Hannes Koch and Florian Ortkrass are their names and they seem to run an amazing team of people, who execute whatever ideas seem important and necessary to them.
The ‘Rain Room’ functions like any art work in a museum, available for contemplation, and I think its one of the most successful art installations anywhere right now because it’s reaching a much wider audience than most art ever does. For me, operating in the fantastical sphere is just instinctual. I simply feel, much like Koch and Ortkrass, drawn to the ideas which feel most relevant to me and I try never to be prescriptive about why. I am inspired by things that are not easily defined as human or animal. In many ways, I feel like the greatest of all art forms is science fiction and that the best work resides in the place where you begin to question reality. I think that’s what the Rain Room is all about and I do feel that my music enters that territory, only because it is what I’m thinking about and feeling when I’m making this work.
This will be your fourteenth studio album, an impressive feat for any recording artist but combined with your record as a visual artist it’s fairly extraordinary. I’m interested in how the process of your songwriting comes about in relation to the visual aspect of its performance and if working on studio albums is a different experience?
Thank you for saying its extraordinary, although many of them were actually recorded in bedrooms! I suppose today the bedroom-studio and the recording studio have become almost one and the same thing. Some of my favourite engineers are people that do things in their own strange way in their bedrooms. They wake up and turn the computer on. They eat, dream and sleep with production ideas pulsing through them. They aren’t necessarily operating out of massive soundproofed studios and that’s okay. In fact, it might be what makes their stuff better. When I was just beginning, I was recording songs directly onto cassette tapes and then reproducing those tapes for friends.
Most of these albums were recorded for almost no cost at all, although friends helped me to mix and master them. I have had a lot of friends help me over the years, doing a lot of my mixing and mastering out of sheer generosity. I only realise now that I’ve started to be a little more professional about things how much people have done for me for free and how many of those recordings were amazingly okay sounding, given the lack of professional studio work.
To answer your other question about songwriting, I began just writing songs when they came to me, which I still do, but later it became natural to weave the narratives that I was creating into visual art, and so they became almost like concept albums. And its a form that I love to this day. It keeps things cohesive, to group songs into clusters around a theme. It could be because I have so many songs, hundreds and hundreds, and it helps if I just have to choose the ones that can be isolated into a unique set, preferably one that’s listenable from beginning to end. Though I realise, more and more, that that too is becoming an obsolete practice: the album.
There is a glorious enthusiasm to everything that you do, which comes through particularly, I think, in your music. I love that it’s old school Pop-Rock, with an indefinable mystical edge, utterly unlike anything else being produced now. Do you find that being both an artist and a musician affords you greater freedom in terms of creating exactly what you want to create, as opposed to other recording artists that may have to fulfil certain ‘genre’ and ‘market’ specifications?
I’m glad to hear you say that about the songs. I really appreciate that so much. I feel perhaps that I have more freedom on the one hand, but perhaps a little less of an easy time on the business side. It’s much easier to market an artist and art, or music, which neatly fits into an existing category, which is absolutely the opposite of me. As someone who spans various categories, I basically have to create my own unique market niche and the people that love and buy my work have tended to find me through the internet. Which is kind of incredible – that they’ve found my work through things like this article right here. But that’s also something which I think defines more and more what our times are about for artists of all kinds.
I keep thinking that I will discourage artists from going to art schools and instead try to come up with a new school, one that actually helps artists to define what they do and find their own unique niche and how to create a sustainable life out of that. I actually just wrote an article for the Huffington Post that was intended to provoke all artists out of their slumber of expectation and encourage them to run for office.
In ‘Roses’, you sing that you, “sometimes think of life as hopeless”. After a year of unprecedented upheaval and general disenfranchisement, do you feel this more than ever or are you hopeful?
Well, the little known secret about me is that I’m actually someone that struggles with depression, although I know that many artists (and many people) do too. It’s actually hard just to be alive. To open your eyes and decide that you can get yourself out of bed after all, that’s sometimes a massive thing. We often expect that it comes easily to people but, really, life is a struggle and many people just can’t find a way of balancing everything. This song, like many of my songs, came from a place I really don’t know where or how – it just formed. I felt like the words came out of my mouth and I saw them – just as you are seeing them now.
A lot of things really do feel like they pass through me, although later I see how many of my lyrics are an expression of me just wondering how to stay alive, and how not to be consumed by sadness and despair. I think that I overcompensate for the tremendous anxiety and sadness by diving fully into fantasy and a sense of excitement and joy. Because I do actually feel that too. On the other side of all the anxiety, I feel hopeful.
‘Tigers in the Dark’ seems to describe an artist addicted to the rush of performing and unable to establish a real connection with the tangible world. Given the fantastical nature of your work and the emotional intensity of performance art delivered to a live audience, it would be understandable for you to have developed a certain level of schizophrenia in this regard. Do you find that you have a hard time coming back down to Earth after a project?
Ha. Wow. Maybe that’s actually the perfect description of me…I hadn’t thought of that. In a lot of ways I am most comfortable either being completely holed up in a studio working on art, writing poetry and making music or, conversely, performing it in front of hundreds or thousands of people. Which is kind of a funny contradiction, to go from total isolation to total exposure. But those two poles are where I feel comfortable. Everything in between – the socialising, the business, the emailing, the phone calling – is terrible for me.
I am really not a natural at this middle, “real life” territory. I do have to do a lot of it, and I’m told by some people that I’m good at it, but its only because I made a conscious effort to learn how. Almost as if I went to my own “real life” school, to be able to do all of that. But the thing that really is “me,” is the artist, who is barely functional in that middle territory. That’s why I feel that artists could be such good politicians, because many of us have had to work very hard to master having a ‘business side’. They don’t teach it to you in art school!
There is something innately performative about your music, something that makes you want to get up and dance in strange, previously untested ways to each track. ‘Heaven’, for me, is the perfect song to dance clumsily around your room to when everyone is out, whereas ‘Roses’ is more of a seated, pensive number. Do you imagine how people will enjoy your music, or even have a preference?
Wow, I honestly never even thought about that, so it’s really cool to hear your thoughts there. I wouldn’t even have an idea of how people might dance to this music, except that I’m so happy to know the music makes you want to dance. I feel the same way!
‘Das Ram’ marks the latest in a series of collaborations between yourself and producer, Jeff Hassay. How does the communication process work between you? Does it involved elements of physical performance at the recording stage?
Jeff is someone that I would often send my raw songs to when I lived in New York and over the years. He would send me back new versions that he had created himself and often I would be shocked at what he had done. Sometimes he would totally deconstruct a song to a point at which I no longer recognised it and sometimes he would add so many layers to it that it felt like it was underwater. It’s generally a process of me telling him what I like and what I don’t, but with Das Ram, we just dove in, sometimes writing songs without anything else at all. Basically, I write the lyrics and the vocal melodies and he makes the rest of what you hear. When we perform live, he accompanies the tracks with guitar and we have also been playing with a bassist, Linda Kiss and, more recently, with an incredible dancer/performer/artist team – Becky and Collin Stafford – who go by BeckandCol. They created the video for Roses.
Finally, what is next for you? Will you be touring with Das Ram?
If a booking agent is reading this and wants to help me with a tour, I would absolutely love to tour the album with a live show and videos, but at this moment I am focused on doing the shows as they come. I was at the Bootleg Theater in LA on the 27th of November and I’ll be performing at ArtBasel and NADA on the 3rd and 4th of December in Miami. I am also focused on creating a new project that I have begun at The Hammer Museum in LA, which is based on recorded conversations that I am conducting with lots of different people, from scientists to politicians. Each conversation is woven into distinct episodes which form a kind of fantastical narrative tableau. This particular project is going to be sponsored in exactly the same way that Random International created the Rain Room and other touring works.
This project involves musical investigations into contemporary issues. It will be performed live, with a spectacle of dance, music and conversation underpinning the fabric of each show. The first one that I’ve started weaves together conversations between two UCLA Scientists – a neurophysicist and an astrophysicst – as well as a former United States Attorney General who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.