In the dimly lit and intimate basement of New York’s co-working space NeueHouse, Allan Rayman sits with a hat pulled over his face. He’s performing songs off his new album, Roadhouse 01, out Friday (Feb. 24) and has the small crowd entirely captivated. Rayman is a walking juxtaposition — his raspy voice and eerily enticing lyrics demand a listener’s attention, while he himself prefers to keep his head down and let the music speak for itself.
Little is known of the rising genre-melting artist, who fuses R&B swagger with hip-hop grit all while spinning compelling stories much like a country artist can — and the mystique is intentional. The 20-something Toronto native signed with Communion Records in November of 2016 (the label co-founded by Mumford and Sons keyboardist/vocalist Ben Lovett) having only released one album, Hotel Allan.
Roadhouse 01 marks Rayman’s sophomore project, and it’s a deep, dark concept album that sees the singer explore an alter ego: Mr. Roadhouse. Days ahead of the album’s release, Rayman granted Billboard his first-ever interview, in which he and Lovett jointly discussed the new album, his rule-breaking artistic vision, the counter-cultural draw of his music and much more.
Ben, how did you first discover and meet Allan?
Ben Lovett: I came back from a tour a year or so ago and walked into the Brooklyn Communion office — there was music blaring out and the whole office was vibing. They were dancing around, singing along, and I felt like I had just been completely left out of the party and that was quite rare. If that’s happening normally it’s some classic hit, but it was something I had never heard before. It was Allan Rayman, obviously. I immediately got infected with the bug, went into my office, sat down and listened to what was Hotel Allan front and back and was completely blown away.
What was the first meeting between the two of you like?
Allan Rayman: It was intimidating, but right away we found out that we had more in common than we knew and it got on pretty easily. I felt comfortable. You know, you hear horror stories about labels and label execs, but meeting a real artist and someone who sees it from the same perspective was reassuring.
BL: We were sitting on the 20-something floor of this glass building in West Hollywood; it felt like a scene out of some weird movie. It’s a pretty cool place to meet someone for the first time and essentially talk about a vision, which is really what those early meetings were about, trying to understand the why and what [this project] will look like in the next few years.
AR: Definitely sharing viewpoints and telling the story and direction I wanted to take it in. I could see the general intrigue was there, and that feels really cool when someone of his caliber is behind it.
Like you said, Ben, you two discussed the why behind Allan and his music. So, Allan, what is that why? Why do you do this and what inspires your music?
AR: [At first] I was making music on the side; I was working construction.
When did you start making music?
AR: I’ve been making music my whole life, very, very young. The Allan Rayman story that has been drawn up is about two years old now, it was really just for me. I pinch myself all the time because I never intended to be here. It’s surreal. Now it’s about not losing my head in all this epic stuff.
BL: You also had the encouragement of a group of people that formed in and around Toronto.
AR: [I have a] great group of friends and a great team behind me who pushed me to do this on a professional, it’s crazy to even call it that, on a serious level. My closest friends would be the ones to tell me if it was shit but they said, “Dude, I like this and he likes it and she likes it… let’s push it, let’s try to do something with it.” I agreed to that and buckled up and got ready for whatever was going to happen. I trust my team, I trust the people around me and that’s really it. At the end of the day, I’m surrounded by some really good people who keep me sane and humble and push me to do more, to keep pushing the boundaries and take the risk.
Ben, what would you say sets Allan apart?
BL: We’ve worked with a ton of artists over the years — last year was the 10th anniversary of Communion as a music company — but we’ve never worked with anyone who has had such a clear vision for how they want their music to sound and how they want their whole identity to be portrayed and that was refreshing. Sometimes we’ll meet people who really do just write songs for the sake of writing songs, and that’s great and there’s a beauty to that, but it goes so much further with Allan. It’s more that the music is a soundtrack to a world in which he’s created, and that’s pretty unique; When we first met it felt like a breath of fresh air.
Sonically, who would you compare him to?
BL: There are touches of soul and R&B to the melodies that are juxtaposed to some of the rap influences — it’s a hybrid of lots of influences. It makes as much sense [to play his music] in the club of a big city as it does in the truck on a highway between two small towns in the middle of nowhere. It can almost be it’s own genre — as things develop and more and more people get to hear his music I’m sure a genre will be built around him. Right now, Spotify can’t define it and it’s almost like the windows into Allan’s music are anything from hip-hop, to R&B…
AR: They throw it on all sorts of playlists, it’s nuts. Country one day. It could go that way, certain songs specifically.
BL: It’s country in the sense that [the music tells] slightly weathered true stories.
So for the sophomore album, what was the journey and creation process like?
AR: We’ve had this album thought out as we were making Hotel and same with Roadhouse 02 — we know where it’s going. This whole storyline is here and now I just release these albums in whatever kind of order I want to fulfill that. I know I had to stick to the development of these characters that I’m portraying throughout the story and show that there’s an evolution of Allan, especially with Mr. Roadhouse, this alter ego that I’ve created. Whoever has been listening, it’s giving them more to sink their teeth into, but for newer people, I want to show this torment between someone who’s trying to balance personal desires in life — even though you want to give all your time to your profession you’ve got to give yourself to the people that love you as well. It’s balancing that, and ultimately Allan can’t do that. He creates Mr. Roadhouse to kind of justify his selfish and dickish behavior in a sense — put it all on him. It’s a dark story and I don’t know if the ending is going to be dark or light yet, I haven’t figured that out. But I want people to be concerned about this guy, because it’s a heavy thing to fully invest yourself in your passion.
Do you have moments where you get consumed in your alter ego, and what’s it like to come out of that?
AR: On the road, yeah, you get caught up in it. Touring is a weird thing — it’s not a normal thing people should be doing where it’s just like, “Me, me, me” for a month, it’s not really right. But having this alter ego feeds that beast and feeds that story and helps the songs, but it’s very strange coming home and switching it off a little bit.
BL: The day you change your name to Allan Roadhouse I think you’ll be getting some concerned phone calls.
AR: Yeah, my mother for sure. She’ll keep telling me, “Don’t become the man that you speak about,” but it’s a balance, right? I’m balancing it, but in the story it is very much a story. There’s truth to it, but it’s a story at the same time, so I’m not going to lose myself… knock on wood.
Are there any songs that you’re particularly close to?
AR: “Shelby Moves.” It explains why I haven’t been doing many interviews and haven’t been all over social media; at the end of the day, I think fans build up these crazy ideas of celebrities or musicians or the people they’re listening to and watching and I think there’s a really dark undertone to that fandom and celebrity-ness. So “Shelby Moves,” I think, explains that at the end of the day. I’m a pretty average dude with a pretty boring story, but I can write some songs and I’m very creative — but I’m not going to wow you with my background. I often, especially recently when I’m at home, am wondering, “Why is this becoming so successful?” Because at the end of the day, I would say I’m just a regular dude, so why me? I still haven’t really figured it out.
Well, the music speaks for itself.
AR: Yeah, and that’s what I hope. Just listen to the songs and if you like them, great, if you don’t, I do.
BL: Maybe you could also talk about the process of making the tracks and how it goes down in the studio?
AR: I love music, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not an artist that devotes all of his time and attention to writing songs. I don’t sit at a piano in a room and write songs like that, it’s very sporadic. I’ll get a creative burst and it will be like, “All right, let’s go,” and that will be maybe a week top and then I go back to chilling. I never force the music, but what I do love about what music has provided me with is the opportunity to create all sorts of stuff around the music: the films, the merch, the shows, the experience. That’s where I want to sink my teeth into. The music comes naturally. Some force that stuff, but I never worry about it and it’s working out. I worry about so many other things that I wish I could have the same mindset I do with music, but I love creating this world and these characters. I’m a huge film addict — most of my inspiration for my music comes from films. But [I’m always thinking], “How can you do things that aren’t being done?” And that’s what I love so much. What I’m finding out about myself and my creativity is that I want to push boundaries and walk that tightrope and take the risk — be different. At the end of the day, it can go to the moon and that’s great, or it can stop here and that’s fine for me too. I’m not trying to force anything on anyone, I’m not trying to be anything I’m not, let’s just roll with it. Keep your head down, keep moving forward, and if you give me the opportunity to create, I’m going to do it.
You’ve definitely had that opportunity. Ben, same question to you, is there a specific song off the album that resonates with you?
BL: When I first had the chance to hear the whole album back, my initial reaction was that it felt more daring than Hotel Allan — there are a couple examples of that progression. I think on “Repeat” and “25.22” it’s starting to become clearer that the artistry is being chiseled and defined more. In terms of day to day personal favorites they kind of rotate, as any good album does, and it’s not like this is a body of work underpinned by a couple of lead singles, it’s a narrative and it’s a concept where there are different songs for different moods and they each have their own identities and that’s connected to this idea of developing the characters, like mini soundtracks around a mood or specific people.
AR: I didn’t want to have a favorite song off the album, but more of a favorite part of a song. It’s always taking what you think is the proper formula or structure of how a song should be and throwing all that out the window and maybe even writing a song and having a hook just come in at the end once and then people will be like, “This is sick,” and they go to the end to listen to that. Making it very messy and weird and always asking, “How can you screw it up and start from scratch?” At the end of the day, it’s music and it’s subjective; there’s no real formula to tell you how to be an artist.
BL: And that’s what is so unique about it. Nowadays you have a lot of different writers sticking within some sort of structure, whereas what Allan is doing no one else could do. It’s not like someone could go and write an Allan Rayman song because there isn’t a defined roadmap to what that means, and that’s what’s exciting about it. I think it’s fine that there are recording artists out there singing songs created in hit factories in Nashville, but that’s a totally different kind of artistry to what’s going on here.
That’s probably fun for you.
BL: Yeah, it is.
AR: I try to keep him on his toes.
BL: Both as an artist putting stuff out and running a label putting stuff out, this is a completely fresh challenge. It’s not like we can just open up the rule book, we have to come up with a new way of doing it.
Going back to the album, what do you hope listeners take away from this body of work?
AR: Business-wise I hope they like. If they do it’s great, but it’s really for me. I’m just trying to do what I set out to do.
BL: There’s something about anxiety though, right? That you wanted the empathy from the listener and their understanding, because you’re laying down a vibe with the songs in the live performances as well, which is a huge part of this that we haven’t talked about, but to actually translate something so that people feel that way, whether it’s concern about Mr. Roadhouse or…
AR: Well I’m definitely trying to make them feel something, and I do talk a lot about how it’s not for people it’s for myself, but at the end of the day I’m aware that a lot of people do listen to my music — or, some people — and I don’t want to use the wrong word here, but I want people to feel something close to discomfort, something that gets them feeling like they didn’t know they felt that way, especially in live settings, and mess with people’s heads a little bit. [My performances are] an evolution. I started off by not really addressing the audience at all. I just like to strip it down and make it so raw and show I’m just a regular dude singing my heart out. That’s what I want to portray on stage. Everyone’s afraid to show true feelings so I think if you can be raw and real and truthful, people are going to feel that and tell people about that truth.
That discomfort with the truth could stem from the fact that listeners find they resonate with Mr. Roadhouse, and they might not realize or like that about themselves.
AR: Right, that’s the thing. All of a sudden you’re cheering for the villain, and I find that suspension of disbelief helps a lot with the stuff that we’re making here.
BL: It’s pretty raw subject material, so even though it touches on elements of hip-hop, it does it in more of an old-school way. It’s more about the struggles of growing pains and love and loss, and stuff that other people don’t know how to deal with. There are a lot of people who are emotionally, not numb, but I think people sometimes struggle and that’s why they turn to music and film and the arts to help unlock that, and when they hear something articulated in a certain way it helps give them the comfort or release that makes them feel not so alone. Even if that is in hearing someone’s distress, sometimes a sad or an angry song can give someone as much hope and sense of purpose as a love song or a happy song.
AR: Counterculture is a good way of putting it, there’s a big sense of cool in the scene today and if you don’t fit in you can feel very isolated and alone and the majority of people don’t fit in. It’s just like high school all over again, really — which for me, I wasn’t a cool kid in high school, so it’s taking that angst and building on that. It was personal at the end of the day and I didn’t think that people would tie to it and feel like [the music] is talking directly to [them]. I didn’t know we were capable of doing that.
BL: I think you can make people feel better and that’s what you’re seeing in the response. That’s almost why people go out to the shows, people are turning up because they have that connection and they do feel like you’re talking to them and sometimes by talking to yourself you’re talking to other people. That’s what I think good music does in any genre.
Looking ahead, what are some of your goals and plans for 2017?
AR:I don’t think I’ve ever had a goal, really. Just keep doing what we’re doing and building the story, working on the next album and mapping out what we want to do: videos, shows, pop-ups — an experience. Just continue being creative and keeping busy.
BL: It’s going to be a really busy year. I’m doing a lot of writing on my own behalf and I’m excited about working with Allan on his emergence and having that discovery year, which I think this is going to be. Last year a lot of people were stumbling upon [him] and it was very organic and this year is about letting people know what’s going on, which I think is going to be very fun. I’m always the guy sitting at a party who’s asked to do the playlist, because people know that I’ll probably have a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of what’s coming out, and every single time, without fail, when I play an Allan song amongst 20 other songs the room asks, “What’s this?” So it’s really fun to be involved in that, and I’m really excited to hear about what Allan’s got cooking for this next album that we’ll be working on over the next year and throw in my two cents where it’s wanted and hopefully, more people will want to hear him than ever before.