As a regular on BBC Introducing Devon’s playlists and a fixture of Exeter’s local music scene, Ciaran Austin is among the most distinctive artists our town has ever produced. Exeposé sat down with Exeter graduation turned soul rapper to talk about independent music making, Stevie Wonder, and his new collaboration with Heavitree singer-songwriter Sadie Horler, ‘Golden Hour Winter’.
Exeposé: So to start from the beginning: how did you start in music? What made you decide that you wanted to pursue a creative career?
Ciaran Austin: Well, it was a hobby for me when I started out. I took music tech in year 12, But it has only been in the past year or couple of years that I’ve been taking it a bit more seriously. But it’s always been a thing I’ve done on the side, just trying to kind of learn and teach myself how to do editing.
E: So what’s it like, then, being an independent artist? Somebody who writes the raps, produces the beats, and so forth. How do you support yourself in that kind of lifestyle?
CA: It’s an ongoing learning process, really… I’ve always wanted to do everything because I like to have control over how everything sounds. It means that you progress perhaps a bit more slowly because you’ve obviously got so much more to try and progress in as opposed to just doing one thing. If I was just producing, then it’d just be a lot easier to get stuff off the ground, but I think if you decide you want to do everything yourself, it just takes a bit longer. But yeah, in terms of supporting myself, I guess it’s just – I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that you could do music full-time in my position! It’s just so difficult financially and stuff. It’s going to take a couple more years.
E: Who are your influences? Because listening to tracks like ‘Over’ and ‘Full Circle’, there is kind of a neo-soul kind of vibe.
CA: Yeah, definitely, that’s kind of the music, my Dad’s always played a lot of kind of soul music and funk and disco in the house. So I think I’ve definitely picked up on some of that… certainly more so in the past couple of years. I’ve actually got this EP coming out in March hopefully, and one of the songs on there is really disco-influenced, which I’m reallu excited about. I just love music general, but mostly there’s the real soul kind of funk-disco side, like Stevie Wonder, Chic, all that kind of stuff, and then I’m also really into electronic as well.
E: Growing up in High Wycombe, you know, a very multicultural city and centre of alt-hip hop in this country. Was that ever an interest for you? Did that ever kind of shape your interest at all?
CA: So I live in High Wycombe, as you said. It’s very close to London, but it’s not necessarily in London, so a half-an-hour train journey away. But yeah, I’ve grown up going into London a lot, and I’ve been working in London and everything. I’m hoping to move into London as well soon. And like, it’s a real kind of creative energy to it, and I always feel very inspired there. So I definitely will say that certainly recently, I do feel quite inspired by London as a place.
E: You have a new single coming out soon with Sadie Horler. How did that come about?
CA: Yeah, we had been saying for ages, because we’ve been doing quite a few gigs together over the past five years in Exeter, that we should get together and try to write a song. But that wasn’t possible with this song because it was all quite last minute, and I was desperate to get a song with her. So it was quite urgent that we got this done. So, I kind of made a beat, put down my verses and sent it over to her. And she just sang the chorus and we’re hoping we’ll have a video for it was well. It’s just difficult when you’re so far away. But I’m really excited for this song. It’s really thanks to things like the Music Day event which you guys put on which allowed us to keep on performing together.
we had been saying for ages that we should get together and try to write a song
E: It was fun! So how do you work with guest vocalists, then? Do you send the beat first, and they get free rein, to put their stamp on the song?
CA: It depends, really. When I was studying, the singers on the songs were all students as well, so it was very easy just to go to Kay House. We’d just go into a practice room, and then we’d do it together. So for the songs with Felicity and Mo, we were both there and we’d just come up with ideas on the spot. But now, obviously, it just depends really. I have sessions with other musicians in London, where we write together, or I just send them the beat and then do it over the Internet, which works as well. But it’s always better to be in the room with somebody. It’s a more authentic and more enjoyable process. But that’s not always possible.
E: So as a songwriter, what comes first? Is it the beat, or is it the writing?
CA: Normally it’s producing. So I normally just sit at a piano or keyboard or whatever and try and play some chords, and then if I find a nice chord progression or if there’s a nice groove that we’ve come up with, or bass line or something, that starts off the song. And then from there onwards it’s writing. I find it very difficult to write lyrics without having any music to write to. But I’m trying to learn to do that a bit more, because writing that way means that you’re readier to record, because you’ve obviously got a lot more stuff ready to go with. I always played piano growing up, so it’s always been a very strong part of it for me, to produce my stuff as well. And with Jamie White, obviously as well, he plays guitar when we do live stuff, and he’s producing with me now.
E: How did you two meet?
CA: We were just on the same course at Exeter, and then Jamie had heard – because when I was at Exeter I was very sporadically putting stuff up to Soundcloud, I wasn’t really taking music that seriously. I think it was the second term of final year – when he’d started to listen to some stuff and said “you should really consider taking this more seriously, and try to get a more professional sound, do live gigs.” So we just kind of started from there. So that’s when we kind of put a band together, did Firehouse and Enchanted Garden Ball, the great Exeter circuit. We did some stuff in London.
E: Hearing the lyrics, especially on the new song: ‘Time’s a low feeling, feeling lonely as hell, your time will come but time will tell’, it’s quite vulnerable. I think there’s a striking kind of confessional tone to it. Is it hard to be so open on mic?
CA: Yes and no. To me it’s quite natural, to be honest, because that’s the music I kind of gravitate towards and I’ve enjoyed listening to. It’s that music where it’s really open and soulful and you feel it’s intimate and you actually feel like you can really resonate with what people are saying. Not to be that guy that hates pop music, but you know – sometimes you listen to pop songs and the lyrics aren’t so open and inviting, and it’s a bit more superficial. Which is fine. But the real kind of soulful side is the stuff that I really like.
So I just try and just be open in song-writing, because I feel like that’s the way to really communicate with people. I feel like there are things which everybody goes through, and music for me has been a really good way to process stuff. I think it’s the same for a lot of people who write music, it’s kind of a therapeutic thing. Not to say that… I sound like I’m really troubled! I think it’s just important to be open and not to really hold anything back, because that’s one of the great things about song-writing is that you can really connect with another person.
sometimes you listen to pop songs and the lyrics aren’t open and inviting… it’s a bit more superficial
E: I totally agree! Another thing I picked out is that listening to some songs and your stuff like ‘Full Circle’, is that you often write nostalgically. What keeps you going back to the past?
CA: That’s a good question! I think for me, music is a way to really process past events and memories and past feelings. You know, if you’re living an event or an experience or a situation, you’re completely immersed in it, and it’s only afterwards when you look back on it and you can kind of process what you were feeling at the time… It’s good to look behind you and process things… Music, for me, is a way to really set a – I don’t know how to explain this properly, but it’s something that kind of holds all your past experiences together. If you’re writing about something, it’s a way to really process what has happened in the past, and you can really see and feel where you were at a certain point in history and how you’re progressing and moving forward. I don’t know if that makes sense, it’s not a clear answer. I need to think about that a bit more!
music is a way to really process past events and memories and past feelings
E: No, I think that’s interesting because it is like that, isn’t it? Music is a way of marking a moment in time.
CA: This is also why I like music. Because I don’t feel like a good communicator, but then music is – because you’re forced to be concise and get your message across, and it all rhymes; it’s all in time and everything. That’s why I really like it as well, because it forces me to think in that way as opposed to kind of waffling on.
E: I hear that. So I guess I want to ask: you’re quite politically outspoken online, which is kind of interesting. Do you think artists like yourself, any artist, has a responsibility to address things like Brexit and so forth? Because obviously your music itself is quite upbeat, and forward-looking, and at the same time you must address the real world, maybe?
CA: I’m not entirely sure about that, because I don’t really think that I’m overtly outspoken in terms of political or social things in music. Yeah, I do feel quite strongly about a lot of social issues. And if music, in the future, is a way to address those things, then that can very feasibly happen. Because I’m still really developing and learning and trying to improve and everything, I want to make sure that I’m really satisfied with how stuff is sonically before I rush into making big statements about any of that kind of stuff in music. Of course, I do feel very strongly about a lot of political issues, and I do like music which addresses that, but I think you do have to be so articulate and well-informed and a really strong communicator in order to not come off in like a preachy way, or too overtly sanctimonious.
E: How important was it for you to get that BBC Introducing co-sign? What did that feel like, to get that exposure?
CA: It’s great. It must have been February in my final year at university when I sent a song off to them and it got played for the first time. And that really opened my eyes too. I was so unaware of any of that kind of stuff, because as I was saying, it was always just a bit of a hobby. I’d just make a song one morning and stick it up on Soundcloud, and it wouldn’t really go much further than that, that would just be it. But then when you start realising that there’s a local radio and they can feature your songs, and it can go on from there. Yeah, it was an eye-opening moment for me. And, yeah, very kind of surreal and I’m really grateful, because they’re so supportive, BBC Introducing. And it’s led on to being played on 6 Music, as well, and getting support from them. It’s an incredible platform, they really do support and give confidence to young, emerging musicians. I love it, it’s really good.
I was so unaware of any of that kind of stuff… it was always just a bit of a hobby
E: That’s really cool. So I guess just to maybe round it off gently, obviously increased radio play, the 6 Music co-sign, your following is growing on SoundCloud and on streaming sites. You’ve launched a page on Facebook now, I think recently. So what’s next for you? What’s kind of the ultimate goal for your music, do you think?
CA: I don’t know about ultimate goal. I’m just very focused on really pushing myself to improve as much as I can. I just want to work really hard, and I’ve got, in the immediate future, this EP which will be out in March which will have the single with Sadie that is out next week, and three other songs as well. And just to keep pushing myself to be a better writer, be a better producer. We’ve got gigs coming up upstairs at Roy Scott’s again in London, which I’m looking forward to. I don’t know about ultimate goals, because nothing is guaranteed, the music industry is quite fickle. I don’t know about making massive goals, because if it doesn’t happen you’re going to be crushed. The guarantee of anything happening is – there’s so much competition and you have to have a really strong team around you, and you have to have everything in place, for all of your releases, for them to be received well, just because everyone’s releasing music all the time.
And as someone who’s not got management or a label currently, how do you actually increase your visibility, and increase your chances of being streamed and everything? With Spotify playlists, for example, they have had their songs probably pitched to the people that run the playlists by a PR company, or they’ve got really good management in place, so I think if there’s a goal, it’s that by this time next year I’ve got kind of a team or management in place, just to allow me to have a better reception to stuff. I’m dedicated to improving as much as I can, but unless you’ve got some sort of infrastructure around you to help, it is very difficult being completely independent. It’s fine, it’s completely fine to be independent in the sense of not being signed to a major label. You could be signed to an independent label, a good independent label, and have management and have strong PR. But that’s just something that will probably come in the future. I’ve only been taking it seriously for that long, so it’s all about being patient, I think, and we’ll just see what happens.
nothing is guaranteed, the music industry is quite fickle
E: That’s great, Ciaran, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us!