By Amanda Norqvist
Austin Cairns, based in California, is the musician behind the electronic ambient project R Beny, through which he has self-released two albums and just recently released a third album via Dauw. Saudade, which is a Portuguese word for a melancholic state of mind, is filled with glittering synth and airy droning, tracks with a slow-burning build up and cascades of warmth. Austin is indeed a master of modular synthesis, and the emotion and passion he feels for the music he creates resonate clearly in every track he produces.
Austin, how were you introduced to music? Did you ever study it?
Music has been a part of my life for a very long time. I grew up with musicians in my family; my grandparents were bluegrass multi-instrumentalists and my mother played the piano. Despite my close proximity to music growing up, I didn’t truly start my own journey with music until I picked up a guitar at age 13. I took lessons for a little while, but beyond that, I am self-taught with no music theory training.
When did you start creating your own music? How did you come to explore ambient modular music?
A major reason for wanting to start playing the guitar was to play with my friends. So, from the beginning, we were creating our own compositions… for better or worse! I would also dabble with ambient guitar music from time to time, using loopers and other guitar pedals. I played guitar in many bands throughout my teens and early twenties, up until a few years ago. I was struggling with depression and anxiety and hit a major creative wall. I quit the bands I was playing in and sold off most of my music gear.
After about a year of no musical output, a friend of mine showed me a synthesizer he bought and we spent an afternoon jamming on it. I was hooked! I bought a similar cheap synthesizer for fun, but quickly realized the synthesizer’s creative potential. It didn’t take long for me to accrue a small studio’s worth of electronic instruments and to start making music again. A few months into my synthesizer journey, I started seeing demo videos on YouTube of modular synths and didn’t exactly understand what I was hearing or seeing, except that it sounded beautiful and beyond this world. I wanted to be a part of that.
Getting into modular was a revelation. For the first time, I felt like I was making music that I had always wanted to make and I was working within a creative process that allowed me to express myself.
Could you describe your creating process for me? Has it changed over time?
My creative process is not exactly set in stone. It may vary from project to project, it’s constantly evolving and changing. For recording projects, the creative process from idea to recording is very much tied together.
I usually have a general idea of a direction I’d like to go in, or at least a jumping off point. For example, I will feel inspired by something – this may be an experience, a memory, a feeling, a place, a person, a song, etc., and I will start by slowly patching and searching for a sound or texture to match from one of my synthesizers, running it through different filters and effects. Once I have something I like, I usually play around with melodies until something stands out to me.
I will record that part for a lengthy period of time and that creates the skeleton of the song. From there, everything is about building up other parts around that initial part. Searching for sounds that fit. The writing and recording process happens at the same time.
What or who is your biggest inspiration when composing?
I’m inspired by nature and emotion.
What can you tell me about Saudade?
Saudade came together very quickly, but also took a while to get to. Pieter of Dauw and I started talking after I had self-released my first album Full Blossom of the Evening in 2016. I think I initially hesitated to say yes to do a release for Dauw, mostly because I had a very positive experience self-releasing and I like having creative control over every little detail. I don’t think it took long to agree to do a release. Dauw’s pedigree as a label, as well as their true love for the music and art they put out, made it an easy choice.
It took quite a while to finally get a release together. I had an extremely busy year and ended up deciding to self-release my second album Cascade Symmetry. Saudade was recorded and worked on around the same time as Cascade. As the year was coming to a close, Dauw asked if they could release something early in the year and Saudade was the result.
In a way, the two albums are sister albums. Cascade Symmetry is about looking forward and moving on. Saudade is about yearning for the past and sifting through old memories.
What were the main differences in self-releasing and releasing through Dauw? What were your thoughts and expectations throughout the whole process?
Not as much work, haha!! Okay, that’s definitely not true, it has just been distributed differently.
In self-releasing, finishing the recording of the album is just the beginning. From there, it’s contacting and communicating with the mastering engineer for the masters, contacting and setting everything up with the manufacturers of any physical product, creating and getting the artwork ready for print, selling and shipping the physical product, sending the album out for review and press, promoting the album on social media. It’s a lot for one person to do.
With Dauw, it’s been nice to have some of those responsibilities lifted. In that, I was able to focus on the music a little more, knowing I’d have some support once I finished recording.
I could not be happier with how the whole process has gone down. Dauw has been immensely supportive. Ian Hawgood did a fantastic job on the master. Femke Strijbol’s artwork fit so well with the music, I got chills the first time I saw it. Charlotte Lybaert made a lovely, hypnotic video for the title track that absolutely nailed some of the feeling I was trying to convey with the album.
Lastly, any particular moment in your history with composing/experiencing music that stands out to you the most?
I’ve been fortunate enough to experience quite a few highlights. I think the best thing to me has been getting to know the online synth and modular community and getting to meet and share the stage with other artists who continually inspire.
If I had to distill it down to one moment, it would be getting to play the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco last year. I grew up going to shows there and have seen so many of my favorite bands and artists play there. It’s long been my favorite live music venue and is a place near and dear to me. I was lucky enough to be asked to open for a band playing there and the whole experience was beyond surreal.