Darren Cunningham comes from Wolverhampton, a town a few hours outside of London, occasionally called Wolves, whose motto is “out of darkness, cometh light.” Cunningham appropriately says his days “are usually black.” and later follows with, “At the root is home, family, and friends,” almost as if he were his hometown’s public spokesperson. “Where I’m from is very important to me.” As if to bring both sides of himself and his hometown together, Cunningham started making music as Actress, music that floats from post-J Dilla chopped-hop to tracks with more rigid drum machine architecture, but always with his signature worrisome mist over top. Actress is for dusk or dawn, never midnight or noon.
Cunningham released Actress’ first album, Hazyville, on his own Werk imprint, and as a way of answering questions about his role as both an A&R man and an artist, he defers to the art world. “I A&R for Werk like a curator for a gallery would select pieces. I’ve never been in a gallery where the gallery itself isn’t amazing to look at. It’s all one and the same. It should all be 3-D, from the greeting at the door to the smell in the building, it’s all part of the sensation.” As evidence of his comprehensive vision, one need not look further than Cunningham’s release of Zomby’s Where were U in ’92? and subsequent collaboration with the infamously guarded Londoner on some more recent, appropriately dark sonic drama.
Where the process of releasing and producing music are perfectly meshed, though, the best Actress tracks are birthed from an internal dichotomy. One gets the sense that his tracks come so naturally out of his own subconscious focus that certain sounds slip through unnoticed—raw emotion or floating claps and female echoes, human touches that seem out of place or confused when saddled beside such slick music. “Francis Bacon said something along the lines of, unless you split the brain in two, it’s very difficult to explore the full emotions and be able to replicate that in art,” Cunningham says. His new Actress album, Splazsh, bridges the split seamlessly, its dancefloor hysteria somehow focused by the strands of intimate light Cunningham threads throughout. “I want to make the computer talk naturally without software that mimics emotion,” he says. But now, as if he’s realized the potential mental overload of being an artist and a businessman, Cunningham is not releasing the album on Werk, but through the increasingly eclectic Honest Jons. Still, its surprising when he says, “You also need to know that Darren and Actress are two completely different people,” because Actress is so tied to him that to separate it feels surgical. But then you realize he referred to Actress as a person, as though no other description would fit than something that lives completely on its own.
Stream: Actress, Splazsh