Words by Anna Tehabsim
Actress, moniker of British musician Darren J. Cunningham, will release his latest album Karma & Desire on 23 October 2020 on Ninja Tune.
When Actress tweeted out a phone number this past September, he wasn’t inviting fans to hop on the line with him. It’s simply not his style. The producer has kept us at a distance while carving a singular figure in electronic music, occupying an isolated space in the field. But the medium did suit him: upon dialing, fans were sent straight through to a voicemail transmitting fragments of a new single. It was a fitting presentation for a musician whose sound carries the granular hiss of an old answering machine message, and all its hints of ghosts in the shell.
The Wolverhampton-born producer, real name Darren Cunningham, is an artist whose trajectory is difficult to map accurately. Each Actress release has been a shedding of skin, exploring alternate identities. It’s across his introductory trio of albums, 2008’s Hazyville, 2010’s Splazsh, and 2012’s R.I.P, which saw the Werk Discs founder flitting between dubstep electro, hip-hop, house and techno. It’s in the purging of Ghettoville’s grey-tinted grit (2014), a death knell followed by the robotic sheen of AZD (2017), for which live shows featured chrome mannequins, dressed in what looked to be Cunningham’s shirt and bucket hat, taking his place on stage.
With the release of 2018’s LAGEO, a collaboration with the London Contemporary Orchestra, something shifted again. A new, three-dimensional acoustic sound began to clear up the mist. Then, of course, he disappeared into the computer once more with 2019’s Young Paint, named after his AI “collaborator” who ‘guided his hand’ across a record driven by a fascination with the melding of man and machine, and AI’s constant connecting of everything shared with it. Then, another purge. This year’s 88. A transitional mixtape of sketches, it was another palate cleanser.
It seems, however, that he’s finally reached the afterlife. On his new album Karma & Desire, Cunningham wanders through the tracks like a ghost, as he and a cast of collaborators explore themes of love, transformation, and rebirth. In a career of reinvention, it feels like Actress’s biggest step forward yet. The first Actress album to feature lyrics, it welcomes the airy soprano of Sampha, sacred melodies from Kara-Lis Coverdale, and intimate vocals from NYC favorite Zsela, exploring the collapse of the self, the mental and physical, the sacred and the profane.
With its counterintuitive core, listening to Actress’s music hasn’t always been easy. Now, this murkiness gives way to moments of mysticism. At its most pristine, it hums with a spirituality we haven’t seen in Actress before. Cunningham has described it as "a romantic tragedy set between the heavens and the underworld," and it certainly plays out like an opera for a doomed paradise. Ultimately, its twisted garden of Eden is evocative of the self-sabotaging Anthropocene we live in: a natural world at once abundant and poisoned; a society highly functioning while crumbling at the seams. The end of the world as we know it. Actress is overlooking it all, soundtracking our transformation from a dank basement suspended in the clouds.