Interview by Rebecca Bacon Ehlers
I first met Darien Carr, also known as the hip-hop artist Rico Alice, in a Berlin beer garden in the spring of 2016. I was there visiting my sister, who’d gotten acquainted with them through the study abroad program that had brought them both to the city. They were there with their best friend, Dom Packer, an artist in his own right who appears on several of the tracks on With Models. My sister and I hadn’t planned on it, but we spent the majority of the next few days with the two of them, exploring the city and laying around her airy, archetypally German apartment.
In hindsight, it surprises me how quickly the four of us became comfortable around each other, but at the time it wasn’t something I noticed. Darien possesses a disarming charisma that makes small talk feel like a complete waste of energy. It’s easy to get comfortable around them.
These aspects of themself both carry over to their artistic life; one of the remarkable things about With Models is the way it’s able to convey such deep self-exploration with no hint of self indulgence. The invitation Darien extends into their inner life feels intimate, honest, and generous.
Darien’s approach to musical production is a refreshing, multilayered blend of jazz and hip hop. Their tracks manage to get stuck in your head even as the ideas at play command attention in their own right. Released in October 2017, With Models was conceptualized as a sonic play in four acts. We’ve included a few tracks below, but the album is also available in full on both Instagram and Bandcamp. Darien is currently at work on the final component of the project: a series of videos that visually embody each act.
Be Easy on Yourself
Fear is a Drug
Murder and Curella
What’s behind the name Rico Alice?
So essentially Rico Alice comes from two sides of myself, like caricatures of two sides of my self. One is Rico, and one is Alice. I don’t like using the words masculine and feminine because I feel like that’s kind of problematic in some ways; I feel like those words just denote past ways of thinking. But that’s kind of where those two sides of me come from. I like to release each project under a different name to kind of denote to the listener a different part of my self that I was exploring. The first EP I released was called Rico is Dead. That was much more of like a Rico project, exploring what Rico was and what Rico meant. This project was released under Rico Alice because the process of making With Models was really about the war between this feeling of this facade of masculinity that I felt like I had to produce to the world versus exploring my actual identity and exploring like who I actually was and how I actually felt about things. How both of those perspectives are two extreme versions of myself and they end up clashing and it made me kind of really anxious. The process of making With Models was kind of like me moving through that.
Do you feel like maybe you’ll come out with an Alice project someday?
Yeah I would love to have an Alice project. I don’t know what it would sound like, but yeah, that’s kind of what I feel like I want to do next. I feel more connected to Alice at the end of the day. I felt like Alice was like my internal, and Rico was like my external. I don’t know. I might just release a project under Darien too.
I kind of like taking the structures of how artists are supposed to exist or how you’re supposed to release a project under this name, or you’re supposed to do this this way, and trying to subvert it in the ways that I know how to.
Do you have a particular process that you usually follow?
No. I don’t. Man, it was crazy making this record because I felt like it was just kind of something that needed to be made. I studied abroad in Berlin my junior year, which is where we met. And it was a great time but it was also a very hard time. I struggled with being away from home, and my conception of what was real and what wasn’t, and even when I went home, I never really felt like I landed. I spent a summer in Miami after that on an internship and I had to do a lot of self-reflection. When I got back to Harvard my senior year I still didn’t feel like I was grounded. I got into dance for the first time. Dance became a way for me to become grounded, but also music became a way for me to become grounded.
The process of creating and the process of making music or improvising in dance, it became kind of more a spiritual practice rather than a technical effort or an endeavor that I needed to sit down and make a beat. I would kind of just sit down with no expectations and no pressure and try to, instead of make a beat, bend a beat, or bend a song. Trying to be as present as possible and just let whatever was in me at the time kind of come through me. Trying to direct that energy in a way that it became like somewhat coherent.
As a producer I’m like mostly concerned with texture, and the textures were like gritty and rough and raw and awesome. But like everyone else would hear it and be like, what is this? Those rough drafts captured the degree of anxiety I felt just not being able to be myself fully in some spaces. Whether that was from my own insecurities of like coming from the middle class, from my own insecurities about my own identity, from my own insecurities of dealing with privilege…like a lot of insecurities (laughing). A lot of insecurities. Things that I felt like I wasn’t dealing with head on. So to sum up the process behind With Models, it was basically taking the anxiety of those rough drafts and trying to face them head on.
The last song, Murder, is the closest song that you get to the original intention of like the ahhhhh what the fuck is happening??. While Be Easy on Yourself, which is the first song, is most indicative of where I am now, of the spiritual and personal work I’ve done to make the album.
Sounds like a lot of it was about a healing process as well as an artistic one.
Yeah, it really was. I feel very inspired by like, someone could hear it and maybe connect with it and grow in the same way. I realized that, also, I couldn’t make the songs accessible without involving other people. Basically, I just kind of isolated myself in these bleak-ass, like, I don’t even know what the word… I was just in my room sad and not happy and figured I had to make these beats. But by virtue of involving all the amazing people that were on the project, they kind of like helped me bring it, bring myself, into a world outside of my own head, and essentially just like pulled me out of where I was.
Did you feel like it was difficult to bring people in initially? did you feel exposed?
Yeah, it was so hard! It’s so hard to try to like ask somebody to be on your song (laughter). Especially ’cause everyone is so wonderful. Most of the first collaborations did happen quite organically, or just were people I was friends with and it just kind of felt natural.
Collaborations are very hard work cause it requires empathy and patience, and communication, and vulnerability. And I think the vulnerability is a piece that I struggled with most at the beginning of the whole process. But the collaboration was a good part of the transition from like the anxiety to the confidence.
So now that it’s been created, and your baby’s out there, do you have a certain like way that you envision or hope that people will respond to it?
I just honestly want people to sit down and listen to it. It’s like a 25 minute listen and I just want people to sit down and experience it and think about it, and take it for what it is. I made the decision to not put it on sound cloud for example because I feel like the way sound cloud invites you to consume music is like a very particular way (not saying that that’s a good or bad thing, but I spent a lot of time with this project and all the decisions I made were intentional and that’s challenging as an upcoming artist). I’m just trying my best to build a space where people can really experience the motions and the sounds and the textures and the memories that I’ve trying to put into, like, sonic form.
So, you were in Texas for a while and you came back and it sounds like that was kind of a turning point for you in this process of creating this. Is there a way that your geographic location has an impact on what you’re creating?
100% yes I think it does, because in the physical spaces that you inhabit, you are exposed to different things as a function of your daily life. Walking down the street in Berlin I’m exposed to different stimuli than walking down the streets of Cambridge. and I think that in those experiences are the inspirations that ground so much of creative like pieces like so much creative works. I’ve learned that you kind of have to find the beauty and allow yourself to be inspired by these small little things that you’ll notice in the day, whether that’s like a leaf falling or a sunset or a graffiti on the wall or going out to the club or hanging out with your friends.
It’s interesting cause a lot of With Models was inspired by memories of spaces in Berlin and of spaces in Miami or even high school, but all of those memories were situated in the context of being in Cambridge. So a lot of the time I would be writing a lyric and I would be talking about something that I felt in Berlin. but I would use an example of a time on campus to kind of ground that experience to communicate it in a better way, cause that was like the physical environment that was forming my creative process at the time.
This next question might take things in a different direction. Do you feel that artists or musicians have a certain obligation to use their work to respond to social issues or to respond to the times?
That’s a hard one. The obligation, I think, lies in the artist’s ability to interpret the world that they are living in. And honestly interpret the way that they move through that environment. I want to cite WEB Du Bois right now but I don’t know if I’ll fuck it up so I kinda don’t want to. But…I remember back in school like I wrote this paper and it was about how he was basically arguing that–I could be wrong–essentially all black art becomes propaganda. Meaning that it becomes infused with a political intention. The black artist has to interpret their own surroundings and be honest about those surroundings, which in the context of like American society, is going to inherently gonna have the hue of racial dynamics. Or if like if you are non-binary or if you’re a woman or even like if you’re a man like it’s gonna be the world around you. You’re gonna see it with the sunglasses of that perspective.
I’m not in the game of telling anyone how to approach their shit. But for me I feel like that informed my creative process in the sense that I have to try my best to be honest about the ways I am perceived in the world, and the way that I interact with structures, and how structures affect my experience. Which usually ends up producing a sense of responsibility within me. Or…responsibility is probably the wrong word, but it usually ends up integrating some quasi-political quasi-social message into the art.
Even if that message of the art is making a decision to not acknowledge these structures of inequality or unfairness or institutions that aren’t kind of nudging you in the wrong way. This is kind of how I used to think when I was like a sophomore or freshman. You know like, “I’m black and it’s all good, like I’ll just make my own world and I’ll just live in my music production world.” Like it was very exclusionary because I didn’t want to acknowledge the obstacles I faced as a growing black person. But even my decision to try to ignore those, well, obviously I can’t ignore that shit. But like even making the attempt to ignore those things is, I think, a response to a system and a structure where you feel like you need to make the decision to run away and there’s the need to escape. And that in itself is political or, I guess you would say, propaganda. Again I don’t know I might be fucking up Du Bois. But that’s kind of how I approached it. It’s not a responsibility to facilitate change in society, but I feel like facilitating the change is inevitable by making art and being intentional and honest about the ideas and reflections you explore with your work.
That’s really beautifully put. At some point just showing up is going to be making a statement with a certain degree of subversion to it, regardless of the content of what you’ve created.
Yeah, exactly. Granted, that’s maybe a good ideological way to approach the issue, but at the end of the day, it’s individualistic in the sense that each person’s situation, struggle, strife, and perception of oppression–or not even oppression–perception of social responsibility is skewed according to their own personal experience. So then it just becomes a very difficult issue to navigate.
I’d love to hear if there are any more directions you want to take this conversation. I think it could also be cool to talk about a specific song.
I don’t know, I kind of want people to just listen to the album. But I feel like it’s a conversation between me and the people, who the “you” of the song is about. But sometimes when I say “you” on the whole record, it might just be myself. It’s different dialogues between myself. So I feel like those are two different ways to experience the work. Which lead to different experiences, or different impressions of what I’m trying to say. And I don’t really even know what I’m trying to say sometimes. Well, I do, now. But when I wrote a lot of these things I didn’t know like why I was saying it or what I was doing, I was just trying to be present and create them. I still listen to it and I hear new things all the time. And I’m like, hmm, it’s interesting that I say that, I guess that means… and like I learn things about myself.
I don’t even feel like I’m a rapper I just have things to say. I’m not even vocally on all of the songs. I just have a lot of questions about what it feels like to come close to self-acceptance as a young post grad person going into the world and I have all these problems and all these issues and I’m like I’m going to have more problems and more issues in the future, but you know at the end of the day it’s really all good. And the first, act, and the song Fear is a Drug is really like, you’re alright. You can cling to fear. At some point I felt like I was clinging to my fears because that’s what was comfortable, that’s what I knew and every time I tried to escape my fears and just kind of grow…well, fear is a drug and it is addictive to get into these traps of judgment for yourself and these traps of angst and hate and all these things. It’s ok. That’s all I want to say. It’s ok.