On a cold, mid-December 2016 night in Toronto, there’s a man singing onstage at The Royal Theatre – usually a movie house – on downtown College Street. Though he’s backed only by a guitarist, and says almost nothing in between songs, his every raspy vocal turn and physical move is rapturously greeted by a sold-out house. Strangely, he’s singing in almost total darkness for the entire performance, with just one dim spotlight from directly overhead – like a shadow in the night.

Clearly, this is one singer-songwriter (and SOCAN member) who appreciates the value of mystery – and who, perhaps, is striving to make it all about the music, while handily maintaining his anonymity, and protecting his personal life.

Meet Allan Rayman, hotly tipped as one of Toronto’s (and Canada’s) next-big-things, due to break out worldwide in 2017. Rayman has already signed a worldwide deal for his 512 Productions label with Communion Records, run by Mumford and Sons’ Ben Lovett; played a sold-out small-theatre tour of North America, headlining over James Vincent McMorrow; grown a rabid cult audience for his music; and is doing a First Play Live performance taping for CBC in Toronto today (Jan. 24, 2017).

But since he steadfastly refuses to be interviewed (for now), and offers no explanations of his work, we’re left on our own to interpret the sound and sense of his music, and the imagery of his videos.

Sonically, Rayman sets his gruff, soulful, sometimes folky vocals and R&B melodies against hip-hop beats. Both on his first album Hotel Allan (initially dropped as a free download), and live, he’s used voicemail messages from a female voice who’s in conflict with him. Lyrically, writing in the first-person, he tends to darkly describe the wreckage of romantic relationships, and often conflates love, sex and death with a heavy sense of dread. It’s intense, and usually riveting. Sample lines include, “I’m a bad habit that you can’t shake,” “I need a selfish kind of girl,” “I am the reason that you let me go.”

Visually, Rayman’s work is even more fascinating. In the videos for three songs from Hotel Allan (“27,” “Beverly” and “Graceland”), the visual aesthetic is that of low-budget, 1970s, updated-film-noir, American “road” movies. He released them one at a time, then revealed a greater purpose by combining them into a narrative short film, The Wolf and The Red Dress –  that saw his male and female leads meet in a diner, make love in a motel room, deal with her presumably shooting him, and awake in an earthly afterlife. In “Beverly,” the shooting is performed by a woman in a wolf mask, a recurring visual motif in his videos. And elsewhere: during the intermission at The Royal Theatre, eight girls in wolf masks and summer dresses lingered, and posed for selfies, on the lip of the stage. For the video of the song “Faust Road,” he used what looks like an old German-expressionist, black-and-white film of the Faust story from the 1920s, solarized and slightly “treated,” visually.

Rayman releases his second album, Roadhouse 01, on Feb. 24, 2017. The first single, “Repeat” –  a duet with the equally fast-rising Jessie Reyez – that premiered on Zane Lowe’s Apple Beats 1 program, no less – delves even deeper into his attraction to darkness and fear. As Rayman writes:

She swingin’ moods just like my mother do
I see the tension overcoming you
The cruel intention starts to shine through
I couldn’t help but fall in love with you

Rayman is poised to conquer the mainstream. But does he want to? As he writes in “27,” “I feel this fame is pending / With all my idols gone I’m afraid of 27.” Like The Weeknd before him, Rayman is hiding in the shadows as he makes his first few albums; if, when, and whether he ultimately chooses to step fully into the light, and even embrace it (like The Weeknd did) is anybody’s guess.