“It doesn’t even feel real. I had a dream about it two nights ago. I woke up like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ It’s long overdue,” Raye tells EUPHORIA. about the prospect of finally releasing her debut LP, My 21st Century Blues., on February 3rd.
I meet the South London-born singer-songwriter at Studio 44 in the center of the city where she has already posed for hundreds of photos wearing designer ensembles and a long wig. “Come and look at these,” the 24-year-old shouts over to me as I enter the room. I find her sitting in front of the mirror flicking through photographer Jack Alexander’s camera in the hair and makeup chair as she prepares for one final look. Raye proudly shows me how productive the team has been so far while pointing out her favorite shots of the day. No more than 30 minutes later, Raye is done posing and joins me on the couch for an interview after getting changed into what appears to be a far more comfy ensemble: a tank top, sweatpants, and fluffy Prada slippers. Radiant as ever, it’s clear she is in a far better place than she was last year.
Raye’s journey to releasing her debut album has been a long time coming. Last summer, she made headlines like never before after putting her former record label Polydor on blast for not allowing her to release one. It’s important to bear in mind that Raye signed a four-album deal in 2014 at the age of 17. She has since achieved six platinum singles, 2.7 billion streams, collaborations with Charli XCX, David Guetta, and Nas, and songwriting credits for Beyoncé, John Legend, and Anitta as well as receiving four BRIT Award nominations while on the label. “I’ve done everything they asked me, I switched genres, I worked 7 days a week, ask anyone in the music game, they know. I’m done being a polite pop star. I want to make my album now, please that is all I want,” she passionately pleaded on Twitter. After molding herself into the artist they thought she should be, which caused Raye to feel unhappy for many years, she had reached her breaking point and was not prepared to put up with their bullshit any longer. Since bravely speaking up, she was able to part ways with Polydor and have the creative freedom she had always dreamt of having.
“Hard Out Here” released in July, marked Raye’s new chapter as an independent artist and was no subtle introduction as a no-fucks given pop star. Taking shots at her old label, the broader music industry, the patriarchy, and toxic masculinity, Raye used her studio time to get a lot off her chest: “What you know about systems / About drugged drinks / Fucking nearly dying from addictions / All the white men CEOs fuck your privilege / Get your pink chubby hands off my mouth.” When it came time to decide what she should launch her first album with, she was confident from the beginning that this was the one to exhibit her rebirth.
“My goal isn’t the charts anymore,” Raye states. To date, she has spent over 250 weeks on the UK singles chart. “I want to release high-quality music that tells honest stories about how I feel, what I’ve been going through and what life is to me.” She wrote “Hard Out Here” soon after there was drama with the label, expressing it was important for her to let out that energy from within into the song. “When I was going through everything, I would play it on repeat and just remind myself, ‘Nah, no, no, I’ve got this. I’m a badass bitch,‘” Raye continues.
Continuing with another story that has contributed to her blues, the album’s second offering “Black Mascara” hears Raye return to the clubs in a more dark and exploratory manner. Lyrically, she bears her soul about a man that misled her: “You made your bed / Lied your lies / And fucked my mind up.” Since Raye’s breakthrough, dance music has become her staple and a genre she has managed to master. With that being said, it’s not a sound that came naturally to her. “I’ve grown to love dance music,” Raye says after previously expressing that it was her label that forced her to go down that route. In order to really showcase the multidimensional talent that she is, Raye made the cautious decision for “Black Mascara” to be the only dance number on this forthcoming record. “I have so much dance music in folders and stuff like that but I had to take a big step back and think, ‘Okay, who am I? What am I doing?’” Raye explains.
“I think also as a woman of mixed heritage, you know, I’ve got lots in me anyway. I’m British with Ghana and I have so many different styles and sides to me. And I think, especially for this first body of work, I couldn’t commit solely to one thing because I am not one thing,” she continues.
Now in control of all the decision-making, it has been important for Raye to explore in a way that she’s never been able to. Last week, she arrived with two new songs – “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Escapism” – that both amplify just how diverse this album is going to be. If you were expecting another pop record purposely created for radio and streaming playlists, then think again.
“Escapism” is one of two collaborations on the album. Featuring New Jersey-rapper 070 Shake, Raye takes listeners through a lonely period of her life on a trip-hop-inspired production. “Escapism as a topic, it’s something I feel like a lot of people relate to when you’re going through hardships in life, you’ll just do anything to run away from that feeling,” she explains. “Then you have to go to work and smile and pretend everything’s okay. But it’s not. I think especially as a woman, we must always have this brave face, smile, be polite, don’t be difficult, you know. But meanwhile, you’re dealing with dark things and you have to just get on with it.”
Raye declares that “Escapism” is about survival. While the lyrics also detail how she dealt with being heartbroken, she insists the song is more important than just that person she was once with. “I was lightly in love. What’s that word? It’s like, I know I’m not gonna be with you forever, but part of an escapist feeling. Sadly, it’s not always good for you. I had someone with me 24 hours a day, I was never alone. I was unable to be alone because I was scared to process my own thoughts,” Raye explains. “When that ended and on top of all the trauma and things that I was dealing with, I absolutely spiraled.”
“The Thrill Is Gone” is Raye like we’ve never heard her before. “It’s all live. Live brass, live drums, live vocals, no autotune. Just a real, raw feeling,” she says about the song. For listeners, it will be a new experience hearing her sing on soulful, experimental jazz-infused records. But for the artist herself, it’s something that has always been a big part of her musical journey behind the scenes and a side that she has been longing to unleash. “For as long as I can remember, it’s been Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Etta James, Dinah Washington, these incredible black women who just knew how to sing. I feel so at home when I listen to those artists. I start my day every day with jazz,” Raye explains.
It is Nina Simone who she credits for saving her through dark times. Upon looking at the poster on her wall, Raye realized her famous quote, “An artist’s duty to reflect the times,” had been speaking to her all along. “I was just standing there, staring at the poster telling myself this isn’t right. I broke down crying,” she says. That significant moment was when Raye found the courage to pour out her emotions on social media about how unhappy she was with her career. “I’d gotten clean, I’d gotten straight. And in that sober state of mind, I couldn’t do it anymore. I could fake it when I was surviving. But yeah, in that state I was like, nah, I’m not interested in being molded and chosen what I have to say and having to tick certain boxes. I’ve earned the right to express music freely how I want,” Raye continues.
She recalls the time she made a one-off appearance at the legendary Ronnie Scott’s, the home to many jazz musicians, as a life-changing moment. For an artist who has performed at Wembley Stadium, The O2 Arena, and many other prestigious venues, Raye proclaims her performance to a seated crowd of 220 people as a career highlight. “I was singing ‘Summertime’ and I screamed my little lungs out. I got a standing ovation” she says. “I was so emotional, but that venue alone, in a crazy way, felt more iconic and more special to me than any gig I’ve ever played to.”
“I felt acceptance. I felt seen. I felt special,” Raye continues. Even though she sang to a room of strangers, it was as if they knew her story and immediately wanted to know more. “Lots of people come up to me after asking, ‘Who are you?’ And I’m like, ‘Don’t go and listen to my music, you won’t get it!‘ That was just one of the most special moments to me in my whole life. So, I’m kind of chasing that feeling. I wanna find some incredible jazz musicians and just have a great time.”
Keeping with the theme of soul, Raye is taking fans to church on “Buss It Down,” a song that won’t be in their hands until a little later on. While the title is a little misleading and could be mistaken for a slut drop anthem, the 2-minute-and-a-half-long piano-led track couldn’t be any farther removed from that. Sharing her thoughts on sex and her future relationships, Raye passionately shows off her pipes without hiding behind a big production. On what sounds like a real choir all the way through, I am informed and even more impressed to find out that it’s, in fact, just Raye and her friends providing the gospel-inspired vocals.
Those that attended Raye’s 2018 UK tour will undoubtedly remember her gut-wrenching performance of an unreleased song titled “Ice Cream Man.” Sang acoustically each night by herself on the piano, the raw number details the moment she was sexually assaulted by a producer. Admitting she wanted to originally release this song many years ago, the heartbreaking ballad is finally getting its time to shine on her debut album. “It is completely redone. We’ve taken it to a really special place. And then at the end, you just have this musical space to just process that flipping intense emotion,” she says. “Ironically, that gap between then and now, I’ve been through a lot of things, and I changed verse two completely.”
Raye continues, “I had new stories to add there. When you’re dealing with things from a young age also, that’s kind of embarrassing to talk about and really affects things in the future. It’s been a lot to process, but thank the lord forgiveness is something that I really believe in. Because, if I wasn’t able to forgive some of these things that have happened to me, I would be a very, very bitter woman.”
Bitter is the last word to describe Raye right now. Throughout all the hardships, she remains grateful for not losing the kind, spirited soul that made everyone initially warm to her. Even though everything ended abruptly with her former record label, Raye still aims to focus on the positives. “I have no hate, no malice,” she says. “I get it. At the end of the day, it was just business, but it was all personal to me, which is why it felt like it did to me. They’re a very incredible label when unified, and when they support an artist a hundred percent, I mean, look at what they can do.”
Raye’s exit from that chapter was far from quiet, confessing that it was “unfortunate” for it to all have turned out so ugly because her intent was never to hurt anyone. “I just needed to be honest and to be free and to not be there anymore under the situation that I was in. The employees beneath the boss are phenomenal, they believed in me and supported me,” she adds.
Choosing to go down the independent route is not a decision Raye regrets in the slightest. Ever since being able to take her art in the driver’s seat, she has continued to flourish in the most authentic way. “Independent life is fabulous,” Raye declares. “However, I thought I had worked hard before. I haven’t had a date off or a holiday this entire year. Obviously, I’m working two careers as well, as an artist and a songwriter. Both have opened incredible doors for me, opportunities I can’t miss. I’ve just gotta keep the hustle going strong. I’m very grateful. I love working hard. And also, it’s very, very empowering to be in full control. I’m very blessed.”
That said, just because her career as an independent artist is going well, it does not mean Raye is going to stop standing up for what else she believes needs to change within the industry. Signed to a label or not, Raye has continuously preached about the lack of rights songwriters have and has demanded something to be done about it. It was only last month when she shared a tweet disclosing a text message of her having to decline someone’s offer for wanting her song as they wouldn’t agree to her terms and conditions. “The systems gotta change and it starts with songwriters demanding their due,” she told them. Raye captioned the post, “Damn, it feels good to be a bad bitch demanding the respect deserved and not give an F about the consequences.”
In order for more people to understand where she’s coming from, she discusses the unfair points system that songwriters have to follow.
“There are a hundred royalty points on a record. Producers get four royalty points. These are basically the master points. So, if a song does anything on any platform, any streaming service, anything, they get 4 percent of the money. Songwriters aren’t entitled to even one point. And if you ask for one, you’re told that you’re being difficult and people are told to not work with you again,” Raye says. “Artists get 14 to 15 points. But artists are the ones who have to give the producers points out of their small cut, which is just so messed up. The labels take 85 points, so they’re making all the money. The record industry is thriving at rates like never before, and they’re making so much money and songwriters aren’t entitled to one point. Meanwhile, they help to create the song, the lyrics, and the melodies that everyone’s singing, that everyone loves.”
Aside from pointing out the obvious that the system in place is very unequal, Raye explains that everyone inside of it knows that is the case, insisting that songwriters don’t have a say in anything. “Do you think that it will eventually change?” I ask. “If I have anything to do with it, it will. Listen, I’m not gonna stop until I get there,” she replies. This isn’t just about Raye earning more money than she already does. She’s thinking about the up-and-coming songwriters with smaller platforms grafting hard and being pushed aside. “I’ve got nothing to lose, only to gain really. I wanna protect this future generation of writers,” Raye adds.
“The biggest change that needs to occur in the music industry is songwriters need to get points, literally one or two points, but just enough to make a living. I also feel like food and travel should be covered, especially by majors. It’s not a lot to ask for,” she continues.
Writing songs for herself and other artists has always been a massive passion of Raye’s and something she takes enormous pride in. In addition to her own material, she has recently been busy penning tracks with a whole range of fierce female stars: Jennifer Lopez, Halle Bailey, and Little Mix’s Jade Thirlwall and Leigh-Anne Pinnock for their solo careers. “Those are some amazing women I’ve been working with recently,” she shares. “I just love women, I’m rooting for these girls to win.”
The forthcoming months are going to see Raye continue to receive her flowers. Even though her debut album won’t be out until the top of next year, she has a lot planned in the forthcoming months to keep fans hungry for more. Currently, Raye is embarking on a mini-tour where she will exclusively perform to six intimate crowds. Given that Raye chose to be daring and didn’t hold back on this record, she recognizes that some critics might not be all that into it. On the plus side, she doesn’t perceive that as a bad thing. “Look, some people might hate it. I would rather you passionately hate it than feel nothing at all,” Raye says. “At the end of the day, I’ve been bold, I’ve been explicit and I’ve been sonically quite brave and I’m just proud of it. And if I hope it does anything for me, I just hope my fans, I even hate saying that word for fans, but like the people who support me, love it and want more and love the stories. And I wanna just grow a fan base of people who are loyal.”
She concludes: “The dream is, I would love a ride or die little group of people in the world who are on this ride with me together.”