“The goals I had when I was 17 are the goals I have now,” states singer, songwriter, producer, engineer, hitmaker, international superstar and music industry disruptor RAYE, who, on the cusp of releasing her first single as an independent artist, is about to launch stage two of her career. “I want to build a fanbase, to release real, true, unfiltered, untainted art and stand by that and back that. To speak fearlessly and to challenge norms and be bold.”
It's been a year since the 24-year-old south Londoner born Rachel Keen blew up her career in order to rebuild it. Frustrated at the fact she'd been continually denied the chance to release her debut album by her then label Polydor – despite more than 12m monthly listeners on Spotify, seven top 20 singles and four Brit award nominations to her name, plus songwriting credits for the likes of Beyoncé, John Legend, Little Mix and Charli XCX that have landed her more than 1 billion global streams (!) – she sent a series of tweets that shone a light not only on her own struggles but on the plight of female artists caught in an endless loop of faceless dance features and broken promises. It was in that emotionally febrile period between posting her tweets and later being released by Polydor in July 2021 that RAYE started working on Hard Out Here, her barnstorming, emotionally raw new single that finds her alchemising pain and frustration into an in-your-face capital-A Anthem. Taking aim at her old label, the broader music industry, the patriarchy, and toxic masculinity, Hard Out Here revels in its unfettered honesty. “What you know about systems / About drugged drinks / Fucking nearly dying from addictions” she sings unvarnished over an epic concoction of scattergun beats, featherlight strings and ghostly backing vocals, laying bear her seven year experience in the music industry.
“I'd been in that record contract for a third of my life,” she says. “It was a big change to be free. Once I had that closure, it became a journey of healing. Anger was my initial emotion.” It was in that context that she set up her mic in her makeshift studio in her living room (“no real sound booth,” she smiles) and Hard Out Here's lyrics just poured out. “It's super angry. I was both crying and red with rage, just writing these lyrics, and capturing how I really felt in that moment.” After years of playing the game – “The label model in the past is you put something out and if it doesn't work pause the entire plan, reshuffle the plan, do a feature, stop everything and start over” – suddenly RAYE was able to make up her own rules, with that all important album coming early next year. It also meant she could disengage from the typical pop model of designing music for streaming playlists and radio whims. “I have no clue what's going on in the charts,” she smiles, also emphasising the pleasure of being able to disengage with social media and really focus on what's important. “I didn't want anything to influence what I want to express. I'm trying to tell my story, and that's what matters. I don't want to cater to an audience – I want the audience to love me for what I'm saying and what I want to express. Hard Out Here is my story, it's not going for the charts.” But, that inherent pop nous that's seen her become one of music's brightest stars and most in-demand collaborators is never far from the surface: “If you need to put yourself in that place, like if you're in a place of suppression, put this on and remind yourself who you are and that you're going to bounce back.”
From the start, RAYE relished being a maverick. Brought up in a musical household – her dad and grandad were both songwriters and played in bands – RAYE's tastes combined both the Ella Fitzgerald songs her mum used to play and the Rihanna and Drake bangers she got into as she got older. Growing up in a mixed race family (her mum is Ghanaian-Swiss and her dad is English), it took her a while to figure out her identity, both as a person and later as an artist. She caught the songwriting bug from an early age, with piano lessons helping her formulate songs as she moved into double digits. Even before that, aged 8, she was getting into production, sampling a jazz-tinged jingle she'd heard on TV and re-writing it as a Christmas song (fast-forward to 2021 and there's her name as co-producer of Mabel's summer smash, Let Them Know). It was around this same time that RAYE decided she wanted to go to the Brit School, the creative hothouse that had helped shape the likes of Adele and Amy Winehouse. Once ensconced in such a creative environment, her songwriting talents flourished, with her lessons punctuated with weekend recording sessions with the likes of award-winning songwriter Eg White (Adele, Florence & the Machine).
Itching to get started properly, she left the Brit School in 2014 aged just 16. That same year she released the independently-funded, blissed out Welcome To Winter EP on Soundcloud, following it two years later with the bolder pop of the acclaimed, Stormzy-assisted Second EP, released by Polydor. In May 2018 her penchant for sonic experimentation continued with the hip-hop-leaning collaborative mixtape Side Tape, featuring the huge top 20 single Decline, before she released her emotionally unguarded mixtape, Euphoric Sad Songs, in 2020. In the end, despite six of its nine tracks being streamed over 25m times on Spotify alone (the Brit-nominated Secret is currently over 330m streams deep), and her international profile sky-rocketing having co-written Bigger for Beyoncé for her 2019 album, The Lion King: The Gift, RAYE still couldn't prove to Polydor that she was enough.
Faced with the freedom to do whatever she wanted post-label split, RAYE started to work through the folders of music left languishing on her laptop. Rather than let it go to waste, she started to re-work it, with Hard Out Here's backing track immediately jumping out. “The original beat had an entirely different song over it that I did when I was 19 with Mike Sabbath, who is the executive producer of my album,” she explains. “I took the beat and wrote a new track over the top of it.” Channeling her emotions at the time – “I was fucking scared, there was a lot of fear and a lot of anger, just 'let me go'” – the song morphed into the no-holds-barred banger it is now. In its three minutes and 12 seconds, it covers everything from artistic frustration to addiction to religion to the treatment of female songwriters, with one line – “All the white men CEO’s fuck your privilege / Get your pink chubby hands off my mouth” – a potent metaphor for how she felt as a young mixed race female artist trying to navigate the music industry. “I felt like someone had a hand over my mouth and was saying 'you have to say this, you can't say this, you can say that',” she states. “It was exhausting.”
Hard Out Here's cards-on-the-table honesty is a sign of what's to come. “I have a song on the album dedicated to addiction,” she says. “I have a song dedicated to body dysmorphia. A song dedicated to sexual abuse and rape. It's dark. Songs I've had for years that I've needed to express and share. Before, I was told it was too uncomfortable and that audiences don't want to hear it.” On the pulsating second single Black Mascara, trauma is unpacked steadily over a hypnotic dance beat anchored by real pain. “I wrote that just after I'd had this big, awful thing happen to me. I was in a really dark place. The lyric “once you see my black mascara run from me to my mother's hands”, it's just like 'if you could actually see the damage that's been done'.” While before a dance music framework was utilised to fit in with what was happening on radio, here it's used as a vehicle to allow the song to even exist. “When I feel something dark or sad, putting that to music that feels dark or sad is too much for me to bear,” RAYE explains. “So I have to give it some sort of hope. I was using that song as medicine. I'm finding some sort of rhythm to my pain. I've got somewhere to put it and move it. I love having music where I'm being honest lyrically, but the music isn't too sad.”
It's that sense of revelling in juxtaposition that also underpins third single, Buss It Down. A piano-lead, organ-drenched gospel moment, it finds RAYE unspooling her thoughts on sex and her future relationships: “I'm just trying to prioritise who I grind for / Who I take my time for” she sings, backed by an all-female choir of mates. “It's an empowering record that women can hear – that anyone can hear – and just feel powerful,” she smiles. “I've experienced people talking about me and who I chose to see in a way that makes it seem like I've done something wrong, or I'm dirty, or filthy. That energy really comes through the industry like 'oh she fucked him, she did this'. Why are we being made to feel like this? It's not the same for the male artists. I shouldn't be made to feel less than because of my sex life or my choices.” The frank lyrics in that gospel context did mean she had to have a chat with the big guy upstairs. “Me and God we spoke and I was like 'yeah I'm going to be singing a song about sex over a gospel song', but that's between us and we're figuring it out,” she laughs. “The exciting thing is I get to express that in a really cool way.”
This is RAYE part two. It's RAYE on her own terms. It's the RAYE of old, but reloaded. These are songs made by RAYE, for RAYE, but within that they're for everyone who has faced and overcome adversity. They're also anthems for other women in the industry, or stuck in a cycle of misogyny. “When I was starting out the #MeToo movement hadn't existed and there was so much going on behind the scenes,” she says. “So much has changed even in the last few years alone. Labels are just one side of it because then you just have men taking advantage of young women. Then you have the mental connotations of everything you have to process, then there's body image, how you're supposed to look, how you present yourself. Then there's all that on top of feeling depressed and anxious and sad that you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing so you're self-medicating to get the job done. There are so many things within things – as a woman, as an artist – that you have to navigate.” Steadily these songs became ways of processing what RAYE had been through. “Creating this music empowered me to face my demons. I called a lot of these people up and was like 'you did this, and you did that – remember this? You owe me an apology and you're never going to be able to treat another woman like that again'. On the album I'm not going to be naming names, but I will be telling these stories. I will be explicitly fucking saying it.” As she states at the start of Hard Out Here: “All I ask of you is open your ears / 'Cause the truth ain't pretty my dear.”
Now settled with a supportive infrastructure around her – the singles and album will be released via the Human Re Sources label and independent label services company The Orchard – RAYE can focus on building on the platform all those years of hard work have afforded her. After playing, and owning the pop game, she's keen to start honing her legacy as an artist that can skip between genres at will – the three singles alone flit between hip-hop, dance and gospel – and still keep their integrity. “My ambition now is to build a fanbase,” she says. “To put on the craziest live show anyone's ever seen. My goal is to bring artistic excellence and be as great as I am capable of being. If that catches a wave, then amazing, but I'm not going to let that freak me out or steer my plans or alter my purpose.” So what is that purpose? RAYE takes a deep breath and smiles: “To put out music I love and believe in.” Mission accomplished.