“I know that music for me is all about empowerment.”
When she began song-writing in earnest, emerging young Croydon star Raye started asking herself some serious questions. She may only be 18 years old, but as Raye’s mature, considered and irresistible music suggests, there is a wise head on her shoulders way advanced for her age. “As you’re developing as an artist,” she says, “you have to think what mark do I want to make? What story do I want to tell? What audience do I want to reach?” For Raye, there was only one answer to these issues. “I know that music for me is all about empowerment.”
And as a songwriter and collaborator Raye has already been making huge waves, working with the likes of Labrinth, Stormzy, Emeli Sande, Charli XCX, Illangelo, Wretch 32, Jimmy Napes, Two Inch Punch, MNEK and Alex Da Kid. This alongside co-writing Blonde's recent Top 5 smash 'All Cried Out'. A South London girl with big international prospects, Raye wants to "take over the world if I can. I’m young and I’ve been given a crazy opportunity and so I don’t see why not, if I work hard enough. I just want to give everything to my music, so it can stand next to the people I love, the music that inspires me every day.”
And it was this inspiration that also touched Olly from Years & Years. So much so that Raye holds him responsible for her recent signing to Polydor Records. As Raye explains, “Olly heard Hotbox on Hype Machine. He got really excited about it and spoke about it in a couple of interviews, which was wonderful. He’s such a nice guy. Love him.” Proving he could put his money where his mouth is, he recommended the EP to the head of his record label, Polydor. A showcase was arranged at Shoreditch House resulting in the full weight of a major label behind her unique gift. “I knew that something special happened that night. I really began believing in myself.”
Raye was born Rachel Keen in 1997 in Tooting, the daughter of a father from Yorkshire and mother with heritage in Ghana and Switzerland. She learnt to sing in church before reigning in her gospel holler and starting to explore something more restrained and bespoke in her immaculate singing voice, finding her pop path. A teacher spotted Raye’s incredible gift for singing early, before High School and encouraged her to begin expressing herself in song. Young Raye would write with her dad at the keys and teacher playing guitar, explaining some of her astonishing lack of self-consciousness as an artist now.
She began beat-making and song-writing at 11 when an uncle introduced her to garage-band software but soon began shredding the received conventions of contemporary pop composition. “There are certain rules that people teach you about writing a song,”she says. “You have to put your pre-chorus here and your chorus there and it has to be 3minutes and 20seconds long and blah, blah. I just learned those rules in order to push the boundaries as hard as I could. You have to learn those rules so that you can unlearn them and create your own space.” Raye attended the BRITS school for two years before leaving at 16 to spend her time songwriting and recording, wanting to achieve her goals on her own terms.
Raye's catalogue of impeccable influences cut deep, offering a clue to where she is coming from musically and lyrically. She was born deep into the golden age of R&B, the year that The Miseducation of… Lauryn Hill, a perennial favourite was released. The first sounds she heard rattling through her South London home, one that was knee-deep in the music of her parents were the jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Billie Holliday. She developed an early taste for Aaliyah, gravitated to the neo-soul delights of Jill Scott (“Who is Jill Scott is my bible!”), Angie Stone and Jasmine Sullivan, before being slayed by Amy, the artist who seemed to connect all those dots together so effortlessly and meaningfully. “Yes, there can be a formula to writing songs,” she notes, “but do you want to be a formulaic artist? None of my heroes were. Why should I?”
When she uploaded her first EP, Welcome to the Winter, to soundcloud last year, Raye proved to be as good as her word. A brooding mix of deep electronica and Jazz Café attitude was tightly bound to her clear eye for a gleaming pop hook. As an opening mission statement it couldn’t have been any clearer or more effective. Of the seven tracks that gathered immediate heat, Raye had always considered the mid-paced kiss-off Bet U Wish to be the central track. The 1.5million listeners that have hit it up may agree.
The plans for Raye have got ever more exciting since inking her deal with Polydor. To get a full flavour of her influences, next on the cards is a more hip-hop flavoured, street EP, which will feature "I U US" a track written with collaborator and friend Charli XCX. Grime MC du jour, Stormzy appears on 'Ambition'. “I was at his show in Stockholm. I went back-stage and he said to me, 'somebody I really trust told me that you are an alien and you’re the future.” “I was like, wow, I’ve got this track, will you guest on it? He went away and a few hours later he’d nailed it.”
Raye has youth, talent, a cavalcade of amazing influences, peer group support and a dextrous songwriting talent on her side. Then there is that voice. “Every artist I’ve ever had a eureka moment with, it’s always been about tone. I am in love with tone, the personality that you hear shining through on records. I’m never happy with a vocal I’ve delivered unless you can tell, straight away that it’s me.”