“People knew my songs, but they didn’t know me”
A a year ago, RAYE called out his label, Polydor, for delaying his debut album. Still. “I did everything they asked of me, I changed my gender, I worked 7 days a week,” she wrote on Twitter. “Ask anyone in the music game, they know. I’m done being a polite pop star. I want to do my album now, please, that’s all I want.
RAYE’s public expression of his intense frustration – “I’m sick of it hurting” – sent shockwaves through the music industry. How could an artist who had been signed since 2014 and scored nine UK Top 40 singles feel so smothered? The situation became even more confusing when you factored in RAYE’s parallel hustle as an in-demand songwriter who wrote for Beyoncé (“Bigger”), Mabel (“Let Them Know”) and Charli XCX. (“After The Afterparty”).
At the time, RAYE was high on the charts with “Bed,” a must-see dance collaboration with David Guetta and Joel Corry that has now amassed 350 million Spotify streams. But according to RAYE, that wasn’t enough: his euphoric single “Call On Me” was to “to succeed” for the album to get the green light.
it’s fair to say shit hit the fan, and three weeks later RAYE announced that she had parted ways with Polydor. “Polydor is an incredible powerful infrastructure team,” she said. wrote graciously. “Unfortunately, we had different artistic goals and I am so grateful to them for giving me a smooth and graceful exit to begin my next chapter as an artist.” After eight years on a major label, RAYE found herself navigating uncharted and potentially choppy waters as an independent artist.
“It’s weird,” she says. NME today as we sit in the kitchen of her south London home, a few miles from Croydon, where she grew up. “When you sign with a record company, technically they work for you: you sign with a company so that they work for your career and take you to the next level. But as a woman, it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like working for their. And you know, some of the things that I had to do to my body to even be able to do that…it’s really, really sad.
JThroughout our hour-long conversation, born artist Rachel Agatha Keen is as warm and direct as she always has been. She is also a relaxed hostess: some musicians would wince at the idea of welcoming a journalist into their home, but RAYE puts NME completely at ease making coffee and chatting about ABBA’s virtual concert residency. However, there are times in the interview where it’s clear she’s holding back parts of her story until a later date when it makes sense to share them. After regaining control of her career, RAYE isn’t about to let her narrative run away from her.
Yet when she declared a year ago that she was “done being a polite pop star,” RAYE was not making an empty threat. “All white male CEOs – fuck your privilege!” she sings on her brilliant new single “Hard Out Here,” an uncompromising slice of confessional pop. “Get your chubby pink hands out of my mouth / ‘Damn you think this is it? I said to my lawyer, ‘Wait – there’s no anger like a woman scorned.’
It’s scathing, invigorating, boundless, and the lead single from what would eventually become RAYE’s debut album. “If you’re going to listen to these lyrics and get offended, then in my opinion, you have to look within yourself,” she says. “It’s the reality of how it is. At the end of the day, I felt like for a long time in my career I had someone’s hand over my mouth and I wasn’t saying what I really wanted to say.
RAYE wrote ‘Hard Out Here’ after blowing up Polydor, but before she and the label agreed to part ways. It’s as if the creative process is almost a stream of consciousness. “It was an old track that I took the beat from and wrote a whole new song,” she recalls. “I was crying, I was writing and I was so angry and hurt. I needed this song. Once I finished writing it, I was running around the garden like crazy singing the lyrics.
She says the song is “baby i’m bouncing” the line is particularly stimulating for her. “I created this song to remind myself of who I am,” RAYE says, his body language both proud and defiant.
“Hard Out Here” isn’t the first song RAYE has released as an independent artist. In March, she teamed up with Disclosure for the catchy UK garage flavored ‘Waterfall’. This added to his already impressive appeal of club-ready collabs, including 2016’s ‘You Don’t Know Me’ with Jax Jones, 2017’s ‘Decline’ with Mr. Eazi, 2020’s ‘Secrets’ with Regard and ‘Bed of last year with Joël Corry and David Guetta.
But ‘Hard Out Here’ represents a very deliberate change of direction. Lyrics are a world away “I have a bed, but I’d rather be in yours tonight.” In the final verse, RAYE alludes to suicidal thoughts, addiction issues, and a possible experience of abuse. “What do you know about systems? / About drugged drinks, fucking almost die of addictions”, she sings. “You begin to wonder why I’m a Christian / Without the Lord I’d take my life.”
Does she sing about the things she owed “to pass his body” just to stay afloat in major label purgatory? Did she feel like she needed to drink to play a role? “I’m not even going to lie: it goes beyond drinking, and I talk about it on this album”, replies cautiously RAYE. “You know, I don’t want to get into that now, but when these songs come out, I’d like to sit down with you again and really explain that.”
She stops to think. “You know, it’s also uncomfortable, I think, as a woman. These things that happen behind the scenes are not attractive to talk about. They are not comfortable or pleasant to talk to. They are troublesome. When RAYE’s sister asked her if she really wanted to address these topics on the album, the answer was an unequivocal “yes”. “It’s the reality of what I experienced: what I hid, what I repressed and what I pretended not to happen,” she says. “But that was also what I had to do to get the job done. And it wasn’t just me, although I will never tell another woman’s story.
RAYE knows what it takes to overcome this discomfort and speak out against deeply toxic behavior. If ‘Hard Out Here’ is basically cathartic, his next single ‘Black Mascara’ is definitely a flex. “Try to figure out what you did to me, what you did to me” she sings to percolating club beats. It’s a song that evokes not only the tears on the dance floor, but also the rage and retaliation aimed at the “selfish man” she refers in the lyrics.
“The dance community is super male dominated, super male driven, and a lot of people in the dance industry don’t even do their shit. It’s wild,” she said. “So I think releasing a dance song on my own, in a kind of unique way, is super empowering.” It’s also “a little nod” to fans who love his dance bangers. “I love RAYE dancing too, but that’s not the only thing I’m into,” she says. “And that’s really the problem.” She goes on to explain the creative compromise of “changing genres” at her label’s request, which she mentioned in her 2021 tweets.
“When I was 17, I had an 11-track R&B album [in the bag]“, she recalls. But then I put pen to paper [on my record contract], and all of a sudden it was like, ‘OK, we need you to learn how to make music that sells.’ RAYE was sent to Sweden to “study the mathematics of songwriting” and really applied herself. “I’ve gotten good at writing those big hooks that stick in your head,” she says. “But where it got complicated was I became ‘rent-a-verse’. It was like, ‘Put RAYE on this artist’s trail.’ And so people would know my songs, but they wouldn’t necessarily know me.
“I felt like for a long time in my career I had someone’s hand over my mouth”
“Rent-a-verse” might be a very blunt way to describe her place in the industry, but the majority of RAYE’s most-streamed songs have been collaborations with male DJ-producers, to which she admits. have mixed feelings now.
“It did amazing things for me: the places where I could play, where my music traveled,” she says. “But it’s Jax Jones, it’s Joel Corry. People don’t say, ‘Who’s the singer behind this? I want to go see her.’ For much of my career, I’ve helped lift men to the next level. But when that blow is over…” RAYE trails off. “You know, that’s a hard thing to deal with.” Too often, she heard his song on the radio, but the DJ only mentioned the male artist’s name, not her own.
Considering everything RAYE has endured in the music industry – slights, sexism, much worse – it’s no wonder she’s so determined now to “do as I please”. She even achieved something of a close at this year’s BRIT Awards by working up the courage to hop on the Polydor party bus. She purged the air with her former team members and at least received a proper apology. “You know what [someone] tell me?” RAYE said somewhat incredulously. “‘No one in all of Polydor could challenge me by saying that you were the hardest working artist on our roster.'”
RAYE admits to this “kind of validating” feeling, but then slightly berates herself for saying it. She’s moved on and is looking to the future, which includes an incredibly exciting songwriting assignment with the real J.Lo. “I’m on the other side now and so blessed to be gone [from Polydor] with all my songs: everything of them,” she said. The goal now is to build your own profile and fanbase, not to improve someone else’s. “I just want to be seen as an artist,” she says, “which is a weird thing to admit, because that’s obviously my job title, but I haven’t always felt like one in my career until now. now.”
Still, RAYE doesn’t intend to dwell on regrets. “Hun, I feel the most at peace,” she adds with a smile. “I am happier than I have ever felt before.”
– RAYE’s independently released ‘Hard Out Here’ is out now
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