It cannot be ignored. Tears are streaming down Raye (24)’s cheeks. The British singer apologizes from her south London living room with wine red walls: “I just can’t stop today.”
The reason is understandable. A few hours before this conversation, she learned that her song ‘Escapism’, the kick drum-led explicit account of a rather self-destructive night of drink and drugs, is number 1 in the UK charts. Over the past month, the number crept up steadily, to linger in second place, to drop again at Christmas and this morning the call came from her father: “We did it.”
Rachel Keen, aka Raye, daughter of a Ghanaian-Swiss mother and British father, finds herself reeling as she tries to explain what is going through her mind. Ten years ago she released her first song. At the age of seventeen she signed a major recording contract for four albums with Polydor. An early, promising career move, but to her frustration, she sat in the waiting room of the record company for years without giving a reason.
No own album. Despite delivering stacks of mainstream top 40 songs like “You Don’t Know Me.” Or much slicker ‘bangers’ produced by hit smith David Guetta, such as ‘Bed’ and ‘You Can’t Change Me’. Raye also co-wrote songs that eventually came to the name of big names such as Beyoncé, John Legend, Charli XCX and girl group Little Mix. In June 2021, she announced her plight via Twitter: “Imagine this pain. I have had a contract with a major label since 2014. Album after album is gathering dust. Now I give those songs away to A artists because I’m still waiting for confirmation that I’m good enough to release an album.”
After seven caged years, Raye finally broke free from her label last year. Her ‘comeback’ is ‘an ascent of the steepest slopes on a mountain’. But upstairs she planted a mega flag. ‘Escapism’ tops the British charts, rises in the US Billboard top 100 (now 43) and for what it’s worth: here she has Megahit on 3FM.
But that she herself released her debut album on February 3 as an independent artist My 21st Century Blues is really the ultimate confirmation that she had to keep believing in herself, says Raye. That it was about her art, and not about budgets, figures and positions. “I have put my whole life and heart into music,” she sniffs. “Again, sorry for crying. Real.”
A few months ago, Tolhuistuin, Amsterdam. An intimate showcase à l’improviste: Raye sings songs at the piano in a red leather jacket. Her guitarist on the right. She finds it liberating to be able to share this with a dedicated audience. The singer was not planning it, but suddenly it was two and a half hours later. On a stool comes the ballad “Bigger” which is on Beyoncé’s album The Lion King, The Gift landed. Beautiful. But especially a biting song like ‘Hard Out Here’, her fattest middle finger to the music industry with its „white CEOs. Fuck their privileges”, arrives.
I’ve waited a very long time and I don’t want to hide anything anymore
Raye has managed to turn her words into her weapon. The impressive album My 21st Century Blues is her personal story – a modern electronic blues from a woman of our time. Between the brooding, nonchalant abandon of Amy Winehouse and the mischievous directness of former shock diva Lady Gaga comes Raye. She wraps heavy subjects in sharp dance rhythms, dark stacked synth layers, crackling beats or more thumping basses and computer manipulated vocals. Above all, there is her voice: a confident tongue-rolling flow in raps, pleasantly vintage soulful with high notes to alienatingly electronically distorted.
She wants to be “transparent”, straight to the point – nothing can stop her anymore. But it is a heavy clod. Raye sings and raps about her past alcohol and drug addiction and being drugged, the fears that plague her, the toxic masculinity she encountered and her obsession with her appearance that eventually led to body dysmorphic disorder (aka BDD, or morphodysphoria). She also does not leave sexual abuse undiscussed. And then there is the eco-anxiety (climate stress) that is not unfamiliar to many people in their twenties.
Music as therapy? She nods. “I’ve waited a very long time and I don’t want to hide anything anymore.” Is it easier for her to communicate about these experiences through music? “Absolute. Moreover, melody and sounds contribute to the emotion you want to convey. ‘Escapism’ tells a sad story, but it feels powerful because of the thick, layered music foundation underneath. The song ‘Body Dysmorphia’ is smooth r&b-like music, but the scratchy strings in the intro give an uncomfortable feeling.”
It is remarkable how Raye spares no effort in her song. Not at all, she says. “There is power in making public feelings that you usually keep to yourself!” Take the mournful electro-pop track ‘Body Dysmorphia’. She mercilessly names the imperfections of her body in her eyes. “I hate the way my face is square, I hate my arms inside the sleeves.”
With good reason, she says. “How many people will also go through this? Music heals. I want to be honest about it, not using metaphors. Because I was so depressed, I used to perform with up to four corsets on, I was so uncomfortable with the way I looked. And because no one saw what I see, I was very lonely. And now I think, someone could benefit from this.”
Some songs have been around for years. Although some themes are still relevant, she is now more comfortable in her own skin. In ‘Mary Jane’ she sings, accompanied by a dry drum beat and a rhythm guitar, how the intoxication of weed intoxicated her heavy thoughts at the time. “Drugs are everywhere,” says Raye. “But for women it is a taboo to talk about this. It’s too un-sexy, unattractive. So you keep it a secret. You can isolate something like that. Now I want to convey how bad it is for you to take drugs. And that it’s okay to ask for help.”
Abuse and impotence
The upbeat dance track ‘Black Mascara’ with spinning synthesizers tells the raw story of drugging (drugs in a drink unnoticed) and deception. “There is always the shame of talking about dire situations. It feels like attention seeking. And yet you must open your mouth and say: what have you done to me! With music you can turn something ugly into something beautiful.”
But she admits, performing live “Icecream Man,” a rather detailed, candid song about abuse, is sometimes harder than she thought. The powerlessness in the song is palpable and does not leave the listener cold. “Reliving raw, dark experiences I had as a child is intense. But you know, the stats are unbelievable. One in four people will experience something like this in their life. I do this for them.” Suddenly cheerful: “But I think I need a therapist on standby during the tour.”
She must have been ten years old when Raye clearly stated to her father that she was becoming an artist. Since then she has done everything she can to learn exactly what that entails: singing lessons, composing songs, playing instruments, in her case piano, cello, flute, and she knows everything about various electronic techniques. Like her example Amy Winehouse, she wanted to go to the famous Brit School (Performing and Creative arts). With ‘Summertime’, the languid version of Ella Fitzgerald, she was hired at the age of fourteen.
Raye says that when she was in the running for the lead role in a biopic about Amy Winehouse, she dived deep into her work. “I recognize a lot in her survival instinct, the problems she had. Many of her idols are mine too: Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong, Dionne Warwick. I also love sixties jazz, the energy of big bands.”
At home she grew up with R&B and gospel. This can be heard in the final part of her album ‘Buss it Down’, in which she closes her album, the life mosaic of broken glass pieces, with a choir. “These have all been important stories that I want to tell,” says Raye. “Ha, maybe my second album is trauma-free. I dream of mixing styles, of connecting genres. I want soulful gospel roots with real instruments.”
Raye’s My 21 First Century Blues comes out 3/2.
Concert: 25/2 Melkweg, Amsterdam
A version of this article also appeared in the January 12, 2023 newspaper