Raye is gaining her power back. Not just from the industry that made her feel “mediocre” for so many years, but over past traumas she kept bottled up for a long time.
“Some of my closest friends didn’t even know some of the stuff I’m discussing on my album,” she tells Sky News. “It’s probably the most honest I’ve been. It’s deep and it’s real.”
Raye, real name Rachel Keen, is only 25 but already a music industry veteran; a platinum-selling performer and a songwriter with credits for everyone from Charli XCX and Little Mix to John Legend and Beyonce.
She was just 15 when she released her first song and 17 when all her dreams came true, in the form of a four-album contract with record label Polydor. But after years of what seemed to be a successful career as a vocalist collaborating mainly on other artists’ dance hits, in 2021 she posted a string of tweets claiming the label was holding her back from releasing her own album.
“I’m done being a polite pop star,” she wrote, her frustration and anger palpable. The singer says after years of “trying to make it work”, she had reached the point where she had nothing to lose. “You get to that breaking point, really.”
Shortly after her tweets, it was announced she and Polydor were parting ways, with the label saying the decision had been “amicable and mutual” and wishing her “all the very best for the future”.
Fast-forward 18 months or so and Raye is in a very different place; now an independent artist, earlier in January she topped the UK charts for the first time with viral hit Escapism. In February, the debut album she fought so hard to make, My 21st Century Blues, will finally be released. No longer pigeonholed or stifled, this is the real Raye, she says, and it’s been a long time coming.
“The album is discussing a lot of different topics… the deepest depths of really ugly stories about assaults and body dysmorphia and environmental anxiety. I think there’s no limit on what I’ve really spoken on in terms of my perspective on my blues as a woman in the 21st Century.”
‘It’s things I’ve been silent about for so long’
Always outspoken, Raye is not an artist who sticks to trotting out lines of approved PR-speak when she’s being interviewed, and this candidness is evident throughout her music. “Being real and transparent is really important to me, to skip out metaphors and similes and cut straight to the point of what I’m talking about,” she says. “Some of these things I haven’t also entirely healed from.
“It’s definitely going to be a rollercoaster for sure, but one that I’m making the decision to go on. That’s kind of the artist I like to be, transparent, honest. I think that’s what I’m like in real life.”
One song, Ice Cream Man, deals with sexual assault. “It’s things I’ve been silent about for so long and swallowed for so long and self-managed for so long in non-constructive ways,” she says.
“I’ve written pretty transparently about sexual violence… multiple things that occur in a life that you just bury, bury down, hide in a box, don’t tell anyone. And it just festers and manipulates itself into something quite ugly.”
As with Escapism, a dark electro banger about using alcohol, drugs and casual sex as coping mechanisms for dealing with emotional pain, the album is a contrast of often melancholy or dark lyrics, with beats that will fill a dance floor, as well as a range of genres.
“You’ve got songs with a contrasting sonic landscape,” she says. “I find it really exciting to tell a story and then the music feel the opposite so I think there’s a lot of juxtaposition there.”
Irony in its ‘most hilarious and ridiculous form’
Escapism’s success feels ironic to Raye. “With the previous music, not in a bad way, but it was more about the song than about the artist. The big dance songs or whatever, they don’t necessarily say anything about me as a person. I never necessarily wanted to be someone who did huge, huge hits, but without depth and substance or discussing things I’m passionate about, or breaking a couple of rules.
“Escapism is such a personal story. It’s kind of dark. It’s extremely explicit and honest and raw… I really told myself on the beginning of this next chapter, I’m not creating music with the intent or purpose to sell loads of copies, it’s about integrity and telling these uncomfortable stories that I think are really important.
“I had all the preparation in the world for building a small, steady fanbase bit by bit, and to not expect anything in terms of mainstream reflection. So this is like irony in its most hilarious and ridiculous form, that this is the biggest song of my entire career.”
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Despite it not necessarily being the plan, she admits topping the charts does feel like vindication.
“[I feel] like anything is possible and I was right to back myself,” she says. “Never give up on your dreams. For someone who [felt] so, like, mediocre and… such a disappointment, actually, for so long, to just receive all the affirmation in the world that I was right to back my music is just…”
She doesn’t need to finish the sentence. “For someone who puts words together for a living, I don’t necessarily really have the best words to describe how crazy this is.”
‘Fear is the driving factor of secrets’
Emboldened, Raye says artists need to speak out more about the inner workings of the industry. And despite moves to improve diversity and equality making headlines in recent years, she says misogyny is still rife.
“We do need to be telling these stories more,” she says. “I think things that happen in the darkness have so much more power than they do when they’re brought out to the light, you know? Fear is the driving factor of secrets, and truths and stories being withheld. But there is still that very sad view that women need to be guided and controlled and taught and given instructions to follow and meet these requirements.”
She sighs. “I don’t know… I think it’s probably the same for all artists but especially for women, especially for everything I’ve witnessed in 10 years in the industry. I think a lot needs to change, but I don’t think anything will truly be equal and fair until we’ve got the same amount of female CEOs as we do male CEOs, we’ve got the same amount of female staff working a video shoot as male staff, the same amount of female A&Rs, and the same amount of, you know, different ethnicities in these same roles.
“Balance overall is so important, and until we have that, there’s always going to be issues and problems when you have men deciding what they think is best for women.”
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Raye is looking to the future. She says she has had little communication with her former label bosses since she left, but wants to make it clear it wasn’t all bad. There were “some great people there who really believed in me… but obviously it came down to the big people making big decisions”, she says.
I ask her about the artwork for My 21st Century Blues; it features a little girl, dressed for the workplace but teetering in red stilettos hanging off her heels, standing atop a pile of instruments and recording equipment bearing the names of her songs, grabbing hands reaching out from inside. It feels poignant.
“That’s actually my baby sister on top of that big structure we built,” says Raye. “But that little girl up there is me, you know, seven years old, wide-eyed with a dream, not realising what the next 10 or 15 years of my life would be like.
“All the different life – in the industry and out of the industry – that I’ve had to navigate, process, understand, learn in my transition to being a woman, to being an artist, to being an independent artist. It’s been a real wild journey.”
Raye’s debut album, My 21st Century Blues, is out from 3 February