Sometimes it’s good to start over. On the last song of Raye’s debut album My 21st Century Blues. It’ll finally be out on February 3, after delays delaying the release of a full-length record for the best part of the decade – speaking directly to the listener over a gently rotating piano riff. “I waited seven years for this moment,” he says. “And My 21st Century Blues. now it is ours forever.”
A touching conclusion to an extremely hard-won victory. Born Rachel Agatha Keen in Tooting, south London, Raye is a 25-year-old music industry veteran who once saw the belly of the machine firsthand. At the age of 17, he signed a four-album deal with Polydor, but in early 2022, after years of being creatively suppressed, he publicly left the label (at the end of his arrangement, Raye was still not allowed to release an album).
Freedom followed as an independent artist under distribution company Human Re Sources. Raye and I first speak one morning in late December – she’ll spend the rest of the day at the piano writing for K-pop girl group Le Sserafim, but for now, she’s huddled on the couch with pom-chi Yoshi – and at this point, her decision to break ties was fully justified. . Released in October, her song “Escapism” featuring 070 Shake, which unexpectedly became a slow-burning TikTok hit, reached number two on the British charts (following only Mariah’s perennial year-end hit “All I”) Want for Christmas Is You’) and number one in Ireland. In the first week of January, the song became its first UK number one single.
‘Escapism’ is a story of uninhibited self-medication after drinking, drugs and heartbreak with sex, an erratic drum beat, minor chords and sharp, witty lyrics (“I don’t want to feel how my heart is breaking / I really don’t want to feel so I keep sipping”), all presided over by Raye’s dexterous vocals that go from wild to vulnerable in an instant. He is best known for writing for artists like Little Mix and Charli XCX, along with songs like “You Don’t Know Me” with Jax Jones and “Bed” with David Guetta and Joel Corry. The latest release is very different from the flamboyant “dance-pop singles formula” that was “made up” by the record label. The success of the single is a triumphant testament to the music he wanted to make and believed deeply in from the beginning.
Raye tells me the same thing when I catch her again after the UK chart-topping single and explains how it felt to be right from the start. “I was crying all day when I found out,” she says. “It shows that you need to support yourself no matter what, and it’s crazy that we did it independently! I feel like anything is possible right now.”
As she prepares to release her first album, it’s, of course, the perfect time for some forward momentum. “Finally sharing these songs with the world is just a dream come true,” Raye says. “Money can’t buy where we are right now, and that’s very exciting. These are stories I’ve wanted to share for a long time.”
Indeed, as his first feature film, My 21st Century Blues. It’s the record Raye has been waiting to make in a lifetime, and she doesn’t hold back using genres she knows, including dance pop, but there’s soul, blues, rap and R&B here as well. “There is no sonic crossover line,” she says. “I just wanted to create what was right for the story I wanted to tell. It just feels free. But what’s most remarkable is what she’s brave enough to argue about on this album: “There are things out there that some of my closest friends don’t know about me,” Raye says now. “Although it can be difficult and deceptive at times, I believe art is about being brutally honest.”
most of the songs on My 21st Century Blues. Tell jaw-droppingly candid stories about her abuse at the hands of the music industry, her thoughts on Britain’s corrupt political system, her struggles with addiction and eating disorders, as well as her experiences of sexual assault.
The latter is discussed in ‘Ice Cream Man’, which Raye began writing at age 19 (about “60 percent” of the tracks on the album are “songs I’ve owned for years but never been encouraged to share. For me, it’s music that has stood the test of time,” he explains). The piece takes place at the midpoint of the record and opens with an almost funeral-like organ sound as Raye begins to resign and discuss his experiences at the hands of a producer who invited him to make music with him.I should have heard what you said when I got there / Trying to touch me, trying to fuck me, I’m not playing”
How does it feel to have added something so painful to the music, I ask her. At first, her response was understandably ambiguous: “As a woman inside and outside of this industry, I’ve been through a lot of bad, traumatic things that I shut myself up in, didn’t talk about, that I buried. I didn’t feel like there was a place to put it. There are many worlds where I can go online or call the police, but all the shit that comes with it…plus, I’m a little squirmy even talking about it with you,” he admits, “because there’s still a lot of healing out there that needs to happen.”
“I have nothing to lose now – I had it before but not now. It’s been the most liberating thing”
But then her voice becomes more confident: “For me the power is really, that’s my disrespectful way of shouting through the microphone: ‘You know who you are and what you’re doing.’ “Unfortunately, more than one man and more than once in my life. But you’ll listen to this song and you’ll know. That’s the power.”
In the song’s chorus, Raye takes the narrative away from the men who took it from her and brings it back to herself: “I am a very brave strong woman,” he sings. And in general, he says “ethos” My 21st Century Blues. it’s about reframing and “normalis”.[ing]“Conversations on difficult topics. “I guess when you put [something difficult] He has less power over you towards the light, I guess,” Raye explains. “Maybe that’s my motivation for wanting to be so open.”
Therefore, he also speaks candidly about other topics that he covers in the recording. “Body dysmorphia is something I’ve struggled with for years,” he says, discussing the track on the album that’s named after the disorder. He remembers cases where he “put three flipping Spanx and a corset under my outfit to feel like I could go out”! I’m trying to squeeze the notes on stage and I can barely sing them! But no one will know! And elsewhere, ‘Mary Jane’ details past issues with substance abuse (which she says is “really well off” these days), particularly marijuana, codeine and alcohol.
Raye describes the track as “a love song to my addiction.” I was once so lonely and failing everyone I loved, and I couldn’t explain why. Again, something no one will know. We keep it silent. You hear substance abuse beautified by rappers, but historically it has always been disgusting for a woman to open up about this sort of thing or be punished for it. Look what they did to Amy, you know? By the way, these things that we are so afraid to talk about, especially as women, are eating us alive.”
As an artist, these are topics Raye has long wanted to discuss, and it’s ridiculous that she didn’t; He’s as brilliant an ambassador as his socially conscious male peers like Stormzy and Dave. She says she “didn’t know how to convey that narrative while releasing songs like the ones I’ve released, polishing her heartbreak with happy pop.”
But Raye feels she’s “spoken what I had to say” ever since she left her company and took full control of her debut. It’s kind of like a fearless air,” she says. “I have nothing to lose now – I had it before but not now. It was the most liberating thing.” It really looks like a weight has been lifted from him.
While she describes her independent status as “a feeling that money can’t buy” in some ways, she admits that Raye “takes a long time to adjust”. “It took some time to get rid of the things that were limiting the creative process,” he says of the general restrictions imposed on him during his time at Polydor. Then she laughs: “Being the boss of my career feels like something new, which is crazy!”
But to get to this point, he had to shut himself down to some degree. “I went through recovery,” Raye recalls. He says in February 2022: “Right after I became independent, I went to Sam Fender’s after-party at the BRIT Awards and he was at their company, so I went to all of them and said, ‘Hey!’ I faced everyone! One escaped from me,” she laughs, “but everyone else was so kind. We had a nice chat and I was able to find some kind of peace.”
This left Raye free to collect the loot of whatever came to her for a long time. 2023 will see her finally debut My 21st Century Blues., tour and make more music, finally stepping into himself as the artist he always was. “I’m just going to enjoy this moment,” he tells me. “I will enjoy being right to support myself.” Then she exhaled, taking it all in. “We’re here now.”