Sound of 2017: Raye
Pop singer Raye has come third in BBC Music’s Sound Of 2017 list, which aims to predict the most exciting new musicians of the year.
“I want to be as big as the biggest artists out there,” says the 18-year-old, who hails from Croydon, in south London.
Despite her age, she already has an impressive amount of material under her belt, a result of eight years of determined songwriting, singing and recording.
A Brit School drop-out, she released her debut EP Welcome to the Winter in 2014, and her distinctive, sultry vocals quickly attracted high-profile fans like Nas and Charli XCX, who co-wrote Raye’s breakthrough single I, U, Us. In return, Raye worked on Charli’s current hit, After the Afterparty.
The singer, born Rachel Keen, spoke to the BBC about her religious upbringing, writing for Rihanna and how a car crash almost ruined her career before it started.
When did you decide you wanted to be a singer?
Pretty young. I’d say about eight. I was pretty sure.
Who did you see on the television and think, ‘I want to be them one day?’
Well, we used to watch X Factor every week – but I was brought up in the church. My dad used to lead worship and my mum would sing in the choir, so there was always music going on.
Did they teach you to play, too?
My dad used to sit me at the piano as a little kid. I’d on sit his lap and push his hands out of the way, like, “I can do it!”
When did you first perform on stage?
There was a talent show in primary school and I remember going at it every year. In the second year, I wrote my own song – I would have been about 10 – and I performed it to the whole school.
What was it about?
I kid you not, I improvised the whole thing! I called it Sometimes, based off the Ella [Fitzgerald] tune, but I was just improvising words.
You’re a Brit School drop-out…
I am! I did two years and learned an extensive amount… but nobody there liked pop music. It’s all cool, underground, indie artists. I did a song called Hotbox, and I was scared to play it to people because I was like, “Oh, my friends might think this is moist [embarrassing].”
I felt confined. I was ready to get out.
And of course Hotbox turned out to be hugely important…
Yeah, Olly from Years and Years heard it, and that got me my record deal.
How did you write that song?
When I first went to the Brit School, everyone would have these wild parties. I remember going to a friend’s house and someone started rolling a massive joint. I was like, “Oh my God: drugs!”
I was just 14 and I said “no thanks” but I became stoned anyway because the room became a big cloud, do you know what I mean? I felt really scared but safe but worried – and I expressed that in the song. It’s very anecdotal.
Your first EP, Welcome to the Winter, sounds like a soul record… but your new music is more pop. Why is that?
Welcome to the Winter was influenced by Jhene Aiko and Drake. On the second EP, I wasn’t trying to copy anyone else. We did six key changes in one song! It pushes boundaries and it’s exactly where I want to head with my music.
In a 1Xtra interview, you said you “had to evolve and compromise in order to find an audience”. What did you mean by that?
With Welcome to the Winter, I realised nobody really cared other than the cool kids in London. Annie Mac wouldn’t play it, other people wouldn’t play it. It was really disheartening.
So I had to find a way to do what I want, in a way that people would hear it. It took a long time of frustration and writing, but I found music that has that kind of power.
How did you end up writing I, U, Us with Charli XCX?
I was in a writing camp where Charli came into the room. We had food in the studio, we were running around, having a wicked time, and we did three or four vibes.
I, U, Us was one of those. We knew when we played it back to everyone at the end that it had something special.
When you talk about writing camps, I have a vision of you, out in the wilderness, sitting in a tent while someone strums a ukulele. Please tell me that’s true.
Haha! Some writing camps are very weird and factory-like, but often it’s just a couple of rooms. You rotate across the period of a week to work with loads of different people.
Sometimes, it’s a concentrated thing for one specific artist. I remember going to the Rihanna writing camp: they booked out a massive studio, and they’d have a writer in each room, trying to churn out as many songs as they could. There’s a lot of pressure, but you do get songs.
What happens to the discarded ones. Can you nab them for yourself?
Yes, if the other writers agree. But if you only contribute a couple of lines, it’s not really your song to take.
How did you end up singing on Jonas Blue’s single, By Your Side?
So my friend’s dad is an Uber driver, and he happened to pick up Jonas Blue. And he says: “You have to hear this girl called Raye. She’s so good.” He was banging on about it for the whole journey, so Jonas didn’t have any option but to listen to it… and then he loved it and reached out to my label saying, “I’d love to get Raye on this song”.
But it nearly ended in tragedy…
Yeah, I was driving to his studio and some idiot came and knocked me off the road and I crashed my car into a lamp post.
How were you able to sing after that?
I was in tears. It had really shaken me up. But I had to pull it together, because it’s a very beautiful and upbeat and happy song.
You’ve just supported Jess Glynne on her UK arena tour. What went through your head the first time you played to 10,000 people?
I was really lucky it was a whole tour because I was able to become more confident every night. Obviously it’s a support slot, so you’ve got to work triple as hard, but I ended up bloody loving it. If you’d seen the last show compared to the last show, the difference was just wicked.
Is the goal to do your own arena tour some day?
My goal is to be the biggest singer I can be. I want to be as big as the biggest artists out there – a Katy Perry or a Taylor Swift.
That’s going to involve a lot of costume changes.
OK, not the costumes – but an artist on that international level. I can’t think of a comparison, but maybe that’s a good thing. I just want to be someone new.