She’s written songs for some of the biggest artists in the business, but now it’s Raye’s turn in the spotlight...
With two massive hit singles under her belt (Secrets and Tequila with Jax Jones and Martin Solveig) singer-songwriter Raye (real name Rachel Agatha Keen) has amassed over 1 billion streams of her music, as well as writing for artists like Beyoncé, John Legend, Little Mix and Ellie Goulding, to name but a handful. Her latest single, Natalie Don’t, is part of an upcoming seven-track music project, expected later this summer. Here, she fills us in on the inspiration behind it…
Your new music was inspired by the seven stages of grief. Can you tell us about it?
Over the last two years I had my first taste of real heartbreak and losing someone you love, so I was writing and picking out songs that really pinpointed these different stages. I’m very dramatic – I’m a Scorpio and feel love very intensely. I was on tour with Khalid when I was in stage one. And even though I had been apart from this person for a while, it hit me really hard. I would come off stage crying and I posted stories with tears in my eyes, like ‘I’m so heartbroken’! I was losing my mind but I ended up writing Love Me Again. And gradually, as I’ve been healing and understanding the different stages, I completed the seven stages with my final song. Now, I’m ready to wrap it up and put it into a project so people can understand how I’ve handled the loss of love.
What an amazing way to deal with heartache, to create. It must feel cathartic?
For sure. I feel so blessed I can put my heartache and negative energy into creating something beautiful. It’s saved me – without that, I don’t know what I would have turned to to find my comfort.
Natalie Don’t is inspired by Dolly Parton. Was she an influence growing up?
I think Dolly Parton is one of the best songwriters of of all time. And the song Jolene, I remember hearing it as a little girl and being very moved – as I think every human being is. There’s something about the energy of that song that I experienced myself and I wanted to translate it in my own way. But because I was aware that Jolene has been executed in the most incredible way, I wanted to make sure I mentioned the song in my song so people weren’t like, ‘Oh, Raye’s stealing it’. I wanted people to know I’ve heard Jolene and this is my modern-day Jolene.
Dolly famously plays a lot of instruments. Do you?
I play the piano and a little bit of guitar. I used to play the cello and the flute. I’m a proper muso. And now I’m officially an engineer because over lockdown I bought all these different compressors and microphones. So now I can go into the studio, record my own vocals and hand it in. It’s really great these skills I’m learning.
As a female artist, does the ability to create and put out your own music without needing help feel empowering?
100%. I just got an email from my teacher at Brit school who wanted me to come and speak to the kids. I remember being in school like, ‘One day, I want to do well enough that I’m invited back’. And I was thinking, what would I tell them? Well, I’d say, you need to be independent, especially as a woman. Because coming up in the industry and walking into these rooms, if you don’t understand what’s going on, you become dispensable. Being able to create – with or without a man in the room – is so important. Learning how to use software, how to use equipment, knowing what microphone you need to use. It’s all really important.
You’ve spoken about equality within the industry and predatory producers. Is that something you’ve experienced personally?
I’ve experienced it more times than I can count, in many different shapes and forms. From commenting on what I’m wearing to ‘Oh Raye, can you come to this room? Let’s talk for a bit’ then…bang. Even when I go to the studio, I feel I can’t dress how I want to dress. I have to put a big T-shirt and trackies on, you know? I’m not saying every male producer is like that because that’s not the case. There are so many incredible lovely producers I feel completely safe around, but there are also a lot I don’t feel comfortable around. It’s really sad that I now make sure I bring a friend with me so that I’m protected and not vulnerable, because you just never know what can happen. These little things have happened so many times, not just to me but a lot of female artists.
Yeah, especially when I’m quite loud and confident. I’ll speak up if I feel something’s wrong or I feel uncomfortable and say ‘I don’t feel well, I’m leaving’. But I know artists who aren’t confident can be so easily manipulated with, ‘If you do this for me then I’ll help your career’. It’s nuts to be honest. But I think since the #MeToo movement things are starting to improve because men realise if you fuck up now, you’re going to get caught.
Who else inspired you growing up?
Jill Scott really inspired me growing up. I fell in love with her album Who Is Jill Scott, it’s one of my favourites. Nina Simone was another very big one. Her tone of voice is unmatched and she really took a risk, speaking out to the black community at a time when everyone around her – including her manager – was like, ‘Don’t do it’. She was like, ‘I’m gonna play these hard-to-listen-to songs about what’s happening to my black people in front of a white audience and you’re going to listen to it!’. I was so moved by that bravery. I listened to a lot of gospel music as well.
You’ve written for some huge artists. Who would you like to write for next?
Alicia Keys was another of my favourites growing up – The Diary of Alicia Keys was my first album purchase. I went to ASDA in Mitcham with my dad and bought it. I’d would absolutely love to be on the piano and write something with Alicia. I’d love to work with Gnarls Barkley too, I’m so inspired by his song Crazy. It’s of my favourite songs of all time, it’s timeless. His production style and writing, it’s amazing.
How was writing for Beyoncé?
Beyoncé’s B’ Day was my second album purchase. So it’s like, life coming back at you full-swing, it’s insane. Her team heard music I’d been making in Ghana with a producer called Guilty Beatz who is one of the most talented Afrobeat producers, period. They got hold of some of the songs and asked me to be part of the process for The Lion King. I ended up on the red carpet, with her [Beyoncé] being like, ‘We’re making Bigger track one on the album and we shot a video for it, I can’t wait for you to see it, thank you so much – I think you’re an incredible artist’. Having that from your idol is nuts.
How did that feel?
It’s really affirming because I’ve been hustling for a long time. I signed my deal when I was 17. I’m 22 now and I still haven’t released an album. I’m still working to breakthrough. I’ve had success, but I still haven’t broken through the roof yet. So hearing that from your idol, like, ‘You’re doing the right thing, you are good at what you do’….
Did you feel the pressure writing for her?
Yeah. Luckily I work really well under pressure. For me, when the pressure is on, I just flip into this new gear and become this machine like ‘right, this is my mission’. I wrote maybe 30 songs for that project. There’s so much behind the scenes and people don’t realise how much goes into getting that. I worked hard for that.
How do you write? Do you keep voice notes in your phone if a phrase or a melody comes to you?
Yeah, for sure. If I have ideas I’ll jot something down on my phone or record a voice note. For me, there’s no real set way. It’s just a gut instinct you develop. When you do something loads, you get better at it. If you’re a terrible runner but you run every day you can do a marathon. When I started writing songs, I really worked hard at my songwriting craft to the point I understand the Swedish perspective. In Sweden, Max Martin and his camp are famous for the mathematics of music, the repetition, the synergy…It’s a combination of different styles of writing and creating, then you apply it. It means I can be writing songs with John Legend on piano, then pop songs for Little Mix, then really heartfelt mellow ballads for Beyoncé. It’s probably the ability I’m most confident of in life.
Do you think there’s a misconception that songwriters are just naturally talented and don’t have to work at it?
A thousand percent. I saw this video of Rosalia on a talent show years ago and I listened to her sing, and I was like, ‘Wait, that’s not the same Rosalia’. My girl went away and trained and worked at her song-writing, her voice, her art, her perspective. People think you just wake up and you’re talented overnight. No way does it work like that. She became the artist she is today because she put the hard work in. It’s really inspiring.
How do you cope with fame?
Because it’s been a long process it’s kind of normal now. It’s not intense, it’s never been like I can’t sit down at restaurants. More often than not I’ve gone places and people are too scared to say hi and DM me. It’s really cute. I’m a really friendly person, I love people and I love talking – I wish they’d say hi.
And social media?
Social media is probably my least favourite part of being an artist. It’s weirdly addictive and mentally dangerous at its worst. I think everyone can relate to this, but if you post something, if it does really well, you feel really good. And if it doesn’t, you feel sad. I make sure I delete my apps on a regular basis. I’ll let my sister sometimes have it on her phone, so I don’t have to look at it. I’ve definitely been reducing my social media intake and I think it’s important for everyone to make sure that you don’t dwell on it because otherwise you start to lose your mind. People forget Instagram is a highlights reel.
I have a bucket list. Number one is I want a Brit award. It’s been a dream ever since I was a little girl. Last year I was on the sofa, watching the Brits, crying my eyes out, like, ‘One day I will be on that stage, I know it!’. Even if I’m 45 years old when I finally hit my moment, I’m not stopping. I want to go skydiving, to visit every continent, to try different types of foods, to travel. I want to sell out the O2 Arena two nights in a row. I’ve got big dreams!
How would you like to be remembered?
I know when people see me they see a pop artist, a singer, whatever. But when I earn my platform I really want to address important things. I want to be known as that artist who said things that were uncomfortable and people weren’t ready to hear, but it made a difference.
RAYE’s new single ‘Natalie Don’t’ is out now and her EP follows later this summer