“I was skewed and manipulated for years,” says the singer-songwriter known as Raye. “I was giving my heart and soul to music, while my confidence was being constantly chipped away and compromised.”
Born Rachel Keen in London 25 years ago, Raye has made the first great album of 2023. My 21st Century Blues is a powerhouse collection of vulnerable, witty, provocative songs that refract vintage R’n’B through the poppy prism of digital hip-hop. It is also a dazzling showcase for a voice as soulful as Amy Winehouse’s and an attitude as bold as Beyoncé’s – and, astonishingly, a record that the music industry never wanted Raye to make.
Although the album is her first, Raye is neither a new face nor an unknown commodity. An alumna of the Brit School – the Croydon performing arts college whose famous former students include both Adele and Winehouse – Keen has been releasing music as Raye since 2014. She signed a four-album deal with major label Polydor when she was 17, scored her first top 20 hit in 2016 and established herself as a prolific purveyor of catchy dance-pop, achieving a fistful of hits and tens of millions of streams, while forging a parallel career writing songs for other acts, including Little Mix, Mabel, Zara Larsson, John Legend and Beyoncé. Even if you don’t think you know Raye, you will have heard her voice blaring from a car radio or across a dance floor.
We are talking in her home in Streatham, south London – a plush faux-Georgian terrace painted in bold colours, its stylishly spartan living room dominated by a baby grand piano. “My songwriting paid for this,” she says, lounging on a huge sofa, dressed in black designer leisurewear, hair perfectly coiffed. “Travelling here and there, balancing an artist’s career with a writing career. I worked for this house, I’ll tell you that.”
Raye is animated in conversation, laughing freely, sighing expressively – and she doesn’t pull her punches. When I ask if she composes her dance-pop hits on the living room piano, her eyes widen comically. “They could start there,” she says. “I mean, dance music is a simple chord structure, a hook, and then you put drums on it and some synths. It’s very formulaic – maths and science. You chip away at something and manoeuvre it to be this perfect earworm: three minutes 20; nothing under 150 beats per minute.” If she takes any pleasure in having mastered the form, she’s not letting on. “It’s so tired,” she says. “These rules suck all the joy out.”
Raye’s first top 20 hit was as a featured artist on 2016’s By Your Side, by the British record producer Jonas Blue. “I didn’t feel connected to it,” she says now. “I found the whole process unenjoyable.” She reached number three in the UK in February last year with Bed, which was created with super-producers Joel Corry and David Guetta and has been streamed on Spotify more than 300 million times. “Joel is a lovely guy, David is passionate about dance music, but it was a silly little pitch I made as a songwriter,” Raye tells me. “I never wanted to put my name on it. It rejuvenated my career, and I’m thinking ‘If people heard only this song from me, I’d be ashamed.’”
On the wall of Raye’s studio hangs a poster of her musical heroine, Nina Simone, emblazoned with a quotation: an artist’s duty is to reflect the times. “I’d stare at Nina, and be like, ‘What the f--- am I doing?’” she says. “Making music that says nothing, means nothing – that’s not why I got into this. Music is medicine to me, but it was making me ill.”
Whenever she played her record company some of the more personal songs she was writing for her debut album, or asked if they would be providing a budget to market it, she would be told to “stay in [her] lane”, “own the fan base”, “earn the eyes on the street”, or simply that “people aren’t interested in albums”. This went on for seven long years.
She became convinced that it all came back to how she was perceived as a young black woman, a “designated pop girl” a “rent-a-voice” to deliver hooks for “disposable chart music”. “I knew things were f---ed up when they’d sign some new kid with 1,000 followers [on social media] and get straight down to making his album. There is a different treatment for men and women, and I don’t know if [record companies] even realise it.”
Frustrated and dejected, Raye went public with her dissatisfaction last summer. In a series of tweets to her 60,000 followers, she wrote frankly about her dismay at her career, explaining how her label had repeatedly refused to let her release an album. “I’m done being a polite pop star,” she said.
“It was risky,” she acknowledges now. “They had my life in their contract. But I had spent too long hiding my feelings, turning up and doing my job. And it was killing me.”
Behind the scenes, Raye’s life had started to go off the rails; she had resorted to substance abuse to bring her inner turmoil under control. “It got bad. When people are in pain, they will turn to self-medicating. Because then you don’t have to process things real-time, in vivid HD,” she says. “I guess I found ways to get out there and smile and wave and do what I needed to do. But I was not in great shape at all. I was close to needing serious professional help.” Then, last year, she cut out everything – “apart from alcohol, which was never really my vice” – and “that’s when I woke up and spoke up. I felt I had nothing left to lose.”
When Raye’s tweets went viral, leading to an outpouring of sympathy and support from fellow performers including Charlie XCX and Rina Sawayama, Polydor did the decent thing and released her from her contract. They may be feeling rather foolish now.
Six months on, Raye has secured her first number one single, Escapism, released via the independent distributor Human Re Sources. It’s a daring, tripped-out hip-hop number about heartbreak and self-medication that has gone viral on TikTok, topped global streaming charts and broken into the US top 30.
“That song was difficult for my parents to hear,” she admits. “The whole album is about things I’ve been keeping buried. It’s not necessarily considered attractive as a woman to talk about substance abuse, rape, body dysmorphia, but these uncomfortable subjects are the battles people are navigating through.”
Sprinkled with witty songs about her bad choices in men, My 21st Century Blues is certainly not all doom and gloom. But there are a handful of particularly hard-hitting tracks addressing the sexism, misogyny and abuse she has encountered, both within the music business and in everyday life. On the devastating Ice Cream Man, Raye sings with cold power about being sexually assaulted by a producer in the studio – and links the experience to a lifetime of abuse. “Come in like the ice cream man/ Till I felt his ice-cold hands… It took a while to understand where my consent leads/ If I was ruthless they’d be in a penitentiary.”
When I ask Raye why she chose to put this into a song but did not go to the police, or name names, she goes very still. “From the outset, as a young kid, I went through some really dark s--- and the habit kind of formed: don’t tell anyone, bury it and move on,” she says. “That is so dangerous and so toxic, I didn’t even realise how bad it was, or how much of an impact it was having on me.” She speaks of suffering “intense trauma” and PTSD. “For me, this song is my way of being loud, but on my terms, and being empowered, through my words, where no one can twist them. Music is my safe space.”
For ambitious young women, she says, the music industry remains fraught with danger. “When you’re up-and-coming and hungry for work, that is when you’re the most vulnerable. But there was just so much fear – if I upset this person, what [would be] the repercussions? I think as a woman – aside from even as a musician – navigating that is an ongoing journey.”
She tells me that, in private, she has been calling her abusers to account, laying some ghosts to rest. “Some of these things, on a personal level, I’ve been able to address one-on-one. I’ll call people up and say, ‘This happened, you did this, and this is how it affected me.’ There’s no rulebook on how to deal with it. For me, the most important thing is knowing that being silent and keeping things to yourself is self-destructive. But at least I’ve got my music.”
Raye bubbles up when talking about songwriting – “the freedom that I feel sitting at that piano and the songs I’m starting to find” – new projects and the prospect of playing live. “I’m just so excited to see where I can push myself,” she says, laughing with relief.
With a number one single and an extraordinary album, the results of Raye’s newfound creative freedom speak for themselves. When it comes to music, “you can’t control how people will receive something; the only part you can control is how you feel about it”, she says. “And I’m loving it again.”