Rise Of The Phoenix: Rita Ora Interviewed
In a studio in North London right next to a ginormous graveyard, Rita Ora is naked on the set of her Clash cover shoot. Her publicist has come into the studio’s kitchenette to inform us that, until Rita and the photographer are happy with the shots, we’re to stay put.
In a room tucked behind the set are rails of labels and looks that, for the last hour or so, the singer has been making her way through. So far, she’s donned leather, platform boots, some red heels so high they look like they could damage both the wearer and onlookers, and now the nude moment. Once we’re given permission to leave our quarantine, Rita is already on her next outfit: a shimmering coat that could be lifted from Elizabethan period if it weren’t for the fact that it’s literally made of tinfoil, and having her picture taken again. Suddenly, and in a wave of rustling foil, she emerges, a huge childlike grin on her face.
“I've always been wearing crazy looks,” she says to me two hours earlier. We’re sat in the room housing all the clothes while Rita prepares for the shoot. It’s a glam session that began with the singer having her eyebrows bleached and her hair given a fashionable wet look. “People think that they can’t wear that stuff,” she continues, glancing at the rails of clothes behind me, “and I have this thing in me where I just have to show people that I can wear it.”
Determination; it’s in Rita Ora’s DNA. After signing a record deal with Jay Z’s Roc Nation aged 18, she released her debut album ‘Ora’ in the UK in 2012 aged 21. The album was a hit, going platinum and spawning three Number 1 singles. Riding that momentum, she released another Number 1 single, ‘I Will Never Let You Down’, a song produced her then-boyfriend Calvin Harris, in 2014, as the lead single from her upcoming second album. Then, musically, she got stuck.
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After their relationship came to an end, Calvin pulled his songs from Rita’s album, banning her from performing her Number 1 single ever again and essentially cutting off her album campaign. A year later, having failed to release any music in the US at all, including her debut album, and after a string of mis-start singles, Rita filed legal action against Roc Nation, accusing the label for leaving her “orphaned” after the label switched its distribution partner from Sony to Universal but left Rita at Sony. “Rita,” the complaint read, “is caught in a political quagmire of dysfunction,” with no one at either Sony, Universal or Roc Nation fighting in her corner.
Unable to release music, Rita turned her eyes and talents elsewhere. She became a judge on The Voice UK, hosted America’s Next Top Model, starred in all three Fifty Shades… films, took fashion endorsements and worked with Madonna on her Material Girl clothing range to name but a few of her creative ventures. In the US, Rita Ora became a brand, her music taking a backseat while she fought to keep her name out there.
“I’m in a peculiar, really specific situation,” she explains, “where I guess I’ve built my brand [in the States] before I let the music do the talking because it was the only freedom I had because of where I was at with the contract at that time. I just thought that it was better than completely disappearing; I did not want to do that.”
Rita brings up a speech that Jennifer Lopez gave at this year’s MTV VMAs where she spoke about how people early on in her career told her she could only do one thing. “She never understood it and I really related to that because I feel the same,” Rita adds. “I’m just a big believer in building a brand and a business, being smart and having a plan. I don’t want to waste it all, y’know?”
This ambition didn’t diminish the emotional impact that the musical blockade caused. “It was very hard for me. There were a lot of times that…” she stops and exhales deeply. “I was like can I do this? Can I do this? I’ve got to fight through this. I’m human and it was very difficult. There were lots of ups and downs.” The ups came in the shape of industry support. “I really learned that the industry is bigger than you think. There are a lot of opportunities where you can still be in control.”
Control, it seems, was something that was always lacking in Rita’s musical overture. When I suggest that her first album, with its party bops and cutting-edge pop, was put together by committee rather than organically, she doesn’t rebuke me. “A little bit,” she says. “There was just a lot of pressure.” She also acknowledges that her public image, or at least perception of her public image, and tabloid interest in her love life is beyond her jurisdiction, although she isn’t willing to file scrutiny or gossip with any negativity. “I think it comes with its good stuff and its bad stuff, but it’s better than no one giving a shit about you.”
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While building a brand and keeping creatively active was important, gaining autonomy over her music career was Rita’s ultimate goal. And things came to a swift conclusion when, in 2016, she settled her lawsuit - and the subsequent countersuit - with Roc Nation. Freed from her contract, she signed a record deal with Atlantic Records, the home of Ed Sheeran, Clean Bandit and Charli XCX. For a year, she finished up her remaining obligations and went into the studio. For the first time in her musical career Rita’s resolve was met with full creative authority, and for the last two years she’s been cooking up a comeback.
Now, six years after her debut album came out, Rita Ora is building up to release her second album, titled ‘Phoenix’, this autumn. Preceding the album has been four Top 10 singles (no mean feat in an era dictated by streaming), including the Ed Sheeran-penned ‘Your Song’, the ABBA-esque ‘Anywhere’, ‘Lonely Together’ - a collaboration with Avicii and the DJ’s last song before his untimely death earlier this year - and finally ‘For You’, a duet with Liam Payne. The recording of the album was like nothing she’s ever experienced before. “It was like being in a candy shop,” she beams. “[The label] were like, ‘Rita, what do you want to do?’ I had never been asked that before and I wanted to do everything. I’ve worked with so many amazing people and I’ve ended up writing songs with people who have become really important in my life. I’ve built incredible relationships and I’m grateful because I now have a musical family.”
The singles are a good indicator of the album’s sonic identity. In the way that ‘Anywhere’ was delicate, deceptively simple and kind of wistful, the five songs that Clash have heard are open, broader in musical and emotional scope than anything on ‘Ora’. ‘Let You Love Me’, which is to be a single, is a self-analytical missive about Rita’s emotional shortcomings, bare-faced vulnerability sandwiched between spooky synths and low-key production. On ‘Cashmere’, a dank and grimy sex jam, Rita takes notes from Fifty Shades… as she sings, “Cashmere / Last night we made such a mess / I knew when I left / I’d see you again” over a Weeknd-like ominous bass. Lyrically, too, the songs are executed with confidence; ‘Only Want You’, a love song backed by beats and acoustic guitars, is drenched in desperation, and features the brilliant lyric: “I don’t want another night of trying to find another you, another rock bottom / I don’t want to wear another mini-dress to impress a potential problem.”
The anomaly among the singles released over the last 12 months is ‘Girls’, a collaboration with Charli XCX, Bebe Rexha and Cardi B. Featuring the lyric “Sometimes I just wanna kiss girls / Red wine, just wanna kiss girls”, the song was met with immediate criticism. Lesbian popstar Hayley Kiyoko dubbed it “tone-deaf”, accusing Rita and collaborators of fuelling “the male gaze while marginalizing the idea of women loving women”, and Kehlani, who identifies as queer, called the song’s lyrics “harmful”. And then there were the social media hot takes and opinion pieces, each one lambasting the song’s “retrograde stereotypes”.
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What most failed to take into account were Rita’s lyric’s in the first verse where she declares, “I ain’t one sided, I’m open-minded/ I’m 50-50 and I’m never gonna hide it.” Then there’s Rita’s relationship with the model and actor Cara Delavingne, which Rita refused to label as strictly platonic. Still, the call-out machine was in power, and in a bid to do some damage control, the singer released a statement in which she explained that while she has had “romantic relationships with women and men,” she was sorry that “how I expressed myself in the song has hurt anyone”.
However, when I ask about the incident now, Rita, like with the tabloid scrutiny, takes a stronger stance. “It’s a different time, it’s a different era and we have different opinions. Everyone has a right to speak and so did I. So I followed my intuition and my gut. At the end of the day, people can say what they want but it’s me.” So she didn’t feel backed into a corner? “No,” she counters, “because with all that I still had a lot of positivity, especially from the LGBTQ community. They supported me a lot and stuck up for me. I felt like [that experience] brought us closer.”
I suggest that, regardless, it still feels unfair that she had to explain herself in that way when she was just expressing a true emotion, but that certain male artists can co-opt the LGBTQ community but never have to explain themselves. “It is unfair,” she sighs. “I had an urge, y’know, to shake things up a bit. I felt like, why can’t I speak my truth?”
Continuing, she adds: “I’m not going to make it about sexuality and gender. That would bring us back down to earlier times. It’s a new age. It’s 2018. I don’t think it’s about gender. I think people are just getting used to others being open minded and speaking freely. That’s all it is. And they’ll get over.”
The Rita Ora of 2018 is able to shrug this stuff off and to minimise the drama. It’s because in the last year she says she’s found perspective. Whereas 12 months ago she said that she felt “underappreciated” as a musician, now - after a sold-out tour, numerous Top 10s and a string of 30 festival dates - she’s found her ground. “As a human being you always feel like you could do more,” she says earnestly. “But my fans really are special; they make me feel great. So those standards of appreciation are all in your head.”
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As with the outlandish fashion, speculation about her career or basically any form of negativity, all Rita cares about is “representing myself, my fans, being true to myself, being a good person.” She tells me about how she’s working with Unicef on building a creative arts centre in her home country of Kosovo “to allow people’s creative dreams to come true”. She goes wide-eyed and gushy when we talk about how somehow she sang at the canonisation of Mother Teresa (“I can't even believe I did that. It was at the Vatican. It was life changing. I just couldn’t believe it was me!”). But most of all she’s proud of making the most out of what could have been a career-ending situation: “I’m very proud to say that. The hustle was real.”
What, then, does success mean for her after what she’s been through? “When you achieve something after you’ve set a goal, you expect that once you get there that your life will be complete. You get it, you’re so happy and then you don’t want it to end,” she says. “I feel like I’ve just started, in the weirdest way. I know some people in the industry who I won’t name but who have messaged me to say, ‘You’re a badass for doing what you did.’ I earned a new found respect. Now, though, it’s time to put that stuff away and get this chapter going.”
As I said, determination: it’s in Rita Ora’s DNA.
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Rita Ora’s new album ‘Phoenix’ is out 23rd November via Atlantic Records. Her new single ‘Let You Love Me’ is out now.
Words: Alim Kheraj
Photography: Matt Easton
Fashion: Vincent Levy
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
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