In just half an hour, Raye manages to light up a room, without even being in it.
Nineteen-year-old Rachel Keen, at the end of a phone line, is frank and honest — and makes no bones about her goal of becoming a “massive artist”. Even with these Rihanna-sized aspirations, however, Clash is acutely aware that the voice on the other end of the line belongs to a normal girl from Croydon; one who just happens to be able to craft immensely cool pop music. What Raye beams down the phone is her realness, a superstar ambition without a superstar ego — representing a new breed of pop-star, armed solely with total commitment to creating music with mass appeal, and never at the cost of integrity.
Raye reliably informs us that she’s had a wonderful day on set with Clash. “I wanted to do my thing, but be flexible with it. Comfortable, but bold, and fun.” Aesthetically, she subverts the typical nature of her line of work, opting often for a boy’s athletic sweatshirt. “If I don't say what I want, or if I put on these clothes I don’t like, then it's just an act,” she explains, as we ease into the conversation. “I’m really, really bad at trying to make someone believe something that isn’t true... you know what I mean?”
Back before Gaga’s meat dresses and Britney’s head-shaving, pop music was a form made to be representative of youth. Young people were the ones spending their pocket money on singles, and would do so on music that spoke to them personally — albeit on quite a general level. It was about soft rebellion and soda pop romances. It was rarely revolutionary, but for the most part, it had real life at its core.
Pop lost its way pretty quickly, and a great deal of mainstream music was caught in the vice-like grip of capitalism, and at the cost of genuine songwriting. It became formulaic and often, like cheap air freshener, unable to mask the distinctly clinical and calculated aroma of the boardroom.
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Raye knows what it takes to make a good pop song. Growing up in the south London suburbs, she would listen to the contemporary greats, namely Nelly Furtado, and Daniel and Natasha Bedingfield “on a walkman, on a loop. I was about eight or nine years old, just dancing in my living room.” Like a typical kid growing up in the early noughties, a catchy hook was paramount, and even though her tastes matured and diversified as her parents put her onto Jill Scott and the soul/jazz greats of the ‘40s and ‘50s, the art of the anthemic evidently stuck with her. It wasn’t the glitz or the glamour which attracted her, but a compelling attraction to good songwriting; “Anything quite bold lyrically. I just fell in love with that, and I love telling stories in a song.” Who can deny that Natasha Bedingfield’s inspirational banger ‘Unwritten’ was anything but a classic of its time?
At the start of 2017, there were a grand total of four songs in the UK Top 40 either penned or performed by Raye. Each of them with collaborators that are stylistically distinct, but connected, each able to bury their hooks and melody lines deep into the short-term memory of even a first-time listener.
She wrote the majority of Charli XCX and Lil Yachty’s post-post-party anthem ‘After The Afterparty,’ earned writing credit on MØ and Snakehips’ electro-scandi-pop hit ‘Don’t Leave’ and provided lead vocals on two enormous dance singles; Jax Jones’ ‘You Don’t Know Me’ and ‘By Your Side’ by Jonas Blue. All four are a testament to the genre-fluid nature of modern pop, and how producers are able to borrow from less commercially driven scenes (Jax Jones lifted the melody line from 2005’s ‘Body Language’ by M.A.N.D.Y. and Booka Shade) and create something more appealing for a mass audience.
With pride, Raye explains: “Some people think [‘pop’] is a dirty word, but really it’s just popular music, and really that’s all I want to make. I want to make music that everybody’s singing and everyone’s playing…”
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A few years ago, this would have been an unpopular opinion, but it isn’t one that Raye has formed recently. She tells us about her two-year stint at the prestigious BRIT School and how, surprisingly, her appreciation for mainstream hit-making wasn’t shared by her classmates. “I knew that I wanted to be a massive successful singer, but it was almost like, in that school, it was frowned upon and it was looked down upon,” she recalls. “What was really difficult and complicated for me was that I started feeling depressed and anxious that my tastes were changing because of the people that I was around — because I wanted to be cool.”
She uploaded her first single, ‘Hotbox’, to Soundcloud in 2014, written a few years prior to the time she was contemplating leaving BRIT. It’s a song with a slow, steadily evolving future-R&B beat, which belies its far less stylish subject matter of getting uncomfortably high from secondhand smoke at a house party. She recalls how people at the school judged it to be almost infantile, but that it ended up being the demo that secured her record deal with Polydor after Olly Alexander, the lead singer of Years & Years, said in at interview with Attitude Magazine that it was “the last track [he] and [his] boyfriend had sex to”.
In a weird way, that’s really what Raye is after. The competitive nature of BRIT’s fame academy didn’t suit her honest and laid-back style, far more open to influences that can be heard in taxis and shopping centres, not just Shoreditch coffee shops and Vintage Kilo Sales. The day after our conversation, we get a text from Raye telling us about her new single, which she previously was yet to decide on. “‘The Line’”, she writes, “is/was literally the story of my life.” It’s another typically relatable song about waiting in a nightclub queue, surrounded by people looking to kill the vibe.
Her message sums it up: “We can have a wicked time without being in your ‘stupid’ club,” and in a much wider sense — this is what Raye is all about. She’s redefining pop music to reflect her own individualism, simply by refusing to sing, dress or act like anything other than her authentic self. She has her career completely in her own hands, and is part of a tale with all the makings of a girl-next-door to superstar classic.
Raye is a Croydon girl with global aspirations, but one who’s playing the game on her own terms — making all the right moves to lead the new vanguard of pop. In the words of old Nat Bedingfield, the rest is still unwritten.
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'In Line' is out now.
Words: Robbie Russell
Photography: Sophie Mayanne
Styling: Lee Trigg