Thursday, 29 February 2024 14:01

Raye’s path to the Brits: ‘It’s not been the simplest story’ Featured

With a record-breaking seven nominations at this year’s Brit Awards, Raye has put a full stop on one of pop’s greatest comeback stories.

The pop star, whose real name is Rachel Keen, has been barrelling about the record industry since she was a teenager. To a casual onlooker, it seemed like things were going well.

She wrote for big names like Beyoncé, Little Mix and Charli XCX. She produced records for Rihanna and John Legend. She collaborated with Stormzy and David Guetta. Songs like You Don’t Know Me and Secrets sold enough to buy her a house.

But, as a solo artist, her music was constantly questioned and rejected.

In 2021, five years after she signed a four-album deal with Polydor Records, the label was still refusing to release her debut.

Not knowing what else to do, Raye posted a video message to social media, tearfully explaining her frustration.

Dozens of potential hits were "sat in folders collecting dust", she said, while others were being given away to bigger stars "because I am still awaiting confirmation that I am good enough".

"I’ve done everything [Polydor] asked me, I switched genres, I worked seven days a week," she said. "They either listen to me now or we part ways and they can save themselves this headache.

"Because I’m about to make it a headache."

The decision to post that video "wasn’t at all planned", she later told the BBC. "It was more of a desperate cry to be free."

Image caption,
The singer recently announced her first-ever headline show at the O2 Arena

Polydor’s public response was sympathetic. A spokeswoman said the company was "saddened" and had contacted Raye’s manager (actually her dad, Paul) to "offer our full support".

Behind closed doors, they told Raye to stop giving interviews.

Eventually, however, they came to an agreement. Raye was freed from her contract, and allowed to keep the songs she’d written. Among them was Escapism, a dark and torrid song, written in the depths of her despair as she self-medicated with drugs and meaningless sex.

Polydor had never liked it. When Raye played it to other labels, they agreed.

"People were like, ‘Yeah, this is cool [but] it’s just something Raye needs to get out of her system’," she told me last year.

Raye disagreed and released it independently. The song immediately went viral on TikTok and, tens of millions of streams later, it went to number one.

The singer followed it up with her long-awaited album, My 21st Century Blues. Gritty, triumphant and catchy, it showcased her ability to genre-hop between jazz, soul, hip-hop, dance and gospel without losing her sense of identity.

By the end of the year, it had sold more than 60,000 copies and been nominated for a Mercury Prize. Ahead of the Brits, she’s already been honoured with the ceremony’s coveted songwriter of the year award.

"It’s just brilliant when you get to prove people wrong," she has said of her success.

"It’s not been the simplest story - but it just shows that you should back yourself, no matter what people tell you."

’Full of hot air’

So how did she get here? Let’s go back to January 2017, when Raye was a newcomer who’d placed third on the BBC’s Sound Of 2017.

Then aged 19, she showed us around the childhood bedroom in South London where she’d started making music.

"Keep out!" demanded a handwritten sign on the door. "I’m doing private stuff! If it’s urgent, then knock!"

Media caption,

The Sound of 2017: Raye

Directly underneath she’d blu-tacked a photo of her little sister, Abby - exposing the tender heart beneath the tough exterior.

Inside, it was a typical teenage room - a poster of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss adorned the wall above her bed, while a cluttered desk was crammed full of make-up brushes, school photos and a half-spent candle.

"This is my favourite place to be," she said. "Things are starting to happen, but this is still my base. It’s nice having my family close."

Music and religion were woven into her home life. Her Yorkshire-born father led worship at the local Pentecostal church while her mother, a Swiss-Ghanaian mental health worker, sang in the choir.

After the Sunday services ended, Raye’s father would show her how to play worship songs on his piano.

"I’d on sit his lap and push his hands out of the way, like, ‘I can do it!’"

Aged seven, she repurposed a melody from a kids’ TV show and passed it off as her own, a sort-of plagiaristic first venture into writing.

Four years later, she penned a "proper" song for her Year 6 leaving concert, which the whole school performed at Southwark Cathedral.

At 14, she passed an audition for the Brit School, where she spent two years learning the basics of writing and producing. But, ultimately, it wasn’t the right fit.

"It’s all cool, underground, indie artists," she said in 2016. "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].’"

Image caption,
Raye has been releasing songs for almost a decade

A smoky, blurry R&B track about her first encounter with drugs, HotBox was inspired by progressive R&B artists like Jhene Aiko and Frank Ocean.

And despite Raye’s apprehensions, it was pivotal to her career: The song was discovered by Olly Alexander from Years & Years, who played it to his record label, Polydor.

A courtship began.

"I had my first album pretty much ready to go before I’d even joined the label," Raye subsequently told Vogue. "By the time I was 17, they had spent three years wooing me... over fancy dinners.

"But it didn’t take long for me to see that the dreams they lured me with were hot air."

Raye plays Glastonbury IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
Image caption,
The singer said she was worried no-one would turn up for her debut on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage. In the event, the field was packed as far as the eye could see.

After the deal was signed, fans who’d fallen in love with Hotbox and Raye’s independently-released EP, Welcome To Winter, noticed her music had taken a significant tilt towards pop.

At first, she defended the change: "With Welcome to the Winter, I realised nobody really cared other than the cool kids in London," she explained in 2016.

"So I had to find a way to do what I want, in a way that people would hear it."

Before long, she was scoring massive hits on the dance chart. Her first big payout came for co-writing Blonde’s All Cried Out. Then, in 2017, she made the top 10 as the guest vocalist and co-writer on Jax Jones’s bold and ballsy club anthem You Don’t Know Me.

The success came with a caveat: Polydor wanted more and more dance hits. Only when Raye had established her name, they insisted, could she take creative control.

But that never happened, and the songs she was pressured to write meant almost nothing to her.

Speaking to Louis Theroux last year, she singled out the global smash hit Bed (written with David Guetta in 2021), as one of her most soulless recordings.

"It’s really, really very boring," she admitted. "It’s not my favourite song, but my bank account loved that song."

’So what?’, you might think. If you can make a living from churning out identikit dance anthems, where’s the harm?

The truth is that Raye’s spirit was being demolished, one generic kick drum at a time.

To get through it, she turned to drink, then drugs.

"I was able to get along with my career because I was in some form of sedation," she told Theroux.

Then it got worse.

Raye has always been open about her experiences of sexual assault in the music industry. Her song Ice Cream Man was based on an incident where a music producer forced his hand between her legs when she was 17 years old.

Shockingly, it was not an isolated incident. "This happens to girls in studios all the time," she said. "All the time."

By the time Ice Cream Man was released on her debut album, the updated lyrics listed a catalogue of abuse.

"I was seven, was 21, was 17, and was 11," she sang. "If I was ruthless, they’d be in the penitentiary."

Raye plays the Royal Albert Hall IMAGE SOURCE,RAYE
Image caption,
Raye was backed by the Heritage Orchestra when she played the Royal Albert Hall last September

Those memories resurfaced at the same time as a bad break-up and, with her career in tailspin, things got dark.

"When you keep things in like that, they eat away at you from the inside," she said.

"And for me, sadly, substance abuse was entangled with numbing the trauma that I had experienced. I got pretty deep in and it got really dangerous at one point."

Escapism describes the moment she hit rock bottom, snorting cocaine in taxis with strangers and hoping one-night-stands would make the bad thoughts go away.

It was only when she reconnected with the church that she pulled herself out of the abyss.

"There’s a world in which if I didn’t find faith again, I might not even be here," the singer said.

"And when I got sober, I realised what I’d been doing to myself... to try and be somebody they wanted me to be."

That, more than anything else, prompted the dramatic protest against Polydor that kick-started her journey to independence.

Doors that had been closed suddenly opened up. She played Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage, won an Ivor Novello award for Escapism, and wrapped up her tour with a massive, televised gig at the Royal Opera House.

No matter how many Brits she wins on Saturday, her record-shattering nominations mark the overdue arrival of a pop star whose voice is as unique as it is compelling.

"Finally, I’m here and finally, I’m in control of my career," she told me. "Things are so positive and I really am so grateful.

"But you know it, Mark. It’s been a bloody minute."