“I just want to be a massive artist” – An interview with Raye

Getting to know the ‘You Don’t Know Me’ singer ahead of her XOYO headline show.

After picking up a deal with Polydor in 2015 with the supportive clout of Years & Years and Ellie Goulding, Croydon teenager Raye has quickly begun carving out a name for herself both through prolific behind-the-scenes work and, following a grand splash with last summer’s sharp SECOND EP, breaking through to the charts as a vocalist with huge pop records alongside Jonas Blue and Jax Jones. Mid-preparation for her sold-out headline date at London’s XOYO, we met to find out all about the surprise success of ‘You Don’t Know Me,’ screaming in a driving lesson when first hearing herself on the radio, Stormzy’s songwriting ambitions, and ketchup.

You’re 19 years old and you have five songs in the UK top 50 right now. How have things been in the last few months seeing all that success come along?

It’s felt very rewarding. I’ve had to work quite hard and a lot of really long hours – through the night, you know. For the last four years, I’ve been like, “I want a cut, I want to be a writer and a singer,” and it’s just amazing that it’s happening at once. Really incredible.

All these singles have come out since your Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen show, so from one headline show to another you then go and tour with Jess Glynne as well around arenas. How was that tour?

Yeah, that was insane. Like, experience-wise I would just say any new singer who is coming up should just go and do a tour like that because you gain experience and I think I learned so much about myself and the way I perform – you know what I mean? From just being thrown in front of loads of people. I had such a wicked time.

How is it like being out on the road on a tour, especially that big?

You know what, I’m so tired. Like, as soon as I finished a show I just went back to the hotel and went to sleep and I think if I didn’t I would just be like really worn down. I think from that kind of like I think it was like two weeks on tour like I really have to just give respect to those people who just go on tour for like months and months at a time ‘cause it’s very tiring and you’re quite separate from everyone. You’re having to focus on you and your job all day and all night, even though it’s only an hour set. You’re nervous before, you get off but you’re still a bit nervous because you know you’ve got tomorrow coming, but it’s super exciting.

While you’re out and about on tours like that, do you still try and carry on with writing and getting new music ready?

Yeah, I’m always writing ideas and voice notes and stuff – most of my songs start from a little voice note or a little scribble of words. I’m always doing that, yeah, so I gathered a couple of little ideas from Jess Glynne and I was away doing that for in my head what seemed like so long – I just couldn’t wait to get back into the studio again.

You started writing songs when you were about 11, and then you went to the BRIT School and left before the songwriting courses began. What were your first lyrics like?

My first actual lyrics were when I was 8 or 9. I was writing songs about homeless people – I think I saw a homeless guy in a street and was like, “Dad, why doesn’t that guy have a home?” and I just started writing about it as you would as an 8-year-old just questioning life. I still have recordings of things I did when I was 8/9/10 which is quite funny, but I’ll never let them hear the light of day – they’re so bad.

You write a lot for other artists as well as yourself. When you’re writing, do you have other artists in mind or do you just write the song as you would and then see where it naturally ends up?

It depends. Sometimes it comes mid-process – I’m starting to do some writing for Little Mix’s project and sometimes you start with them in mind, but sometimes you’re just writing a song and then like actually this isn’t right for me but it would be sick for this person. I’ve always got loads of ideas of who songs could be for, though – I just think I’m always listening to music and different artists and like, “Oh, that could be sick for this.”

Who would be the dream person to work with who you haven’t yet had a chance to?

I really want to write a song for or with Selena Gomez. I just think that’s the goal. I’m getting steps closer – like, you know, worming my way in. Some of her A&Rs are taking interest in what I’m doing so it might be a possibility if I keep going and getting more cuts and if everything keeps going well you never know.

How was working with Ellie Goulding?

Amazing, yeah. We’re going to do more time – we got along really well. She’s been a big supporter of my music back from the SoundCloud days so we got on like a house on fire.

On the SECOND EP, Stormzy’s there on ‘Ambition’ doing a verse and you’re in the ‘Big For Your Boots’ video. Charli XCX co-wrote ‘I, U, Us’ and directed the video, and then you co-wrote ‘After The Afterparty’ and you were on the VIP mix [with Stefflon Don and Rita Ora]. How did you get them involved and meet them initially?

I think he’s coming tonight! Stormz just reached out from early – he just followed me on Twitter which was really weird and then I DM’d him and we started chatting and we happened to be in Stockholm at the same time. I ended up just going to one of his shows and we ended up hanging out backstage and really getting on well, and now we’re really good mates and he’s like, “Raye, let’s write songs for other artists together.” He’s so jokes.

Do you reckon he’s got a future as a pop songwriter if the grime thing doesn’t play out?

Do you know what? I think Stormzy could probably do anything he wants to right now. He’s amazing.

Most people know your voice from the dancier Jonas Blue and Jax Jones tracks. For someone who’s not heard any of your solo stuff, what track would you say is the best one to introduce them to who you are and what you do?

I’m always moving on to the next thing and I’ve got a new single coming out really soon, but I’d say for a reference of the thing that is most me it’s probably a mix between the Jax Jones and the ‘I, U, Us’ song.

New single coming soon – can you tell us anything about that?

I just know the song is completely done, but I’m just frantically trying to make sure that the production is how I want it. I’m getting loads of people to send me ideas and shoving ideas together, but I’ve got really exciting people involved and working on it now so I just need to get it all together.

And is that leading to a THIRD EP or an album coming soon?

Probably I’m going to do a couple of singles and I want to build some traction. I have loads of songs that I can’t wait to share with everyone. I think it is building up to an album, but I think an album I’m probably aiming for next year like January or February personally, so like a year from now. I want to put out an album when people want to buy an album, you know, so I’m just going to start showing people who I am and what I’ve got to say in my songs first.

In the meantime is it just keep going with the singles, keep going with the writing for other artists?

Yeah, I’m just going to put out some new music myself which I’m really excited about.

The SECOND EP that came out last summer – what’s your favourite track on it?

My fave is probably ‘Shhh’ just because it was the most fun to make.

How was making the video for that as well?

So fun! We did the video at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen where my last headline show was before we did the gig so it was really fun. I was obviously really nervous because I had the show later, but it was really fun.

And the ‘I, U, Us’ video – am I right in saying you learned how to ice-skate just for the video?

I did that week! I was so in love with the treatment and the first time my manager and I got on the ice to practice I was like, “Will, we might not be doing this video,” because I just couldn’t stand up straight, but I picked it up pretty quickly.

Bruising start?

Yeah! Day one was very sad and I was getting very worried, but day two, day three, and day four I started to pick it up.

If there no limit on the budget, what would your ideal music video be?

No limit on budget? Rah. I’d probably do something out in space. Get in a rocket, get in a moon suit, and just be out there purely for the experience as well as the video.

You’ve got some festivals coming up – Parklife and Wild Life have been announced so far. Are you looking forward to getting out there and doing that?

Yeah, I’m so excited. We’ve got another headline show after this that I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about but that’s going to be in May so I’m really excited about that, and then doing some festival slots I’m really excited about – just getting used to gigging more and more, I love it so much.

This [XOYO] show sold out very quickly once again. Was it encouraging to see such a quick reaction from fans?

Oh my gosh, it’s so nerve-wracking. You do these things and you’re like, “Oh, what if nobody buys any tickets?” but it’s such a relief and really, really, really satisfying when you’ve sold out a show. That’s like goals, you know?

And this venue’s three times the size of the last one.

Yeah! So, really exciting.

Do you have any pre-show rituals that you go through to hype yourself up?

Me and my band jump around a little bit. I have a honey and lemon. A little warmup. Yeah.

Any songs in particular that you listen to to try and motivate yourself?

I usually just play what I’m loving at the moment.

‘You Don’t Know Me’ is number 3 in the UK charts at the moment behind only Ed Sheeran and Ed Sheeran.

Oh, I know – bless him! How can you compete with the king of pop?

Were you anticipating that level of success, especially so quickly? It’s only been out since mid-December.

No, no. Nobody thought Jax [Jones] was gonna do that. I didn’t even think it was going to do that. I mean, we were drunk and having a wild time in the studio, wrote the song, didn’t think anything of it. I just knew that I loved it. I didn’t think it was pop enough to work.

It’s a very striking bassline, taken from Booka Shade and M.A.N.D.Y.’s ‘Body Language.’

Ironically, Jax put the bassline on after we’d written the song, so I heard that after and was like, “Ah, this works!” It was almost like the music was really hooky, the hook was really repetitive, and I think Jax put that finishing touch on and made it, you know, sick.

What’s it like working in the studio with folks like Jax?

Yeah, it’s great – so much fun. I had the hook idea before I came in and then I just sung it to him and he was like, “Yeah.” I was there with a girl called JinJin as well – and she’s amazing – and we were all just like friends getting on. We weren’t really trying to write a song, we were just having fun.

‘You Don’t Know Me’ is the name of the song, but what’s one thing that you think people need to know about you that they might not know already?

Ooh, one thing people need to know about me? (Turns to her make-up artist.) Abi, what’s one thing that people need… I do love ketchup, yeah. That’s probably quite valuable.

You came third in the BBC’s Sound of 2017. Obviously that’s a massive bit of exposure alongside some other great acts as well – what was it like hearing that news?

I screamed on the phone – I was so excited. In this country, you have to have the BBC supporting you. They’re the biggest and most incredible. Everybody looks to the BBC, everybody relies on the BBC as an information source, et cetera, like a trustworthy name. Just to be repped by them is just insane. It’s so important, and I’m just so happy.

What was it like hearing your music on the radio for the first time?

One of the first times I ever heard my song was when I was on a driving lesson. It was quite a while ago with Clara Amfo, a Radio 1 DJ who’s always been a massive supporter of what I’ve been doing. I just remember driving my car and we had the radio on and the guy’s like, “Second gear, Raye,” and I’m like, “OK,” and then all of a sudden my song comes on and I just started screaming so loud! He was like, “What are you doing?” I was like “I’m on the radio!” And he was like, “Oh, really!” It was so funny – that was a great time.

When you got that, you said to the BBC that “[your] goal [was] to be the biggest singer you can be.” What’s the next move? What’s the master plan?

I just want to be a massive artist, so I’m just gonna keep doing what I’m doing and just hope that people like it, you know? I’m just really excited about this next song that’s coming out and I just hope that this is a good follow-on from Jax that starts to put me on the map.

Author: Xavier Voigt-Hill

I write words. Sometimes say them on the radio too.