As career options go, criminal psychology feels like quite a leap from professional musician. The absurdity of the gulf between the two definitely isn’t lost on Croydon-based singer-songwriter Rachel Chinouriri, even if both were valid options before the latter won out. Speaking over Zoom from Carnoustie, Scotland – where she’s currently staying following a family emergency – the 22-year-old acknowledges the distinction before revealing some similarities with her current endeavours.
“It sounds depressing but I’ve always been drawn towards very sad things,” she laughs, exuding a playfulness ostensibly at odds with her melancholic obsessions. “I watch crime documentaries and I’m always researching really sad stuff because it’s more inspiring to write about. And also I have a bad habit of feeling like I can help heal everyone. So in many ways, I carry other people’s sadness and turn it into songs.”
Drawing beauty from despair is Chinouriri’s forte. It’s a skill she’s been honing in public since 2018, with the release of her sparsely atmospheric single ‘What Have I Ever Done?’, and before that at BRIT School, where she studied Musical Theatre instead of Music so as to bypass the theory-based songwriting approach she so loathed at GCSE. This prowess has already led to support slots with Celeste, Sam Fender and Lianne La Havas, plus a sync on Michaela Coel’s boundary-breaking series I May Destroy You, but there’s a sense that this latest collection will be the one to bring her before an even bigger audience.
Recorded in February 2020 with Oli Bayston (Kelly Lee Owens, Loyle Carner), Tom Allen (Yellow Days, Cosima), and Daniel Hylton-Nuamah (KAM-BU), new EP ‘Four° In Winter’ – out this Friday (April 23) finds Chinouriri digging even deeper, creating atmospheric arrangements that finally match the power of her introspective subject matter. It’s arriving three years on from her debut EP ‘Mama’s Boy’, but where that set dealt in dreamy folk and soft-focus indie-soul, ‘Four°…’ plays with production techniques, piecing together an eerie patchwork of sounds to construct an immersive new world.
The silvery pop of early single ‘Darker Place’ serves as a good entry point for the rest of the record, tackling “the battle between light and darkness”, and finding Chinouriri’s hushed vocals layered over a shimmying beat, and pulsating electronics. She credits the song with “setting the tone” for the rest of the EP, both in terms of its palette and its subject matter; a remix from Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard ups the ante even further.
“I don’t care – I love Coldplay! I stand by them!”
Chinouriri took inspiration from some of her all-time favourite artists, channelling the haunting atmospherics of Daughter, the stirring vocal harmonies of South African a capella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and the storytelling of Coldplay who she defends from accusations of naffness: “I don’t care – I love Coldplay! I stand by them!” The influence of Daughter emerges in ‘Lose Anything’ with delicate acoustic guitar and rolling waves of reverb, and again in the eerie tape loops driving ‘Plain Jane’. Listening to the collection as a whole, you come away with the sense she might finally be able to dismiss the lazy R&B tag that’s followed her, simply by virtue of her Zimbabwean heritage.
“If you Google me now you’ll find so many references to R&B, and it honestly stresses me out so, so much,” she grimaces. “When I used to make music and not show my face it was always like ‘Here’s this indie, guitar-playing woman.’ And as soon as I started taking press pictures it was like, ‘She’s R&B,’ or ‘She sounds like Lauryn Hill’ And I’m like, I do not sound like Lauryn Hill at all.”
It’s an insidious microaggression every bit as unacceptable as the relentless, racist bullying she suffered in her early years at senior school in south London, where she was one of only six students of colour. “On the first day [of school] I got pushed into a wall, called the n word, and called a slave, and it was just continuous for three years until I enrolled myself in a new school,” she recalls with a depressing calmness.
Chinouriri is similarly measured when relaying her recent experiences in therapy, in which she was diagnosed as “codependent” by her counsellor. It’s the same disarming candour that characterises her songwriting on ‘Four° In Winter’, which delves into mental health struggles (‘Darker Place’), heartbreak (‘Give Me A Reason’) and even suicidal thoughts (‘Lose Anything’). “I’ve attempted suicide before,” she says when asked about the latter song. “It’s strange because when you end your life it is final; it’s a permanent resolution to temporary issues. So the song is me saying ‘What will I lose by making such a permanent decision?’”
Then there’s ‘Plain Jane’, which delves into some of the more toxic traits brought out by romantic rejection. “People stalk their exes online, and then they look at their new partners and feel some sort of satisfaction that they’re better looking than them,” she says. “It’s so horrible, but it seems to be a healing factor for so many people.”
In the pre-chorus she paints herself as a vengeful presence akin to Medusa, a theme that’s further explored in the accompanying visuals “I did the music video for it yesterday before I came here, and you know how my family are super devout Pentecostal Christians? Well, I sent pictures of me holding onto this snake and they were like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the devil!’”
“What I want people to know before they listen is that I have put my most vulnerable self at the forefront on this EP,” she says when asked about listener interpretation. “Every single situation I’ve struggled with in my life, and some of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with mentally. It’s what I’m using to heal and hopefully it can heal others.”
So there it is: for all the exquisite sadness in her songwriting, Chinouriri is using darkness to help encourage listeners towards the light.
Rachel Chinouriri’s ‘Four° In Winter’ is out April 23