Raye: the pop whisperer talks new EP, writing for John Legend and using her platform for good

At only 20 years old, Raye has already had an astonishing career. Writing with stars like Charli XCX, Little Mix and John Legend, she’s featured on a series of categorical bangers (Jonas Blue’s ‘By Your Side’ and Jax Jones’ ‘You Don’t Know Me’), and is now paving a way for herself with her own brand of R&B infused pop. Her brilliant new EP ‘Side Tape’ is out right now – and this summer will be spent at festivals and working on new music.

We sat down to hear about how her EP came about, what it’s like to work with huge legends, and the importance of using your platform to stand up for what you believe in.

Your new EP, ‘Side Tape’ is totally brilliant. There’s been loads of collaborations. How did those happen?

Everybody on it is my friend, or people that I’ve crossed paths with and really respect and love and have reached out to, and it feels really good because it’s not just something thrown together – everyone did it for free, and it wasn’t trying to be anything, so it’s really honest and real.

It mixes loads of different genres. Do you ever feel like you have to be constricted to one genre or just like you want to make your own sound?

In recent months, I’ve just wanted to create what I want to create, but before that it very much was compartmentalised. Two years ago making R&B music meant you couldn’t progress any further than a Radio 1Xtra playlist, you know? But I feel like the way music is evolving, with dancehall, Afro-swing, and the R&B movement being introduced more to the pop chart, it’s receiving bigger audiences. I think kids see real from fake now, and choose what they want to listen to whereas before it was very label-led. It’s exciting, because now I feel like there are less boundaries and limits, and I can kind of do what I want, which feels amazing.

How old were you when you realised you wanted to make music?

I remember a really poignant moment when I was 10, in my primary school playground, and I went up to my Dad and was like “Dad, I’ve heard about this school called the Brit School, and I really wanna go.” He was like, “okay, where did that come from?!” So we went on the website and researched some of the things I would need to get in; I’d have to be grade 4 at an instrument, and stuff like that, so I worked really hard to get into that school. I think it was from that moment, when I was like Dad I wanna be a songwriter, I want to be an artist.

And what was the Brit School like?

It was amazing! I was there for 2 years; you’re kind of thrown in the deep-end, like you get to do shows for the first time in front of audiences, you get to collaborate with other really amazing musicians and create compositions. It’s kind of bettering your skills and becoming more confident. It’s a difficult environment to grow in, because everyone’s so talented and it’s so competitive – it’s loads of hormonal 14 years old thrown together and everyone wants to be the best. But through that, it toughens you up, and prepares you for the industry. I had a great time.

RAYE press shot

Did you decide to leave?

Yeah, so I was there for 2 years and had applied to sixth form with the intention to stay, but realised maybe the best thing for me would be to go my separate ways. The only reason being, I cared too much about what the people around me thought of my music, and I wanted to create something that my friends were going to like. Then I remember putting out music and some people being really bitchy about it, and I was like “fuck, I need to get out.” I needed to be happy with it, not other people. Experiencing that judgement first-hand, was kind of shit. So I just needed to get out.

After you left you spent two years songwriting, and now you’ve written for tons of big name stars. What was it like working with John Legend?

That was amazing – he is great. It’s been like meeting people recently that I was listening to growing up, is so weird because you’re just looking at them like “I really loved your music through my whole childhood.” So you go into a room and you’ve gotta act like everything’s fine, but you’re like this is crazy! We vibed instantly and the song happened so quickly, I ended up singing backing vocals on it. It’s his current single now, which is really exciting.

Who’s the one person that you think, “I really want to write a song for you”?

I just want to write a song with Alicia Keys, so badly.

And it was Olly from Years & Years who sent one of your tracks to Polydor [the label Raye’s currently signed at]. Did you know him at the time?

I didn’t, no. I think he’s kind of responsible for my record deal! He found one of my songs called ‘Hot Box’, one of my early releases, on Hype Machine, and then played it to Polydor, who then reached out and wanted to see a show. And I’m with Polydore right now! He’s so lovely, and I supported them on a couple of shows. They were one of my first artist relationships.

At the moment, music has got a bit more political, do you think artists need to use that platform if they’ve got it?

I think it’s important to, and it’s something I’m very aware of and I want to start being more honest. The problem is, it’s whether the public are ready for a message and speaking out – it’s choosing the right time and the right words. There’s so much going on now, that’s controversial or sensitive, and you can say one thing wrong and everyone’s like “ugh”. I have a lot of respect for people finally using their music and their songs to really say something, and it’s something I want to do. Being aware of what’s going on around me, and experiencing racism and homophobia and these things first hand, putting it into music is important.

You touched on racism there; I have to ask about the Ivy video. Did you feel like you had to get that out there?

Yeah, I was pretty scared to shed some light on a subject like that because I’m a new artist and I don’t want people to think I’m trying to get attention from it, but I felt like it was the least I could do. Scream and shout about it. Everybody whispers and watches it happen then goes back to doing what they’re doing. I hope that every other young person that sees that happening would do the same thing. It was really bad.

If there’s one thing you really want to achieve in your career, like a really huge aspiration or whatever, what would that be?

Having a number 1 song in America. I’m very ambitious. It’s like something that could never happen – you could be one of the world’s most successful artists and never achieve that, so fingers crossed!

Raye’s EP ‘Side Tape’ is out now.