Towards the end of June, while waiting to be interviewed on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch, Raye found herself desperately trying not to cry on live TV. With more than 17 million monthly listeners on Spotify, seven Top 20 hits to her name and songwriting credits for the likes of Beyoncé, John Legend and Little Mix, the south Londoner’s career appeared to be going from strength to strength. But then, on a lumpy turquoise sofa in a Shepherd’s Bush studio, the rictus pop star smile started to wobble. There to promote her dance bop Call on Me, – the latest in a long line of make-or-break singles – she found an innocuous query about the status of her elusive debut album triggering emotions she had suppressed for years. Two days later, sitting alone in her bedroom, she opened Twitter and shattered the illusion for good.
“I have been on a 4 ALBUM RECORD DEAL since 2014,” she vented to her 50,000 followers. “And haven’t been allowed to put out one album.” She detailed how her “music sat in folders collecting dust”, and were being gutted, with songs passed on to other artists “because I am still awaiting confirmation that I am good enough to release an album”. Aware there was no turning back with her label, Polydor, she added: “I’m done being a polite pop star.” In mid-July, she announced she had been released from her contract: “Today I am speaking to you as an independent artist.”
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Weeks later, in a hotel lobby in central London, the 23-year-old, real name Rachel Keen, is still processing what happened. She tries to return to the headspace she was in before she blew up her career in order to save it; one clouded with the streaming stats she’d obsessively pore over daily, knowing they could unlock her future. “It would dictate my mood, my anxiety,” she says. “Even creating a bitterness [towards] some of my closest girls in the industry.” She had been certain that Call on Me was leading towards an album. “Then it was like, ‘I don’t think it’s going to happen.’” She takes a deep breath. “I was ready to just give up and not be an artist any more.”
How did she feel after the tweets? “I felt better but I also felt terrified. I’d put my neck on the line.”
While Raye’s honesty felt unique, the situation she found herself in is not. Pop is littered with artists, from Chlöe Howl to Sinéad Harnett, who have signed with major labels and then been sidelined, perhaps because of shifting commercial expectations, reluctance to finance an album campaign, or simply because the person who signed them left the company. Some of pop’s biggest household names – Mabel, Anne-Marie, even Dua Lipa – endured EPs, mixtapes, dance music collaborations and tastemaker tracks on their long road to debut albums.
I think I’ve always been a rule breaker at heart
Signed by Polydor off the back of the success of her self-released 2014 EP Welcome to the Winter, Raye’s early tracks were a combination of hazy R&B and hip-hop. The excellent Second EP, released in 2016, featured a pre-fame Stormzy. Collaborations with the rappers Stefflon Don and Mr Eazi followed. Early tracks like pulsating kiss-off Shhh and the boisterous banger The Line, which zoomed in on a night out gone awry, showcased pop’s secret weapons; attitude, personality and an ability to switch styles, taking in everything from Afrobeats to disco.It was her collaboration with producer Jax Jones on Top 3 smash You Don’t Know Me that proved a turning point with the label: suddenly Raye seemed to be repositioned not as a long-term recording artist, but as a featured vocalist on other people’s songs.
When the label head who signed her left in 2016, Raye says she became less of a priority. Communication with her new bosses slowly disintegrated. One exchange, from Christmas 2019, is seared into her mind: “The head of the label said to me: ‘It’s like you’re 6-0 down at half-time.’” She notices my shock. “I was like: ‘OK, noted, I’m going to figure out how to bring that back.’” She quickly scored a UK Top 10 with the Brit-nominated Secrets, a collaboration with DJ Regard that has been streamed 280m times on Spotify. “I did get to 6-6,” she says with a shrug.
‘I’ve been working every single day for a really long time’ … Raye. Photograph: Tia Ferguson
Late last year there was a breakthrough of sorts with the release of the mini-album Euphoric Sad Songs. For Raye, it was a body of work her fans could really dig into. For her label, it was seen as a flop because it did not make the Top 40 (six of its nine songs have passed 15m streams). “What actually should matter is having artists who build fanbases and sell out shows and stream music, regardless of what genre it is,” she says. “Having a Top 10 is not defining. What it showed me was that we were aiming for two completely different things and we always have been. What makes them proud isn’t what makes me proud.”
She’s keen to reiterate that her tweets were born out of frustration at her specific situation with Polydor (“there are so many incredible people who work there”). She’s aware, too, that her swift exit – a mutual agreement between her and the label – is a rarity. “The fact that they did let me go, I’m so grateful because it could have gone all matters of dark,” she says.
This newfound clarity has been hard won, however. She has recently given up drinking and her new music, due next year, will address her issues around alcohol (“It’s a lot deeper and darker than people know and see”)as well as her experiences in the music industry. “The shit I have been through, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies,” she says. For the first time today she starts to let her anger show. “I am just beside myself about how the beautiful songwriters that I know, a lot of whom are women, and a lot of whom are women of colour, are just hustling out here. I’m angry, I’m raging.” She catches herself: “I am fighting so many battles, I need to just chill out.”
Taking a break is not in Raye’s nature. But she is learning to slow down. “I am not trying to sign anything for a very long time,” she says. “I do not want to see a contract.” Her short-term goals involve therapy, going on holiday – “I’ve been working every single day for a really long time” – and unlearning behaviours. “I don’t want to care about stats,” she smiles. “I just want to build a fanbase and release my album. My time is coming.”