South London artist RAYE was just 17 years old when she inked her first recording contract with Polydor. Her first single, 2016’s “I, U, Us,” was an instant hit thanks to its infectious chorus and r&b-tinged pop sound. Successful songs like “The Line” and “Decline,” which featured rapper Mr. Eazi, followed the tune.
But there are crossroads recording artists find themselves at once they part ways with a major record label. Is it better to give up or attempt life as an indie artist? For RAYE she gambled with the latter. It also doesn’t hurt that outside of her solo artistry, she’s also written hits for a slew of artists from Beyoncé and Anitta to Little Mix and Charlie XCX.
Leaving the comforts of Polydor in 2021 following the release of the more dance-pop stylings of Euphoric Sad Songs in 2020, the singer/songwriter spent the next years forming her grand debut in My 21st Century Blues. Released in early February, the album produced alongside Mike Sabath is filled to the brim with RAYE’s eclectic taste that spans multiple genres from r&b, jazz and house. Below the surface are also tracks that tackle various issues including sexual assault, drug addiction, body image issues and more.
Speaking with BET.com, RAYE explains the making of My 21st Century Blues, the challenge of deciding to give away songs to artists and her social responsibilities as an artist.
BET.com: My 21st Century Blues is 2023’s first great debut. Between your career as a songwriter and this seven-year journey to get here that you mention on the final track “Fin,” what did the final stretch of finishing this album look like?
RAYE: I felt like this album came together in an interesting way because a lot of it were old songs I’ve had for a lot of years. So the final stretch for the album looked a lot like me gathering the demos of the songs I love the most and being like, how do we approach these? Where we’re at now, a lot of the songs had been created with one of my best friends Mike Sabath. We were just literally reflecting on our work that we created at 18, 19, 20, being 25 now. What are we going to do with these now? We just had the best time in that. Then I had some titles that I hadn’t put songs to yet and those were the missing pieces for me. There was a week we went to Utah and kind of broke the rest of the songs for the album. On that trip, we did “Mary Jane,” Environmental Anxiety,” “Body Dysmorphia,” and “Escapism.” I also did “The Thrill Is Gone” there as well. So we had a productive trip and the rest of the album were all demos that I’d had for years. So kind of like a mosaic.
BET.com: Considering your previous stint at a major label, what was that indie hustle like in putting an album like this together?
RAYE: There are so many positive comparisons for me in times of freedom including the ability to create, have control, have leadership and being empowered to make the decisions that I felt were right. That almost felt like a dream and took some time to get used to. Without the machine, I don’t have to answer to anyone or come with a pitch in order to get a decision made. That’s been really exciting from a creative perspective. There were so many rules, restrictions and things that I couldn’t do. I think that’s the most beautiful thing from both a musical and visual perspective. From the videos to artwork and messaging, it’s all creative freedom. It’s been intense because it’s an investment though. I thought I was working hard before but now I spend time caring about so many details. I’ll spend hours on some tiny details. I will never take my freedom for granted.
BET.com: You explore a bevy of genres from r&b and hip-hop to house and dance hall. Can you explain the process of slimming the tracks down to the 15 tracks on the album while maintaining cohesion?
RAYE: It was hard. It was a hard process because I just had so many songs just chillin’ there and it was really about the songs I loved the most. I really struggled at one point because I didn’t envision that I would have a more solid sonic identity that I would have or create it within one kind of time frame. I would have this kind of perspective of where I’m at in that current moment in time. It wasn’t that as some of these songs existed for years.
BET.com: You have dozens of platinum songwriting credits with Beyoncé, Little Mix, Calvin Harris, Quavo and others. Was there a moment where you almost gave a song away from the album to another artist and where do those decisions come from?
RAYE: There was a song called “Secrets.” It was originally like an R&B demo that was gonna be completely different. I had a whole vision for it but never got to see it through and I gave it away to a dance producer. I ended up staying on it but it was a completely different song. That was probably gonna be on my album.
BET.com: You released “Ice Cream Man” as a single and the music video you directed is out this week. That track is a hyper-personal account of the sexual assault you endured at the hands of a producer. How important was it to release that as a single instead of making it a deep album cut?
RAYE: It’s very important to release as a single and not from the perspective that I love the song. It’s a really hard song for me to sing and listen to. I don’t listen to it that much. Of all the songs on the album, I listen to it the least. However, I know it’s important. I know there’s a period in my life where I needed that song and it just feels like in my gut that it’s a story I should be loud about. I was so quiet about it for so long and it’s my way of creating a safe space for myself. I’m safe to tell this story as loudly as I want and I wanted to do that. It’s empowering as tough as it is on the other end of the spectrum.