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Nine Songs
Raleigh Ritchie

Forever finding new meaning in the magic of neo soul, the musician and actor tells Max Gayler about the stories surrounding the songs which drove him towards love and success

26 June 2020, 07:00 | Words by Max Gayler

Putting together the choice of songs that marked pivotal moments in his life was a more distressing task than Raleigh Ritchie initially expected.

“I think there were 76 songs in the first list I made, and it was much harder than I'd like to admit whittling them down to nine.”

Real name Jacob Anderson, his music is laced with different influences in and around neo soul, that satiate his appetite for dissecting music. A self-confessed melomaniac, music has remained a place of solitude and inspiration throughout his life. The songs that held his hand through tough moments, and the lyric books he'd memorised as a kid stuck to him like glue and shaped the music he makes as Raleigh Ritchie.

Despite being a self-confessed “sadboi”, Anderson has a positive end to every story. He grew up hating Christmas, but the warmth of songs like “This Christmas” turned it into a season about him and his wife's song. And the film scores that left him emotionally exhausted also inspired his pursuit of an acting career, where he eventually played the character of Grey Worm in Game Of Thrones.

“Music marks a point in your life. It can be the music that you listen to, the music that you take in or the music that's on the radio. So my attitude is, if people find it when they need it, that's what matters.” Half referencing the music he's been working on for his second album, Andy, his honesty in tackling mental health and self-doubt has made his growing catalogue something his younger self would have latched onto and studied.

From Stevie Wonder's discreetly unorthodox chord progressions to the conviction in Donny Hathaway's vocal delivery, Anderson has studied every songwriter, producer and composer involved in the music that shaped his path. He even convinced Rosie Danvers, a frequent Kanye West and Adele collaborator, to compose string arrangements on both of his albums after seeing her name on his favourite album ever made.

Anderson tells me he was half tempted to go through his favourite nine tracks from College Dropout, but in the process of whittling down 76 songs to nine, he thought it made more sense to explain the sounds that have offered him lessons in life, as well as music. “The teenage me would never forgive me for some of the songs I've missed off, but I was brutal about it. I wanted to choose the songs that spark a specific emotional reaction from me, not something that's just, ‘I love this’.”

His mother raised him on artists like D'Angelo and Erykah Badu - music filled with nuances and subtle nods to R&B's predecessors and inspirations. That attention to detail and perfectionism infected Anderson's songwriting and has made releasing his own music that bit more nail-biting.

“You spend so much time agonising over the tiny, tiny, tiny details, to the extent that you stop thinking that anybody's going to notice, or you forget that you even intended to do that thing - a little detail or a wink or whatever is. Those are the things I look for in the music I listen to. I'm sure all of my management and team would hate me saying this, but I'm grateful that people find it at all.”

Anderson's excited for people to hear his new music, but he isn't worried about it taking off right as it lands. In the same way that he found these Nine Songs at just the right time, he now hopes his music can do exactly the same thing for somebody else.

“Love” by Musiq Soulchild

“I found Musiq Soulchild exactly when I needed him. I couldn't decide whether or not to choose “Love” or “Just Friends”. Both songs served a similar purpose in my life, in that they're the first songs that I learned how to sing to, just from listening and repeating. His songwriting style is so baked into my understanding of songwriting, he's very conceptual, but I think he likes to paint a picture.

“I think the reason I chose “Love” was because it's so vocally dynamic. My wife said the other day that it runs through all the scales, which makes it a great song to learn to sing to. The fact I could hit all those notes was the confirmation I needed to know I could actually sing.

“Conceptually, I'd never heard a song like it. This is a song about love, but it's written to love. I used to sit and read the booklets of my CDs when I was a kid and I would literally study other people's lyrics. I would look at who produced what and who mastered things and mixed things. I'd do that instead of studying actual schoolbooks.

“I remember it really taking me back, because I was trying to figure out who he was addressing the words to. I was like, ‘Oh, when he says “Love. So many things I've got to tell you,” he's talking to love.’ I'd never seen anybody do that before, I'm sure people had done it, but that was the first instance I had of that.

“It's such a dramatic song and it feels the same way that love feels. It's free and sweeping and romantic, but it's also a bit messy and heart-wrenching. It really struck me when I was a teenager. Musiq Soulchild was, and still is, one of my favourite songwriters of all time, because he’s so smart about perspective. I feel like I haven't given Musiq Soulchild enough credit for what he's given me as a musician. Him, Dwele and D'Angelo were everything to me.”

“The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” by Ms. Lauryn Hill

“She really manages to capture the whole feeling of the whole album on this song. It's really visual, cinematic and dramatic and I love that.

“The reason I think that stuck out to me so much is because it was when I was moving to London when I listened to it the most. I would get the coach up from Bristol, sometimes at like six in the morning, and I'd listen to that song and it would just bring me up. It would give me so much comfort, because I felt what she was singing was the experience that I was having. I was having to give myself the confidence that I could move to another city, and that I was doing the right thing for myself and for my destiny.

“This song has got such a sense of destiny and rightness about it. I'd listen to it and I'd feel those goosebumps in my chest, it felt like I was falling in love with that song. I would just listen to it on repeat on a coach journey for three hours. Just that song. It would be that or Frank by Amy Winehouse. A PSP was one of the first things I bought with the money from my first acting job. I don't know if you remember, but you could only fit two albums worth of music on a PSP, so I loaded up those two albums and that was it.

“I think the thing with Lauryn Hill is that, to me, what she was saying wasn't that accessible at that time. It's so intelligent and so articulate, so it made me lean in, and then you're trying to work out what she said, what she means and what she's referencing. It makes you look up that stuff, she just does it in this way. Her voice is so rich and unique that it can work on the level of just listening to it, and feeling calm and feeling happy. Then when you tune into her words and you're like, ‘Oh, what else?!’

“It's weird though, I misread that song for so long. In the chorus there's that line. “Deep in my heart / The answer it was in me.”, but I thought when I was a kid that she was saying “Deep in my heart / The answer, it wasn't me.” So maybe that song was really damaging to me!

“I would think that the answer was that I needed to change my surroundings and to change my circumstance. Thanks a lot, Lauryn Hill.”

“Christmas In Harlem” by Kanye West, CyHi Da Prynce and Teyana Taylor

“Christmases were weird for me growing up, for a multitude of reasons that I won't go into. I never liked Christmas, but for some reason Christmas songs have always been something that I'm really drawn to. They make me feel really warm - Nat King Cole's “The Christmas Song”, Donny Hathaway's “This Christmas” - and a bunch of others.

“Those songs really make me feel something at any time of the year, but the reason “Christmas In Harlem” is so significant to me is because it's me and my wife's song. Christmas was so difficult for so much of my life, but when I met her, Christmas took on a different significance.

“It came out during that GOOD Friday release that Kanye was doing a few years ago. We listened to that at some point around Christmas, the first year we were together and it's just become a tradition of ours. It doesn't feel like Christmas unless we listen to that song, it's the one kind of consistent tradition I think that we have, and so it's just really special. It's ours.

“I used to not want anybody to know about the things that I love, because I wanted them to stay secret. I kind of do still have that with this, actually, but I'm glad that it's not a much beloved Christmas song, because it makes it feel even more special and even more like ours.

“It's a great Kanye West production as well. Whenever I make an album, I do go looking for the people that have worked on my favourite things. so it feels like a huge, huge privilege to have Rosie Danvers work with me as regularly as she does. For the first album I was like, ‘I don't know if we'll get her’, but now that we've become friends it meant I could bring her in to collaborate on this next album too. I went over to her house and I just played the whole thing, this was maybe a year ago, we talked through everything and had a chat about what the album was and how I wanted it to feel.

“I have to forget that she is responsible for a huge, huge amount of what I love about Late Registration and College Dropout. The latter is the most important album of my life. I'd just do Nine Songs from that album if I was allowed to!”

“The Seed (2.0)” by The Roots ft. Cody ChesnuTT

“Aristocrats” from Andy is talking about identity, and that's what this whole album by The Roots was about. It's talking about the identity you give yourself and how that's shaped by where you're from.

“My friend played me The Roots in my first year of secondary school and I'd never heard hip hop sounding so organic, I guess it's because it's all recorded live and it's still so bizarre to me that The Roots are Jimmy Fallon's band. They were the first band that I saw live without adult supervision and they're the act I've seen the most live. I've seen them six times, in every city I've lived in and others

“They're tied in with a lot of the songs here, that I found at the same sort of time when I was in the height of my detective phase. I wanted to know everything about the people that worked on the projects I loved and who they worked with. James Poyser for instance, and his connection to The Roots helped me to find Jill Scott, which helped me find Belau, which brought me back to Erykah Badu, who my Mum used to play all the time.

Black Thought is one of the best storytellers ever in music. You can read lyrics however you want to obviously, but for me, this song is about music. It's a song about the conception of music, the writing of music and how powerful a song can be.”

“Five Years” by David Bowie

“I think “Five Years” might've been the first song that made me cry. I think it's got something to do with how the song builds, he's literally screaming by the end of it.

“As a kid, I probably read it completely wrong, I was so desperate to grow up and be an adult and as an adult, I think the song is about making the most of now. I definitely heard it as an anthem to wanting to become an adult. I think it's also tied into wanting David Bowie to be my thing. I didn't talk to my friends about Bowie, my Dad put me onto David Bowie, and I didn't even tell him that. I just took it and kept it and listened to Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory on rotation.

“I didn't think of David Bowie as very cool at that time. I thought of the other music I was listening to as being the more interesting stuff or whatever, so David Bowie was my little secret. I really, really kept his music to myself, I didn't want to share it with anybody else and “Five Years” had such an emotional resonance with me.

“Putting on the character of Raleigh Ritchie, I stole from David and most of the Neo soul that I listened to. David Bowie is the reason that I love Kanye West as well. David Bowie has that eclectic thing, where he's not one thing - you can't call David Bowie just a pop star, you can't call him just a rock star. He crosses so many different flavours and that reflects my musical tastes, and it did when I was a kid too.

"I didn't really have a lot of prejudice to what I listened to. I could get a little bit of everything with Bowie, and then Kanye brought out College Dropout and it was the same deal.”

“For All We Know” by Donny Hathaway

“I could have picked any Donny Hathaway song to illustrate this point and why I love him. You get this with a lot of artists, but I don't think I really understood what the function of singing was until Donny Hathaway came into my life.

“I was always more interested in what somebody was saying, and the melody, than I was about how good somebody was as a singer. I hated acrobatic singing; I never really got it and it never got me in the heart. It kind of still doesn't really but Donny Hathaway does this thing that’ really rare, almost to a painful extent. I could feel every single word, every single pause, every single inflection. Everything is just feeling.

“It doesn't feel contrived. I believe everything he's saying and I believe that he means everything. It wasn't until a couple of years ago that I realised that he didn't even write quite a lot of his songs, which to me, is even more impressive. He found a way to connect to the songs that he sang. I didn't know that “Jealous Guy” was a John Lennon song, but with his voice, he makes it about him.

“Again, this is a weird one, it's kind of like “Christmas In Harlem”, in that my favourite album by him is Extension of A Man. This song is off the Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway album, although Roberta Flack isn’t on this song. It was one of those head cracking songs where I was ‘Oh, this is so important.’

"It's so important to communicate how you actually feel about something through how you sing. It's not just about what you're saying - you can say things that are really meaningful in a detached way and it doesn't quite mean the same thing. I feel like Donny Hathaway doesn't intellectualise his voice. he was just a beautiful singer.

“My Wife pointed something out the other day, when I was playing these songs. What I thought was the end of this song is actually not the end of the song, it's the bit where he sings, “Tomorrow may never come.” I always thought there was something really inconclusive about that sentiment, so I never paid attention to the final line. I've always thought, ‘What a way to end a song.’, even though the note feels like it's sustained, like it doesn't have closure and that's so beautiful.

“There are things about him and his life that really strike a chord with me. I didn't know that Donny Hathaway wasn't a huge star until recently, because he's been so important to me. I just assumed he was as big as Stevie.”

“For Once in My Life” by Stevie Wonder

“This is my favourite song of all time. It's just such a good song on every level, it's so joyful. Purpose is a big thing in my life - the idea of purpose and responsibility to other people, or people's responsibility towards you, is a huge driver for me.

“I think that “For Once In My Life” articulated that feeling of finding purpose in another person, in such a visceral way, like it just gets me. When I was single and I was depressed, and I was lonely and I was sad - when I was only that - this song made me feel sad in a way that I could love.

“It allowed me to dwell on my own lack of purpose, and my lack of purpose in other people. Then when I met my Wife and it took on a completely new significance and it became a different song. And then we got a dog, and the song took on a completely different significance again.

“Part of why it's my favourite song is because I can listen to it at any point in my life and it means just as much. Every time I meet somebody who means a lot to me, or that I feel I have purpose in how much I love them. this song becomes this new magical thing and it just keeps evolving.

“The song “Visions” was number 10 in this list, but I knew I couldn't put two Stevie songs in here. Can I give you a half explanation for that song? My friend gave Innervisions to me, and he was properly into technical, theoretical music. He could play the piano beautifully when we were 14, so when I listened through that album. I kept finding these moments. I knew Stevie Wonder, but I thought of him as the person that sang all of the most famous Stevie Wonder songs, like The Jackson's or Marvin Gaye.

"After I listened to Innervisions I was like, ‘How do you put these chords together?’ It doesn't sound like any other Stevie Wonder record, it's so weird and off, but it’s so satisfying. I'd recommend it to anybody.

“He paints images so beautifully and there's a significance to that as well. The way he's like, “I'm not one who make believes / I know that leaves are green / They only change to brown / When Autumn comes around.”

“People look at Stevie and say ‘Oh, isn't he great? The fact that he's blind’’, but I’m like ‘No, no, no, that's besides the point.’ He’s just a beautiful songwriter, a beautiful musician and player and singer. He’s the full package of all of those things I look for in music. Anyway, sorry this song wasn't on the list, I'm cheating.”

“Tainted” by Slum Village featuring Dwele

“This song was my first step into the world of Neo Soul, even though it's newer than a lot of the songs that I've found, or a lot of the artists that I found out about afterwards. I had the radio on every night when I went to bed from when I was a baby.

“And one night - I don't remember the specific night well - but I remember the moment. It must've been 1am or something and The Trevor Nelson show, Rhythm Nation, was on. That song came on and I was like, ‘This is my favourite thing that I've ever heard.’ This song was my gateway to lots of other things.

“I had heard Erykah Badu and I'd heard D'Angelo but what I hadn't heard was J Dilla on his own, or any of the other Slum Village albums. I hadn't heard of Madlib either. This was my intro into what was happening at the time it wasn't ‘90s soul and it wasn't musicians like Maxwell anymore. It was the new Detroit sound.

“I used to buy this magazine called Scratch Magazine. It was a production magazine, so Kanye West was in that a lot. In fact, the first time I saw him play was when he was opening for Talib Kweli, but I didn't even know about him or Mos Def until I heard Slum Village.

“It was like, ‘Oh, there's a modern alternative to 50 Cent or whatever it was at the time.’ I still think that stuff is fun, but Slum Village hits differently. Obviously “For Once In My Life” is my favourite song ever, but “Tainted” used to be the song that I could listen to at any time.”

“Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” by Beck

“I heard this song in Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, and I think Beck recorded this version for the film. Obviously it's a cover, but the reason I included this song is not entirely musical, it relates to how I see music now, in that Eternal Sunshine was the first film that turned me into a film geek. It made me fall in love with films as a medium. I used to watch lots of movies and used to watch things in Blockbuster. Men In Black was a film I loved. I loved Toy Story. I loved Jumanji. It wasn't films themselves though. I used to love going to the cinema.

“We rented it because I thought it was a Jim Carrey film. I was like, ‘Oh, cool. I've never heard of this one. What kind of zany shit is he going to be doing in this film?’ I just didn't know that you could do the things that are done in that film. in terms of performance and direction and writing. It blew my fucking mind.

“I think I must've been 14 or 15 when I watched it. I sat in the middle of the night watching this random film that changed my life. I was so emotional that I started it again immediately, but while I was thinking about what I'd just watched, that's when this song came on. The music that opens the end credits, I think it's just a really beautiful and understated cover. Colin Blunstone did an album called One Year and that album and the one for this film are kind of references for Andy.

“I sent “Everybody's Got To Learn Sometime” to Rosie Danvers to explain what I wanted for the string arrangements. Again, the reason I'm including this is partly because of what it means in terms of how much I love films. I think it marked how I looked at music a lot, as well as in terms of the sound of something that was so cinematic. You can really set an atmosphere and a tone with music and I think that song does it really gorgeously."

Andy is out now via Alacran Records
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