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Ray laurel 1

On the Rise
Ray Laurél

13 September 2022, 12:00

Ray Laurél is determined to redefine the boundaries of UK pop with songs that speak to the inner child.

“Rihanna tried to fire me,” Ray Laurél reveals. It’s early afternoon amidst one of London’s hottest summers, and we’re commiserating over Zoom.

“It’s not ever been like this… It’s global warming, isn’t it?” They’re based in east London, having recently moved from Harrow and leaving behind their old job. Laurél had been working as a bellboy, passing long shifts standing outside in 40-degree weather. Now 21, Laurél tells me how they almost lost their job three years ago: “There was a big construction site where the normal entrance is, and Rihanna was running in because obviously, she didn’t want to be caught by paparazzi, so she didn’t see the big metal gate saying: ‘Danger of death'. I had to run and catch her and kind of sway her the other way. She went inside, told them I was harassing her, it was a whole situation,” they laugh, despite being shaken at the time. “Luckily the bodyguard came out and told everyone that I saved her life. He only told them once she left though because he didn’t want to tell Rihanna the truth... So long story short, I saved Rihana’s life.”

It's a few weeks after the release of their debut EP, MANIC PIXIE DREAM BOY, which is an eclectic amalgamation of genres—from indie, and pop to R&B stylings—underpinned by intimate storytelling. This variety (and slight erraticness) is not lost in conversation with Laurél, who weaves between philosophical musings, animated chatter, and introspection, admitting fairly early on, “I could chat for England, I can't lie”.

Whilst they’re often commented on as a newcomer, Laurél's been producing since they were 12, collaborating behind the scenes throughout London’s underground music community. Now that their debut solo project is in the world, things are shifting for Laurél. “Before releasing I was like okay this is definitely still a hobby,” they recall, “but now I’m like no, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Ray laurel 2

MANIC PIXIE DREAM BOY is a colourful snapshot into Laurél's world. It’s vibrant and cohesive, a conceptual project detailing their queer, and in parts spiritual and cultural, awakening. You would never have guessed it had been written within a couple of months, with their original EP, worked on extensively between 16-19, scrapped. “I completely abandoned and deleted all of the songs from post-lockdown because so much of myself had changed,” they tell me, reflecting on the old project “It was quite depressing. I’m sure I’ll drop it someday on SoundCloud but it was the dark matter of the soul.

During February 2021, the “depression lockdown”, so many of us were ground to a standstill, instead looking within — Laurél was no exception. “I feel like everyone over lockdown had to check themselves because everything stopped and we finally had time to evaluate who we are and who we had been told to be,” Laurél says. “There was no physical war really, but there was such a mental war that everybody was forced to go through, whether they wanted to or not. When everything was completely dead for a year or so, there was a journey inwards and mine just ended up being about queerness.”

It was during this time, and more specifically the revelations that came from it, that MANIC PIXIE DREAM BOY quickly pieced together. The EP weaves through these events, a soundtrack to queerness and liberation. “Hunter Schafer” pays homage to the Euphoria actress, whilst “Manic Pixie Dream Boy” explores the chaos of emotionally unavailable Hinge boys (and how that’s self-reflective in itself), “Johnny” a more intimate tale. “I got attracted to someone in a bar and that spun me out for weeks, and I got depressed about that to the point where I was really scared and I didn't understand who I was anymore,” they reflect on the onset of their awakening. “Fast-forward to a few months later and I've completely redefined who I am and shed a lot of the past.”

My style of music changed massively; that’s why I deleted the whole EP and started again,” laughs Laurél, “because everything had changed, even from the way I made and produced music because I was living in an entirely different dimension and truth. To be honest, this EP was quite funny because I didn’t tell a lot of my friends or family that I was queer, and essentially the entire EP is about some sort of queer awakening, so I was just like I’ll put it out, fuck it. And then I had some of my cousins calling me being like yo, manic pixie dream boy, who is that? I guess it’s an easier route because I don’t have to have the conversation, I don’t have to sit people down, but also I’m a dramatic person so I was like fuck it, this is more fun.”

Growing up as South Asian and queer, there was little representation in mainstream media. Now, Laurél is conscious of the role they play, seeing music in some ways as an act of service; a way to serve a wider audience. “There has been a load of people DMing me, more than I thought, being like, “are you Indian? So nice, repping, community and so on”, and I'm like oh shit. By default, there is a responsibility and I’m excited about that. Because that’s the thing I fucking missed out on my entire life and that’s what made me jaded from myself and kind of not even want to be brown; I didn’t see anyone like me. Definitely not queer.”

Navigating a multitude of awakenings, Laurél is making music for their inner child—and, in turn, for so many others. “I didn’t even like calling myself Indian, just because it was like, oh I’m born and raised in England. Now I’m understanding colonialism and stuff I’m like oh fuck,” they venture. There’s a term coconut that gets thrown around, particularly as a kid; brown on the outside, white on the inside. “I was always like yeah I’m a coconut, but now it’s like no, maybe not,” Laurél says. “Maybe that’s just me being conditioned into being that. It’s a journey of self-love essentially because if you’re told enough times how to feel and what to enjoy, once you rip that off you find your own new shit. Even with the queerness, it’s a journey of self-love. I love myself so much more because I’m accepting parts of myself that society has told me to never accept. And it’s in essence a spiritual kind of thing.”

However, it wasn't always music that inspired them. As a child, Laurél wanted to be a dancer. Whilst their parents were accountants, Laurél's mother was a Bollywood dancer for a while, and at four they began to learn. “I always knew I was going to do something performative. I wanted to be a performer. I didn’t know which. I swapped from wanting to dance to acting to then in lockdown I became a musician. Before lockdown I was auditioning for acting roles and then shit just changed,” laughs Laurél, “and now I don’t do acting anymore and I make music”.

Inspired by innovative artists such as James Blake, Sampha and Jai Paul, Laurél's fascination with music kicked in around 2011-2013. “Me and my brother were trying to be edgy. We were always trying to find newer shit.” Surrounded by progressive electronic and pop, Laurél made their first forays into producing at 12. They hesitate when I ask what spurred them on initially. “It was essentially Jai Paul. He’s from the same area as me and this has always been the thing; he was the only person that I could look up to and see some sort of representation. I was the only Indian in my school, I haven’t seen anyone brown or Indian in the industry doing the things I want to make. I saw that he produced all of his own stuff with him and his brother and that’s really what kicked me off. Their sound is beyond their voice. I want to get to the point where if I produce a song for someone else, they’ll know Ray Laurél produced it because I've got that kind of sonic.” At 17 Laurél discovered Bon Iver and Joni Mitchell, and, struck by their songwriting, began to adapt their artist project: “That's when I picked up the guitar, and now it’s moulded together; my electronic past life and my newfound guitar/songwriting life.”

"I want to try and change the way UK pop music is going because frankly I just don’t like it.... I think the UK is lacking."

(R.L.)

The immediate connection to Laurél's music is its intimacy. At times it’s tongue-in-cheek, a little playful, and at others, it’s hard-hitting and contemplative. There is something there, whether it be emotionally or stylistically, to resonate with most people. Generally, Laurél depicts the process as a release, it’s a cathartic way of processing life around them. They refer to their songwriting self as their “moon” — “The moon is that part of you that no one else gets to see when the doors close. I feel like that’s where the truest songwriting is. Tying it into the queerness thing, I couldn’t come out to a lot of people because I was too afraid, but I can sing it. I can release it to them because I feel like songwriting is almost a vessel of emotion that you wouldn’t be able to just say to someone because it’s too intimate and too personal,” Laurél pauses, ''or too powerful”.

It’s complex in some ways, a spectrum of emotion on full display. The most challenging aspect has been explaining their music to people from the past, and the plethora of questions that arise with it. “I created two songs dedicated to trans women, and probably the majority of people from my past, whether it be high school, cultural or family, they’re just completely alienated to it and I didn’t realise how different it is being a straight person to being queer. I literally went through this and was like oh it’s fucking different, it changes your perception of everything,” Laurél reflects. “I'd say the hardest one for me is when people bring up 'Johnny' because I talk about ballet boy. That was me. I was bullied, people would say ‘ballet boy’ and ‘gay Ray’ and so that one is extremely personal. In the end, it isn’t about me, but at the same time I am navigating through the binary structure as well and I do enjoy the gender fluidity of queerness. But that one’s hard. Some people in my high school were there when I was being called ballet boy, so they text me like oh I remember that. So that’s when I was like fuck okay,” they laugh, “bit too personal. But I love it, I’m glad I did that”.

Now, as Laurél navigates their identity and breaks the conditioning around them, they’re determined to do the same through their music. “A friend of my brother said this to me: ‘‘if you look enough, you’re going to find your favourite song in the world. Everyone’s favourite song is already out there. So really we’ve got to start being more personal,” says Laurél, ''I do want to try and change the way UK pop music is going because frankly I just don’t like it. When I see all of the pop music coming out I think the UK is lacking. Where we were from 2011 to 2013 was the pioneers who shaped the sound of pop music and that is still rippling through. So I guess I have a wider goal to push the boundaries of what people perceive pop music to be.”

Remaining highly personal, Laurél's excited to explore heavier sounds, live theatrics, and conceptualised performances. “I’ve done a lot of introverted and introspective stuff, now I just want people to jump around and scream.”

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