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Nine Songs

As her debut album draws closer, Rachel Keen takes Clare O’Shea on a journey through jazz clubs and basketball courts to reveal the songs that shaped her.

26 August 2022, 08:00 | Words by Clare O'Shea

“My pen is a gun.” RAYE is back with a vengeance in 2022, calling out the powerful men who sabotaged her music career on new singles “Black Mascara” and “Hard Out Here”.

24-year-old Rachel Keen, aka RAYE, has just concluded her first year as a newly independent artist. The Croydon songwriter and musician, who attended the borough’s famed free Performing Arts college The BRIT School, released her first EP aged 17.

However, her debut album has remained noticeably absent, a point she addressed directly on Twitter last year, where Keen called out her label’s decision to repeatedly postpone the album, and instead encouraged her to increase her streaming figures through features on other artists’ tracks.

Nowadays, she has full control over her musical output and that long-awaited debut. “I've finally finished everything to do with my album, which is really exciting” she tells me. “It's been a long stage of mixing. I've been so annoying; I've taken so much time to get it perfect.” Alongside her own original music, Keen is also a prolific songwriter, penning tracks with and for the likes of Beyoncé, Quavo, John Legend, Ellie Goulding, Anne-Marie and Little Mix.

“I've started up my songwriting career again. For quite a long time, I haven't been writing songs for myself or for other artists”, she explains. “Lately I've been doing some really cool sessions working with [American singer and actress] Halle Bailey, who's amazing, we’ve done quite a lot for her project.”

Over the years, the pressures of being an artist began to take their toll on Keen’s mental and physical health, but with her newfound independence, she’s made a commitment to tackle this head on. “For the first time in my life I've been spending a lot of time alone and it's been really healthy and good.” She’s previously hinted that her debut album will explore the darker side of her experiences in the music industry, including her issues with alcohol. “I've been fixing a lot of patterns”, she reveals. “I've been sober, I've been gymming, eating good - just trying to get life back on track, you know? Basically working, self-care and sleeping really.”

Keen, who joined the BBC Radio 1 Brit List in 2022, is eager to start afresh, a sentiment she acknowledges will resonate with many. “I think we're all in that place of like, ‘Okay, can we just leave the anxiety of the last few years behind and start new chapters?’ Currently, we’re planning some tour stuff - nothing's been announced, but I'm very getting very excited about getting all of that ready.”

Part of her conflict with her former label was the pressure to make music that would fit neatly into a specific genre, which Keen feels is missing a vital element of music. “There are so many different ways to express yourself as a songwriter and a musician, that it hurts my soul to think that it can only be one. I don't have that ability to be like, I'm this girl”, she insists. “There are some musicians who do that and do it excellently, but there are also artists who evolve and move and flow and experiment and reveal those different sides.”

This ethos is reflected in the pivotal songs in her life, an eclectic mix of genres ranging from gospel to indie. Keen contemplates the different threads weaving her Nine Songs together and sums up why they matter to her so much. “These are some of the songs that shaped my life, these are artists that have moved me… Really, the theme is me.”

“Baltimore” by Nina Simone

I have a good friend called Sam, who works for a charity called DROP4DROP, and we spent quite a lot of time together doing some charity projects back in the day. We met for the first time in India - so random - we were doing some charity work out there and he was a proper music head, always putting me onto amazing songs.

About four years ago we met up by this really nice river for a picnic. I hadn't seen him in years, it was such a beautiful day, sun's shining, and he was like ‘Let me play you this song. Do you know Nina Simone's “Baltimore”?’ I was the biggest Nina fan and the second he played it for me I was hooked. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I love this song.’ And it became an instant classic for me.

Nina is one of my all-time favourite artists, period. She is the ultimate artist, everything she represents and did for music and for politics was game-changing. I have a poster of her in my room with the quote ‘It's an artist's duty to reflect the times.’ I woke up one day and I read that quote and... it was one of the reasons that I just broke down, went on Twitter and that whole moment happened. Because I was sat there, thinking, ‘I’m not doing that [reflecting the times] at all’, you know?

She's one of my biggest inspirations for being an artist. I want to be an artist that is as honest as I feel like I am in my everyday life, with my friends, with my family and with what I believe. I'm a super passionate person, full of conviction and I relate to her bravery; I want to be as brave as Nina was.

Ironically, this is one of the few songs she didn't write, and I know that she personally didn't really like the song or enjoy the process of writing it. But it's one of those songs that resonated with me. I think the lyricism is so beautiful - and the strings and the instrumentation and the way that it feels, it's just gorgeous. It starts “Beat-up little seagull / On a marble stair / Tryin' to find the ocean / Lookin' everywhere” It's like, ‘What the hell is this imagery? “Hooker on the corner / Waiting for a train / Drunk lying on the sidewalk / Sleeping in the rain.” You get this picture of this broken place, but unfortunately it seems that the most broken things translate into the most beautiful art.

Nina being the prolific songwriter that she is, there are so many songs that I could have chosen, like “Mississippi Goddam” and “Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood”. And, oh, “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, which she covered and carried on for a very important reason. But I chose “Baltimore”; I play it almost once every three days, it is medicine to me in its purest form.

“Gettin’ in the Way” by Jill Scott

I discovered Jill Scott when I was about 10 or 11. My uncle José, my mom's brother, put me on to this and said, ‘You need to listen to Jill Scott.’ I'd started writing songs from the age of about seven, which is ridiculous, but I caught the bug super early. He was like ‘She's a songwriter and you need to listen to her songs and how she writes.’

The first song I heard from her was “A Long Walk”, which is one of her most popular ones. I was so blown away by all the stuff that was on the radio or that you get exposed to as a kid, outside of what your family shows you. Especially at the time, all the music was 'Put your hands up', 'Dance on the floor', or 'I feel in love, I'm in love', but in “A Long Walk” Jill Scott goes “Let's take a long walk around the park” in the chorus. And I'm like, wait, what? This goes against everything I know is a song.

I instantly fell in love with the album, Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1. I know every single word, ad lib, beat from every single song on that whole album, it’s incredible. It is raw, unfiltered stream of consciousness songwriting from the heart. It doesn't feel forced or manipulated, it feels like someone's talking to you about the way they feel, like talking to a friend.

In “Gettin' In the Way”, Jill Scott’s talking to another woman about how she's getting in the way of her and her man's relationship. I just love the sass, I love the energy, I love the colloquialisms. [Raye sings] "Sista girl / I know you don't understand, but you're gonna have to understand / he's my man now." I also thought this was a really cool perspective to hear from a woman at that time. Nowadays you have artists such as SZA coming along and doing songs like “The Weekend” - which was so amazing, getting to hear a new perspective from a woman: "You like nine-to-five, I'm the weekend".

There's this thing, being a woman, that you have to always be this correct, lovely girl - you can't have any flaws, or you can't expose them, you can't do the wrong thing. But I think showing those traits or emotions as women... We have so many colours and sides to us. I've definitely done things in the past that I regret, but at the end of the day it's still honesty. I love that energy and I really felt that from “Gettin' in the Way”, it was a woman saying, ‘Don't come for my man!’, d'you know what I'm saying! Like, obviously the politically correct thing or the right way to be is “Yes, girl power! I love women'', but we've all been in that position where we felt threatened.

It's so refreshing, so beautiful. I love the melodies and the way the song makes me feel; the timbres, the textures of the sounds used. It's so relaxing, but the concept is the opposite. I think it's such a vibe.

“Summertime” by Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald

Jazz music is one of my all-time top favourite genres. I wake up every day and I ask Siri to play some jazz music and have a jazz station on every day, all day. When I was a bit younger, I dated a jazz musician and I had the time of my life. We used to go from jazz clubs to jazz bars: Ronnie Scott's to The Haggerston to Kansas Smitty's to Troy Bar, to all these places. We would go, I would get on the mic, he would get on the keys, and we would sing jazz everywhere.

Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were the first musicians I discovered from the jazz world when I was really young and I fell in love. The first song I learned to play from that kind of jazz world was their song “Summertime”; D minor to A minor, to G, to G over C, to F major 7, to E diminished to broken-chord - that I don't know how to say technically - back to D. It's one of the songs I know best on the piano. If I had to get on the piano and sing anything, I'll sing that. Whenever I have like one little drink somewhere, if there's a piano there, I'm on it singing “Summertime”!

Both Louis and Ella were so ridiculously excellent at their craft. They are two of my biggest inspirations as a human, as an artist, as a listener. Each of their entire catalogues and discographies are unmatched, just flawless artistry. It's one of the things I really miss in today's times - that sound, that rawness, that honesty. The way they used to record the music; none of it was edited, it was one take... oh, I just love jazz, girl. If I had to listen to one genre for the rest of my life, it would be jazz music.

That's what I also love about this song; the lyricism feels so happy, but the chords are minor, dark and have that real sense of emotion. That energy of the opposite became something that I really gripped onto - you're gonna hear that a lot from me, especially on the songs that are coming. So your lyricism is saying one thing but the music feels entirely the opposite. This excites me so much as a writer and as a creative. I don't feel music always has to exactly match the emotion of what you're singing. I can't listen to Adele when I'm really sad, I can't do it. I listen to Adele when I'm in a good space in life, because otherwise I'll be distraught. I need to have these emotions that I feel and somewhere else to put it.

The song is so beautiful, like an anecdote of summertime: “The living's easy / fish are jumping and the cotton is high / oh, your daddy's rich” It's a lullaby but the music is haunting. It’s that juxtaposition; somewhere to put your pain. It's that freedom of letting it go. Most of my songs are like that, I'm talking about something that's really fucked up, but the music doesn't feel that way at all.

It's interesting, even in this conversation with you, realising how inspired I was by “Summertime.”

“You’re Bigger” by Jekalyn Carr

I was raised in a Christian household and I think I had quite a difficult relationship with it all in the early days. But there was a moment where I really found God, in the time that I really needed it and it saved my life, to put it pretty bluntly.

This is the song that I used to play during the toughest, toughest times to put life into context for myself; to remind myself that God is bigger than any of the problems and any of those feelings that burden me and come my way.

It's so empowering. Almost every time I listen to “You’re Bigger”, I finish the song in a flood of tears, it makes me feel so much better. Gospel music is a big part of where I learnt to sing, I learnt to sing in church. I feel gospel singers and gospel artists have this way of singing. Some of my favourite vocalists grew up in church: Whitney, Mariah, even Britney, even Katy Perry, which is crazy.

There's something about gospel music, I can't explain it, I guess I'd use the word 'anointed'? Where you tap into a power higher than yourself. I really owe my life to my faith, it's kept me going and it's kept me okay, it's given me strength. Whenever I'm having a tough day or I lose perspective, I play this song. I scream it in the mirror at the top of my lungs and I feel better again. Jekalyn Carr's voice is unmatched. She is so flipping incredible. She's an absolute powerhouse, a force of nature, who is very inspiring.

I think it could have been Normani who put me onto this song, I'm not a thousand percent sure, but I think it was her. That's something we discussed a lot when we were writing music together. She's a really lovely girl, she would always send me empowering quotes. It's a tough industry but our faith definitely held us both in. Either way, when I did discover “You're Bigger” it became my favourite gospel song.

“Wicked Games” by The Weeknd

The early The Weeknd project [Trilogy] - I think for a lot of people my age, we just became infected with this sound. He really did the damn thing in that project. I was maybe 13 when I really latched onto this sound, when I was starting at the BRIT School. We had a studio shed that we built in the back garden of my family house, and I would go in there and play “The Morning”, “Wicked Games”, “Crew Love”, all of these tracks at full volume.

I would smoke cigarettes in there after my parents fell asleep, roll joints. The studio had a ventilator in it, which was amazing; I’d turn it on, leave it on overnight and by the morning all the smell of smoke had disappeared. We used to invite friends, sneak them around the back and we would lie there on the carpet and immerse ourselves in the sound.

It's the kind of sound that makes you feel nostalgic, it gave you a really sexy place to put all your twisted, confusing, hormonal emotions. What a flipping icon he turned out to be, but I know for a lot of people, my generation, my age, those initial songs are still our favourite era of The Weeknd.

“Taro” by alt-J

There was a period in my life where I became a proper indie girl. I loved Bombay Bicycle Club, then I discovered alt-J and loved them. I used to play these songs from the top of my room so loud, and their debut An Awesome Wave was such an incredible album. This is what music's about - especially when I was younger, I would use it as an escape.

I was at the BRIT when I really got into this album. From a personal perspective, I had a hard time with other people there; I had a great time at the school, but when you're aged 14, 15, it's a very confusing time. I had a lot of issues because I was a very big character and I think I rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way. Also, when you're young and self-reflecting, that shit is very difficult to do, so I definitely wasn't aware of the energy I was maybe giving out.

I used to run away to the basketball room. I joined the girls' basketball team and I used to spend every single lunchtime there, it felt safe. I remember I’d have my headphones in, I would run drills and I'd have alt-J going round and round and round in my head. I wore black every day for a period of like six months - I wore big black oversized t-shirts, ripped tights and Air Max, don't ask!

alt-J really got me through, and “Taro” was one of those songs specifically that was really special to me. Whenever I hear that album, it takes me back to that time. That music was so stunning, I was always gutted I never got to see it live. But hopefully one day.

“Wild Bitches” by PARTYNEXTDOOR

I discovered PARTYNEXTDOOR when I started my songwriting career. I'd left school and there was a producer called Adam Midgley who put me onto him. I was the biggest Drake fan growing up and he signed PARTYNEXTDOOR, who dropped a self-titled album. I fell in love with this body of work, I played it every day for ages, I know every single lyric.

One of my favourite songs [from the album], sonically, is “Wild Bitches”. It makes me feel life in a really exciting way, it gives me goosebumps. It makes me feel empowered, excited, brave and sensual - all of those feelings that you listen to music to feel, I guess, especially as a young girl. I would put it on, on my commutes, walking around, whatever, I'd have it in my ears.

I love PARTYNEXTDOOR's vocal delivery. He produces his stuff himself, he's super talented. I've actually had the chance to work with him a couple times and he's the loveliest guy.

“Lay All Your Love On Me” by ABBA

It took me a very long time to understand ABBA. I rejected them in my youth. Despite the big ABBA songs that would come on at the school disco, I was only exposed to the entire ABBA catalogue when I watched Mamma Mia. I don't particularly love musicals, which is going to upset some people, but I don't like overly cheesy things or that style of singing, typically.

I didn't appreciate ABBA until I’d really studied my craft as a songwriter - through experience, through working hard, through travelling around different places, spending a lot of time in Sweden, understanding symmetry. Understanding what makes a big pop song? What makes a big dance song? What makes something stick? You know, learning the craft. It was only maybe five years ago that I discovered ABBA properly and thought ‘How have I missed this genius?!’ Because what ABBA do is soak up their influences from all over the world and pour it into their music, into the most complex, intricate designs of the most perfectly crafted pop songs possible. It's the reason that they connected in the way they did.

“Lay All Your Love On Me” is just a fucking incredible flipping song. They integrated the most insane hooks and musically, every section of the song went to new chords. When the repetition occurred, it was genius, just insane artistry and the way “Lay All Your Love On Me” goes from a minor to a major... it makes me feel something in my heart, so deep. Yo, I will play the song loud in my car and feel it.

I fell in love and studied everything ABBA created. I've even been getting into the new album; it's different, but it's still them and it's really exciting, I've still got more to get into. But Björn and Benny, who write the songs and do all the production, they're geniuses.

“'S Wonderful” by João Gilberto

I grew up going to this festival called WOMAD every year, which is a world music festival. It's one of my favourite festivals. It's so cute and family-orientated but it has so much incredible world music: Samba, Latin, African drumming. I was really exposing myself to all these new genres and one of them was Bossa Nova. I went away and immersed myself in it, and I fell in love with this artist João Gilberto.

His voice is so small but it’s so rich and he barely sounds like he's opening his mouth. It's the perfect combination. There was a period in my life that I played him every day for a really long time. Not all of the songs are in English and I don't understand some of them, but it didn't matter. It was the way it made me feel; sensual, relaxed, safe, at ease and in love when I'm [actually] single. I love this song and I had to choose it because it's made a big impact on me as a human and artist.

Bossa Nova's now become one of my favourite genres. I was writing some songs with Anitta, the Brazilian artist, and her country is obviously where the genre originated. We sampled a big Bossa Nova track “The Girl From Ipanema” on her song “Girl from Rio”. I remember being in the studio that day, hearing some of those influences and when [production and songwriting team] Stargate brought “The Girl From Ipanema” to the table I was like “Whoa! I love Bossa Nova. Let's go”.

Evolving and experimenting as an artist is a beautiful, exciting thing. It's definitely what I intend to do with the bodies of work that I'll share with the world over my lifetime. I’ll create music about whatever I'm inspired by in the moment, in whatever sound that feels truest to the emotion I want to express.

RAYE's "Hard Out Here" single is out now.
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