Signing a major record deal as a teenager can be something of a mixed-blessing; the potential to be moulded and exploited for commercial success rather than allowing for natural progression must always be a concern. This has not been the case for Rae Morris.
The 21-year old joined the ever-brilliant Atlantic Records shortly after her eighteenth birthday, and her career has been gently simmering for the past three years. Early releases such as “From Above” and “Grow” showcased the gently melancholic, folk-pop direction she was taking: a striking character-filled vocal, alongside a knack for clever, subtly infectious melody sits her somewhere between the likes of Gabrielle Aplin and Lucy Rose in the growing pantheon of impressive British female singer-songwriters.
But it was the release of “Skin” along with its stunning video, that really saw Morris announce herself; something of a return, the wonderful track revealed a heightened sense of poignancy and dark power to her writing. The touchingly cinematic “Unguarded” emphasises this further, while “Do You Even Know?” proves the catching, pop direction she is also capable of, opening the door to fans with perhaps more mainstream sensibilities.
We caught up with the talented Blackpudlian to discuss her career to date on the day of her immaculate sold-out show at London’s Wilton’s Music Hall.
How did you start writing music?
I started writing when I was about 17 and doing the last year of my A Levels. Something clicked when I was watching an episode of Jools Holland and saw a girl from Blackpool [Karima Francis] performing. A few events followed that lead to me being mentored a bit by her and the art of songwriting was made really simple. I think I needed someone to do that because I had no idea how to write music. I feels like one of those things you’re expected to just know how to do straight away, whereas anything else you have to take years and years sort of learning your craft.
It twigged about how to do it and everything came from there. Because she was from Blackpool as well it was really eye-opening. I think if you don’t grow up in a big city or a cultural epicentre you’re not even aware that those opportunities are available; it was something I never even considered.
There were a few people who were instrumental in me getting signed, but the one moment I remember most was being in the back of my Mum and Dad’s car on way back from a gig in Liverpool: I had college the next day, it was really, really late and I was thinking, “These gigs are really great but I’m not really sure where they’re going.” I never planned it this way and it was getting a bit tiring. Then I got this myspace message from someone at Atlantic Records and that was just like a dream thing. You think that’s never gonna happen; it’s probably not even a real person!
From there a few people started getting in touch, but I always felt it was meant to be with him and Atlantic because he was the first person to get in touch. I met a few people after that, and appreciate I was lucky to do that, but you just have to find the place where you feel like home, because that’s what a label should be, somewhere you’re allowed to be who you want to be; Atlantic have totally done that.
It feels like your career has been developing gradually; was that a conscious choice?
It was definitely the plan. When I signed I had just turned eighteen so really, although I was aware of who I was as a person and what I was vaguely wanting to do, with regard to making an album and production I was pretty far off, so having that time to surround myself with the right people and just grow up as a person felt like a perfect way to do it, I feel very lucky. As I go on these tours to different parts of the UK there are people there that are aware of my music right from the beginning, which is really weird actually! It’s not like they’ve been on big TV shows or anything like that, so it’s just from people buying the music and appreciating it, which is something of a dying art form; it’s really, really lovely, very special.
Talk us through your writing process. Do you always start with just piano and voice?
That was always the way I did it back in the day, and I still do do that a lot of the time. I’ve got a piano in my flat now, which is wonderful because I get to write all the time. Recently I’ve been trying to do the production at the same time. Early on I just had no i idea how to approach it but now, after making the album, I’ve got this whole new bank of knowledge and I’ve have been using Logic. It’s an exciting project hearing what it can become; one set of chords and a melody can turn into so many different things, it’s really exciting.
What can tell us about your debut album?
It’s due to come out in September. If I had a name for it I would tell you, but I don’t! I have this dream of it being 10 tracks long but it’s so hard cutting it down to that; I just want people to hear the songs and not hold them back. It’s the same with the live show - we could play 15-16 songs but people would just get bored! I’m looking forward to listening through to them in the car and on headphones and hearing it as complete. I went to L.A. just to meet with Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim, Sky Ferreira, Vampire Weekend) and was so lucky to record with him out there (and in the summer!). It was the first time I’d really been away from living at home with my parents, so it was really exciting and I grew up a lot!
The album is a collection of old and new stuff and hopefully people will be able to hear the transformation with some of them being more produced, but I definitely didn’t want anything to feel polished, and I think even the more commercial tracks still sound quite raw. There’s a brilliant effect with strings where they sound like synths - he’s the most talented person ever.
What sort of music did you listen to growing up?
I grew up listening to things like Steely Dan and then a lot of radio. My Dad was a massive Radio 2 fan; I did a session last night actually, which was a big deal, it felt really special. I heard a lot of music and it filtered through but I didn’t always know what it was and I’m still developing my knowledge of music. Gradually I started hearing singer-songwriters like Feist and it was like, “Oh my God, I didn’t know female singers could sing this way.” I always thought my voice was a bit weird because it wasn’t exactly like Christina Aguilera, you know? I’ve started to explore things myself and find things.
It seems like female artists are really leading the way?
It feels that way, it’s true. It’s kind of scary! I recently saw Woman’s Hour at Purcell Rooms, which was amazing and Tramp [by Sharon Van Etten] was my favourite album of last year for sure. I guess people get touched by different things but there is something incredibly special about a female vocal.
You feature on the new Bombay Bicycle Club album. How did that come about?
The Bombay thing came about really naturally. I’m a massive fan of them and went to see them play at Manchester Academy in 2011. I had already met Lucy Rose at Kendal Calling - we were playing the same stage. I text lucy and said, “I’m at the show” and she said, “You should come back and and meet the guys afterwards.” So I did! I went backstage with my little cousin - she’s a massive fan as well - we were absolutely terrified and star struck, but they asked me to support them on their Different Kind Of Fix tour. I did that solo and then got to support them again this time round with the band.
I’m on “Overdone”, “Luna” and “So Long, See You Tomorrow”. I listen to that album a lot and kind of skip the ones I’m on! I want to listen to it because it’s the Bombay album. I would be listening to it on repeat anyway and then it’s me, and it’s like, “This is a bit awkward.” Listening to yourself is just a bit of a no no!
I’d never even been to Brixton before, everyone was going on about it and it was like, “It can’t be that scary?” Then I went in and it was like, “This is what you were talking about!” All the weird greenery; it’s like Jurassic Park, I love it. I did a run of solo dates before the Bombay tour but this is the first one with a band; it’s just been absolutely amazing. I never really wanted a band, I was always like, “It’s fine, it’s fine.” I’d done it so much just with a keyboard. Now having the guys and playing on stage with musicians it was like, “How have I never done this!?” It’s a whole different buzz.
Did you find that an easy transition or do you still think about playing solo?
Weirdly a bit of both. It feels natural to have them there because all of them are so talented and such great people, but it’s almost difficult to stop concentrating so much and chill. When you play on your own you have to concentrate so hard because you’ve only got yourself to get it right. Now it’s like, “Oh okay, I can just chill a bit and enjoy it!”
Were you in bands at school or anything?
There was one band at high school that was terrible - I hope they don’t hear me say that! It was probably me that was making it terrible! It was called Walpurgis Night, which is some sort of witchy, German night of feasts and stuff. We just did Yeah Yeah Yeahs covers and like Pixies. Then I was in one in college - I can’t remember what we were called - and I just ended up going out with the bassist so it got weird!
“Cold”, featuring Fryars, is out now on Atlantic Records. Rae’s debut record is released this year on 22 September.