My 21st Century Blues

My 21st Century Blues

“This is about me telling the stories I want to tell, in the order I want to tell them, through the sonic landscape I want to tell them,” RAYE tells Apple Music of her debut album, My 21st Century Blues. The South London singer-songwriter, born Rachel Keen, had to wait longer than most to do that. In June 2021, she claimed on social media that she hadn’t been “allowed” to release a debut LP, despite having signed a four-album deal seven years earlier, and that she was “sick of being slept on.” (She left her label shortly after and released this LP as an independent artist.) “There really did have to be quite a lot of soul searching and therapy and forgiveness and reflection,” says RAYE of the aftermath. “I wanted to go back to the songs that I was passionate about.” Those were tracks that RAYE had written years earlier, and which, revisited and reworked, make up half of My 21st Century Blues. Most of the others were written fresh, after she escaped to a cabin in Utah with producer and friend Mike Sabath, armed with a laundry list of topics to dig into (reflected in some of the album’s meatier song titles, such as “Body Dysmorphia.” and “Environmental Anxiety.”). My 21st Century Blues can sometimes be a difficult listen: RAYE unflinchingly processes traumatic experiences including sexual violence, substance abuse, disordered eating, and the suffocation she has felt as a woman in music, with embraces of everything from trip-hop to hypnotic dance, dancehall, cinematic pop, gospel, blues, and more. Getting to this point, she says, feels like “the most beautiful validation,” as well as something close to healing. “Everything for me on this is so medicinal,” she says. “I’m so excited for the artist now I get to become. This has set the tone for me, knowing how much potential there is in what I can say and what stories I can tell.” Read on as RAYE talks us through every track on her long-awaited debut. “Introduction.” “Before synths and electronic stuff, it was just a show. It was a real band. The singer would come on and sing for you in a nice dress or a nice suit. I really wanted listeners to feel like they’re in this little blues club or a jazz club, taking in all the songs as they go on a wild tangent far away from that.” “Oscar Winning Tears.” “The version you hear now has really taken on its own form since the original demo. When the situation with the spiking happened [RAYE’s drink was spiked by a man she knew and trusted], the man was just crying tears in my face. He was the victim. I was like, ‘Wow, I have a song for this.’ It was liberating. And when we finished it, I knew this had to be the start. I think the initial concept and then the story ended up just merging so perfectly into just a beautiful piece of medicine for me.” “Hard Out Here.” “When the story or feeling is burning at my chest, it has to force its way out. It was just rage and pain flowing out. For the line about CEOs and white privilege [‘All the white men CEOs, fuck your privilege/Get your pink chubby hands off my mouth/Fuck you think this is?’], my engineer turned and looked at me, but I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going there!’ This song was me promising myself that I will bounce back. It’s hard to put the story of what I’ve been through into words because it’s so much over so long. In my opinion, I really did such a good job of holding it down and in. Some of the things that were said and the way I was emotionally manipulated, it’s so dark. Coming out the other side of it, I just needed to remind myself that I will bounce back.” “Black Mascara.” “I’d just come back from where these assaults took place and was very much not good. It was just after ‘BED’ [RAYE’s 2021 hit with Joel Corry and David Guetta] came out, so I was having to sell the pop-girl image. At that time, I had the green light to do an album before they changed their mind for the last time. I played some chords, and they were very vampire-y and medieval. I had the phrase ‘Once you see my black mascara/Run from you’ on the way there, and so I was just building the lyrics. We had a session the next day, but I canceled it—I just wasn’t there—and didn’t listen to the song until maybe three weeks after I was sent it. I pressed play, and it sounds like what you hear now. I put it on repeat.” “Escapism.” [with 070 Shake] “I think when I was on my way out of the darker chapters in my life, I needed this song. It gives me hope. Mike played me this beat in the car, and I was rapping all this aggressive stuff. I knew exactly what story I wanted to tell on this. When we got to Utah, I went into the toilet and said a little prayer: ‘Dear God, help me find the best lyrics for the song.’ Then I got on the mic, and it came together so quickly—maybe in an hour and a half. I’m still processing the success of this song because I just did not expect it at all. I’m not doing this to gun for mainstream success. I’m not doing this to have the biggest chart records. These songs aren’t about that.” “Mary Jane.” “I’m an all-or-nothing person in every aspect of my life. So, when something dangerous is introduced [substances], it can get really bad—really, really bad. The lyrics in this song are dark, but substance abuse can really, really take you there. It’s a love song married with a slightly uneasy feeling behind the music. I wanted it to feel uncomfortable.” “The Thrill Is Gone.” “This song existed for years but was completely different in the beginning. I always wanted to take it back in time. We recorded it on tape and made it in the Valentine Studio in LA. It’s all carpeted walls, and it felt like a real taste of how music used to be created. Recording it was a beautiful experience. The story feels so classical, but the picture in my head is so distorted and modern and weird. I really love where we took it.” “Ice Cream Man.” “This is the hardest song on the album for me. There are so many layers of what’s taken and what’s affected and changed after trauma and sexual violence. So much is stolen. You battle so many minefields of, ‘Is this my fault? Did I put myself in the wrong position? Am I blowing something out of proportion?’ It just becomes this ugly thing that I’m having to deal with for the rest of my life because of someone else’s stupid, disgusting actions. And I think that, at the very least, this is me proclaiming what I am and that these things shouldn’t be allowed to define what we become. It’s as much for me as whoever might be listening who needs to hear it. I wanted it to just feel super intimate, with that hum that comes in at the beginning and these filtered drums. And at the end, you get this moment to feel beautiful with your tears, to stand up and walk out the room and continue with your day.” “Flip a Switch.” “I did this with Stephen McGregor [aka producer Di Genius], who’s a dancehall legend. He produced so many of the songs I grew up listening to, so he really brought his flair and flavors to the sound. I was in a budding relationship, and I had just decided to let my walls down. I felt it was safe, and then it was like, bang. I would have been fine if [he] hadn’t given me all this false hope. I was so angry, and it was like, ‘You know what! This song is going to be about you now. Let’s get all the drama out.’ It was very empowering and me saying all the things that I would love to say to his face. But instead, I just put it in the song and proceeded to listen to it all week.” “Body Dysmorphia.” “I’d been putting this one off for a while. It was the last day in Utah, and I felt I had to do it. I wanted it to feel sexy, in a weird way. So, we started with these scratchy, really uncomfortable strings, and then you have these smooth drums, which—if you were ignoring the lyrics—you’d probably have a little slow vibe to. It was a stream of consciousness. [The things I talked about in this song] can manifest in such ugly ways and hold really intense power over you. I think half of the power of this song is just saying them out loud.” “Environmental Anxiety.” “I’m a musician, but we know the state of the world, and you can see so clearly that things are just evidently flipping wrong. But [the climate crisis] is out of the control of an average citizen. It requires governments to pull their flipping pants up and put laws in place to better impact the climate. Banning plastic forks is all well and good, but you lot [politicians] are doing real serious damage. I thought I’d make a song about it, and I wanted to take the piss because that’s what the government does out of us. I wanted this eerie, childlike energy that brings you in, but also a punky, weird drum thing.” “Five Star Hotels.” (feat. Mahalia) “This song existed for a long time, and I always loved it. It was just a way of feeling sexy. We sent it to Mahalia, and when she sent me her verse, it was like, ‘Yes!’ We’re two girls who have dreams and have worked really hard from young ages. She just felt like the right person. Creating music to feel [sexy] has been empowering for me.” “Worth It.” “I wanted to release this a long time ago. Sometimes there are moments where it’s like, ‘Here comes someone—let’s make all of the shit things feel really cool. And all this work that I’m supposed to be doing on myself, I might pause for a section and start putting some work into this other thing because it feels really nice.’ I wanted to have this near the end of the album—a warm hug as you are leaving some of those darker earlier things. The irony is in putting it just before ‘Buss It Down.’ because it didn’t fucking work out!” “Buss It Down.” “It’s the juxtaposition between gospel feelings and a song about getting down. The choice to be single is empowering, and I think this is something for the single girls. It’s all right to be single and be joyous about it. It can be a good thing.” “Fin.” “I wanted to have the audience cheer at the end of ‘Buss It Down.’, and I want this thank-you moment. It’s a personal closing—I’m so proud of this album, I’m so grateful that people will even listen to this outro. I’m a human who’s put some stories together, and I’m excited for next time. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point, but we’re here. And the joy of being able to share this moment is really exciting. It’s been a long time coming.”

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