RAYE returns as an independent artist, releasing her first new solo music in over a year with ‘Hard Out Here’.
It’s been a year since the 24-year-old south Londoner blew up her career to rebuild it. Frustrated at the fact she’d been continually denied the chance to release her debut album by her then label Polydor – despite more than 12m monthly listeners on Spotify, seven top 20 singles, and four Brit award nominations to her name, plus songwriting credits for the likes of Beyoncé, John Legend, Little Mix and Charli XCX that have landed her more than 2.5 billion global streams (!) – she sent a series of tweets that shone a light not only on her struggles but on the plight of female artists caught in an endless loop of faceless dance features and broken promises.
It was in that emotionally febrile period between posting her tweets and later being released by Polydor in July 2021 that RAYE started working on ‘Hard Out Here’, the barnstorming, emotionally raw new single that finds her alchemizing pain and frustration into an in-your-face capital-A Anthem. Aiming for her old label, the broader music industry, the patriarchy, and toxic masculinity, ‘Hard Out Here’ revels in its unfettered honesty.
“What you know about systems / About drugged drinks / Fucking nearly dying from addictions” she sings unvarnished over an epic concoction of scattergun beats, featherlight strings, and ghostly backing vocals, laying bear her seven-year experience in the music industry.
“I’d been in that record contract for a third of my life,” she says. “It was a big change to be free. Once I had that closure, it became a journey of healing. Anger was my initial emotion.” It was in that context that she set up her mic in her makeshift studio in her living room (“no real sound booth,” she smiles), and ‘Hard Out Here’ lyrics just poured out. “It’s super angry. I was both crying and red with rage, just writing these lyrics, and capturing how I felt in that moment.” After years of playing the game – “The label model in the past is you put something out and if it doesn’t work pause the entire plan, reshuffle the plan, do a feature, stop everything and start over” – suddenly RAYE was able to make up her own rules, with that all-important album coming early next year.
It also meant she could disengage from the typical pop model of designing music for streaming playlists and radio whims. “I have no clue what’s going on in the charts,” she smiles, also emphasizing the pleasure of being able to disengage with social media and focus on what’s important. “I didn’t want anything to influence what I want to express. I’m trying to tell my story, and that’s what matters. I don’t want to cater to an audience – I want the audience to love me for what I’m saying and what I want to express. Hard Out Here is my story, it’s not going for the charts.” But, that inherent pop nous that’s seen her become one of music’s brightest stars and most in-demand collaborators is never far from the surface: “If you need to put yourself in that place like if you’re in a place of suppression, put this on and remind yourself who you are and that you’re going to bounce back.”
Faced with the freedom to do whatever she wanted post-label split, RAYE started to work through the folders of music left languishing on her laptop. Rather than let it go to waste, she started to re-work it, with ‘Hard Out Here’s backing track immediately jumping out. “The original beat had an entirely different song over it that I did when I was 19 with Mike Sabbath, who is the executive producer of my album,” she explains. “I took the beat and wrote a new track over the top of it.”
Channeling her emotions at the time – “I was fucking scared, there was a lot of fear and a lot of anger, just ‘let me go’” – the song morphed into the no-holds-barred banger it is now. In its three minutes and 12 seconds, it covers everything from artistic frustration to addiction to religion to the treatment of female songwriters, with one line – “All the white men CEO’s fuck your privilege / Get your pink chubby hands off my mouth” – a potent metaphor for how she felt as a young mixed-race female artist trying to navigate the music industry. “I felt like someone had a hand over my mouth and was saying ‘you have to say this, you can’t say this, you can say that,” she states. “It was exhausting.”
Now settled with a supportive infrastructure around her – the singles and album will be released via the Human Re Sources label – RAYE can focus on building on the platform all those years of hard work have afforded her. After playing, and owning the pop game, she’s keen to start honing her legacy as an artist that can skip between genres at will – the three singles alone flit between hip-hop, dance and gospel – and still keep their integrity. “My ambition now is to build a fanbase,” she says. “To put on the craziest live show anyone’s ever seen. My goal is to bring artistic excellence and be as great as I am capable of being. If that catches a wave, then amazing, but I’m not going to let that freak me out or steer my plans or alter my purpose.” So what is that purpose? RAYE takes a deep breath and smiles: “To put out music I love and believe in.” Mission accomplished.