The moment Ray and I sat down after shooting on a non-assuming roof terrace in Shoreditch, the news of the military coup in Turkey broke out. It was a quiet Friday night upstairs in the offices at Red Gallery, and the dystopian nature of the story made for an eerie setting. I told her I was convinced the world was ending after the shit storm that has been 2016, to which she exclaimed: “No, please, not until my career is where I want it to be.” I then asked her where that is. “I want to be as successful as I possibly can and in a place where I can maintain my artistic integrity. I want to sing for the rest of my life,” she tells me, with the ease returning to her voice.
Right now, RAY BLK sits comfortably as a rising R&B singer from South London. Ray’s thick, raspy voice is especially unique in a sea of female vocalists – it emits the same comfort and authenticity that you’d expect from Amy Winehouse or Lauryn Hill. Growing up, she watched back-to-back hours of MTV Base and was inspired to create music of her own, which all started by writing raps as a teenager. Although she doesn’t rap now, she’s stayed true to the dominant-but-gentle attitude of the genre.
“My music is about all the relationships I have. A lot of it is about redemption from my relationships”
Ray’s brand of R&B doesn’t go down the traditional path – the production on her records is sparse, but intensely layered and thought out. In 2015, she released her first project called Havisham, which was directly inspired by Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The novel follows the heartbreak of a woman – Miss Havisham – who was left at the altar and vowed to never love again, with revenge in the form of persecuting any man she encountered. Ray studied English Literature at university and told me she was moved by the permanent, almost heedless, reaction Miss Havisham had to being hurt. The debut EP featured leading track ‘50/50’ – a moody, slow-burning song pining after equal love in relationships, and knowing when you’ve had enough. It seems that Ray is no stranger to heartache. The themes in her music are simple, as she puts it: “My music is about all the relationships I have. A lot of it is about redemption from my relationships – redeeming myself from my home, my past relationships.”
Fast forward a year and a half, and she’s just released a video for ‘My Hood’ – a collaboration with grime’s most captivating MC, Stormzy. On the surface it’s an ode to her South London – a celebration of Catford and its colourful-yet-fractured community. When she wrote the song, she was feeling disillusioned after her neighbours had robbed her, but quickly realized that the beauty encompassing her hometown was inimitable. The vibrancy that she saw in South London’s people and aesthetics is one that made her come to peace with the deprivation and hardships her community faces.
“Empowerment, to me, is whenever I speak my mind.I want to express myself as a woman, so whenever I have the opportunity to do that, I feel very strong.”
‘My Hood’ serves as a mutual understanding; a compromise.“I never usually ride buses, but whenever I do, something happens. And that’s what South London is like. A crazy man gets on the bus; someone starts singing; a fight breaks out; the bus driver turns off the bus,” she laughs. Ultimately, though, the surroundings that have shaped her the most as an artist have been the women in her life. “The females in my life have shaped my person entirely. My mum, sister and girlfriends have helped me become stronger, wiser. The women in my life are so important to me. I wouldn’t be the same person.”
We speak about the healing powers of female friendships, and how it’s important to have an honest, empowered voice within your womanhood. She mentions how important it is to recover when you’ve been betrayed, and when it’s time to stand up for yourself. “A big part of British culture is not causing a fuss, so we rarely speak up about things. Empowerment, to me, is whenever I speak my mind. I want to express myself as a woman, so whenever I have the opportunity to do that, I feel very strong.”
We end our conversation on the topic of nostalgia, and how it’s a comforting device, even if it reminds you of a bad time. Often looking back can feel sombre, like the past is following you, but Ray insists that challenging feeling has become a staple part of her songwriting process. “I think reflection is positive. It’s important to feel two things at the once. It helps you grow,” she tells me. Now, with new project Everybody Loves Ray due to be released this year, she’s preparing herself for future nostalgia, with a smile on her face. “I hope I’ll be able to look back at how I started and feel happy about what I’ve achieved.”
Photos: Tim Boddy
Styling: Rachel Grace Almeida.
Styling Assistant: Victoria Parkey