I am speaking to Ora via Skype, because I am in New York and she is London, lounging in her posh house. She lives in a northwestern neighborhood called Kilburn, which is not too far from where she grew up, in a bohemian enclave near Portobello Road. The neighborhood has gentrified quite a bit since Ora was a little girl and would sing in her father’s pub, The Queen’s Arms, strengthening her rich mezzo-soprano while patrons got tipsy on shandies and devoured meat pies.
Though Ora, now 25, was born in Kosovo, she moved to London at age 1, when her parents fled the persecution of Albanians. (She still speaks fluent Albanian and visits Kosovo often, returning as a kind of shiny folk hero.) She says she considers Britain, where she is very famous, to be her spiritual home. She even put a song about it on her new record. “It’s called ‘Home,’” she says. “And it’s about how I wanted to remind my hometown that I’m still here, you know? I’m always in the States and I’m always on the road, and sometimes when you're physically not here, people don’t think you're here, you know? But I’m here.”
I was only 19 or 20, and I was so excited to be making music and performing live. I didn’t know better. But now I do.
And yet, here in the States, she is still somehow positioned as an up-and-comer, someone who the industry has been trying to “make happen” for years now. There are memes about it: One features Mean Girls' Regina George posing with the words, “Stop Trying to Make Rita Ora Happen.” Another involves users on Twitter responding “Who?” every time Ora’s name pops up in the press. The masses can be cruel to pop stars, and they are decidedly flippant when it comes to Ora. Her latest singles, “Poison” and “Body on Me” (the latter featuring Chris Brown) reached No. 3 and 22 on the U.K. charts, respectively. But they didn’t chart in the States. She is known everywhere, seen everywhere, but not yet appreciated everywhere as an artist.
If the new album changes that, it will have been a long time coming. In 2009, Ora, then just 17, auditioned for Eurovision: Your Country Needs You, but soon pulled out because she didn’t want to earn her fame via a reality show. She continued to sing in her father’s pub and hang around London studios, recording guest verses on songs by U.K. artists Craig David and Tinchy Stryder. She made a few demos, sent them around, and started posting them to the web.
I used to be obsessed with tabloids. But the gossip side doesn’t affect what I do. I don’t expect anybody to understand my relationships, because they're not in my position.
And then, the call from heaven: Roc Nation. At first, she thought her grandmother was ringing her from Kosovo. But it was America on the line, requesting that she fly across the ocean to audition for Jay Z’s executives and meet the man himself. She did — and earned a contract on the spot.
Nearly seven years later — an eternity in pop years — Ora is focused on what she wants for the new record. And that is to release it worldwide on the same day. She lobbied her label hard for this, pushing back even when management told her it would be better to focus on her European fan base. “It’s been seven years,” she groans, then asks her assistant for a cup of Earl Grey tea with lemon. “And it has been a bit of a battle. With the first record, we didn’t expand to the United States. Label-wise, they said, it wasn’t the right time. I was only 19 or 20, and I was so excited to be making music and performing live. I didn’t know better. But now I do. I told them, ‘Look, I just want to release my album everywhere.’ Everybody thinks that they know best. But I won the battle.”
And along the way, Ora has done everything right to position herself for global domination. She’s become associated with the fashion world, with her signature red lip, Marilyn-blonde locks, and bold ensembles that few other people could pull off (thigh-high PVC boots, abdomen-bearing cutout dresses, leather corsets and mesh bustiers). And she has grown up. When I speak to her, she seems calm and centered, nothing like the wild party girl that gossip blogs keep insisting she is, reporting on her every outing with a new potential love interest. When I ask her about her personal life playing out as a tabloid drama, she says she has moved past caring.
At this particular moment, she is single. “I’m in love with my work,” she says, employing the classic line of famous people begging off nosey reporters. When explaining how she wrote the new album, she makes a casual reference to an unnamed ex who, judging from the timeline, is likely Calvin Harris (with whom she split last year). “It all started when I was on tour in Europe on my last album,” she says. “I wanted to just put out new music, and I was, like, talking about being lonely and then finding a boyfriend at the time and being with that person for, like, a year and then slowly splitting up with that person. Basically, it's life, really.”
It has a darker, more sexual tone to it,” she says of her new album. “And I guess it’s more blunt.
As Ora prepares to go out on the road for a year to support the new record, she tells me about a few of the inspirations that have been occupying her brain lately. There’s her love of punk music, which she can never quite shake. “I take initiative from artists like Madonna and Blondie and Freddie Mercury, but I used to really love punk growing up: Bad Brains, Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies. I have this massive collection of punk T-shirts, and everyone is jealous of them.” She also talks a lot about a photography book called A Period of Juvenile Prosperity. A 17-year-old named Mike Brodie boarded the wrong train in the American South and ended up riding the rails for six months, taking Poloroids of the transient family he met along the way. "That book was a really big inspiration for this record, creatively," Ora says. "There's this really amazing photo of this kid looking out on the bridge with a backpack on, looking at the railway. Behind him there's this Rolls-Royce, but he couldn’t care less about that. I loved how this little family stuck together and how close they were. That really connected with me."
I have already seen the new tattoo because she put a picture of it on Instagram. Though Ora has a way to go before catching up to some of her contemporaries (she has 7.2 million followers to Beyoncé's 53.3 million, for instance), social media is her favorite pastime, and she does it entirely by herself. Her entourage may hang around her house, but she takes her own selfies, thankyouverymuch. “Social media is like a tumbleweed,” she says. “It just kind of keeps rolling. And if you don’t do anything, people will just, like, almost forget about you.”
And with that, Ora turns again to Cher, who is still pounding away at the poor teddy bear. “She is such a horny teacup,” the singer says, smirking. “It’s disgusting. I love it.”