Do you ever look at someone and think: 'Fair play, mate. You’re really cool'? I had that with Raye a little while ago. Some perspective? She’s charming, fun and really, properly, talented. You don’t become one of the most in-demand singer-songwriters in pop music, at just 20 years old, by accident. Her Instagram game is strong in a way that doesn’t make you feel shit about yourself either, which is nice. But also this young woman really knows how to turn out a banger, and the music industry has clocked on.
"I’ve been doing some bits on the Rihanna project," Raye tells me on the phone from LA. She says it’s quite a difficult task and I can only imagine how much so. "Whenever it comes to writing for her I just freeze and am like, 'What would Rihanna say? What would she say?!' and I just cock it up every time," she laughs modestly. The fact that she’s so much as involved in Rihanna’s long-awaited next music offering is reassurance enough that she’s far from cocking things up. But sure, I appreciate how mad it must feel to be sat at that powerhouse table.
Beyond having a hand in the early stages of Rihanna’s return to music, this south London pop star has also recently been writing with John Legend and ex-Fifth Harmony member Normani, who she describes as a good friend. "She’s just stepped out on her own and now she’s killing it with her first solo record, so I’m rooting for her," says Raye. "I’ve just been doing bits and pieces here and there, writing lots and potentially collaborating with a lot of really sick people."
She sounds enthusiastic about it all, of course. I ask whether that’s one of the hardest things; being really excited about something you’re working on and not being able to tell anyone? "Oh babe, I am sitting on about a thousand songs, you just have no idea! I’ve had to learn how to suppress that feeling girl because it’s just so hard!"
The physical art of writing, remixing and collaborating is now second nature to Raye. One of her biggest hits, "Decline", features Nigerian singer-songwriter Mr Eazi and samples the hauntingly familiar melody of Ja Rule and Ashanti’s R&B classic "Always On Time". To mark Timberland’s "Celebrate the Icons" campaign, which sees the launch of its new London Square boot, Raye put her track through the nostalgia machine one more time to produce something distinctly '90s for the occasion.
"I’ve been obsessed with garage recently, so I wanted to do a garage remix and then we did a little choreography, a little shoot … it really feels true to the '90s vibe," Raye explains. As with many of us, the lure of nostalgia runs through her veins. "I think there was something beautiful about the '90s. We were a little less attached to our phones, the music was incredible, the style and our icons at that time were phenomenal." Raye cites hip-hop heavyweights like Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie and Missy Elliot among her icons, who I’m pretty sure are partially to blame for the shoe brand’s association with this period in musical history. "[The '90s] has a beautiful sheen over it … the music massively reflects that a lot."
Raye’s current music certainly reflects it, too. Fans will know "Check", the song Raye released with Kojo Funds earlier this year, which samples Craig David’s career-defining garage track, "7 Days". Good luck getting through the rest of the day without that melody being stuck in your head, by the way.
Clearly collaboration is one of the most exciting strings to Raye’s bow. An early introduction to her vocals might be on Jonas Blue’s 2016 track "By Your Side", or perhaps her feature on "You Don’t Know Me" by Jax Jones. A personal favourite of mine, though, is this year’s "Cigarette", a track from her EP Side Tape, featuring fellow British female artists Mabel and Stefflon Don. It’s not every day that we see three women in music, let alone those who straddle a similar pop/R&B crossover genre, jumping on each other’s tracks.
"I think you’re right," says Raye. "I was even looking around thinking, what on earth? Why aren’t girls collaborating more and why does it have to be a female rapper, and why do we feel so boxed in and marginalised by what a pop song is allowed to be? Why aren’t all us girls just constantly on each other’s songs like guys are? It’s so backwards to me. I just don’t understand."
Raye says she’s still so happy that she was able to do a song like that with two of her respected contemporaries, and by the sounds of things, more female-focused collaborations could be in the pipeline too. "I think when women connect it’s the most powerful thing, and it’s something that really excites me and we’re doing more now, which is good."
She admits that her career wasn’t always oriented this way. "Sadly, I made a lot of mistakes in the early days," Raye explains. Other girls in the industry were introduced as "competition" when she first signed her label deal. "They rile you up," she adds. "They kind of instil, subconsciously, that this girl is this and this girl is that, so I kind of came into the industry being an idiot because I didn’t know any better, because I was influenced by all the men around me."
"This is your competition, you’re a woman and you’re a product. You need to be the skinniest and have the best pop song," is Raye’s description of a familiar mantra drilled in to young female musicians trying to navigate an already difficult landscape, and it’s a depressingly unsurprising story. "That’s the overall message that we’re all getting instilled in us from the ages of 16, and then you come in so defensive and cold and not understanding that we could be loving and supporting each other." It’s a perspective that cost Raye a friend when she was starting out. "I did some stupid things myself – talking about other girls out of insecurity and even ruined a relationship with someone really sick ... it’s really sad but now I couldn’t be more like 'Women. Let’s go!'"
Raye knows better than she was first taught and she seems to have it covered. Though, as she says, "there's still so much underlying, of what we actually are as women and how we're bred to interact and view each other" that's not what we're here for and which she's actively working against. Writing for Rihanna might be one thing, but of those thousands of songs she's sitting on right now, we're really excited to see which women she shares a track with next. One more collaboration means one more example that, actually, women don't need to see each other as a threat.