These days, it seems that Europe’s best music is coming from South London. While the first thing that comes to mind is the sudden stateside explosion of grime, the latest UK artist to emerge is R&B songstress Ray BLK. The 22-year-old singer hails from Catford; her innovation rests in her genre-bending ability to take the harsh realities usually communicated in hip hop, and soften them with her soulful vocals. FADER says that she “has a velvety vocal that you might locate in in ’90s American R&B or soul, but uses it to wax lyrical about London life over cold, angular, and unmistakably British productions.”
The young artist has yet to release a full length record, but our expectations are high based on her latest single, “My Hood.” Featuring fellow South London export Stormzy, the track offers an audibly interesting contrast between hard and soft, sweet and sour to tell the story of what it’s like to grow up on London’s south side. Rather than presenting a bleak outlook, it manages to fall halfway between a love song and a ballad; expressing both pride in and empathy for the people of the notoriously rough area.
With a compelling voice that explores these difficult topics with style and grace, Ray BLK has become one of South London’s most courageous and talented rising musicians. We connected with the bona-fide and charming Ray BLK via Skype to ask her some questions about her musical style, influences and life. She shared with us memories of growing up in South London, her fondness of James Blake and her wonderful feelings about Brooklyn.
When and how did you start making music?
I started making music when I was about 13. There were some boys that I was in school with that decided to make a group, so we started making songs in one of their dad’s garage. Pretty old school (laughs).
Was it similar to the music you’re making now?
No, I would say it was a lot more poppy. It was 13 year olds trying to make songs that we thought were really cool.
You grew up in Catford, South London and talk about life in the area in “My Hood”. Could you tell us a bit more about life in South London?
Life in South London…As a kid and teenager growing up there, it is a really fun, vibrant place to be in. Everyone knows each other and the neighbouring schools.
How about in the musical sense? Did you meet a lot of artists in the area and did that affect your sound?
Absolutely everyone was a rapper in South London. Everyone had the dream of singing or rapping. I even rapped for a little bit. People used to make productions…I don’t even know how these songs would even circulate. Now we have Twitter and Soundcloud but at that time we didn’t have anything like that. I think we just shared it via msn (messenger)? Some people in the local area would blow up and everyone in South London would know it.
Do you think we will ever hear you rap again?
Maybe, maybe… Because I love rap music. I really respect it so if I was to rap it, I would have to be really serious and really take my time with it.
Stormzy collaborated with you on “My Hood”. How did you meet Stormzy, was it in South London?
Yeah, Stormzy’s from Croydon which is in South London as well. My best friend actually introduced us three years ago (they’re friends). It’s just been amazing to watch his success and watch him grow. I wanted him on this song because he fits in perfectly.
So you were the one reaching out to him?
You’ve mentioned that local artists in the area were affecting your music. How about artists that are bigger/more famous?
When I really started writing songs and taking it seriously, I was listening to a lot of Lauryn Hill, Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. This is when I started maturing a bit more. I feel like the female musicians that I listened to growing up were always very confident, had a confident message or spoke about bold things. I feel like that’s what I took from those artists.
You always talk about real things in your songs, for example in your first EP Havisham. Are your songs about what you’ve been through in life?
Yeah, all of my songs come from a genuine place. If it’s not exclusively my experience, then it’s the experience of the people around me. I feel like with my music I can only really express myself and how I see things. It always ends up being my story or something close to me.
In a more musical sense, while you’re writing songs what do you look at for inspiration?
I’m a massive music fan. I’ll spend all day listening to music, finding out about new artists. I would say what inspires me is hearing something fresh, that I haven’t heard before. It inspires me to try something new and maybe even dig a little deeper when it comes to my storytelling. For example, I’m a huge James Blake fan. I don’t make music close to that or whatsoever but I take inspiration from him. He helps me dig deeper when it comes to lyrics, how emotive he is. So I do take inspiration from other artists.
You performed at the O2 Academy Brixton in London and it was your biggest show to date. Were you nervous at all? And how was it opening up for Katy B?
Oh yeaaah (laughs). I’m nervous before every single show. It could be like ten people in the room and I’m sh**ting myself before I come out. I was very nervous but my friends always come out and help calm my nerves. I was very happy to open up for Katy B. It was such an amazing opportunity to share a stage that big. It was very daunting but it was amazing to support an incredible British artist.
You will be releasing your next album later this year, right?
I haven’t decided on the name yet but I’m releasing my next side project. It’s actually not an album, it’s kind of like an EP but a little bit longer.
What kind of topics are you exploring in the EP and are there any more collaborations we should watch out for?
Topics…just a life of a girl really…it’s just songs about my life and my experiences. More songs about “womanhood” (laughs). There are so many artists I would love to work with but it’s always about who fits to the song. I want to feel like the song is just as much theirs as it is mine. So maybe, we’ll see.
Anybody from New York that you would like to collaborate with?
I’m a big Lil’ Kim fan (laughs). I looove her, so if she ever acknowledges my existence, let alone doing a feature, that would be ridiculous.
Is it your first time in Brooklyn?
Yes! I had been to New York before but not to Brooklyn. I really like it.
Do you see any parallels with South London and Brooklyn?
Totally! There’s a really strong sense of community here in Brooklyn. I’ve been outside only for one day but I feel it already. There’s an instant sense of community, similar to where I’m from as well. But the difference is, they are waaay more friendly here. When you’re walking on the street everyone says, “Heeey, how are you?” I’m like, “Me? Oh, hi! Nice to meet you!” Because nobody says hello in London!
What can we expect from your New York show at Baby’s All Right? Any new tracks?
I will actually be performing tracks from the new project. Most of them will be new but you’ll hear 50/50 and My Hood of course. There’s loads of good energy here. I’m very excited to be here, see what it’s like in New York and connect with the crowd. The good thing with shows is that it’s a good opportunity to connect.