Nemesis, Stealth, Oblivion, the erm, Flying Fish; these were the roller coasters I grew up with. So when you think of that age-old analogy of the ‘roller coaster ride’ as something that’s a bit up and down, well it sort of loses its impact.
But for Rae Morris, her career to date really has been a roller coaster. It stared out as a slow build, all nerves and naivety, climbed to the point of no return, and now she’s lost to the momentum, barely able to catch a breath.
I meet Rae the afternoon of her headline gig at London’s Village Underground. She’s admittedly nervous, but it barely shows. She sits in the sun, checking with me if it’s OK she put her sunglasses on. It’s these moments of polite humility that repeat throughout our conversation and make Rae so easy to like.
Starting out as ‘Rachel Morris’ in 2011, she played open mic nights in her hometown of Blackpool, just her and a keyboard, usually a single song at a time and with the lyrics written down, as she could never get them into her head.
Progressing to a half hour set she broke into the North West gig circuit, booking her own shows. “I got really good at sending promotional messages about myself,” she enthuses. “I’d do like four gigs a week on a college night. My mum and dad would take me and we’d get back at like two o’clock in the morning and then they’d be up for work the next day. It was a real intense period of just proper gigging.”
It was on her way home from one of these gigs, a basement show in Liverpool, that Rae got a Myspace message from an A&R at Atlantic Records, and the rest is history waiting to be made.
I first saw Rae play that year, 2011, on the BBC Introducing Stage at Reading Festival. She was humble between songs, thanking the audience with an endearing disbelief. But as soon as notes began to ring out the PA and that voice eclipsed everything in the vicinity, there was no room for modesty.
Jump forward three years and Rae was headlining that same stage, this time with a series of stunning EPs released and a full length ready to go. The album, Unguarded, was originally penciled for September but then pushed back to January. “It kind of felt like, well, we’ve taken such a long time over it, why kind of rush it at this last stage?” reasons Rae. “I just want to get as many people knowing about me before the album comes out.”
While some acts or labels favour the route of releasing a record and gradually building awareness, Rae is adamant to go the opposite direction. “I think just because of the nature of everything nowadays, I want people to know about it so that when it comes out they can go out and buy the actual physical record because I don’t really want it to be a fleeting thing that passes in time. I want it to be an actual record that people want to actually buy.”
I wonder if her (entirely understandable) drive for sales could stem from the pressure of signing to a major label. I ask if she ever gets worried being part of such a large company? “I sometimes forget that I am on such a big label actually because it has got such an indie feel and it’s always felt like that,” she pauses. “And then I guess I do have these moments when I’m like, ‘Ooh, actually yeah, I’m on a major.’ But no, it’s taken me three years to get to this point and I think it’s been the right reason to do that and I’ve grown so much and kind of learnt so much and been able to make the album that I wanted to make because of that. And I think there’s very few major labels that would do that and give you that opportunity.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think that because it’s a legit pressure. A lot of new artists feel that now and especially with the nature of radio and if you’re not being played on radio it’s a problem. But I think for me, I gauge everything on gigs and playing gigs and my dream over record sales is actually just playing big venues. I just feel like I’ve built up such an amazing fan base up to now, I hope that I can definitely keep playing gigs and building to a next record and just make the next album straight away. I know that I’m going to make a few albums and it’s going to be a gradual thing… so I’m not too worried.”
Her debut album took just over a year to complete and was recorded in the States with producer of the moment, the immensely inventive Ariel Rechtshaid. However, Rae was skeptical to begin with. “I was a bit like, ‘I don’t want to make a British record in America.’ It felt strange to do that. So I went out very like, ‘I’m not sure about this Ariel guy. Who is this?’
“I was making most of my music with Fryars, I was doing all the EPs with him and I was pretty set we were going to make the record together and then it just felt like there needed to be a lift. I was in my comfort zone with Ben because he’s my friend. I needed to be out my comfort zone a little bit. I went out to America and met Ariel and yeah, it was like the best thing I ever did.”
Speaking with Ariel later that week on email he tells me, ”She was the best. We would turn the lights down in the control room so she couldn’t see us watching her sing and play these songs. Her voice is so moving it even made her cry every so often.
“She communicates really well in her music. It’s very natural and honest. Her voice is nothing short of incredible, her piano playing is fantastic because it’s dripping with feel as it is so connected to these emotional songs.”
But what is it that makes this Ariel guy such a great producer? What is it that he does in studio that’s won him a Grammy and a discography that includes Solange, Vampire Weekend and Haim? “It’s the most chilled environment I’ve ever been in,” shrugs Rae. “The thing he said to me when I went out there was like, ‘You need to not be fearful of the process.’ And it’s stuck with me so much.”
In studio, there must have been some tricks? There must be something on the record that as a general listener we might miss? “There’s so many cool things,” she searches. “The thing I was most excited about was a guy called Nico Muhly. I feel like he was the thing that pulled it all together. We had a lot of cool elements but there needed to be like a heart to it, a thread. Nico came for three days from New York to LA just to do it and we literally had no time and we had one day to practice everything and then one day with the string players and we recorded eleven tracks in four hours with a string quintet. I’ve never had such an intense time in the studio. He’s a genius. I think he is the biggest musical genius I’ve ever met and he played loads of amazing additional piano parts and the strings are… I kind of can’t believe they’re on my album. You know what I mean? So that was a real honour to have him involved.“
The tracks we’ve heard so far, tracks like the heartbreaking Skin, confessional Do You Even Know?, and the beautifully sentimental Closer, listening to them is like reading someone’s diary. The songs are intimate and honest, but is Rae ever scared to lay so much bare? She shakes her head. “I haven’t ever really felt that scared about kind of the honesty of it because I think I don’t really know how to do it in any other way. I think I get concerned during the process, like I want to make sure it’s the best it could be. But with songs, I think people can see through something when it’s not honest and there’s just no point doing it.”
Yet listening to the aforementioned tracks in a row, as well as the likes of recent Fryars collaboration Cold, you can’t help but start to feel a little defeated. Centering on a break-up, and written with such brutal honesty, it can get a bit depressing. Rae laughs, “I think on the album, I was conscious of that and I was conscious I didn’t want it to be one tone and one mood throughout. So I think as a body of work I want people to feel like it’s an arc and a journey. It’s almost like a coming of age, like you can feel the whole thing that I’ve been through with me. So hopefully it’s not too depressing.”
You almost feel like this record has been an act of catharsis for Rae. And is she OK now? “I’m over that,” she grins. “It’s taken me like three years. It’s taken me the whole journey of this album, but I think that’s why it’s so interesting. There’s actually a new song that’s called Love Again, and it’s quite obviously about feeling like there’s a whole new lease of life away from that.”
A happy Rae Morris song? “It’s positive!” she exclaims throwing up her arms. “It’s a positive song! It’s up-tempo as well. A bit of dance Rae Morris.”
Later that evening she’ll close her set with said track, leaving the piano and taking centre stage, causing the excellent When The Gramophone Rings to tweet, “Much like when Dylan went electric, years from now people will talk about when @raemorrismusic stood up.”
Online Rae’s just as open and friendly, continuously sharing photos. You can follow her life from backstage with her band to going to see Kate Bush with her family, an experience she tells me was, “Literally the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
But is there a danger in allowing fans to get close? When a song like Skin is already so obviously the bare truth, can you put too much of yourself out there?
She frowns in thought, “It’s a weird one because I like that people know my family and I think it’s important to have a personal relationship on social media because that’s the whole point about social media. But I think I like that there’s an air of mystery as well. I don’t really want people to know every feeling that I have, every thought that I have, because if they did they’d be so upset all the time. They’d be so miserable and they’d be like, ‘Oh, poor Rae.’
“But I’m an emotional person and I do write about love a lot and I write about intense human feelings and I think Skin like generally whether you know the actual details about who it was about or what it was about you can tell that it’s about two people and a really intense connection, you can’t just throw it away. And I think most of my songs have that similar feeling."
For many, the first time they heard Rae’s strong and soaring vocals was guesting on recent single Luna from Bombay Bicycle Club’s Mercury nominated So Long See You Tomorrow. She’s spent most of the year touring with them, but what has she taken from the experience? “I think if anything, the biggest thing is just that I’ve got my priorities in order I think, and I know what I want to do and what is right and how I want one day to have a live performance like theirs. And I just think being around them is just so inspiring and for me they’re like an ideal band. Everything they do I think they do it really well and right and proper.
“When it comes to gigs and stuff I’m pretty ambitious. I’d love one day to be able to have a full production. I already kind of used their lighting designer coz I’m kind of like, ‘We’ve got to get sorted now and then maybe one day we can do something, like, slightly better.’ With Bombay it’s opened me up to actually standing up singing. Like, I’d never done that before. So that was a whole thing.”
I laugh. “Seriously,” she affirms, “That was a big thing.”
I ask if Rae still gets nervous before shows? “Yeah, definitely. I always feel nervous. Every single show. Like, more nervous at gigs that I shouldn’t really be that nervous about. If I’m not nervous I feel like there’s something wrong like, ‘What’s wrong with me, I don’t understand.’
“It’s become like I couldn’t live without it now. I feel so much better this week since I’ve been on tour. If I’m not on tour I feel a bit concerned and a bit like I’m lacking in something, like there’s something missing. But that nervous feeling at the time, I’m like, what am I putting myself through this for? But then as I’m on stage it completely goes away and it feels like the best thing ever.”
Our hour together is nearly over and Rae has an impending lunch date with her parents so I finish with one final question, does she have any dreams? Any career highlights she wants to achieve? “I really want to play the Hollywood Bowl.” She states adamantly. “That’s really what I want to do. I went there on a family holiday, I think it was in 2012, and my dad was being pretty lairy and messing around and he got on stage because it was empty, just to try it out. There’s just something about that venue that I think I have to play it.
“I was in a studio when I first started, I went out to America just to try a few producers a couple years ago. I was in this one at the Hollywood hills and it was like the most amazing studio but the session wasn’t going that well and I remember going out on to the balcony and there was this amazing view of the whole of LA and I could hear this music and I was like, ‘Where the hell is that coming from? That’s like really eerie.’ And it was Sigur Rós at the Hollywood Bowl. But I could hear it coming round from the side of the hills. And it was just like, the sound was just going out into the whole of LA, and I could just hear Sigur Rós and I was like, ‘That’s the most special thing I’ve ever heard.’ It doesn’t matter if I don’t, but that’s kind of the dream.”
It’s an impressive dream to keep, but not out of reach for an artist with as much promise as Rae. No one can tell what the future will hold for this twenty-two year old, but as a wise Ronan Keating once sang, life is a roller coaster - just gotta ride it.