Exclusives Interviews 3 October 2021
Author: Bizu Yaregal

GRM Exclusive: Ray BLK Discusses Debut Album, Her Early Career, UK R&B & More

3 October 2021
Ray BLK GRM interview

Since bursting into the music scene many years ago, South London performer Ray BLK has become a formidable name in UK R&B. Her discography that includes Durt and 2018 Ep Empress have carved her out as an important figure not just in music, but to Black British Culture.

The Catford raised singer is about to embark on her biggest musical journey yet – with the release of her debut album Access Denied. We sat down with her to find out a bit more on the making of the record, collaborations and her hustlers approach which has got her to where she is today.

It’s been and crazy year and a half. How are you doing and adjusting to being back ‘outside’ again?

“I’m okay, I’ve survived. I feel like I was in the trenches and I survived. I’m just happy to say I came out of lockdown with my sanity still there and still being able to work and provide for myself given that so many people lost their jobs and what not. I definitely feel privileged.

“In terms of us being back outside, I can’t lie – it’s an adjustment. I’m not used to it, I’m a little bit of an introvert now. I’m just not used to this fast paced of life where it’s like go, go, go, and it’s constant and I’m on the move and out and about and working every day. It’s taking some adjustment, I can’t lie!”

Access Denied, your debut album is finally here. It’s been a long time coming! Why do you think now is the right time for us to finally hear it?

“I could have put it out last year but obviously there was Covid, and I just felt like music wasn’t being digested the same way. I spent so much time making this album that I wanted it to be an event and to see the fans enjoy it. I wanted to be out and about hearing the music and experiencing it that way. 

“I know a lot of people would have expected me to put out an album from 2017 from when I won Sound Poll, but the reality is that I was a brand-new artist still finding my feet, still finding myself so I was nowhere near releasing an album. I didn’t expect for things to take off the way they did. I had to take my time to find myself, find my sound and set myself up in the right situation to do that.”

Can you talk us through the process of making a debut album? What were the best and most challenging moments?

“It’s a lot of studio sessions and trying different things. Just throwing ideas out there and collaborating as well. When I first started, I used to work on my own a lot; I wouldn’t co-write with anybody. Even in the room with a producer I would be having the melodies and lyrics in my head and not say anything out loud and just put it all down on the mic. It took me stepping out of my comfort zone to collaborate with people more, and now I’ll get on the mic and just freestyle and see what comes out and turn that into the song.

“The best part was the collaborating because it meant I could draw inspiration from the other people and working with artists that I respect, and add something to the songs as well. The least favourite I would say is when I went to LA as I had the worst time. I’m still not used to the LA culture, it’s different. It was quite hard for me as I went alone initially, and I just felt like ‘gosh I’m meeting all these new people!’ LA is very fake, so I thought ‘Ugh, how am I going to manage being with these fake people for a month?’

Your latest track “Over You” features Stefflon Don. You’ve also recently worked with both Kaash Paige and Ivorian Doll. Would you say collaborating with your female peers is a priority to you given that the industry is so male dominated?

“100%! Collaborating with my female peers is definitely a priority for me. I like the way the men clique up together and make something better.  I think they’ve realised instead of beefing they can make music with a fellow artist and the song will do better because they can tap into both their fanbases. The competition has changed where they clique up for a bigger purpose. I really want to do that with women because I feel like we’re stronger together and can do better together. Also, there is room for everybody so I really want to dispel this culture of it feeling like it can only be one at a time with black women in music.”

The UK R&B scene has never looked better, yet there seems to be a disconnect between the genre and the mainstream UK audience. Why do you think this is, and do you think R&B can ever be the next Pop?

“I think the music industry in general works in trends. There are always trends, and trends last sometimes for a short time or a long time. I think we’ve seen the support for UK rap which I would say the resurgence of that came from the commercialised grime scene from 2014/2015. It went from support for UK grime to UK rap to drill now currently. I feel like sadly that’s the way it works where it works in trends, all it takes is for the gatekeepers to give access to an opportunity for UK R&B to shine and for the masses to hear it for it to be accepted. I don’t think anyone could have expected for grime to be in the charts!”

The music scene in the UK, especially the black community seem incredibly supportive of each other. What is your relationship like with your peers, would you consider them your colleagues, or have you made genuine relationships in the business?

“I’ve definitely made some genuine relationships in the industry. I see people like peers and colleagues. I think we all see what we’re doing and support one another if there’s a relationship that exists for sure. I’m a fan of music to be honest, so if I see something good that I like, I champion it and I shout out about it in any way I can if I’m creating my own lists or given opportunities to interview artists like I did on Apple Music Take Over and Blackout Radio. I interviewed my fellow UK R&B artists to give them a spotlight to be able to shine, so that’s always my motive to be honest.

“I feel like the music is going to be heard regardless, so it’s only a good thing an artist who is a little more established gives a co-sign to an artist who is up and coming that you think is hard. To me, I think that makes you a tastemaker and it means you’ve got your ears to the streets of what is really going on. Also, you’ve got an opportunity to give back something that someone’s probably given to you. When I was coming up seeing people like Giggs post my first video and see people like Wretch support my music in the beginning, and all my early collaborations and people who were supporting my music and talking about it. I feel like you’ve got to give that energy back to be honest because it was given to you.”

You released your debut EP Havisham in 2015. Can you remember what it felt like taking your first step into the industry, and in hindsight is there anything you would have done differently early on your career?

“With Havisham I can’t even say that was my first step into the industry because I was so ignorant, and I was such a novice. All I knew is that I wanted to make a mixtape, so I ripped the beats off YouTube, I didn’t even have a manager. I just ripped the beats off YouTube and recorded it at a studio and put it on Soundcloud and wished for the best. I didn’t expect it to be so popular and wish I’d paid for the beats or not ripped them illegally so I could make money from the songs.  Also, I guess I would have liked to have known how strategic the industry is, but anyway I think there’s beauty in just being ignorant and just doing your thing and throwing music out.”

You’ve previously mentioned being part of an all-black rock band in secondary school. Can you tell us more about that experience, and would you delve back into that genre?

“Do you know what? Definitely! I’ll hear a couple rock songs and I’ll be ‘oh wow what’s that?’ if I’m listening to Radio 1 or something.

“I’m just a lover of music in general, so if it sounds good, if it makes me feel good or I feel something or I love the lyrics – I’m into it no matter the genre. Me being a rock band happened when I was like 16 to 18 and I was essentially discovered by this random guy. It was very random; he was looking for a lead singer for this concept he had of an all-black female rock band. My friend had met him at church, and I was just desperate to sing to be honest. I just wanted to be a singer, and I thought cool he’s talking like he knows what he’s doing, so I said, ‘alright yeah let’s link up!’ He came to my mum’s house and from there I started going to the studio with the girls and we started recording songs and stuff.

“We shot a music video and we shot like a cover for our project in Malta and what not. I had no clue what was going on, I was just on some journey like ‘Oh okay we’re going to Malta to shoot, ok we’re going to studio.’ I had no clue what was going on, but it was definitely a very good experience for me in an industry I had no clue of. I was performing in bars at 16 in front of big white old men that didn’t want to see black girls perform.”

Many artists have spoken out at their frustrations with major labels. You’ve been signed to Island since 2018. How would you describe your relationship with the label?

“I think every record label is the same. What makes a difference is the people. It’s people with creative ideas, people who are passionate about music and people who want to do something that’s not been done before, and have the ideas to do so. I think sadly a lot of artists come into a record label expecting them to have all of the above. The reality is most record labels don’t have those sorts of people, and a lot of people don’t care about music and it’s just a 9-5 for them.

“For me coming into a major record label, I found that I had to keep and apply my experience being an independent artist under a major record label. I found that the ideas have to come from you. You have to come up with the sound, the creative, marketing ideas, video ideas.

“For me personally that’s how I think is the best way to function, because you get to show who you really are and if you are trying to rely on the people at a record label, I think you’ll be disappointed. I’ve been lucky enough to have an opportunity to have a collaborative relationship with my record label, where they are able to facilitate ideas that I have and make my ambition come to life.”

BLK in your stage name is an acronym of Building, Living, Knowing. How do you apply that in your daily life?

“Building, Living, Knowing is about working hard for whatever it is you want for your future and building a foundation for that. Living life to the fullest and just taking advantage of any opportunity that comes your way. Trying to educate yourself throughout life really and learn more.  I took a lot of time to make this album and to cultivate the sound I wanted for myself. Outside of music, in my life I’ve created opportunities for myself to be where I am today, and I try and enjoy those moments.

“Sometimes it’s difficult as an artist for when you’re really busy or you feel under pressure to enjoy what you’re doing. Recently for instance, I was on TV doing Sunday Brunch. A lot of the times things like that will just go over my head where I’m not really present and just cause I’m so busy and I came from another thing. But I try to be in the mood to be like ‘Wow I wanted to be on TV when I was young and now, I’m here!’ When I’m touring, I try and enjoy myself on stage and see my hotel room.

“Along the way I try to learn more about my craft, about music, what’s happening. Educating myself on the industry and whether it’s picking up an instrument.  Even outside of that, I took lessons to learn my mother tongue Igbo this year during lockdown, I’m always trying to learn something new.”

What do you do to chill out?

“I try to meditate; I don’t do it as frequently as I should, but I try to meditate. Prayer is a big part of my life which I see as a form of meditation. I work out, I fall off sometimes but when I’m on it I work out quite consistently and that to me is my me time to get out any frustrations and be one with myself. I guess people wouldn’t say gym is chilling for me it is.”

You contributed to the soundtrack of Rocks – How did that come about, and is acting something you would ever go into?

“Yeah, for sure. I went to drama school from the ages of 16-18 and I went back again during Uni. I tried to go back again 2 years to brush up on my acting, but my scheduling kept on clashing. so I couldn’t manage doing it whilst working in the music industry.  Acting is a big passion of mine and something I have plans to go back into.

Rocks happened because I think director reached out actually. They reached out to me when they were looking for someone to do a lead track and asked me if it was something I was interested in doing and sent me the movie.  I watched the movie and it just instantly tugged at my heart strings. It was a story that I felt needed to be told and is a story I felt like I could relate to as well. I got into the studio with a producer, and we made it together in my living room.”

You previously worked in advertising to sustain your music career. Do you think that the hustler mentality is key in forging a great career, not just in music but any industry?

“100%! When you’re young that’s when you’ve got the most energy to go HAM. I feel like in any sort of industry that you want to breakthrough it requires work. Nothing good just drops in your lap! Even for artists where it might seem they got it easy, they still put the time in to go to the studio to work on their craft.  To make those songs that came to life. because there’s other people that just woke up and they’re lazy at home just waiting for a hit to land on their lap.

“For me I was just desperate to get out of my situation, which was that I was working in a job I absolutely hated after finishing Uni. I hated the people that worked there, I hated the job, I hated the environment, and I was desperate to do what I loved. So, I was like ‘okay I’m going to get there 8am-6PM, then go to the studio from 7-3/4am, go to bed for a couple of hours then back to the office’ and repeat 5 days a week for 6/7 months. I finally was able to sign a publishing deal which meant that I could then work for myself and focus on music. I just feel that sort of hunger creates magic. When you’re desperate to get out of a situation, it makes you hustle hard. It makes you push the boundaries, go out of your comfort zone. Pressure makes diamonds.”

Would you ever consider hosting your own podcast, and what would it be on?

“I 100% would do my own podcast. It would be on what I’m passionate about, which would be music. I would love to have a critic or review podcast on music and popular culture, because that’s what I’m passionate about. When I was studying English at Uni, I considered being a music journalist so that’s something I’d like to do.  I’d love to do it from now to be honest, but when you’re still in the industry as an artist it’s a bit techy, because it feels like you’ve got to be political and not say exactly what your opinions are. I would want to be able to comfortably say ‘I think that album’s shit!’

“I’ll be called a hater and I won’t have any friends.  I’ll be going to festivals thinking ‘Shit, who am I fighting today?’ so maybe when I retire.”

What’s one thing you want listeners to take away from your music?

“I really want people to say that when they listened to my album it made them regain any confidence, that they lost in themselves, or it forced them to choose themselves. This album really is about continuously saying yes to yourself when you feel like you keep getting no’s – whether that’s in love, in work, in whatever industry you want to break through into. When you’re not being loved in the right way you deserve, you have to say yes to yourself by choosing to opt out of being in that relationship because you know that you deserve better.

“For me, that’s a form of self-care. Denying access to people who don’t empower you, who don’t show you love the way that you deserve, in friendship, relationship or in work.  Recently I’ve loved seeing so much more space for black people in the creative scene whether that’s on TV in music. I think that’s because we’ve seen our value and told the rest of the world to come correct.

“The small budget isn’t going to cut it anymore. Giving us this tiny window of opportunity isn’t going to cut it anymore. For me, that’s still a no even if you think you’re opening a door.  If you’re not valuing us and what we’re bringing to the table, you’re still telling me I’m not good enough. It’s about saying ‘Nah, I am good enough!’ and I deserve all the things I want and deserve that space.

As a popular Black figure, do you feel pressured to use your social media to address what is happening in the world? Obviously, it’s important you so do but are there ever times you feel exhausted and just want to switch off?

“I would say half and half! I think if you have any sort of big platform where people listen to what you have to say, it’s important you use your platform for good, to spread awareness or speak up against injustices. I think at the same time, speak on things you that are aware of because now we have this ‘dragging’ culture. If I want to speak up in support of the Transgender community, but I do not know the right terminology, then I may be dragged.  It’s important to know what you’re talking about and give yourself grace, time, and space because some of these things can affect internally.

“I got overwhelmed at one point during lockdown with the Black Lives Matter movement. At one point I was really having nightmares because I was constantly seeing violence towards Black people. Seeing that sort of imagery or that sort of news, constantly being fed that did not feel good. I did not find it empowering at all, I found it really draining. But at the same time, I recognise being able to be silent on whatever injustice is going on in the world comes from a place of privilege. Sometimes I feel like I have to because I have a platform, but at the same time I want to know what I’m talking about and address it in the right way.”

What do you think of online blogs and their contribution to UK Culture?

“I see that they have a purpose, in that they do spotlight artists that the commercial space would not give any attention to. I think that’s that great for artists that are developing and coming up. But I think that sadly, it breeds negativity, and an overwhelming amount of that is towards women. I think content is purposely created to tear down individuals and some of it is news. For instance, they’ll find a video of a female artist doing a TikTok where they’ve not really got the moves, and they’ll ask us ‘What do you think?’

“But on the other hand, they’ll post that sort of video from a male rapper and everyone’s like ‘OMG, he’s so funny. I love how offbeat he is.’ You know that their reaction is going to be different when it’s a guy is doing it.The thing I don’t stand for is the purposeful targeting of women to embarrass them and tear them down, it’s just not necessary. Break the news story, give the spotlight to the artists that they do and whatnot. I don’t think it’s necessary to purposefully creative negativity.”

Be sure to Stream Ray BLK’s debut album Access Denied below right now!