Exclusive Interview: Ray BLK on her feminist project EMPRESS

Updated: Nov 2, 2018

"When a man speaks, people listen quicker."

Rising R&B and soul star RAY BLK told us she expected to feel like a "caged bird set free" on the release day of her new feminist project, EMPRESS.

This was because the Nigerian-born star nearly scrapped the whole thing because she is such a perfectionist. However, fortunately for her fans, she learned in the process that the “imperfections” make the songs.

She explained: “At one point I felt like scrapping everything.

“I was adding this and adding that. After a while I realised, you know what, you can find a fault in everything if you keep on looking. Sometimes it’s the imperfections that make them what they are.”

Ray’s life hasn’t been the same since she was crowned the winner of the BBC Sound of 2017.

“It changed a lot of stuff overnight,” she said. “I went from being moderately busy to having no time whatsoever.

“You are just not prepared for being thrust into the limelight and commercial eye. But it was amazing because a lot of people who didn’t know about me suddenly knew about me. It meant my audience became bigger. But it was a lot to prepare for.”

Ray signed to Island Records in January, a year after landing the honour, but she still ensures every creative decision made about her music and career is her own.

“It has been important to me. You create your own destiny. I like to be in control of what I put out there and make sure everything is on my own terms,” she explained.

As talk turns to the inequality and misogamy artists are faced with within the industry, Ray revealed she herself has experienced sexism and not been taken seriously simply because she is a woman.

“I feel like there are two things for me that I have experienced in this industry in terms of sexism or tension around that,” she said. “There are quite a few instances where people don’t take you seriously or like you don’t know what you are talking about.

“I feel like when a man speaks, people listen quicker and when a woman speaks, it’s kind of like, maybe we’ll try something else or not take you very seriously or be confident in your ideas as much. So you really have to be vocal and fight your corner when you believe in something.

"The other thing is don’t be too humble because you are too afraid of being called a bitch by asking for something to be done a certain way.

“It’s really easy to shy away from that and not ask for what you want. Guys always seem to take advantage of what they want. So be vocal and don’t be scared to speak up. Either way they are still going to call you something."

Ray experiences “low” days when she loses confidence in her ability.

But every time a fan messages her on social media to tell her how one of her songs has helped them through their own “dark times”, she is reminded of her purpose.

“It’s uplifting. It makes you feel like you are doing the right thing and to keep going. You get low days sometimes when you are like, ‘What am I doing? Is anyone even listening?’.

“Just seeing uplifting messages from people who say they are going through something and your song has helped me get out of the dark place and help me through the dark place, it’s the most amazing part about music and one of the reasons I do it because it has such a strong emotional impact.”

Moving onto the project itself - which features a secret gospel vocal appearance from 90s’ star Ms. Dynamite on the track 'Just A Kid', Ray showed she is very much humble when complimented on her stunning vocals on the title song, 'EMPRESS'. It's diary-like and the lyrics literally wrote themselves because they came from a "real place".

She explained: “I just wrote that song about my different experiences of guys. It’s easily one of the quickest songs I’ve ever written because it came from such a real place. I was in Manchester working with a guy called Simon Aldred (Rag’n’Bone Man, Sam Smith). He just started playing some chords and it was just what came out naturally."

Watch 'Empress':

Ray has worked with the cream of the crop of the music industry, including Stormzy, Wretch 32 and her school friend, MNEK. But she would love to work with her idol Lauryn Hill and bring her out of retirement.

She gushed: “The artists I love the most are the ones I can really connect to because their songs are about their real life experiences.

“I think that kind of relationship, by telling your story, you are able to relate with your fans. I’ve always been a big fan of Lauryn Hill, Amy Winehouse, Mary J. Blige, and I am a huge Beyonce fan.”

On who she’d like to collaborate with, she replied: “I would love to work with Lauryn, even though she is retired.”

Ray worked with rapper Wretch on the track ‘Gone’, which was released in 2016, when she was still relatively unknown, and she is thankful for the ‘Hush Little Baby’ hitmaker taking a chance on her and still considers him her favourite person to work with.

She said: “He’s such a lovely character, he is so funny and a warm guy. He worked with me from day one when no one knew who I was. I came into the studio and he was like, ‘I like this. Yeah sure, I’ll do something on it.’”

Ray went to school with MNEK - who co-wrote Beyonce's 'Hold Up' - and is still dazzled by his presence because she has so much respect for him.

"What is funny is I’ve been friends with MNEK for such a long time and before he was so massive. But still every time I see him there is something about him. That is my friend and we will have a normal conversation, but I am still star struck by him. It’s because I respect him so much as an artist and I look up to him so much", she gushed.

Ray has just completed a support tour with Rudimental and she is working away on her debut album, which she plans to put out in 2019.

Whilst she is keeping tight-lipped on what fans can expect, Ray teased that she will be travelling a lot in the coming months to work with the various people she has in mind to collaborate with on the forthcoming record.

She teased: "I am still working on it. There are a lot of people that I want to work with that I need to travel to, to be able to do that."

We wrapped up the interview by talking about Ray's ambitions for the future, which include winning a Grammy and BRIT Award.

She said: "I can’t wait for my debut album to come out next year. I hope one day I will win a Grammy and maybe a BRIT. "

Check out the interview in our new zine The Lowdown: bit.ly/2zeXq0O

'Empress' is out now via Island Records.