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Raleigh Ritchie on Creating Music Without Definition

Raleigh Ritchie on Creating Music Without Definition

By Tom Winslade

As soon as Raleigh Ritchie arrives at the venue for our interview, I immediately get the feeling that we’re going to get along pretty well. He compliments my Yeezus tour T-shirt pretty much as soon as he approaches our table, and we spend the next 15 minutes or so chopping it up about the new Kanye album in detail, naturally. We’re both geeking off it, and I can’t wait to start discussing Raleigh’s debut album with the same level of enthusiasm.

I flick through my my notes real quick as Raleigh gets comfortable, and at this point, I remember that I’ve gotta blast through a couple of formalities before we really get into it. It seems kinda backwards to ask considering we’re already acquainted at this point, but I’ve got to lead with the obvious question, “The name, Raleigh Ritchie... where does that come from?”

Real name Jacob Anderson, Raleigh is quick to explain that there’s no deep meaning behind the alias. “Ever since I started writing music, even back when I was 15 or 16, I never wanted to use my own name. I wanted to be able to control my own output and I felt like if it’s me and my name I can’t build around that as easily.” Fair enough, I think to myself. He goes on to explain that he’s a huge film fan, and that the name is a combination of his two favorite characters from Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Which reminds me, Raleigh is no stranger to the silver screen himself.

With a few films under his belt, as well as several TV shows; Raleigh most notably stars as Grey Worm in HBO’s Game of Thrones. I cringe as I mention it during our conversation as neither of us are there to discuss it, and I assume that he’s bored of the show preceding him at this point, but I do have one relevant question on the subject. At this stage in his career, there are always going to be naysayers that credit his early successes in music to the fact that he’s attached to this huge behemoth of a franchise. It’s unfair, but we both acknowledge that it’s instinctive. On the flip-side of that, I wanted to know if he felt like people have a misguided preconception of him because of the show and if it has in fact held back the way in which the industry as treated him.

“I don’t think it’s helped or held me back to be honest with you. I think people can just be a bit lazy. I haven’t really done any press where I’ve ever mentioned the show—I never bring it up. I don’t really do press for the show itself either. I think people instinctively bring up the show though, and I understand why, but it’s really a completely separate part of my life. I feel like people always need that 'thing’ to hook on to—people need to give a reason to give a fuck, and it’s hard to get people to pay attention to you, but the most frustrating thing for me is that I don’t really see it that way. I’m not interested in using the show to sell music.”

It’s the perfect answer. It’s exactly the response that I hoped the question would provoke, and it leads perfectly into another subject that we’re both invested in—the idea that people shouldn’t be made to feel like they have to pick a linear career path or lifestyle. It’s possible to succeed in multiple arenas simultaneously, and attempting to live as some sort of polymath is a completely realistic expectation of yourself. We passionately agree that we should support those who attempt to do as much as they wish in one lifetime, rather than mocking or doubting.

“The music came before the acting, but I’m really conscious of promoting that you don’t have to just pick one thing. It’s not a choice between acting or music for me, I can do both - and so can anyone else. There’s loads of other stuff that I’ve never even spoken about that I’m interested in doing, and why not? That goes for everyone, I think we instinctively feel like we’ve got to pick something because that’s what’s considered normal, but I’d actually say that everyone should have more than one passion. Life is short, but there’s also a lot of hours in the day, and you can fill them as much as you want to. I’ll get asked in pretty much every interview I do, “act or singing?” and to me, in my head, that question doesn’t even exist.”

From this point onwards we’ve both figured each other out, and it leaves us free to discuss his debut album—You’re a Man Now, Boy—as well as the inspirations behind his sound and his perception of what “pop music” really is. We also delve into the creative process behind the album itself, and some of the insane production credits he has on there.

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TOM WINSLADE: So you decided to move to London when you were 17, using acting as a vehicle to make that happen. That must have been an eye-opening transition for you creatively, being exposed to such a diverse culture within a new environment. Did the city reignite your passion in music and inspire you to write more?
RALEIGH RITCHIE: Absolutely. That’s when I met Justin Broad and Paul Herman who ended up producing “Bloodsport”, “The Greatest”, “Never Better”, “The Chased” and the majority of my music between them. I’ve been working with them for years, and they’re family now. There were people I worked with back at home in Bristol, which was very different musically, but as soon as I got here I started going to the studio again. I was just writing songs on my own too, downloading instrumentals from Limewire or whatever, and making beats that could record into GarageBand—whatever I could use to help me write the words, and I just never really stopped.

Also at that age, London is one of those places that you’d want to go out and explore, to experience new things. Did you find yourself finding new sounds in the city? In fact, what music were you listening to around that time?
I was listening to a lot of neo-soul and similar music. I still love those sounds. Musiq Soulchild, Slum Village—all that kind of stuff—but then also The Maccabees. Their first and second albums were my favorite thing to listen to. Melodically, the songs are just so good. Laura Marling, I was really into her. I discovered Daniel Johnston when I was around 18, and that just blew my mind. There was a pretty big mix. I kinda like anything as long as it doesn’t feel fake. Not everything has to be raw and emotional or anything like that, but I like to see that effort has been put into music.

That actually leads me on to another thing that I wanted to talk to you about. People love putting things into boxes… Specifically in music though, we are obsessed with defining artists by genre. I guess people would typically push you into the “pop” category, which is certainly no bad thing, but I was wondering what your perspective is on pop music. For me, it’s a far more eclectic genre than years gone by.
Something I find quite interesting is that I agree when people say I’m hard to define, but I actually think that’s true of most pop music. It’s just the borrowing of other genres to make one genre that could be enjoyed by as many people as possible. I agree that pop music is popular music by definition, but more in the sense that it can be enjoyed by a wide range of people, rather than popular in the sense of sales and radio play. It’s music that [can] be enjoyed by people from any background and removes boundaries. I think that’s what pop music is—simply that anyone can pick it up and enjoy it. It’s kinda just become it’s own genre along the way. If you take Duran Duran as an example, that’s ’80s pop, but there are so many genres in there. Even something like the Spice Girls—those groups that are quintessentially known as being pop music—some of the instruments and chord progressions in that music comes from somewhere else entirely.

I agree, and although it’s true of other genres too, it’s the infectious nature of pop music that helps define it for me. You can catch a particular chorus on the radio and it’s stuck in your head all day, and I think that’s something that stands out in your music, which helps with the definition. Would you say you use that as a mechanism to reach as many people as possible with your music?
I wouldn’t say it’s a general consideration. I never really think about how many people are going to listen to something or how many records I can sell. For instance, “The Greatest” is about growing apart from childhood friends, and it’s still a sad song to me, but I flipped it to be a positive song that people can dance to. I made a conscious choice to make it a happy song about remembering the good stuff about those people rather than dwelling on the sad nature of the situation. It’s always more about the song itself, I feel like if you try too hard to be relatable, you’re setting yourself up for a fail.

Definitely. In doing that, you would lose the authenticity and perhaps the whole reason for writing the song in the first place.
I think the worst thing you can do as a musician is try too hard to be universal. The thing that makes us universal is that we’re all people, so the more personal you make it, the more personal it feels to other people anyway. You don’t have to water it down or make it generic. Just speak your truth.

You’re at the point in your career where you’ve got a couple of EPs outta the way and you’re finally releasing your debut album. How do your feel at this point in time? Are you anxious of how people will receive it, or are you simply happy have it done?
Both, really. I’m happy to have it done because now I can start working on the next one, but I am anxious to know what people think. There’s a weird contradiction where I write songs that are very personal to me, however, when you start releasing music you do become conscious that people are listening to it. I try not to let that affect my writing, but I don’t want to disappoint people either. If they don’t see it how I saw it, that’s totally fine—I just hope that it means something to someone. The worst thing someone could describe my music as is “mediocre,” or that it didn’t make them feeling anything. That’s the biggest insult. I’d prefer people to hate it, at least then it’s making them feel something.

Delving into the album—and specifically its title, You’re a Man Now, Boy—would you say the body of work is a story of self-realization and a reflection upon growing up?
I thought while writing it that I was going to come to some sort of grand realization, and that would be the album—the album would end with me figuring out my life and having this greater understanding of myself and generally being happy. In reality though, I think this first album is more a collection of musings, a collection of experiences and my thoughts on them in hindsight. It’s about how I’ve grown up through my relationships with different people. I’ve always been quite a solitary person, so maybe that realization was less about who I am as a person, but more about how I’ve grown to understand the importance of having other people in my life. The first track is very much about me and my goals, whereas the last song on the album is like, “We’ve gotta stick together.” If we’re alike, we’ve gotta stick together and fight against people that don’t want us to live.

I wanted to mention “Keep It Simple” featuring Stormzy as a particularly noteworthy track. There’s a huge spotlight on British music at the moment and you’re releasing your debut album in the midst of all of that, which is great timing. I was wondering what your perspective is on British music in 2016?
I’ve never really been part of a movement. I never get put on those “ones to watch” lists, but to me, music is just music. Maybe I’d feel differently if I was a larger part of that conversation, but I don’t consider myself as specifically British music. I love music from all over the world, and aside from my accent, I wouldn’t categorize myself as making British music. With that in mind, I don’t really have an opinion on UK music as it’s all the same to me. Something I do think is cool though is that there’s a spotlight back on grime that allows it to be exactly what it is. I remember there was a point in time where grime artists started getting signed to major labels and suddenly they were starting not to make grime anymore. I feel like it’s evolving again though, like any strong genre does.

And Stormzy is certainly one of the figureheads leading the charge in that arena. So how did this particular collaboration come together?
We’d actually worked together a couple of times before. He did a remix for a song I did with Little Simz called “Cuckoo,” which we never actually never ended up putting out—and I also asked him back to do a remix for “The Greatest.” With “Keep It Simple,” I actually wrote it out in LA at the former Death Row studios with this guy called Mike Elizondo. He wrote all the bass parts for Dr. Dre’s 2001—he’s amazing, a proper OG. So we wrote it over a year before Stormzy came onto it, I actually hadn’t revisited it in a while. I knew what I was trying to say with the song, but there was something missing. It needed another voice in there, it needed something that I couldn’t give it alone. The song is all about saving face, and I wanted someone who has a very tough image to most people to open up on it, so I asked him to be a little vulnerable. Just from listening to his music, I always felt like he was more in touch emotionally than people seem to give him credit for. So yeah, I thought he’d be perfect for it. He’s a great artist, too. I’m sure we’ll work together again.

Also the production credits on this album are crazy, right? You’ve had some incredibly talented people lend a hand on it. Can you describe that process a little?
I went to LA two or three times during the writing process, so we worked on a batch of tracks out there and the rest at home in the UK. “Never Say Die” was a collaboration with TDE’s Sounwave. We’ve worked together a few times now. Dahi actually produced Drake’s “Worst Behavior,” so it was cool to work with him for my album. I’m very lucky with the producers I’ve worked with, but aside from those guys out there, Justin and Paul are really special to me and my sound. I think they’re also really fussy, in a good way. I mean, they wouldn’t just work on anything. Paul wrote “Thank You” with Dido, which ended up being “Stan”—so he’s obviously great already. And then with Justin, I’m one of the first things that he’s worked on. I think he’s incredibly talented. Also Chris Loco—who did “Stronger Than Ever” and “Cowards”—I feel like he’s on the cusp of doing some amazing things too.

So once the album is out there and everyone has their hands and ears on it, what’s the plan moving forward?
We’ve already started sessions for the next album, just playing around really. I got into a place for most of last year where I had to focus on putting an album together, which means you can’t really play about as much, so it’s great to get back to that. My remit right now is just to try things out, see what the next album is gonna sound like. It isn’t going to sound like the first one, I know that much already.

And finally, what else do you have lined up for 2016?
I’ve got some UK shows in April, then I’m doing some shows in Europe and hopefully the States at some point too. Oh, and of course festival season. That’s my favorite time of year. I enjoy the idea of winning over a new crowd who aren’t necessarily there to see me. I’m up for the challenge.

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Raleigh Ritchie’s debut album releases February 26th 2016. Head over to his website for all the details.

Writing + Art Direction by Tom Winslade
Photography by Jordan Green

*drops mic”

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