If you’ve heard her new track Alien, you’ll agree with us that London’s Raphaella is a star. Her vocal acrobatics often seem otherworldly, riding over inventive production in such a way that she’s already a firm favourite with collaborators like Gorgon City and Rudimental. Not only that, she’s one of the more erudite kinds of pop stars, as we found out in the hugely stimulating Q&A with her below…
First up: reading the bio on your website, you’re all about the dual heritage which is great – you’re Persian, we’re Pakistani. Can we get a shout out on the ethnic vibes, but also do tell us how it informs your work in a modern pop setting?
I love having dual heritage, and I think as an artist your music should be an expression and extension of yourself, so it wouldn’t be true to me if I didn’t reflect my mixed heritage within my music. A long time ago I decided to start producing my own music and wanted to create my own genre. I think there’s so much beauty and history in the Persian culture which often gets lost behind politics, which I think is really sad so I wanted to introduce traditional Persian instruments, our poetry and tonality into the UK electro vibes I was already producing in. I want people to listen to my music and hear things and sounds they’ve never heard before.
I’m a complete book worm, and carry a Rumi or Hafez book in my bag wherever I go. I never fail to be enlightened every time I open the book, and so many of my lyrics and concepts are inspired by the way they saw the world.
Did you grow up listening to a lot of Middle Eastern music then?
My dad has the most awesome taste in music. He had only one car rule.. that no ‘bad’ music was allowed to be played! We grew up with the most amazing mix of tradition Persian music like Shahram Nazeri and Shajarian and then Michael Jackson, Bob Marley and James Brown. We road tripped around Europe for our summer holidays when we were younger, so I just remember losing myself for hours in the half tones and vocal acrobatics of Shahram Nazeri, the Daaf and Tabla rhythms and the beat and soul of Michael Jackson, Bob Marley and James Brown.
Your bio also says you did a dissertation on Political Protest Music. What made you go down that route? Is that something you’d bring into your own work? Does politics even have a place in music any more? There’s certainly a lot in the climate to inspire it.
I could write another dissertation on this question alone! I think that music is one of the most powerful things in the world and wanted to explore its role played in politics and our history. I studied the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and some of my favourite artists were key figures in that movement and their music played such a vital role; like Nina Simone, Michael Jackson and Bob Marley. It not only helped to bring people together & be empowered, but it also bought to light really difficult and real issues.
Of course politics still has a place in music. If you look at some of the greatest artists in the world right now, their music – even down to what female artists chose to wear – is a political statement. From Beyonce to grime to punk to hip-hop, they still write about political topics just as real and relevant today – from racism, to sexism to LGBT equality, to anti-establishment because they’re still unresolved issues. I think politics will always have a place in music, because music is so powerful and is always used as a vehicle to express people’s feelings and what affects them most – which so often is the social and political climates we live in.
I like to use verses from traditional Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez that are about the beauty of love and life and are symbols and icons of our heritage and mesh that with my UK electro soundscape, as a way to show that our culture can transcend politics. I think there’s a lot that shadows the real beauty of the culture and people and I want to try and marry the two Western and Middle Eastern cultures and show that they are beautiful together and introduce Persian heritage to the UK because I think there’s so much beauty there.
“I think there’s a lot that shadows the real beauty of the culture and people and I want to try and marry the two Western and Middle Eastern cultures”
So how does the Raphaella writing process work? Where do your sounds and words come from?
It varies really depending on what mood I’m in. Sometimes I’ll start by building a beat and bass line, other times I’ll start with playing some chords. I always start melodies by just free styling and adlibbing; and with lyrics it happens two ways – either I start with a title and a clear idea of what I want to be writing about with a few key lines mapped out that I’ve brainstormed before (this approach is usually when I’m writing for another singer/artist), or I just follow my heart and head and say whatever I’m feeling at the time. With the Persian sounds, I always create my own samples, either with instruments or ad-libbing on the mic and then chopping and effecting up my vocal to sound like an instrument.
Which brings us nicely on to the great new track Alien. Tell us about its genesis and the track as it is today.
I started Alien with the production actually which I called ‘Flood tide’. I had most of the instrumental structure mapped out as I felt like just making a beat one day instead of singing and then for the first time I wrote the topline with my brother which I was so excited about. I played the verse chords and he freestyled the verse melodies over the top of it. The drop effected vocal actually came last.. I’d ad-libbed the melody but down an octave before and as soon as I pitched it up, the track clicked. It was the first time Darius had ever written a song and I couldn’t believe how naturally he freestyled the melodies, it was so much fun working together.
There are a lot of female pop types out there. Do you look to your competition at all or worry about a saturating genre?
I don’t ever look at it as ‘competition’. I think as soon as you do that you suck the life and love out of music and the true point of why we all make it. I think there is a place for every artist because everyone has their own voice and own story they want to tell and that’s what makes music so exciting. As soon as artists start to support each other and celebrate each other for their successes that’s when you can really create the music you’re most proud of because not only can you learn from each other but you help each other succeed.
What can we expect from Raphaella in the next few months?
I’ve been in the studio working on my own music and then also with Gorgon City, MNEK, Rudimental, Wilkinson, NVOY, Sub Focus and Culture Shock. So new music and features is what you can expect!
What are you listening to at the moment?
I just went on an iTunes binge and my new obsession is Francis and The Lights – namely ‘Friends’ feat. Bon Iver and Kanye. I’m forever listening to James Blake, wake up to the Interstellar soundtrack, lost my cool when Bon Iver put out two new songs this week and seem to be recently obsessed with Drake & Rihanna’s ‘Too Good’.
Finally, the very revealing question we ask everyone: what’s your favourite Beyonce song?