Songwriter Interviews

Raphaella

by Amanda Flinner

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Raphaella has earned a reputation as a triple threat in the UK pop scene as both a solo act and sought-after collaborator. As a female singer, songwriter, and producer in the boys' club known as the music industry, it's a particularly rare distinction. But it's not the only thing that sets her apart.

Influenced by her English and Persian heritage, the North London native has created a unique East-meets-West soundscape of cool modern synths woven with soulful harmonies and touches of Persian instrumentation. Her lyrical inspiration is just as diverse, expounding on bits of truth from poetry, classic novels, failed relationships, and social issues (she did her dissertation on political protest music at London's Institute of Contemporary Music Performance).

When she's not releasing solo material, Raphaella is writing and producing for artists like Rudimental ("Last Time"), Gorgon City ("Kingdom), Little Mix ("Break Up Song"), and Cher Lloyd ("Lost"). While her MK & Sonny Fodera cut "One Night" was heating up BBC Radio, she also released her four-track EP Real on May 1, 2020.

In our chat with Raphaella, she told us the stories behind her popular collaborations and took us behind the scenes of her Real single "Closure" (feat. Nambyar).
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): Early on, you talked about creating your own genre based on your cultural background. If you could put a name to this genre, what would it be and how would you describe it?

Raphaella: I think I'd describe it like a Persian cupcake [laughs]. Synths for the cake mix, harmony layers as the saffron icing and chopped and effected audio samples for the pistachios on top. A true mix of something Western and Persian.

Songfacts: What is the one musical experience that made you want to make music?

Raphaella: I weirdly don't have one specific memory or experience that was like a switch in my head, I just always remember loving music. I remember as young as 4 just adoring singing, and how it made me feel so free. It didn't matter if I was listening to music or making it. I just had this feeling of amazement and wonderment and would get lost in the world it would take me to.

Songfacts: At Songfacts, we look at the stories behind the songs. How did your MK/Sonny Fodera collaboration "One Night" come together?

Raphaella: It was actually originally a track that Sonny sent over to me about two years ago. Our managements had been in touch via email and thought it would be a cool fit. So I wrote the topline and recorded/vocal-produced it on my own at my studio in Shoreditch and sent it over to Sonny. The hook "one night, one night" was actually the first thing I sang and it really summed up how I was feeling at the time. I think we all often need just "one night" of forgetting the world and just being with that person we love and forgetting all our problems.

At that point Sonny and I still hadn't met, but instantly vibed musically! About six months after that I got a text with a new version, and MK had joined - he added these great house piano lines and the drop, and the rest is history.

Songfacts: How does your songwriting approach differ when you write solo versus writing with others?

Raphaella: I think the core process of honesty remains the same. I learned a while back that the more honest you are with songwriting, the more it resonates - there's no point in just plucking a theme from the sky because it's just not believable. So even when I write for, or with, other people, we find that common ground we all can believe in or relate to and bring our own stories to the song. I think the only difference is when I write solo, I can afford to be more selfish with my decisions, even down to whether I push the rhythm in the chorus or not. It truly is what is in my mind and my personal story.

Songfacts: While most of Real's tracks were recorded at your Shoreditch studio, "Closure" was recorded in Amsterdam. How did that location influence the track and what is the story behind the song?

Raphaella: Yeah, I was in Amsterdam for a writing trip for one of Martin Garrix's artists, and I actually finished "Closure" on the last day I was there. Most of the sessions I'd had there were very dance-based, which is great, but I think for my own solo music my heart lies in the more synth, alt-pop/downtempo genre, so I was so excited when I walked into Nambyar's place and saw a bunch of hardware synths and we got talking.

I'd started the track in my Shoreditch studio but was just never in the right place creatively to finish it. I opened up the Logic project - we were in Nambyar's super cozy attic studio and I remember specifically it had started snowing out of the window, and we started with "cold hands, blurred lines." It's about that last night with someone you've broken up with hoping it will give you closure even though you know it will probably do more harm than good.

Songfacts: What artists/songs were you listening to while you were putting the new EP together?

Raphaella: A lot of Rosalia actually. I really love how the world welcomed her with open arms and weren't afraid to embrace a different genre. For BBC Radio 1 to play prime-time what is essentially a contemporary interpretation of flamenco music, is so cool. I love the space in her productions and the way her vocals are produced. They're so present yet silky smooth.

Songfacts: I was going to ask you what your biggest challenge was on Real, then I learned your laptop was stolen with all your music! How did you go about recreating what you'd lost?

Raphaella: Oh God, it was awful! The night it got stolen, I had just finished the last two tracks and had sent my manager via WhatsApp an MP3 bounce of them both before I packed up for the week. So I literally used the WhatsApp audio bounces as references to recreate what I had done.

I won't lie, there were many tears, many sleepless nights and some things I will never be able to get back, but I am a believer that everything happens for a reason. The chopped/reversed audio in "Real" is literally a direct sample from the WhatsApp audio because I loved it so much but knew it was impossible to recreate!

Songfacts: As a lover of traditional Persian poetry and classic novels, what's an example of a song that was inspired by a work of literature?

Raphaella: I think everything is in one way or another inspired by everything I've read. Persian poetry is more like spiritualism, so it permeates into my everyday life and how I see the world. I used a paraphrased quote in one of my singles "In The Dark" from Rumi - "Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom. How do they learn it? They fall, and falling, they're given wings."

Songfacts: What can you tell us about Rudimental's "Last Time"?

Raphaella: I've known the boys about four years now and it really is a family environment they create. Their studio is super close to mine and we wrote "Last Time" one day in the summer. With them the writing process is super free, so I had the title before I went in - actually now that I think of it, "Last Time" was also inspired by a classic novel I'd read! Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities has the most incredible opening line: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." And I thought, what about if it was "the last of times"? What would you do and what would you say to the person you love instead of holding back for sake of fear or pride? So I just freestyled around that idea.

Songfacts: How about Cher Lloyd's "Lost"?

Raphaella: I've been working with Cher for a little while now and she's one of the loveliest, and hardest-working artists I've met. We really got on the first session we had and she invited me in to work on "Lost" a few months ago. I remember I'd just bought a metric shit ton of snacks from the M&S down the road and we got down to business. Inspired by one of my crazy exes, my favorite line is, "Yeah you've got a God complex, now I'm thanking God you're an ex."

Songfacts: Going way back to one of your early songs, "Castles," you actually recorded that first but decided it wasn't right for you before it went to Ivy Quainoo. How do you sense a song is right for you?

Raphaella: I think I've always known pretty quickly as I'm writing it whether or not it feels like it's for me or not. I think it's always kind of been, "Would this physically hurt my heart to give this away, does it feel too personal for anyone else to sing?" If the answer is yes, I release it myself.

Songfacts: It's rare to have a female singer/songwriter/producer working in the male-dominated music industry. What advice would you give to other women who want to follow this path?

Raphaella: Support each other. That is my main piece of advice. There's not many of us, which means we need to create that support network for each other which is so important in an industry which is essentially designed to work against us.

I always found production was quite a "boys' club" atmosphere growing up. I was lucky and met JungleBoi when I was 16, who was like my older brother. We'd write all the time together and I'd just watch and learn as he'd use Logic next to me. I never felt intimidated or judged and when I got Logic myself shortly afterwards it was like a whole new world of possibilities were suddenly at my fingertips. It was almost by accident though as I didn't even have music-tech as an option at my all girls' school, while my guy friends were off taking music production GCSEs. I walk into studio complexes now which are mostly all male (my own included) and they have this amazing sense of community and I'd love to see the same with women. I never got to share samples or production techniques with my girlfriends growing up - we were encouraged to share makeup.

Also, don't apologize so much. You don't have to be sorry you're a badass. Walk into every situation fearlessly and don't ask for permission, take it.

May 21, 2020
Keep up with Raphaella on Instagram or Twitter.
Other interviews you might like:
David Gray
Phil Thornalley
Tanita Tikaram

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