The large studio room was filled with natural light when Ravyn Lenae came in. The crew was delicately stringing pieces of mirror around the halo she would occupy, perched upon a small piece of moon we had made for her. She suited up in the outfits the stylist picked out, clad in regal jewelry and flowing gowns. She posed elegantly, but with strength and purpose. After an exhausting several hours of shooting, we sat down next to some open windows to begin our interview.
Ravyn is somewhat disarming when you first meet her. Diminutive in stature, she projects a radiant confidence that gives her a larger than life feel. Her look is manicured and deliberate, giving off a sense of presentation. She makes you feel her presence without even saying a word. When she does speak, however, she reveals a kind and open person that puts you right at ease. She comes fully present and ready to have a conversation, something surprising for someone just 18 years old.
Age is difficult to avoid when talking about Ravyn Lenae. Her level of sophistication as a musician and performer is highly developed, and it is somewhat shocking to know that she just finished high-school. Beyond her musical ability, she has a poise and refinement that is hard to find in any person, furthering the sense of maturity she gives off.
While she is fundamentally composed, it can still be hard for anyone to feel like they are boxed in by something so arbitrary as age. In an interview last year on Beats 1, she wasn’t so receptive to the idea that her age was so remarkable. When the DJ asked her if she gets annoyed by people commenting on it, she gets visibly irked at the notion. She emphatically states “I would much rather people focus on the music. Regardless of the age. Like, who cares about the age? Think about the music. That should not be the main point. That should not be in bold.”
When we sit down I immediately ask if she gets annoyed about the question coming up so often. She replies, “Yeah, but I’m used to it now, so I’ve kind of embraced it instead of being like ‘ahhh stop it.’ I just have to think of it from a point of people honestly being surprised or in awe of how young I am. So, I think of it that way instead of ‘why they always nagging about my age? (haha)”
Quite a change of heart from less than a year ago, but fundamentally representative of the rapid growth Lenae is capable of. She is able to take in big concepts quickly and integrate them into her life. Combine that with the immense amount of experience she’s had in the music industry, and you have a potent combination for stardom. “When I was 15 I was in bars and clubs performing so I think that aspect of being an artist kind of matured me in a way. Made me more aware of everything. And now that I’m approaching that age of being able to do those things, [it’s become less of a big deal].”
Someone so advanced generally has an awkward relationship with education. On the one hand, it can be nourishing for an intelligent person to engage in the classroom and learn in the traditional sense. On the other hand, it can feel extremely limiting and slow for someone ready to charge forward.
I ask her if college is still in the picture and she says, “I’m not going to college. I’m a strong believer in following your own path and following your heart. Not saying that college is a horrible thing. If you want to be a doctor, you have to go to school. But as an artist, as a performer, the only way to truly master that is to perform. Is to do it every single day rather than sitting in a desk being taught how to do it, and I’m more of a go-getter in that way. I’d rather teach myself and attend the school of trial and error.“
There is a lot of truth to what she says, and this experiential approach is wise. That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t owe much of her sophistication to her educational background. Lenae graduated from ChiArts, a well-respected arts school, where she majored in vocal performance and studied classical music. When asked about how her study of classical impacts her own creative work she said, “Prior to attending ChiArts, I was not fully aware of the classical world. I knew it existed, but I didn’t really have an appreciation for it. Attending Chi Arts definitely broadened my horizon in that way, and also inspired me. Whether it’s the poetry or the instrumentation, it’s just very beautiful and delicate and a lot of that has influenced my music. Even [my latest project] Midnight Moonlight stemmed from a piece by Reynaldo Hahn called L'heure Exquise. It’s just so beautiful. The song talks about sitting in the night and observing the beautiful sky and the stars and it’s just so atmospheric. That kind of, I guess, pushed me into that whole idea of space and dreamy music. They had a way of setting the words to perfect music that I really admire.”
While listening to a few versions of L’heure Exquise (meaning ‘The Hour of Dreaming’), you can pick up on what she is saying. The song is a deep and delicate, a mediation on the majesty of the night filled out beautifully by a sparse melody that the voice and lyrics lay over. Lenae’s music has a similar quality to it in that it is expansive and engulfing, seeking to bring the listener into the sound fully and let the words push different buttons of emotion. She wants to transport the listener to a different world while providing anchors of familiarity that bring the abstract to the relatable.
She has a beautiful voice with flawless control over her delivery, but the effectiveness of her music stems from her songwriting process. Lenae doesn’t box herself into a regimented routine when it comes to making music. “I’d rather create organically and see where it takes me” She isn’t overly concerned with telling a specific story or covering a particular subject. She lets the music pull things out of her. “I try to allow myself to have that free space and that area to make mistakes or to make beautiful music.”
When she talks about her process she says, “It’s always different. It depends on my mood and the setting. But most of the time if I get a beat, I listen to it for days, days in and out in and out. Then I establish a tone, a mood without even writing lyrics to it.” She takes the time to be with the music and feel what it is giving to her, consistently gravitating towards color as a way to dig into the emotional and spiritual. “When I have a beat I first feel it and assign a color to it. From that color, I assign an emotion and from that emotion I assign words. I like to think of it as a web of things stringing to each other”
Her meditations manifest themselves visually. She has vivid images in her head as she takes in music and expresses them outwardly. While the most obvious example may be her music videos, it is her clothing and appearance that she gravitates towards for this expression. She says, “First I imagine it in here (pointing to her head). It’s kind of hard to translate that into real life so I try my best to do that with music videos or photo shoots. But I think I interpret it best with my clothes. My hair. How I’m feeling usually is depicted through my clothes. Today I was feeling very bold, and I think red is very bold color. Very aggressive color sometimes.”
Her deep introspection is buttressed by her relentless practicality and faith in her friends. She is a part of the Zero Fatigue crew alongside star producer Monte Booker and the captivating vocalist Smino. When she talks about them, she smiles and laughs, saying “They’re stupid (haha)” in a joking fashion only appropriate for close friends. She clearly has a lot of love for them and is amazed at the journey they’ve collectively taken over the last two years.
Booker produced her entire first EP and helped provide her the space to explore her sound. Of the producer she says, “I think he is a genius. So innovative. He’s had an integral role in the music industry of Chicago. Jus the scene in general, and me, you know? He helped me create Ravyn Lenae’s sound and without Monte I feel like… I don’t know. It just would’ve been different. So I’m really glad that I was able to meet him when I did and create beautiful music with him.”
She is open and acknowledging of the relationships, both personally and artistically, that helped her achieve success, but at a distance the association between her and the rest of Chicago can be hard to pick up on. She recently signed to Atlantic records and established a lane all her own. When I ask her if she picks up on any of this she says, “I don’t intentionally disassociate myself, but, like my mom, I’m not a cliquey person. I like to be able to move around the room. So whether that’s a group of artists or a group of people. But I feel like I do hold a spot in the Chicago music scene.”
She has a deep love for the city and understands its special nature. “I think Chicago has a unique sense of unity in the music scene that a lot of places don’t have. Even the most amazing cities. Whether it’s LA or New York, they don’t have that sense of support and family.” She grounds herself in Chicago and uses it as the launching pad for her creativity, sending it out into the world and getting a big response from the industry at large.
Ravyn has a wise approach to the practical aspects of the music industry. She understands the importance of resources and invested in establishing her infrastructure early on. I ask her about signing to a major label in relation to the rising model of independence in Chicago. She says, “I think most artist shy away because of the rep that labels have of snatching artists and turning them into Britney Spears or something. Stealing from them, you know? The horror stories. But then there are the beautiful stories of them helping you and grooming you and giving you what you need, the tools you need to be the artist that you dreamed of being. I’m not in denial of that fact that I need support. I need financial support, I need all of that! (haha). And I’d rather be in tune with that than taking so much longer and it just not happening for me. So I just had to come to terms with what I want to do with this and how serious I am.”
Ravyn Lenae is, indeed, serious on many levels. Her success and her youth breed the exciting possibility of her being the next great singer from Chicago while her organic and open approach to creation elevate her potential to superstardom. She is deeply in tune with herself and her environment, processing things inwardly and expressing them outwardly in beautiful and captivating ways. Just a few months removed from high-school, she is fully focused on music and prepared to bloom: “Now I have time to devote myself solely to music. And it’s just amazing to see how much I did [without] being able to do that. And now, being able to do that, how much can I accomplish? How much can I grow? I'm very excited to see that.”