'The Line' singer is writing for the likes of Ellie Goulding, Rihanna, Little Mix, and Charli XCX

By Nolan Feeney
July 07, 2017 at 10:36 AM EDT
Rita Ora, Rihanna, Charli XCX, Ellie Goulding and RAYE
Credit: Clockwise from top left: David M. Benett/Getty Images; Marc Piasecki/WireImage; Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images For Yves Saint Laurent; Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Burberry; Anthony Harvey/Getty Images for MTV

Who’s topping the charts, going viral, and ruling our earbuds? Every week, EW introduces the freshest music talent you have to hear now. Below, get to know RAYE, who’s already a rising hitmaker across the pond.

Listen If You Like: Charli XCX, Rita Ora, if Halsey were British and spunkier

The Backstory: The 19-year-old British singer has a work ethic that will put overachieving teenagers to shame. While other kids juggled a few extracurriculars between classes and homework, RAYE filled her after-school hours with studio sessions and booked any show she could get, no matter how random. “I did as many little charity gigs as I could,” she tells EW. After first learning how to sing as a kid in the church choir, RAYE (real name: Rachel Keen) enrolled in the famed BRIT School, which counts Adele, Amy Winehouse, and Jessie J as alumni. Yet despite its star-making pedigree, RAYE says pop music was “looked down on” there, so after two years, she dropped out — with the blessing of her parents — and started pursuing her career full-time.

“I remember when I was younger watching interviews with Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, and the one thing they would say is that you have to work hard to be successful,” RAYE says. “I thought, ‘Okay, if I want to achieve my dreams, I’m going to have to sacrifice all my time and work as hard as I can.’ I was really inspired by that.”

Why She Rules: RAYE’s songwriting has a wild sense of adventure that makes listening to her music both totally fun and a little suspenseful — you never know where she’ll end up. “Distraction,” from last year’s Second EP, opens with a finger-snapping R&B beat but climaxes with what sounds like a string quartet. “Shh” kicks off with a half-sung, half-rapped flow that evokes early Destiny’s Child, but it goes on to have not one but six key changes. Recently, she released a new version of her single “The Line” that reimagines the skronky club-banger as a gentle acoustic track, and it somehow totally works. “It comes from wanting to push boundaries,” RAYE says of fearless writing style. “I love music that’s on the radio, but I wanted to make pop music my own way. I had so much fun trying to break the rules.”

She credits her effortlessly catchy melodies to her unlabored songwriting approach, something she has in common with friend and frequent co-writer Charli XCX, who recently featured RAYE on her Number 1 Angel mixtape. “Most of what you hear are the first things we come up with, and I think that’s the best: when it’s not over-thought, when it’s really what you feel when you hear the music,” RAYE says. “We get the voice notes [app] out and we put a track on and we literally jump around singing ideas.”

Next Up: After scoring overseas hits with and British house producer Jax Jones, RAYE is now writing for many of the artists she grew up listening to. “I literally just received the email of my dreams: I’m going to be part of a Rihanna writing camp, which is insane,” she says. “Roc Nation reached out and said they wanted me to write for her project.” She’s also been working with Ellie Goulding (“She’s such a sweetheart”) and recently wrote a song for Little Mix. “Their people really really love [the track],” RAYE says. “Fingers crossed it’s going to be the next single, but you never know.”

In addition to a slew of festival dates this summer, RAYE’s working on her debut solo album — but she isn’t in a rush to release it. “I feel like nowadays you have to earn an album, so I’m gonna put a couple singles out and see how they do,” she says. “I’m having the time of my life. I’m just loving making music right now.”