What Matters Is What's Next, Ravyn Lenae
Photography by Elizabeth de la Piedra
Photography: Elizabeth de la Piedra
Production and Creative Direction: Hannah Black
Makeup: Jessica Monzalvo
Hair: Jana Hoeller
Interview: Isis Nicole
"I think once you get too comfortable in a sound or style that means it's time to move on," says Ravyn Lenae. And she should know. At 19-years-old, the singer now signed to Atlantic Records has since gained plaudit for her serene falsetto heard first on her EP Moon Shoes released in 2015. Her second EP, Midnight Moonlight (2017), was followed by her latest EP, Crush (2018), produced by The Internet's, Steve Lacy - totaling up to a body of work which has foreseeably propelled her near the front of today's R&B queue.
The eve of her IN Mag cover shoot, Lenae's management checks in to make sure everything goes as right as it can. A margherita pizza is ordered at her request and she arrives promptly in Chicago ready to model the following morning. Discerned immediately is her playful nature and team spirit. She sprinkles a bubbly kind of magic situated in her enthusiasm for life.
Made accessible to her fans and new followers on social media, while scrolling through her Instagram, there's a canny sense of the girl next door in star like fashion. Posed in front of brick walls, tour trailers, and city landscapes appointed as backdrops, her commenters cheer on her growing success with sparkling sentences accompanied by fire, heart, and unicorn emoijis.
She's destined for superstardom and there's no sign of slow up having gained critical attention from the likes of Sza and Issa Rae. And just before kicking off her next tour this fall/winter with English singer, Jorja Smith, Lenae created an intermission on her mom's birthday to hop on a phone call with me for a discussion about womanhood, her biggest dreams, and taking control. Woo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo!
Isis Nicole: Whenever I hear your song "Sticky" I feel felicity. I went to Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and your song was a part of the sensory exhibit.
Ravyn Lenae: That's crazy!
IN: And then last night, when I was watching Insecure it came on and I was like, "Oh my God!" So that was a pleasant surprise.
RL: I was so happy about that! Insecure is one of my favorite shows [laughs].
IN: What has been the most life changing experience in your journey this far?
RL: I think the most life changing experience was me going on my own tour. For most of my career I've been opening for people, so it was really nice to be on my own tour, be my own fan, and have a room there for me. It's a completely different feeling, so I think that tour reassured me as an artist, and made me realize how many people do love me and support me. That was a really important moment in my career.
IN: How did you know your wildest dreams were in reach?
RL: I think it's because I saw my peers being able to be successful in music. That kind of made me feel that I was able to do that, having that example. But also I think the initial response I got, when I first released music, made me feel like, "Oh, okay people actually like this." That made me feel that I have some type of potential in music [laughs].
IN: Are you someone who imagines an optimistic outcome?
RL: I think so. In a weird way, I'm still very realistic and logical. I remember in the beginning thinking like, "Oh this [is] never going to work." My realistic mind sometimes clashes with my dreamy mind, but often times it comes together so … [laughs].
IN: How do you balance life demands?
RL: Sometimes it's a little difficult to juggle both. In music, things move so fast especially if you're on the road. There isn't a lot of time to meditate, or to be yourself, or to be alone with your thoughts and your emotions. So it's super important to carve out that time for yourself to check in and make sure you're doing fine. If not (I had this experience), you will break down at some point and crash. I try to make sure that I'm tending to myself as much as I'm tending to music or my supporters.
IN: Is flexibility a major or minor key in life?
RL: Flexibility is a major key in life, especially if you're a musician. Your life revolves around being flexible. I remember when I was in school, I felt that I couldn't fully be the musician that I wanted to be because my schedule was so tight and I had to commit to school and music. Now that I'm able to have all this free time to dedicate to music I feel that I'm more in it 100%, which is nice.
IN: What are some of your favorite ways to take control of your life?
RL: That's an interesting question. For one, I like to exert my power with my physical being if that makes sense. So like, getting a tattoo or changing my hair, cutting my hair, and recoloring it. Simple things like that makes me feel in control.
IN: Can you share a bit about your classical training?
RL: So I went to Chicago High School for the Arts, and I was trained classically there. I was taught music theory, classical voice, music history, classical piano … anything you can imagine, I studied there. It was very eye opening — a black girl from the south side of Chicago [or most people] probably wouldn't be able to be exposed to those things. So I feel that it broadened my knowledge on music as a whole. It made me approach it very differently with my own music.
IN: I imagine no matter how young or old, you don't get to your level overnight. Did your musical background and family aid you in developing constructive routines?
RL: I think [that] when I got to school is when I became super disciplined with music and academics, therefore, applying that to other aspects of my life. One, because school was so long. I was in school from 8 - 5 everyday and then I had to go home for an hour to do homework, do music, then finally get to sleep. So, a lot of my high school years were spent sharpening those life tools of discipline, time management, and all that stuff. Also, my mom is super organized. I am not as crazy as she is about it [laughs]. I kind of look sloppy in comparison to her, but I think a lot of her ways were instilled in me awhile ago.
IN: What are some essential habits in order to grow as an artist?
RL: I think a really good habit to have is constantly challenging yourself and one upping yourself. I think once you get too comfortable in a sound or style, that means it's time to move on, and I'm a person that likes to move on from a lot of things quickly or [else] I'll feel that I'm not experiencing things fully if that makes sense. I have a hard time with music sometimes just because I move on quickly, and I don't know what I want to do. So I'll [just know for certain that I] want it to be completely different from what I did last.
IN: Having started your career in your youth, I imagine this comes with its own range of responsibility. Do you ever find yourself in cycles of learning and unlearning publicly?
RL: Yeah, I think it's natural, you know, over the years to change your perspective or your opinions about different things. For artists, you're doing that in front of people all the time [laughs]. I would think that I've changed my mind about a lot of things over the years.
IN: What's it like coming into adulthood in the spotlight?
RL: It's weird [laughs]. Coming out as an artist so young, people kind of like to keep you there if that makes sense. The Disney Channel syndrome is very real! People don't want you to grow up, and they want you to be 15-years-old forever. So in a way, you do have to exert your adultness in certain areas to make people understand that you are no longer this 15-year-old girl. I think that I do that through music subtly. But it's still difficult, you know, breaking those ties from 15-year-old you to 20-year-old you.
IN: Have you ever lived in a culture where it was okay to make mistakes, and most importantly be forgiven?
RL: Yeah, I think I was raised in a family that's very open and non-judgmental. I'm grateful for that because I feel that I can be anything that I want to be and have their support. I feel like I've made all kinds of mistakes, or do all kinds of things, and they'll forgive me or accept me for who I am.
IN: How do you push beyond expectations?
RL: For me I guess it's taking what I've previously done and expanding on that, or sharpening that, if that makes sense. I'm still in that super weird place in music where I have no idea what I want to do next, so these questions are kind of a gray area for me.
IN: What do you do to keep your ideas fresh?
RL: I think the main source of that is traveling. If I could travel year round I would just because when I've been in one place, for too long, things become too predictable and too similar to the point where there's really no inspiration flowing for me, you know. There's no new experiences. Whereas with traveling, I'm meeting different people, eating different food, and hearing different music. That automatically sparks some type of inspiration in me.
IN: Where are some of the places you've traveled to?
RL: Besides the US, because I'm still learning my own country [laughs], I've been to Canada, Thailand, and Panama. My family's actually from Panama, so I've been there and I'm going back this August. But I really want to go to Italy after that, so hopefully that works.
IN: What motivates you now as a performing artist?
RL: I guess the thing that keeps me going, even when I'm discouraged, is my supporters. When I wake up and [question] why am I doing this, I may get a tweet from someone saying, "I love you Ravyn. Keep doing it." I think that is the biggest motivation for me. The people who care, and the people who love what I do.
IN: What does it take to bring a tour to life?
RL: It takes a lot of brainpower and money power. It's a lot going from opener to headliner. I now realize all the responsibilities it takes. I never had to worry about ticket sales and all that stuff, but now I do. So that, and making sure every show runs smoothly, making sure you love the openers. A lot of things go into it, you know, creating your own experience. And with every tour it'll get more and more polished because that was my first tour. That was my first experience, so now I have more ideas and things I can do differently next time, or things that I keep for next time, you know.
IN: I haven't seen you live just yet, but when I mentioned I was interviewing you people would respond so positively and say, "Oh my god she's amazing live." Like everybody.
RL: Aw, I love that.
IN: I know. I'm missing out.
RL: Well I'm touring with Jorga Smith in November and December 2018, if you're around.
IN: I'll be here. What does a day off tour look like?
RL: Days off, that time is usually spent catching up on rest. After that, it should be spent on music, but if you're me, you're stuck and don't really know what to do, so you enjoy the weather, and friends, and all that stuff. Planning for the next tour and visuals and stuff. But for the most part, it's time spent trying to decompress and get my mind together for what's next.
IN: What do you want your audience to takeaway if you could choose?
RL: I guess it depends on each experience and each song. But for the most part, I really want the audience to feel connected to me and connected to the message in whatever way that is. Whether it's feeling beautiful, or feeling sad, you know, or feeling unsure. I hope that they can connect to those songs the way that I do. That would make me happy.
IN: What else would make you happiest when everything is said and done?
RL: I think I measure success based on how many lives I've touched and how many people I've inspired. That's what counts to me.
IN: When you think of "increase" what comes to mind?
RL: I guess the first thing I thought of is momentum and excelling.
IN: And lastly, what's your favorite piece of advice?
RL: I always say that my favorite advice is from my friend and producer, Monte Booker. He told me, "Whatever happens Ravyn, just always put music first, in every decision, whatever it may be." So whenever I'm faced with circumstances, I always remember to put the music first.
Originally published in IN #7, Fall 2018