Though Raye recounting her difficulties in the music industry often makes for painful listening in the latest instalment of Louis Theroux’s celebrity interview series, her experiences are unfortunately very far from unique. What sets her apart, so far, is that she’s one of a handful of young women brave enough to talk openly about it all, and this honesty is to be commended.
Despite exploitative contracts, never-ending artist development deals, and stat-chasing execs, and a toxic culture that normalises excess and turns a blind eye to abuse, the music industry is yet to have any kind of substantial reckoning when it comes to rooting out its rotten parts. Many artists hungry to make it in a hyper-competitive field eagerly sign multi-record deals when they are still in their late teens, and very much still in the process of figuring out their artistic identities.
In Raye’s case, she was rapidly hustled down the route of becoming dance-pop’s next big vocalist, teaming up with the likes of Jax Jones and Joel Corry for some sunny bangers she doesn’t seem especially fond of.
“Bed is really very boring. It’s not my favourite song but my bank account loved that song,” she tells Theroux, of her collaboration with the latter. “This house,” she says, gesturing around her sunny, south London home “… secured from Bed.”
Inevitably we meet Raye, in the opening sequence, tinkling away on a grand piano, performing a jazz-inflected cover of Summertime as Theroux looks on like a proud Fame Academy vocal coach. The contrast between this, and what we know of early career Raye's dance orientated chart music, is stark and clearly something that she still struggles with. Would she have a platform for the present work, were it not for the quick hits earlier on? How does that trade-off leave her feeling? Grateful? Bittersweet? These questions are skipped in favour of hammering home the scene as a narrative device, which has very little subtlety.
Theroux takes a hands-off approach, cheerfully singing Al Green songs and channelling plenty of awkwardness for comic effect (I particularly enjoyed his exchange with Raye’s collaborator Coi Leray, in which he asks her about the raunchy lyrics of her Nicki Minaj collab Blick Blick).
Elsewhere, he listens as Raye recounts a number of upsetting experiences, such as her realisation that she was self-medicating with drugs throughout her major label period in order to numb her feelings. “I was able to get along with my career because I was in some form of sedation, whether it be weed or other things," she says.
“Not a day goes by when I’m not thinking about music… I’m obsessed,” she says elsewhere. “I take it so seriously. And I was a product. When you take a step back and remove emotion I was a product that needed to be sold.”
In one especially emotional segment, she speaks about the multiple abuses of power that inspired her raw debut album standout Ice Cream Man, and admits that she still struggles to perform it. Asked about any advice she might have for young musicians, Raye’s answer is tinged by a pessimism that is difficult to watch: take a friend with you to the studio when you work with new producers, she urges. The idea that a young female musician's safety might be in question as a matter of course is an alarming one. Even more strikingly, Theroux lets this bombshell slide without interrogating the idea that the industry has clearly not changed at all.
The problem with all of this is the timing. Raye's career, partly due to her period languishing in contract limbo, is still in its infancy. As a result the documentary largely focuses on her journey within the music industry as an emerging name; a necessity given that she only really rose to prominence as a solo artist a couple of years ago.
Though it's fleetingly interesting watching her impulsive recording process, there's no getting around the fact that asking artists about the bitty mechanics of how they write songs is inherently quite boring; usually it involves one or more people playing melodies over and over again in a gloomy room until something clicks. It's far more interesting focusing on magic that comes next: who is a song for, and what does it say?
There is much discussion of the broad themes on her debut album My 21st Century Blues, but little around how and why she made it beyond the vague idea that it's her creative truth; though she speaks passionately about her love of music, Theroux doesn't drill down any further into where this hunger stems from, or get specific about what exactly songwriting helps her to articulate that other modes of communication cannot. Raye, for her part, is immediately likeable, and comes across as both candid and articulate; there's no doubt she would've risen to the occasion. At times, though, the lines of questioning feel lacking in those extra layers of background.
Theroux seems in his element at first, but eventually the level of celebrity he’s accumulated over the years proves a bit of a distraction. On set at one of Raye’s video shoots, the crew can’t hide their starstruck awe; moments like the self-referential nod to the streaming figures for his own single Jiggle Jiggle feel a little too knowing.
In the closing moments of the film, even Raye admits that being seated opposite him is a huge honour. That’s all very well and good, but it also raises nagging questions about critical distance. Louis Theroux Interviews Raye airs on BBC Two at 9pm tonight