In the wake of Freya Ridings’ success at the AIM Awards, we revisit the singer’s 2019 Music Week interview to celebrate her being named New Artist Of The Year at our Women In Music Awards. Here, the Lost Without You star talks tough about the industry, songwriting and remembers where it all began...
When Freya Ridings was growing up in Palmers Green, North London, she had no concept of what it would be like to make an impact with her music. Encouraged by her musical parents, she wrote songs during school breaktimes and lugged a keyboard around pub open mic nights, daydreaming of becoming a recording artist. With no little drama, she refers that time as “the wilderness”.
Now, she’s a shining UK breakthrough with a Top 3 debut album (47,137 sales, OCC) and a platinum hit single. Ridings’ success is a jewel in Good Soldier boss Christian Tattersfield’s storied career. With the Love Island-fuelled success of Lost Without You (972,964 sales) in 2017 now a mere pitstop on her journey, the 25-year-old former Music Week cover star is the recipient of the New Artist honour at the Women In Music Awards 2019.
“I used to watch the BRITs and see the Breakthrough Artist award and not really understand what that meant,” Ridings says. “Now I know it means that you have to have an army of incredible people helping you. You’re fragile, a baby with some ideas about breaking through this massive iron wall into the sky.”
We meet for a mint tea in central London, and Ridings is quick to celebrate her team and her fans, repeatedly breaking off to eulogise both. “There’s this amazing feeling, it’s not quite for myself, it’s for the people who championed me and took a risk on the songs when it [my music] wasn’t cool.”
Back in the early days, ‘cool’ was another word Ridings says she kept at arm’s length. She tells a story of an eight-year-old girl who sent Ridings a video of herself covering Lost Without You, and adulation is an idea she’s only just getting used to.
“My music didn’t make me cool at school, so I didn’t think that school-age children would actually find it cool now, but they do,” she smiles. “I could not have had fewer friends for doing this and now I can’t really seem to have more! It’s this really strange, brilliant feeling, a great weight of responsibility. For me, playing my own instruments was a rebellious act, you need to shed light on that.”
Over the course of a mazy, hour-long chat, Ridings will emerge as a voice of strength, determined to empower young people like her. But it has been far from a simple journey to this point.
“I’d been on my own at school like an outcast, redheaded and dyslexic and different, tall… Everything that makes you stand out. It wasn’t good,” says Ridings. She wanted to write songs and was more often than not to be found at the piano in her living room (where her platinum disc now hangs “like a mirror”). She struggled to find like minds among her fellow students at The BRIT Shool and her initial forays into the music business proved difficult.
Ridings’ first studio experience was a significant one, coming some time before she ended up playing Lost Without You on Tom Waits’ old piano to win a deal with Good Soldier.
“One of the first people I worked with was a producer who’d won a Grammy. I was 16, it was the first time I’d ever worked with anyone like that,” says Ridings, who was excited to show off her songs.
“He said, ‘No, I don’t want to see any of the songs you’ve written I want to start from scratch.’ That was OK, but we were working and it was the second or third session and there was this kind of building tension.”
Ridings hadn’t realised, but the producer “didn’t think things were going well”. When she suggested editing a drum sample, things began to unravel. “He turned round and was like, ‘What the fuck do you know? I remember thinking, ‘Ahhh.’ I had this feeling of, ‘What would Beyoncé do?’ I stood up and said, ‘Thank you so much for your time, I won’t be working with you anymore’.”
Then, Ridings walked out and straight back home to her parents.
Playing my own instruments was a rebellious act
“I cried my eyes out when I got home, at that time I didn’t have any representation, just my parents,” she says. “He sent this email saying I would never get anywhere with that attitude, it really shook me. I just had this feeling that he was an extremely insecure, balding man who was trying to future curse me. Me and my mum said, ‘It’s water off a duck’s back’. I kept writing songs and then I was lucky to get signed by a label I love and work with incredible collaborators, men, who I love. You leave that in the past.”
Ridings says she’s “heard worse stories” and notes that the producer knew how inexperienced she was and “still did it” anyway. “Why should he have any say?” she asks. “If you sense that, get out of the room, you can’t write with a stranger who makes you feel bad, you write with a friend you trust in a safe space.”
While Ridings speaks highly of her later collaborators, especially Lost Without You producer Ollie Green, she has a very clear point to make on the subject.
“I have a real issue with the idea that women have to write with men, I really do,” says the singer, who recounts being “baffled” when she learned that Beyoncé’s Run The World (Girls) was mostly written by men.
“I just feel that the public doesn’t really know how hard it is to actually write on your own as a woman,” she continues. “My label boss told me to keep my second name [other labels did not] and to release the songs I’d written completely myself. When does that happen? It doesn’t happen anymore. They just don’t want women to write their own songs on their own. It’s always, ‘Have you thought about going in with this guy?’ I love working with people, but that [question] shouldn’t be the norm.”
Ridings explains that she’s “excited to even talk” about the subject and says there’s “a fire burning inside” her to change the situation.
“Every time that you play a show and you see the faces of young girls soaking it up, what do you want them to be soaking up? It’s writing your own songs and playing your own instruments,” she says.
Ridings charts her attitude back to the way she was raised (“I was a problem solver, I dressed myself since I was three, there was a whole summer where I wore welly boots back to front”) and says she wants others to bring similar values to the music industry.
“The idea that you can buy your own castle instead of having to marry a prince is revolutionary and I don’t know why. It seeps into all areas of our society and in music it’s most prominent because women are used to sell an ideal, but they often haven’t been lucky enough to write the stories behind it,” she says.
“I’ve worked with one woman and hundreds of men and there’s an imbalance that needs to be sorted out. Girls need to know that it’s a possibility that you can write your own songs and play your own instruments. I was definitely told by the industry that that wasn’t going to be the case. That’s where the real exciting stuff is, the real control and vision, being able to build something from the ground up.”
Ridings has done just that, encouraged through every step by her team. Her Glastonbury debut came this summer and this month’s UK tour includes a night at London’s Eventim Apollo.
“I’m so lucky to have a really strong team with so many women. I really want to champion women because they are incredible at their jobs,” she says.
“I feel bad that young girls aren’t getting the opportunity to even go for that or even understand that there is something else in this industry other than being a pop star in hotpants. There is, and they are incredible jobs and they are so much fun and these women inspire me on a daily basis by how hard they work and how clever they are. There isn’t just one job in this industry and there’s not one kind of songwriter. The people consuming the music are predominantly young girls and the majority of writers are old white men. I find it weird.”
Even if young musicians do just want to focus on being front and centre as an artist, Ridings feels they’re being fed a false impression of what’s on offer, using Billie Eilish as an example of what can happen when talent is allowed to flourish. “There’s a bubbling anger and rebellion in young girls where they aren’t seeing themselves in their role models,” she says.
“And you have someone like Billie who’s so witty and dark and mischievous. If you want to go on stage, wearing the baggiest jumpers and singing the coolest songs, you can do that. There’s this idea of what it means to be a pop star and it shouldn’t be about how much you weigh, it should be about what songs you write, but it’s not, sadly.”
The singer has found comfort at independent Good Soldier, which she paints as something of a haven.
“There’s pressure on girls and boys with any kind of major label, the clock is ticking and you have to be successful now. That doesn’t really inspire much authentic creativity, truthfulness or honesty,” she says.
“I think people, especially young girls, are craving that. There’s a kind of dissonance going on where you see what you’re supposed to be and you feel what you actually are, which is super-goofy and imperfect and a bit dark and funny and you think you’re supposed to be kind of… Dull.”
It’s been an extremely busy few years for Ridings, but she makes time to reflect. She gleefully recounts seeing her album in the CD chart in the Sainsbury’s near home with her mum (“We jumped up and down non-stop”) but doesn’t dwell on the excitement, preferring to focus on the fact that “The only other female artists there were Taylor Swift and Beyoncé for The Lion King”.
Why were there more empowered female singer-songwriters in the ’70s than there are now?
She keeps a diary, writing short entries each evening to make sure she “pinpoints the day”.
“You have the overarching goal or dream, but living in the moment helps and the anxiety just dissipates. You feel free to play the show or do the interview with all your heart,” she says. “You’ve got to enjoy it, otherwise what’s the point?”
Ridings is here to reinforce the mighty power of the singer-songwriter, a bedrock of the music world that’s been chipped away at by the trend for multiple writers.
“My idols like Carole King and Joni Mitchell were writing unapologetic, stunning songs and where are [their equivalents] now? she asks. “Why were there more empowered female singer-songwriters in the ’70s than there are now? There’s not the number because they’re not being championed.”
But even with the success she’s experienced so far, things aren’t necessarily getting all that much smoother for Ridings. “There’s a lot of pressure on everyone in this industry to perform. It’s a subliminal thing, they [men] see that we have less power overall and assume…” she tails off, before continuing.
“I thought that once you reached a certain level of achievement a magical door would be opened, but there are still shut doors even for me, and I want to prove that you can be a female artist who is unapologetically themselves and writes their own stories and their own destiny.”
Bringing the subject of her family up (they’re never far from her thoughts) Ridings says she “was brought up to be a person, not really a girl”, adding that “there’s a huge part of me that’s incredibly proud to be such a feminist”.
She’s slowly acclimatising to the idea that her increasing profile means she’s in a position to make an impact.
“It’s going be better but only if we make a conscious effort. I can’t really describe it yet, but I want to start some kind of initiative, an in-school or after school programme for playing instruments and writing songs,” Ridings says. “The only reason I do that is because my dad did it and said it was the norm. But girls think the norm is being a singer with a male guitarist next to them singing covers. That will not get you where you think it will, it won’t empower you.”
Our teas are long since finished, and as the conversation winds down, it’s clear that Ridings believes that her story happened for a reason. “I never thought this would happen, but suddenly you realise that those difficult moments where you get told that your voice doesn’t matter in the studio suddenly now have this effect, like, ‘I can change that, I can help,’” she finishes.
“That’s probably one of the biggest honours there is, especially when you get sent videos of a little five-year-old singing your song. It’s the idea that you can rebuild yourself from the ruins of what people expect you to be. You can come back and be something 5,000 times truer to yourself.”
Freya Ridings’ days in the wilderness are long gone.