When her vivid songs exploded on TikTok last year, Rachel Chinouriri took flight as a thrilling prospect for the UK. With her first single of 2023, Maybe I'm Lonely, racking up the streams, we meet the singer to tell a powerful story of escapism through music…
WORDS: ANNA FIELDING
I’m throwing around every idea possible,” says Rachel Chinouriri. “This is the first time in 12 months I’ve been able to slow down. When I’m chaotic there are no songs, but when I slow down they start to come.”
Given that Chinouriri already has a BRIT Rising Star nomination and a place on the BBC Sound Of 2023 poll under her belt, this creative burst is very good news. Make no mistake, she is fully focused on making one of the most anticipated debut albums of the year right now.
“Music is therapeutic for me,” says the 24-year-old singer-songwriter.
“I’ve always been a bit of a wallflower and found it difficult to express what I’m feeling. But since I was quite young I’ve been able to do that in songs.”
She is spending long hours in the studio, where her writing is taking on new directions. The intensity of her process is clear and her innermost thoughts are right on the surface as she takes a break for our interview.
“I’ve written about boys quite a lot in the past, about feelings,” she says. “But I’m branching out now. There are stories from friends, some more political things. Being an adult and earning money, I’ve started to realise the effect politics has on all our lives… Look at the reversal of Roe v Wade [ruling against the right to abortion] in the US. The regulation of women’s bodies by men... So many things have angered me.”
The feelings she refers to in her previous work were on full display in So My Darling, the sweetly tender song she wrote and recorded in her bedroom when she was 17. Back in 2018, it was enough to catch ears across the industry and to be picked up by BBC Radio 1.
The following year she released the Mama’s Boy EP via Marathon and an electronic-flavoured follow-up Four° In Winter arrived in 2021, but the spotlight started shining brighter when So My Darling resurfaced on TikTok at the beginning of last year.
Chinouriri was already a heavy user of the app, recalling that she would post about four times a day “just me doing stupid stuff, dumb, funny videos, people would comment saying, ‘Why is this girl always on my For You page?’” When she posted her own song, the reactions were slightly different, with one user asking her to make it a sound on the app. “I did and it blew up to proportions that I was actually slightly confused about because I’d never had that happen before,” she says. The numbers continued to rack up and Chinouriri now has almost 19 million likes on the platform, which is serious real estate for a breaking act.
“I couldn’t say there’s a formula with TikTok, the kids are in charge,” says the singer, who built on the exposure with last May’s effervescent Better Off Without EP. She now has more than 1.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify.
Chinouriri grew up in Croydon and her musical education started early.
“It was quite a Christian house, so it was either Christian music or African music,” she says. “And if my parents did go out, well, I’ve got four older siblings so I didn’t get much say in what we were playing. They liked Channel U, so it was all grime and rap.”
Her first real musical awakening came when she heard Coldplay’s A Rush Of Blood To The Head. “It was one of the first indie records I’d come across and I hadn’t ever heard anything like it before,” she says of the three-million selling 2002 classic by her future label mates. It was also a record she took refuge in when being “very badly bullied” at school. Trigger warning: what follows is her account of racial abuse, suicidal ideation and self-harm.
“Anything I could hyper-focus on allowed me to get away from the really horrible life situation I was going through,” she says. “It was one aspect of joy in a very dark time. I was one of about 10 Black kids in the whole school. I was called the n-word on the first day, I was called slave, I was pushed into walls and spat on. It was one of the most degrading human experiences I have had in my life. To this day, I think I will probably never really heal from it.”
Initially, Chinouriri tried to deal with the situation herself. Her father was ill and her mother was working long hours.
“I was suicidal,” she says. “I was looking online at kids who were in similar positions who had killed themselves. I was doing stupid self-harm things. One day I came home and couldn’t hide it on my face. I burst into tears.”
It was only after an intervention from her mother that one of Chinouriri’s main tormentors was expelled. She still chose to leave the school and sat her GCSEs elsewhere and was encouraged by her teachers to apply for the BRIT School for her post-16 education. She got in, and her classmates included none other than Olivia Dean, Cat Burns and Dreya Mac.
But even in these happier times, she says she was still stereotyped because of her skin colour, that people would expect her music to be rooted in R&B.
“It felt like a losing battle,” she remembers. “I spent so long trying to conform. And then it was my little indie song that I wrote when I was 17 that blew up. I should have stayed with my sound all along.”
Chinouriri’s convictions are boosted by the supportive team around her, headed by her manager, Duncan Ellis of Atlas Artists. She is signed to Parlophone via its label partnership with Atlas.
“They have worked so hard to keep me calm in times of anger and to work through the pigeonholing,” she explains. “They are the one group of people who have always said, ‘Make the music you want.’”
The Parlophone/Atlas joint venture allows her to create with total freedom.
“If your CEO is also your manager, then you know they have your best interests in mind,” she says. “It’s also less daunting to speak with the heads of the label and I’m also not in a position where people are making decisions for me. You don’t have to fight to be seen because your manager is already obsessed with you.”
And the world looks set to follow suit in becoming obsessed with Chinouriri, too. Her as-yet unnamed debut will see to that. “It’s going to be very, very indie, which makes me so excited,” she says. She also reveals a plan “to become the best performer I’ve ever been,” which is as much a personal goal as a career one.
“If you give people a good show you’ll always be memorable,” she concludes, heading back to the studio. For Rachel Chinouriri, the memory making starts here...
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