RAYE on the Success of 'Escapism' and Hoping Listeners Find 'Solace' in Her Vulnerable New Album

The U.K. musician tells PEOPLE about the journey to releasing My 21st Century Blues, which addresses personal experiences with stifled creativity, substance abuse, sexual assault and body dysmorphia

RAYE on the Success of 'Escapism' and Releasing Her Debut Album After Years in Record Label Limbo
RAYE. Photo: Callum Walker Hutchinson

RAYE's been waiting her entire life to release a debut album — but she never expected to have to fight as hard as she did in order to put it out into the world.

After years of scoring massive hit songs in the U.K. with EDM tracks that she "didn't connect to as an artist," the 25-year-old British singer-songwriter had to publicly campaign to be dropped from her record label. Now, as an independent artist, she's scored a worldwide smash with "Escapism" off her captivatingly soul-baring debut album My 21st Century Blues, which dropped Friday.

"I was 10 years old when I committed and decided, 'I'm going to be a musician. This is what I'm going to do with my life. I just need to find a way to get there,'" RAYE (born Rachel Keen) tells PEOPLE. "That same hunger is definitely seeing me through these years, for sure."

Born and raised in London, the musician began writing songs as a child and attended the famed arts-focused BRIT School — where Adele and Amy Winehouse also studied — before dropping out in her early teen years to become a professional songwriter. It was a sound decision, as she was signed to Polydor Records at age 17 with a full R&B album written and ready to go. She quickly learned, however, that the company had a different idea for her career.

RAYE on the Success of 'Escapism' and Releasing Her Debut Album After Years in Record Label Limbo
RAYE. Callum Walker Hutchinson

"I was approached with 'By Your Side' by Jonas Blue, which was my first big EDM hit or whatever. I didn't connect to it personally, as an artist, but everyone around me thought it was the best thing to do," recalls RAYE, who soon found herself notching platinum-selling dance hits like "You Don't Know Me" with Jax Jones, "Secrets" with Regard and "Bed" with Joel Corry and David Guetta.

Along the way, executives continuously promised she'd soon be able to release an album. But she then learned through a trusted manager that Polydor Records was going to block the project's release if her 2021 solo single "Call on Me" didn't perform well on the charts. "I just freaked, and I flipped, and I just lost it completely," says RAYE. "I understand from a business perspective what makes money, but it compromised my initial intention of wanting to release bodies of music and be creatively free to express whatever I felt like I wanted to share."

The performer decided to take matters into her own hands by posting on social media and telling publications about the situation, which prompted Polydor Records to terminate her contract in July 2021. She's since moved forward as an independent artist and made peace with the situation.

"I don't wish any evil things for any of that time in my life. I just felt gaslit for so long. Like, I'm not crazy," explains RAYE. "I had to do some real soul-searching and serious therapy sessions. But I'm feeling, on reflection, that everything happens how it's supposed to happen."

Raye - My 21st Century Blues Album Artwork
RAYE. Human Re Sources

Shortly after leaving the label, she began working on My 21st Century Blues, a collection of 15 songs written before, during and after the label drama that reference personal experiences with stifled creativity, substance abuse, sexual assault and body dysmorphia, among other topics.

"As someone who struggled with a lot of different subjects in silence and on my own, for this album I really wanted to lift the lid on the smoke and mirrors that even I felt like I needed to uphold for so many years," she says. "To be honest, some of the stuff I'm discussing, some of my closest friends don't even know — which is weird because I'm an open book."

Letting her guard down to write through dark moments has already paid off with flying colors. The album's third single, "Escapism" with rapper 070 Shake, recently went mega-viral on TikTok and became RAYE's first-ever No. 1 single as a lead artist in the U.K. as well as her first song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. It's a level of success she never expected to see without the support of a major record label in her corner.

"I prepared myself, before we started releasing music from this new chapter, to remove any desire or goal for chart success," she says. "I'm still trying to figure out how to process everything that's happened because I blinked, and then everything just started happening so fast. It's so validating."

"Escapism" started as a title and story in RAYE's mind about turning to substances in order to cope with difficult situations. Created at a residential studio in Utah, the song came to life when producer Mike Sabath played a beat so fitting for the concept that she had to step out of the room to process what she'd heard. "I was like, 'Holy s—, guys. Give me one second.' I went to the bathroom and said, 'Dear God. This beat slaps. Help me write something so lit on this. Amen,' she recalls. "I remember being like, 'This, I think [070] Shake would murder.'"

About a month after writing the song, the 25-year-old rapper met RAYE at a studio in Los Angeles to add her verse, sparking a fruitful creative relationship between the two artists. "I've learned so much from RAYE just from working together and experiencing her artistic expression. She has a beautiful spirit and is someone that's very easy to make music with," 070 Shake (born Danielle Balbuena) tells PEOPLE about the song, which marks her first-ever Hot 100 hit as well. "It's been crazy seeing how many people have connected with the track."

Elsewhere on My 21st Century Blues, a ballad called "Ice Cream Man" finds RAYE opening up about her experiences with sexual assault, including a time when a music producer tried to take advantage of her during a studio session. "I'm a woman / I'm a very f—ing brave strong woman / And I'll be damned if I let a man ruin / How I walk, how I talk, how I do it," she declares on the emotional and empowering track, which still "melts" her to this day.

RAYE on the Success of 'Escapism' and Releasing Her Debut Album After Years in Record Label Limbo
RAYE. Callum Walker Hutchinson

"The statistics are insane. One in four women and men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, and that alone speaks so clearly to the amount of people processing or healing from these traumas," she says. "That's been the most difficult song for me to share and sing, but also the most powerful. I've had hugs with women, like, 'Come here, let me just cry during this session.' It's deep, but that's what music is."

RAYE's already seen audiences connect with the song on a U.K. arena tour with Lewis Capaldi, and she'll continue to perform the album on her own global headline tour as well as a U.S. opening slot for Kali Uchis later this year. While the material on My 21st Century Blues isn't exactly easy to share with strangers, it's been a cathartic experience for the musician, who hopes listeners will walk away from listening to the record with a better understanding of who she is.

"This music is so medicinal to me, and I hope that anyone who needs a specific song is able to find some peace or solace within the album," says RAYE. "I think music, on the whole, is escapism for us. I listen to music to escape or elevate out of anything. That's one of the most important purposes of music — to feel good, sad or aided in processing any necessary emotion."

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or go to rainn.org.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, please contact the SAMHSA helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.

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