“Based on my Twitter, people definitely won’t know that I’m a singer!”, Rachel Chinouriri exclaims over Zoom, as the early morning sun casts a golden hue across her bedroom. “But I just feel like something has to be done about our current state. This is ridiculous.”
For those not already familiar, the 22-year-old is, in fact, many things: a musician, a diehard Coldplay stan, an activist, an ex-musical theatre student, and a newbie TikToker. Her tweets, many of which righteously take a swipe at the continued failings of the UK Government, may even suggest that she is contemplating a pivot into politics, though today, Chinouriri insists otherwise: “I will explore [politics] through my music when I find the confidence,” she says. “Because I feel like I’m not yet educated enough to be able to spit the facts.”
Learning to break through confidence issues isn’t new to Chinouriri. The 22-year-old – who grew up in south London with Zimbabwean parents – has been through something of a personal reckoning in recent years, having overcome her anxieties surrounding performing – “I used to cry on stage!” – in order to share her deeply comforting and introspective songs with the world.
Her debut EP, 2019’s ‘Mama’s Boy’ was an enriching blend of immersive, sumptuous R&B and atmospheric pop stylings, but it is on Croydon-born artist’s latest effort, ‘Four° In Winter’, that her journey to vulnerability truly blooms: through a series of swirling electronic dreamscapes, the young vocalist unravels identity and relationships in ways that she hasn’t dared before.
“Though I’ve been feeling very productive and very happy recently,” she beams, before a burst of warm laughter slips out. “I’m really positive about what lies ahead for me.”
You studied musical theatre at BRIT School to help you overcome your fear of performing. How did this help your development?
It helped me a lot because I was actually quite shy before I started BRIT School. I cried after the first time I had to sing in front of anyone – it was so uncomfortable! But I knew that if I wanted to be a singer I had to get over it. I chose musical theatre because you learn how to sing, dance and act, and how to put on a show, and you learn how to turn into a new character and perform to people. I knew that as a singer, I needed to learn at least the basic skills, so musical theatre really helped me transform into who I am today.
I knew that I had to get a grip and get over myself, otherwise I would end up doing a job that I didn’t want; it took a lot of crying, but I just had to get over it. And then at one point in my second year of BRIT, it just kind of all clicked. I was comfortable at that point, as I realised that no one’s actually judging you even if you hit a funny note; people wanted to be helpful and supportive.
Was there anyone else in your life that encouraged you to pursue music?
My mum, for sure. When I started doing music, she was like: ‘Oh no, you have to go to University, you need a backup plan!’. I guess she just wanted to make sure that I had a plan in place, because she’s an immigrant, and she came here for [her children] to go to university and get good jobs. She has got over it now and understands it, but I think she was more fearful of what would happen.
There was a moment where I was like: “Fuck it, why don’t I just go for it.” And also, my Mum went to uni when she was 34. So I was just like: “Why are you telling me I have to go to uni now? You went to uni in your 30s, and you’ve turned out perfectly fine and have a successful business!”. You just have to go for it and hope for the best.
What would you say you’ve learned about yourself on this journey?
I feel like I’m stronger than what I think I am, and I should believe in myself a little bit more. Sometimes I have looked at myself and thought, “Oh, I’m not doing as well as other people”, but you should never, ever compare yourself to other people. When I was 14, I didn’t even see myself being able to pay my bills. I didn’t even see myself ever having a VEVO channel, or the small things like being on a poster, making my own music videos, and having Spotify pay me – and now I’m here with almost 200,000 monthly listeners! I didn’t think I was going to be able to do this, but I am able to do what I put my mind to, I guess.
Let’s talk about your new EP, ‘Four° In Winter’. How did it come together?
I wanted to show people what I actually want to do. I’ve always been into dark, depressing, sad songs, and electronic sounds. I also want to show my creativity; I want to showcase dance and all the things I’ve learned, and show people what I am capable of. But some of these songs are really old! ‘Plain Jane’ is like three years old, potentially. I just picked the songs which were closer to this dark, melancholic vibe and world that I want to be in.
Thematically, where were you drawing from?
Lots of trauma… Also, I think it is something to do with me being a Scorpio as they are dark, and I’ve always been super dark as a person. Melancholic music is what I connect to; it’s kind of healing in ways. I want music to be a healing tool so when I hear something, I can make a connection with it.
Did you feel any hesitation about being so open about your past?
I don’t think so. I feel like my brain doesn’t process people listening to my music. Even when I had SoundCloud, I would make something, throw it out on the internet and hope for the best. I would then go back to it a month later and be like: “Oh, 50,000 plays!”, but my brain wouldn’t register that figure as people, just numbers.
Sometimes I look at Spotify and I’m kind of like: “OK, this is my little diary of songs that I like.” It doesn’t actually feel like I’m exposing myself to people until I go to a gig and I realise that people have heard these songs. So it doesn’t even it doesn’t feel like I’m putting anything out there – it doesn’t worry me.
What do you want this new EP to say about you as an artist?
I want it to say that I am emotionally available and that I work on dealing with trauma creatively rather than letting it affect me personally. As a person, I am happy; I like laughing and being with friends, and I’m very open to speak about traumatic things, because I’ve tackled them through music and through therapy. I want it to be seen as a healthy sort of vessel, where I’ve managed to encapsulate these things and put them out there to the world.
It seems that people have really connected with the EP’s lead single, ‘Darker Place’. Do you kind of feel any pressure for the rest of these songs to have a similar impact?
I really love the reaction that ‘Darker Place’ has had, and I feel like it will lead people to try and somewhat understand what I’m trying to do. But as much as I love ‘Darker Place’, there’s other songs on the EP and view the project as a whole. I know that different songs have different journeys, and because I understand that, I don’t feel any pressure in how it will be received. I just know if people get it, they’ll get it.
‘Plain Jane’ is also the one song that I constantly talk about as it is my favourite track off the whole EP. And then there’s ‘I.D.R.N’ with Louis Culture, which is another one that’s quite weird and experimental, and the way it came about was also kind of weird. I’m super excited to see how people react to it!
How did that collaboration come about, then?
I had two sessions [with Louis Culture], and he wrote his verse pretty fast, but we kind of left it for ages. My manager, Ben, was actually the one who was like: “Let’s try and make this into something, because I see this being really cool.” At the beginning, I couldn’t see it going anywhere because the song didn’t make sense to me. I was working through the different sections, and I was like: “This isn’t what I planned in my head…”, but after working through it, I saw the vision, and Louis loved it.
Do you have any other dream collaborations?
Coldplay! They’re my favourite band. And Daughter and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, because they are also my other favourite bands in the whole wide world. Other than those three, I would say Master Peace and Sam Fender, and I also wanted to work with Hak Bakar, but we now have a song! Also, Billie Marten – she’s great! But I don’t know how that would work, as we both have whispery, high voices…
Speaking of Coldplay… I know that Chris Martin shared your song ‘So My Darling’ via the band’s Twitter a couple of years ago. How does it feel to know that one of your biggest inspirations is a fan of your music?
Right, I’m not even being dramatic but I almost passed away. It was ridiculous. I was on the train and I made a lot of noise – I almost cried! I called my Mum and I was like: “Mum! COLDPLAY!”, and she responded with “Who’s Coldplay?”. I literally couldn’t believe it. Someone sent me a screenshot of the tweet and I thought it was fake, but then I started getting more people sending it to me, and I was like, “There’s no way this is real right now!”.
Coldplay, like, saved my life. I was 13 and going through that the worst time ever as I was in a racist secondary school, but Coldplay was one thing that kept me going. I have this love and connection with Coldplay that is just endless, and no one can ever change my mind. I don’t care what music that they put out; I don’t want to hear a single thing about them that is bad.
What is it about Coldplay that has always appealed to you, especially during such hard times?
I feel like the simplicity of their songs and the way in which their lyrics are written is what I like. I struggle to understand cryptically-written thing and because their songs are so straight up, they make you think about what they’re saying. That’s what I was drawn to the most; they tell the story in its simplest form, but with a great melody and a great instrumental. You always understand what you’re getting from their songs, which I just love.
Is that something you try to apply to your own music?
100%. I think with the storytelling on ‘So My Darling’, I tried to make it very simple and as honest as possible. I can definitely say that the structure of [Coldplay’s] music has had a great influence on my own.
Obviously, we can’t go without mentioning that your Subculture collaboration ‘The River Bend’ was used in I May Destroy You. How did you react to finding out that Michaela Coel had chosen your song for her series?
I didn’t quite understand it to begin with! I started seeing the promo and I was like: “This is the show that my song is going in?!” – I used to use Michaela Coel’s monologues in BRIT School for my assessments! And then I watched it, and it’s not even like she used five seconds of the song; she used it at such a pinnacle point in the show. It was intense, but it worked out perfectly with the scene.
For a song that we made, which I thought was going to be such a controversial song, to be used to tell such a story that was impacting so many people blew my mind. I also thought that the whole series was just amazing. I feel like Michaela has always been incredible in the way that she works and acts, and makes things funny in a way that still passes on so many important messages. She shows how things are still fucked up in plain view – I just think that she is a genius.
Why were you worried that the song was going to be controversial?
The song is about people stereotyping Black people. It’s very different to what I usually write; it shouldn’t even be controversial but it’s a topic that people struggle to speak about, and have many opinions about. It worked out in the right way and the reaction I thought it was going to get isn’t the reaction that it got – it was actually a lot more progressive. It made me happy that the world has progressed to a point where we can speak on these things, and people aren’t going to shut down for it.
Where do things go from here? Are you looking to make an album?
I’m just trying to write as much as possible and work on myself as a performer so that when the world finally goes back to normal, I’m ready. People are going to be like, “Look at this girl!”. I want to make sure I’m at my best in all creative realms, and I can’t wait to see what my first album will be like. I’m very intrigued.
Rachel Chinouriri’s EP, ‘Four° In Winter’ is out on April 23 2021.