I came to know Raia Was from booking her to headline an ongoing concert series I curate in collaboration with Soho House called Future Female Sounds. It was summer 2019, and Was was about to release Side A of her debut album Angel I’m Frightened. Upon meeting her, I was taken aback by her open, bubbly, yet professional demeanor, so different from the serious and often sullen tone of her music. I felt aligned with her – instant kindred spirits. We awkwardly played the “Guess My Age” game, followed by small talk about combating ageism in the music industry as a female artist. With her undoubtedly clear vision as a performer, I was excited to see her live show. Her experimental performance captivated Ludlow House and sparkled with analog textures and emotive lighting. Alluring the crowd through haunting theatrics, her transcendent vocal performance commanded The Velvet Room.
A main lyrical theme in her body of work explores the question: if we all contain many personalities, which one is “true”? She takes intentionally antithetical approaches to addressing this idea, as the record remains in constant conversation with itself. In an era where so little makes sense – Side B of Angel I’m Frightened arrives just in time to ease the duality of our own inner demons and incessant inner monologues.
“You Are” is the first single from Side B, and it’s something of a love song to anxiety – a feeling so familiar one might even miss it when it’s gone. New York currently feels like a temple of angst, as we spend a majority of our time in our minds reflecting the past, present, and uncertainty of the future. “You Are” may be the existential musical backdrop New York (the epicenter of the madness) has been searching for, or patiently awaiting during this time of social distancing and introspection.
AF: As a native New Yorker, has the city influenced or driven your sound and vision?
RW: For sure. I’d say growing up in the city gave me the idea that I could be an artist in the first place. It felt as natural a path as anything else. I also wasn’t afraid to be a weirdo, to have quirky interests, or to stand out. I’d say it has fundamentally influenced my vision for what life can look like.
AF: How did you connect with your ongoing collaborator Autre Ne Veut (Arthur Ashin)?
RW: We met through a friend right as he was getting ready to release Age of Transparency and he asked me to join his band playing keys and singing for that tour. I had just started thinking about my solo project at the time and after the tour he started working on it with me and the rest is history. He has been one of the most important people in my life – musically and otherwise! He is the most generous translator of my ideas, he pushes me when he can tell there’s farther to go, and has such a wide scope of influence that it makes anything feel possible.
AF: Can you discuss the repetition of your music and themes of duality?
RW: I’ve oscillated a lot between being verbose in lyric writing and being super minimal. I think I’m inclined toward the minimal though, because for me certain phrases sort of lose their day to day meaning when you repeat them and the really good ones send me spiraling emotionally to a place I really enjoy performing from. I used excerpts of these repetitive songs in my live shows to get me to that place and eventually started recording them (though they were more slippery to get right on record than the other tracks were). Thematically though, as a whole, the record is not repetitive in character – each song insists on its own narrative, and pitted against each other they lie and contradict. But also it’s all true. We are different versions of ourselves. This record explores the dusty corners of that for me.
AF: Can you discuss packaging all of the cross-disciplinary elements (production, PR, visuals, lighting, live show) as an independent artist?
RW: I find much of the process of translating the vision of this project to be really exciting – especially curating the live show, ironing out all the transitions, creating new textures and diving deep into the primary elements of the music to bring the show to life. At it’s best, PR and social media can do that too, though it’s much harder for me to feel like I’m looking you in the eye in those settings. In my shows I’m building up a ton of courage and so much planning goes into it that I feel like I can really spiral and be in it with you.
AF: Are there other practices in your life that influence your process of making music?
RW: I’m a habit person. If I’m in a good practice of writing and playing music I can stay in that space all day. But it has to be an every day commitment. Otherwise I fall out of it and have to find my way back. I’m also particularly sensitive at the start of my day. If things go too slowly, if the day doesn’t feel empty enough, if I’ve distracted myself for too long, then it’s even harder for me to get started. The practice is sort of the whole thing I guess…
AF: Did you have strong female role models growing up that influenced your career path into music?
RW: Absolutely – I feel very much like a woman raised by women. Though I didn’t necessarily know female (or any?) musicians other than my teachers growing up, I was pretty unequivocally encouraged to create and express myself. Which just feels like the ultimate gift.
AF: Who are your contemporary musical influences, from the underground to the mainstream?
RW: I’ve been listening to Cocteau Twins almost non-stop lately – I often don’t listen to much music when I’m in a writing period because it gets harder to hear my own thoughts but I’ve been clinging to Heaven or Las Vegas for the last month or so. I’ve loved Nilfur Yanya’s last record. Also Jlin! I spent a lot of time with Black Origami. Björk has definitely been an enduring influence for me. And Erykah Badu. And Joni Mitchell.
AF: Let’s talk about your ongoing collaborations with Arthur Moon. How did that come about?
RW: I met Lora-Faye Ashuvud (Arthur Moon mastermind) in 2012 maybe? We’ve been playing together pretty much since the moment we met – I went on the road with her the following year and was a longtime member of the band that turned into Arthur Moon. Even since leaving the group and starting my solo project our musical lives have stayed very intertwined but now we do have more time to just be forever friends.
AF: How have you been coping with social distancing?
RW: Every day is different. Some days the weight of what’s happening keeps me really quiet and slow. Some days I feel like I can make things. I’ve recently thrown myself into a fundraising project compiling unreleased tracks from artists based in NYC to raise money for food relief efforts (more on that soon I hope). I’ve been nervous about my mom and her partner who live in downtown Manhattan and haven’t been outside in three weeks. I sent her an exercise bike.
AF: What advice would you give to women looking to start a music project, or looking to musically reinvent themselves?
RW: Do it. Do everything. Reinvent yourself a million times, no one’s keeping track. And try and keep your blinders on while you do – there are so many things waiting to distract you or cloud your judgement. But if you feel called to this work, please find a way to make it.
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