Guest post by Rachel Grate of Next Big Sound
What if we looked at today’s most promising new artists from a super nerdy, almost scientific level, zeroing in on the elements that make up their musical DNA? That’s the exact thinking behind Anatomy of an Artist, our new interview series that might just be the geekiest interview series around. Using data from Pandora’s Genome Project — an analysis that assigns 450 musical attributes to each and every song on Pandora — we’ll look at the genres, moods and sounds that define up-and-coming artists, and talk to them about the influences that shaped these sounds.
Our first subject? R&B singer-songwriter Ravyn Lenae. The Chicago native is currently one of the artists on the Pandora Predictions Chart, which uses social growth to predict the up-and-coming artists who are most likely to make their debut on the Billboard 200 Chart in the next year. The chart has previously been home to the likes of Dua Lipa, Khalid and SZA, so it’s not a bad place to be.
Ravyn Lenae Washington got a very early start. She was only 17 when she released her debut EP, Moon Shoes, which eventually caught the ears of Atlantic Records, who signed her in 2016. Fast forward just one year, and Washington opened for Grammy nominee SZA on her Ctrl Tour. Now, with the release of her third EP Crush on February 9, she’s moving toward household name status with her soft, smooth brand of R&B.
Below, she takes us through the sounds and influences that shape her music, and what fans will hear on her new EP, Crush, out now.
1. Soft Vocals
Ravyn Lenae’s R&B isn’t anything like the R&B of, say, Alicia Keys. Unlike big-voiced singers like Keys or Mary J Blige, Washington’s voice coos rather than belts.
“I’ve always had a very soft, breathy voice,” Washington says. “I remember when I was younger and was first beginning to sing thinking that, Oh I’m less of a singer because I’m not belting. But I value the artist that can sing a note straight and it be beautiful instead of being so busy with it, because if you can sing a pure tone and it sound beautiful that means you’re a great singer. So I had to kind of step back and realize that I’m not less of a singer — I’m just a different kind of singer.”
2. Soul Influences
Among the many genres that you’ll hear listening to Ravyn Lenae, the most influential — according to the data, at least — is soul.
“I grew up listening to the legends — Erykah Badu, OutKast — very soulful artists,” Washington says. “They had a lot to do with the soul aspect of my music.” (Not coincidentally, Badu comes up as one of top-spinning artists on Ravyn Lenae’s Pandora station, along with other soul- influenced acts like SZA and Solange.)
3. Love-ly Lyrics
More than lyrics of anger or politics, Ravyn Lenae chooses love. While her songs run the gamut in mood — from the introspective, downtempo “Unknown” to the danceable, uptempo “Free Room”— one thing is constant: Love is the most common subject. But it isn’t alway the romantic love she’s singing about.
“People have been writing love songs since the beginning of time. It’s just such a big theme in human life and human nature that it’s hard not to come back to that,” she says. “Even if it’s love in not a romantic way — love for nature, or for a friendship — I think our lives kinda revolve around that theme. I try to approach it in a different way and write about it in a not so obvious way.”
4. Major Chords
While Ravyn Lenae’s catalog has many songs with minor chords, on the whole, Washington has historically gravitated toward major harmonies.
“I don’t think i do it intentionally, but a lot of my music does have those uplifting, happy themes,” Washington says. “But I also feel like I do have a lot of songs in minor chords too — to balance it out with something mysterious, deep and thoughtful, in a different way than the major chords.”
5. Up Next? A More ‘Live’ Sound
While Washington’s catalog up until now has been heavily synthetic, she made a notable departure on Crush. Lead single “Sticky,” for example, is a funk-influenced song with a heavy guitar presence. (Crush is a collaborative EP with The Internet guitarist and producer Steve Lacy. )
“Fans of mine are definitely going to get a more live sounding production,” she says. “I know in the past I’ve done more techno sounds but Crush definitely has a more of a live, natural sound.”