Complete Control: The Renaissance Of Rita Ora

Our issue 97 cover feature…

There’s a steely determination behind Rita Ora’s success that is apparent the moment I meet her. The platinum-selling artist, model, fashion designer and actress is on set, ravaged by jetlag, yet fulfilling her cover shoot duties admirably, radiating throughout.

Six hours and as many costume changes later she finally escapes in pursuit of sleep. In the last two days she has returned from working in the US to perform in Europe, and then flew straight into London with little approaching a break. Tomorrow is all booked up. The following day we’ll meet for an interview before she’s whisked off elsewhere. She battles through, affording full attention to everything and everyone, enduring the pace with little objection.

It’s this resolve that has propelled the west Londoner to platinum-selling status, seen her conquer the fashion world and make incursions into film, despite constant intrusions into and scurrilous rumours about her private life. This is a woman who knows what she wants, and is paying the price – for better or worse – for daring to achieve it.

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It’s not like I’m completely dismissing the first record, because for me it was fun… [but] I’ve definitely grown up a bit…

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Her 2012 debut album ‘Ora’ was the culmination of a five-year journey, which truly gained momentum upon her signing to Jay Z’s Roc Nation in 2009. It called upon reliable hitmakers (Drake, Diplo, will.i.am, Chase & Status) to craft a brassy introduction to a defiant young singer, but its polished precision split critical opinion. While The Independent assuredly suggested she was Britain’s answer to Rihanna, The Guardian implied it lacked the Barbadian’s authority. With a wall built between the two fractions already, Rita attempted to demolish it brick-by-brick, sending the album to number one, along with three of its singles: ‘R.I.P.’, ‘How We Do (Party)’, and the DJ Fresh track, ‘Hot Right Now’. Two years later, she’s still chipping away the barricade.

When Clash finally sits down with a refreshed and restored Rita, she welcomes the opportunity to review her progress since the debut, and enthuse on her own development as an artist that has brought her to album two.

“I recorded my last album when I was 18 and I didn’t release it until I was 21,” she explains, “so three years already living on that album - to me I was already in a different place when I released [it]. I was also desperately trying to record new music when I was doing promo and doing my first shows. I obviously didn’t have time to record them, but I’ve always kept them in my mind. So it’s been a gradual process from then on ’til now.”

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‘How We Do (Party)’, from ‘Ora’

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A month or so ago, while speaking with Rita for our In The Works piece, she told me the difference between her new album and her first is that “there’s definitely more of me on there”. Did the delay of her debut remove her from its personal relevance?

“It represented me, but it wasn’t me relating to it – because that was me, but it was just two years late. It’s not like I’m completely dismissing the first record, because for me it was fun – it was amazing fun. Like, ‘Party And Bullshit’ (sic), ‘Hot Right Now’, ‘R.I.P.’: these were records that changed my life, so I’m never going to dismiss them.

“I’ve definitely grown up a bit, but I’m not a completely different person, I’ve just experienced a bit more: I’ve been in a relationship, I’ve seen what happens to people, I’ve even seen the drug life [around me]. Being around music is a scary place, you see how it really changes people, so I’ve experienced a lot of things - being around it all just kinda woke me up.”

In those two years, the missives from the dark side of the wall focused on such experiences, affording Rita the regular displeasure of watching the Daily Mail drag skeletons out from her closet into their Sidebar of Shame. Just a week before our interview, her split with DJ/producer boyfriend Calvin Harris became prime tabloid fodder, the circumstances behind the break-up playing out over Twitter. These extra-curricular distractions are fuel to the fire of those who undermine her accomplishments, but the negative press doesn’t faze Rita.

“I never take that seriously,” she sighs. “I never think that people even remember it after a week or so. I think press like that is just tabloid stuff. There’s reality and then there’s fish and chip paper – you use it as fish and chip paper the next day. That to me always comes and goes. I pick my battles with things like that; I never really want to respond or have a response, because it’s not necessary. You’ve got to pick your battles in this world and I think that is definitely not one of them.”

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I’ve always put out the truth. I’m a very honest person…

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There’s no question that Rita’s reputation has been distorted by (other corners of) the media – certainly, they’ll focus on her partying and relationships ahead of her music – but in person she’s absolutely absorbed in her vocation and comes across as completely professional, charming and intensely obsessed with her aspirations. This is the side she has always strived to put across, and to this end feels that any misrepresentation has not originated from her.

“I’ve always put out the truth. I’m a very honest person. The way I dress is really who I am, the way I say things is how I am, my videos, my interviews… I’m real honest. I don’t sugarcoat anything. If I’m not going to be honest then I won’t answer the question. I’d rather not answer something than tell a lie. I don’t think I’m misinterpreted.”

Her tenacity and focus is to be admired. It’s what thrust her from the charts to the catwalks, from advertising clothes to designing them. She’s constantly moving steadily forward, and has a tight grip on the reins.

“If you don’t take control of your own creativity – especially in this industry – you’re just going to get swallowed up because you’re basically putting your vision into someone else’s hands, and nobody understands your vision more than you do.”

She adds that she learned her lesson after getting lost in the advice of others: “I forgot what I wanted to do, and then I just kinda woke up. I think you can tell as well over the years that I’ve just really adapted into my own skin. I say no to things now, and I never used to. ‘No’ is a very difficult world to get into because you think you’re going to offend somebody or they might not re-book you or they might not want you to perform for them or whatever, but it’s good to say no, because then you remind yourself of what your grounds are. It’s not that you have limits, it’s that you have grounds of who you are, and if you don’t put out who you are in this industry then you’re just gonna get washed away by someone else.”

Asserting control, however, runs the risk of crossing that fine line between being industrious and being an arsehole. Where does Rita stand on this slippery precipice?

“When people think that you’re an arsehole or that you’re difficult, it means that you’re doing something right,” she grins. “There’s a way of being an arsehole and there’s a way of standing for your artistic integrity: that’s two different arseholes, you see what I mean? You’re not being an arsehole to someone personally – I mean, obviously there’s a way you speak to people always. There’s a form of gratitude you always have to show, and that comes from my upbringing from my parents: they’ve always told me to be very respectful until disrespected. Being an arsehole doesn’t necessarily mean being rude to people, it just means you might have to fight for what you believe in.”

“If you want to be that arsehole, you better deliver the goods,” she adds. “You put your money where your mouth is.”

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‘I Will Never Let You Down’

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Which brings us neatly to album number two, and the effort, attention and identity that has been woven into it. Prior to our interview, I had only heard four new pieces of music, including the Calvin Harris-produced preview single ‘I Will Never Let You Down’, an affirmative yet perhaps ill-timed declaration of unity, and new single ‘Get A Little Closer’, an impassioned plea for intimacy. They immediately suggest a more subjective voice than that on ‘Ora’ – compare the brash sexuality of ‘Crazy Girl’ (“Get up on me / Grind me faster”) or the strutting juvenile insolence of ‘Roc Da Life’ (“Kick a mother*cker to the cizzurb”) to the latest singles, and though they share an unyielding defiance that’s distinctive of Rita, the heart-on-sleeve poignancy of the more recent fare suggests she’s ready to let her vulnerabilities show.

“I’m still the crazy person that loves to have a party, and I always want to make people happy, and I wanted this album to really represent that but also have a vulnerability to it. It doesn’t always have to be about being in a club or popping bottles, it’s more of talking about emotions in a good way.”

As if to illustrate further, Rita opens up her laptop, intent on playing me new favourites. “This is another one I did the other day,” she begins. “I don’t know if I’ll use it for the album, I’m just playing you things that I’m vibing.” A simple stabbing synth line and piano chords give way to Rita’s vocals, and a heartening verse of determination – “If we fall we won’t die in vain / We will live forever more,” she sings, as the backing rises and climaxes with the payoff: “And we’ll be unforgettable”.

She clicks the song off, with a flash of pride across her face. “There’s one other song that I’ve got, which I have to play you,” she enthuses. “It’s called ‘Poison’.” It starts with a tender piano progression, before Rita breathlessly emotes: “I wake in my bed / Open up my eyes and / For a nanosecond / I don’t remember… You / I open up my windows / I’m so sick of breathing / Every day I’m trying / But I don’t remember…who I was before you came”.

“This is about my bad luck with love,” she admits, staring intently at the screen, before dismissing her recent dramas with a laugh. Sharp percussion enters with dark strings as the chorus builds in intensity and the lyrics become even more direct: “Like a serpent / From the Garden of Eden / Feel the love that I’m breathing / You are like poison / Running in my blood”. She is noticeably moved by the performance, and cuts the song short.

It’s powerful and exposing – I recall to Rita feeling the same incredulity upon hearing ‘Someone Like You’ for the first time, debuted by Adele in her own apartment, already nervous about putting the song – and its naked emotions – out there. Rita gets goose bumps. “It’s either you want to share the music and help people or you want to keep it in and do it for yourself,” she considers. “Thank God she put it out!”

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‘Get A Little Closer’, live at Radio 1’s Big Weekend, Glasgow

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A final exclusive gets lined up. Yesterday, I heard ‘Pink Champagne’, the product of the much-reported collaboration between Rita and Prince – or so I thought. “I’m gonna play you another one, which he just sent me yesterday,” she beams. “It is really fun.” The sparkling pop gem I’d previously heard had been moulded into a lithe R&B teaser, with Rita’s voice, reaching up a pitch higher, sounding sweet yet susceptible. “I prefer the hits / You prefer your misses,” the song goes, as Rita sings along, articulating the lyrics and sentiment, “It’s time to say goodbye / To the champagne kisses”.

“I was completely shocked that Prince would even know my name,” Rita confesses. “I was thinking to myself, ‘I cannot believe I’m in Minneapolis in Paisley Park making music with a walking legend.’ He plays everything, he’s got all these instruments, and he still looks fabulous. He’s a 360(-degree) work of art. He’s literally a walking work of art.”

After only a day of toiling, she says, he has amassed a trove of alternate takes. “He just sends me these different versions,” she explains, “and I love all of them and I don’t know which one to pick! But that’s how you know he is so creative: he takes a song and sends them to me as different interpretations. It’s just incredible.”

Prince is joined on the album by contributions from Charli XCX, Dev Hynes and Switch, among others, but the collaborations feel more organic, less incongruous, than on ‘Ora’. Rita has concentrated her objectives into a trusted, handpicked roster of writers and producers to create a consummate work that’s wholly representative of her.

“It’s the chemistry,” she says of her selection process, “and you feel that through the music. I mean, people know when something is not real. It’s like, ‘Okay, she spent half-an-hour in the studio recording a song that somebody wrote for her.’ I don’t want that impression, you know? And I don’t think you’ll get that [from this album]. It’s all about leaving an impression, a legacy.”

Already thinking long-term, the 23-year-old is building that legacy upon efforts to expand beyond music. Her tentative acting career will no doubt persist following her appearance on the big screen as Mia, the sister of protagonist Christian Grey in the long-awaited film adaptation of 50 Shades Of Grey. Meanwhile, she is most eager to prove her mettle in the fashion world.

Initial professional forays included campaigns for Calvin Klein and Madonna’s label, Material Girl, while Rita’s increased attendance of catwalk shows and collections – not to mention her rapport with “wifey” Cara Delevingne – has led to a raised awareness and interest from both parties. A chance meeting with Donna Karan developed into a friendship, which eventually saw Rita announced as the first ever celebrity face of a DKNY fragrance. More recently, Rita revealed the first shots of her stunning Marilyn Monroe-inspired shoot as the face of Robert Cavalli’s AW14 collection.

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I’m really lucky to be accepted into the fashion world… [but] if you can do it, why wouldn’t you…

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“I’m really lucky to be accepted into the fashion world and to have them want me to do a campaign,” she reflects. “I wouldn’t say no to something if creatively it makes sense, and just because I’m a singer it doesn’t mean I can’t venture out to other creative worlds like fashion or movies, because it all intertwines at the end of the day. And if you can do it, why wouldn’t you?”

The latest advancement in Rita’s perceptive desire for experimentation was the opportunity to collaborate with Adidas and design five personalised capsule collections. The sportswear giant brought Rita to their German base for a rummage through their archives and a schooling in the regulations of sports design, before giving the singer freedom to follow her instincts.

As our conversation turns to her brand debut, Rita excitedly jumps up from her seat to procure a suitcase full of her self-devised wares. Patterned jumpsuits with see-through sides are pulled out, followed by vivid sweatpants, a swimsuit, and sneakers, each emblazoned with a unique ‘O’ signature tag.

“This first collection was inspired by pastel colours, my tattoos, and my obsession with motorbike gear,” Rita reveals of the distinctly feminine set. “I wanted the girls to be really comfortable but still be crazy like me,” she adds, regarding the bold colours and prints. Considering her obvious delight with the collection, Rita admits the partnership shows the world just “a taste of me, but not giving them all of me yet,” suggesting her own independent line in the future is not out the question.

It’s a privileged position she finds herself in, but Rita is far from ungrateful for the opportunities coming her way. “I surprise myself because it’s always been a dream, and I never forget that I used to be in my council flat in Ladbroke Grove, sharing a room with my sister, in my single bed dreaming about doing this. I never take it for granted, that’s why I focus on it so hard: because I really want it to be great. I can only do the best that I can do, but if I put my name to it, it has to be great otherwise I will never forgive myself.”

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This career is the best career I could ever have dreamed of having…

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Crediting her doctor mum and pub landlord dad for the work ethic she inherited (they fled an intolerable ethnically-divided and oppressed Kosovo in 1991, seven years before the Kosovo war, to pursue a better life for their children in the UK), Rita admits her accomplishments are as much a reward for them as it is for her. That there have been so many, however, is due purely to the stamina, enterprise and conviction of Rita herself, a woman firmly in control of her career.

Returning momentarily to the press intrusions and negative attitudes of her haters as we conclude our conversation, I ask if her hectic and ever-expanding itinerary is a deliberate diversion to prevent her private life being further divulged, and whether consequently work becomes all consuming at the expense of it.

“I put my work life first because I’m 23 and by the time I’m 30 I want to have a secure career where I can maybe start a family,” she confides. “So my personal life and everything that I do for myself as Rita, the girl that’s 23, you gotta make a sacrifice and do that at a time when you’re ready. On the one hand, yeah, it’s not fair because you want to live your life, but I’m kinda living my life: this career is the best career I could ever have dreamed of having, so that’s it really.”

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Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Mark Kean
Fashion: Lola Chatterton

Rita Ora is online here. Her second album will be out when it's ready.

Buy issue 97 of Clash magazine directly from us, if you like.

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