In Conversation: Jordan Rakei

The songwriter rips up the rule book - and emerges emboldened...

“…I asked myself, what would I actually say right now, if no one was listening?”

Early spring sunlight trickles through the window onto several houseplants, and Jordan Rakei pauses pensively for a second before continuing: “I was writing these songs thinking, it feels too emotional, too sensitive to share. But then I thought, that probably means it’s a good thing. It’s probably way more real.”

He’s talking about his upcoming album, ‘The Loop’, where his soul is laid bare. At the beginning of the interview, I ask how he’s doing. “Excited,” he says. For what? “To introduce a new Jordan to everyone.”

By the time he turned 30, the New Zealand-born, Australia-raised artist already had a fistful of critically acclaimed albums to his name. A master producer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, Rakei’s music is revered for its iconic DIY sound. But in his fifth album he dares to step out in a new direction.  

“When I was younger, I wanted to be Jordan, this really abstract beatmaker,” he explains. “I had a vision of me where I wanted to be. And I was always judging myself, being like ‘is this too pop-y, is this too cheesy’… but with this record, I had no judgement, because I went into it being like, whatever I write is what is inside me.”

Rakei describes the production process: One day he would create a 10-minute ambient tune. The next, an Adele-style ballad. In a two-week stint at London’s RAK studios, he recorded the album with a cluster of handpicked musicians before it was mixed by Ben Baptie. He makes a big claim: “It was the most fun I’ve ever had.” With a string of solo projects under his belt, enlisting others in on the process meant relinquishing creative control. “Someone would suggest something, and I was like, ‘let’s do it.’”

The 31-year-old has released four albums over the last decade. First came the stylish, experimental debut ‘Cloak’ in 2016, followed by ‘Wallflower’, a pack of chilled-out, psychedelic tracks. Rakei’s first album on Ninja Tune Records, it was shortlisted for Best Album at the 2017 Australian Music Prize. Then came 2019’s ‘Origin’, which pits a dystopian nightmare of technology taking over the world against Rakei’s signature funky vibe, before the profoundly personal ‘What We Call Life’ in 2021 which takes a trip into the songwriter’s subconscious. 

And so, ‘The Loop’, gearing for launch on May 10th, will be the fifth addition to Rakei’s eclectic discography. The record marks Rakei’s recent signing to Decca, and Verve Forecast in the US. The title refers to the cycle of being a child, having children, and the relationship of being your parent’s child.  So far, Rakei’s released a trio of solos, teasing what’s to come. 

One of these is the groove-laden ‘Freedom’. Launched as BBC Radio 1’s Hottest Record, it’s steeped in soul, thrilling with the choir’s abrupt cry of “Freedom!” and its skittering hi-hat. “To me, freedom is the absence of dread or sadness and the ability to embrace happiness in life,” Rakei says of the song’s theme. He feels most himself when he’s alone; in the studio, walking his golden retriever Marni, or meditating. These are times he doesn’t have to put on an act. 

In previous interviews Rakei has spoken earnestly about the impacts of meditation and therapy on his songwriting. The book Positive Psychology prompted a journey of self-discovery for the artist, and therapy taught him to see in a “different way with a clearer lens”, digging into topics like his upbringing, school, leaving Brisbane for London and his phobia of birds, which unearthed a fear of the unknown. Rakei’s has also voiced a dream of setting up a retreat centre where musicians are taught the tools of secular mediation to implement into their creative process. 

I’ve just come back from a beautiful silent retreat at a Dharma centre in Devon, so we bond over meditation chat, and I’m fascinated by Rakei’s experience in the Vipassana tradition where the focus is on paying close attention to bodily sensations.

It’s a tradition that seems to have found its way into his writing process: “I would be writing lyrics and being like, do I have a psychological response right now to this lyric? Because if not, it’s probably not strong enough, like, what’s my body telling me?” He also tells me that much of the lyrics came from no-filter journals, written after therapy sessions where he’d delved into worries about being a father.

“I just want to be more similar to me making the music, like, I just want to be real, I want to just say it because then it really is what it is,” he takes great care to explain. “However I write truly is a representation of my subconscious, whereas in the past, it’s [been] easy to hide behind a metaphor. But now I’m just gonna say it.”

Rakei calls meditation a “mental shower”. When meditating these days, he finds he’s less focused on himself as an individual and rather who he is as a father, friend and husband. This is reflected in his music. If ‘What We Call Life’ was a study in introspection, ‘The Loop’ transitions to understanding the self in relation to others. “You are the world, the world is you,” said Indian philosopher Krishnamurti, and Rakei’s latest single, Learning, navigates between the “sad, sad, mysteries” of human suffering and an internal struggle (“It feels easy to run away from the rest of the world”), blending the universal and the personal with velvety falsetto and a clever rhythm. Underpinned by a hypnotic choral chant and wistful strings, it could almost be the opening number to a powerful piece of theatre.

Rakei wrote the song for his son, who’s now two, but had just been born when he started writing ‘The Loop’. “Bringing my son into the world, I’m conscious that there’s a lot I need to teach him,” he opens up, “but also, how much I still have to learn, and how we’re constantly in this state of learning.”

When Rakei talks of his lyrics, he occasionally seems taken aback. Being this vulnerable in his career is never something he would have predicted. The younger Jordan worried about not being cool enough. He felt he had to win the approval of fellow musicians, his mates in Australia and his management. It’s hard to imagine. Surfing the wave of London’s neo-soul scene as a musical polymath seems pretty cool to me. If it isn’t, there’s no hope for the rest of us. “It’s funny,” Rakei muses, “I’ve sent the record to people now, and been like,” he leans forward animatedly, then emphasises: “I don’t care what you think.”

The new music has still been met with positive reception though, he adds. “They can hear I’m just being real, and playful, and fun, and innocent. And so, in a way, they liked it more. It is very freeing. A lot of people just think it sounds really lacking in judgement.”

In one sense, the album is one of growing up, of gaining understanding. But then again, it’s also a ‘stripping away’ of doubt to a childlike honesty. Rakei is more confident than ever before: “It’s just about feeling reassured and content in my choices – not trying to prove anything to anyone, or even me – just trusting whatever came out.”

Either way, his son is his no.1 fan, and you can’t get cooler than that. He still can’t speak, but can sing along to parts of ‘Freedom’, smiling when the song comes on. It’s a big flex – bangers like ‘Ba Ba Black Sheep’ make for tough competition in the toddler market. “I’m trying to play it down with my wife,” Rakei laughs, slightly embarrassed. 

But she also has her own song – and it’s one of his best. Released in October 2023, ‘Flowers’ is a soulful and mellow ballad with an unhurried, intimate melody reminiscent of Radiohead. Granted, it’s also the first love song Rakei’s ever written for her in the eight years they’ve been together. “She only heard it when the song came out actually,” he confesses. “It was a joke between us, that I’d never written one. She was like ‘where’s my song?’”

Around 70% of songs written since the ‘60s are allegedly love songs. Falling in love, then out of it, unconditional love, eternal love, unrequited love, love that’s a light amid darkness, sunshine in rain, and all of that… “I felt I didn’t have anything that’s different from anything that’s ever been written,” says Rakei, understandably. He found love songs “stereotypical,” but let go of this to tell the story of his relationship. An uncomplicated infatuation is infused with concise, vulnerable poeticism: “In a wave, while I drift to sea/ Feel the weightlessness of me/ On a shoulder to which I lean.”

Wearing your heart on your sleeves in the studio is one thing, but on stage it’s another. Recently Rakei had to fight back tears while publicly performing a ballad for his son. “When you try not to cry, you make vocal mistakes,” he says. “Because a lot of my album is very vocal heavy, I need to be grounded to be able to sing it.”

But for the first time in his career, he’ll have live shows “that are real… that are vulnerable”. He’s excited: “I feel like people will see me, not for the first time, but more of me, for sure.” Previously, he’s been protected by the armoury of a double-tiered keyboard and his band members. But now, he wants to be more direct – “less shut up”.

In a way, it’s actually performance that makes his album what it is. In fact, it is a certain performance – one that hasn’t happened yet. I’m talking about Rakei’s sold out Royal Albert Hall show on October 1st this year. “It’s insane,” he shakes his head in disbelief: “It’s insane. Honestly, when I was told that would be our next venue, I was like, ‘no way, there’s no way we can do that’, and then they’re like, ‘Jordan, that’s what you’re doing next.’”

When the news sunk in, he ‘reverse engineered’ the album to match the iconic venue, which has hosted all kinds of superstars from Adele to Eric Clapton to Pink Floyd. “It’s going to be a massive, totally different show,” he pledges, vivaciously painting a picture of 50 people up on stage, including a choir and orchestra, enhanced by insane visuals. 

“It’s a statement for me,” he goes on. “I love all my previous albums, but everything is leading me up to this album. It’s a combination of all my sounds – it’s the soulful Jordan, but on a bigger scale now; it’s the melancholy guitar Jordan, but it’s more developed. This is Chapter Two of my career. This show is the beginning of the new era, so I hope we do well, and I sing in pitch.”

There’s also a European tour to look forward to in summer, as well as Glastonbury, of course. Rakei will play the West Holts stage, which he announced on Instagram as, “bucket list voibeeez”. But it’s not the first time he’s performed at Worthy Farm, making his debut in 2017, before joining Loyle Carner’s set two years later.

Those two have a history of bringing each other up on stage, alongside jazz star Tom Misch. They’ve been a tight-knit trio since Rakei moved to London a decade ago (“I posted on Twitter ‘hey, I’m moving to London, where should I live?’, and Tom replied, ‘southeast London bro”’) and have collaborated on music including Carner’s third album, ‘Hugo’, and the poignant single ‘Ottolenghi’, hailed by Clash as a “low-key triumph”. 

Carner and Misch have savoured career highlights like sold-out shows, Brit Award nominations, and in Misch’s case, counting Barack Obama as a fan. Can things get competitive? “Not really”, shrugs Rakei, who forgets they’re famous until they get recognised on the street. “I love looking at their careers and being like ‘well, he played Brixton, but the next year he played Ally Pally’. It’s like a target to try and climb like them.”

Bringing out your best friends at Britain’s top venues must be crazy. “It honestly is,” Rakei smiles. “You’re hanging out at a show backstage, just laughing or whatever, and then I walk out and I’m at Wembley Arena with 16,000 people and I’m like ‘oh crap. This is like, serious.’”

But things are never too serious for Rakei who has a playful edge. When he first moved to England, he set himself a goal to release five albums before his 30th birthday. He’s smashed this out of the park, but there’s a new challenge for the next decade: a film soundtrack before he turns 40.

It would be cool to do something fun and silly. A big emotional drama would be too easy, he denounces; you just tug at heartstrings with sombre piano music and people will cry. A comedy or animation poses more of a challenge, like what Pharell Williams did for Despicable Me. 

And what’s going on with Rakei’s electronic alter-ego, Dan Kye? “I’m well and truly still on that train”, he promises, with a remix of Muzi’s Queen recently dropped, and, fingers crossed, an album to come. “That’s childlike stuff as well,” he points out. “Dan Kye is a no-judgement-allowed project where I make fun dance music. It’s my one rule – as soon as I start overthinking it, I just end the session.”

‘The Loop’ brings Rakei back to why he fell in love with music in the first place. It is a homage to Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, D’Angelo, A Tribe Called Quest – all the artists he grew up listening to. He’s inspired by the way Stevie Wonder tells stories on stage (“It’s a cop out, because he’s one of my favourite artists”), and he’s also a big fan of British singer-songwriter Cleo Sol. 

“I was so blown away by her naturalness,” he marvels, praising her live performance at the Royal Albert Hall. “There were a couple of songs where they just dropped it right back and she played guitar. I love the energy – no one talked – and it made me realise what’s possible in that sort of venue.”

And how’s he faring in the runup to the album? “Excited,” he says. “You can look at the songs and be like, that’s a cool song, but when you listen to all the different sounds and layers. and the stories… I’m telling you; I really feel like it’s my best album by quite a long way.”

‘The Loop’ is Rakei at his most, well, Rakei. How else to describe an album meant as a complete expression of who you are? It’s raw, it’s cinematic, it’s unflinching, and Rakei can’t wait for the world to hear the whole thing. 

That excitement is infectious. “See you at the Royal Albert Hall,” he grins. 

‘The Loop’ will be released on May 10th.

Words: Amelie Maurice-Jones

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