Cover Story: Getting Lost with Ravyn Lenae

Getting Lost with Ravyn Lenae
To make her sophomore album, Bird’s Eye, the Chicago singer had to move beyond rigid genres, beyond home, and beyond her past.

The Spotify Studios in Downtown Los Angeles shut down at 6 p.m. No exceptions. By then Ravyn Lenae will need to have finished recording a cover of “Killing Me Softly” and a reinterpretation of “Love Is Blind,” a single from her forthcoming second album, Bird’s Eye. Lenae and Spencer Stewart, the multi-instrumentalist and collaborator who has been beside her for the past six months and plays every instrument during today’s session, started with nothing this morning. Since laying down her vocals a few hours ago, Lenae has been sitting on the couch at the back of the control room, gleefully overseeing Stewart and engineer Jack Mason’s increasingly frantic activity. She grimaces with approval at a sitar solo, swiveling her head slowly, beet-red hair brushing against her bomber jacket. “That’s fire,” she says, eyes widening a little before she swigs from a can of La Croix. She hums a backing harmony. Her voice is airy and frictionless, and the sound diffuses into every corner of the control room. Five hours remain.

Bird’s Eye, Lenae’s second album, announced earlier this month alongside “Love Is Blind” and “Love Me Not” and out on August 9 via Atlantic, seems certain to be her breakout moment. Her debut album, 2022’s critically acclaimed Hypnos, was ambitious and dreamy, a moody R&B record with Afrofuturist accents — but still noticeably an R&B record. Bird’s Eye is harder to pin down. The constant is Lenae’s voice, light and lavish and deployed with such control that some producers and engineers compare her tone to Minnie Riperton’s. But beyond that, Lenae jumps from idea to idea, genre to genre, flourish to flourish, incorporating alt-rock, reggae, and funk. Lenae has said that she associates each of her projects with a color. Her debut EP, Moon Shoes, was bright pink and orange, its follow-up Midnight Moonlight was inky blue, and 2018’s Steve Lacy-produced Crush was burning red. Hypnos was a hazy purple. Bird’s Eye is vivid technicolor.

“I had a lot more rules placed on me,” Lenae says of Hypnos while one bar of “Love Is Blind” plays on repeat in the background. “I was like, ‘This is an R&B album. It has to be that.’ I love Hypnos. I think it was amazing for where I was at and what I could do. But unlocking parts of my brain allows me to tap into other things. I feel like I owe it to myself to acknowledge all these parts of me.”

Cover Story: Getting Lost with Ravyn Lenae

Lenae is classically trained. She attended The Chicago High School for the Arts, an hour-long commute north from the South Side home she shared with her mother and two younger sisters. Having chosen vocals as her focus, she read about the major French, Italian, and English composers, enrolled in an opera workshop, and learned music theory. But, like most teenagers, she was embarking on an education in her headphones too, listening to R&B, hip-hop, and indie rock, everything from Brandy to OutKast to No Doubt.

“I listened to so much — so many different artists and different types of music,” she says. “But for some reason, after a while, I felt like I had to limit myself.”

Lenae was intent on transcending those limits on Bird’s Eye, and she found the perfect collaborator in Dahi, the L.A.-based producer behind Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees” and Drake’s “Worst Behavior,” as well as records by Vampire Weekend and Lacy. He employed an unorthodox system that suited Lenae’s restlessness perfectly. Whatever melodies or ideas Lenae walked in with, he’d disrupt with an almost infinite range of beats he kept on hand — usually something that would seem, in isolation, incompatible with her first idea. Lenae talks about those beats with a sense of wonder and excitement that brings to mind a kid talking about Disneyland.

One track on the album, “Dream Girl,” for example, started out with a carefree and calm country guitar and wistful vocals before Dahi added what Lenae describes as “Prince drums,” a compressed and punchy sound that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Sign o’ The Times. Together, he and Lenae built these songs as though dressing a Sim, cycling through different shoes until finding something that worked with the shirt. In this case, it was cowboy boots and a silk blouse.

For Stewart, who came in as a co-producer, co-writer, and new creative voice after Lenae and Dahi had built most of the record, the attempt to pull back from what was expected — “going right up to the line of being a genre” without ever breaking through — was self-conscious: “If it ever became too R&B, it was like, ‘Oh, well, let’s make it more like this.’ That was the game we were playing.”

In the studio, Stewart and Mason are now locked into laying down a drum line, and Lenae is in her own world too. “I remember being a little girl and my dad played this random YouTube remix of Jay-Z’s “Song Cry,” she says, “but then the beat was 3 Doors Down, ‘Here Without You.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, why would they do this?’ But it sounds so cool! I have to play it for you…”

She finds it almost immediately on YouTube and maxes the volume on her phone. Lenae laughs, as she always does, raucously and completely. Working on Bird’s Eye, she says, “reminded me of that feeling I had when I heard these two worlds smash together. Like, aggressively. I thought it was so cool. For me to be able to do my versions of that is so fulfilling.”

The afternoon marches on and the adrenaline picks up. With an hour to go, Mason lights some palo santo to set the mood; from the couch, Lenae directs Stewart, who is leaning over a synth in the control room, recording line after line and furiously roughing the edges of “Love Is Blind.” Suddenly they’ve decided that Lenae should lay down one vocal track in the studio for punctuation on the outro, maybe with the mic at a distance. She makes her way behind the glass. Twenty minutes left. Moments later she’s laying down a third take, then an eighth, each one looping over and over without a pause. Five minutes to go. Stewart is at the mic now too, adding emergency bass vocals. “I want to give people something to stick around for,” he says to nobody in particular through the studio mic.

A whole choir of Ravyn Lenaes floats into the song’s last few bars as the final seconds count down, and, as she walks back into the control room, Lenae seems satisfied. In a few hours, she has reworked and expanded her sound, transforming what she’d written into something new and unexpected.

Cover Story: Getting Lost with Ravyn Lenae

Cover Story: Getting Lost with Ravyn Lenae

Cover Story: Getting Lost with Ravyn Lenae

Lenae never imagined she’d be anything but a musician when she grew up. The only video she has of herself as a kid shows her at four years old on a dancefloor, clasping a microphone half her size and shout-singing Beyoncé’s “Baby Boy.” She was raised in the Pullman Christian Reformed Church, where her maternal grandfather, a Panamanian-West Indian pastor and former musician who first came to the United States for missionary work, led the congregation for four decades.

Lenae enrolled in the choir, where the church’s music director and pianist, Jaret Landon, became an early mentor. He remembers a prodigious six-year-old who could sing melodies and motifs back to him after hearing them once. “I knew that she was exceptionally talented, because of her ear,” he says. She became a soloist in the kids’ choir, but as a young teenager, she was promoted to sing with the adults, most of whom were in their 50s. “Ravyn blew them all away,” Landon says. He taught her classical piano — her second instrument, after the guitar — and was struck immediately by her ability to find “connective threads” between disparate sounds. She could draw lines between Beethoven and Mozart compositions and decipher complex patterns in the music that would escape most adults.

At home, Lenae was working on her own sound. She would rip and repurpose KAYTRANADA and Flying Lotus beats, laying down vocals in her bedroom. When she was 15, she spent a summer working at After School Matters, a program that encourages Chicago teens to pursue creative passions and pays them for the time they put in. She saved $300 — her reward for three months’ work — to afford a session at the legendary Classick Studios in Humboldt Park, about five minutes from school.

Bryan Schwaller, Lenae’s longtime engineer, remembers the studio’s founder and in-house producer, Chris “Classick” Inumerable, gathering everyone he could find in the adjacent rooms to hear Lenae sing on her first day at the studio. She laid down “Greetings,” one of the first songs she’d ever written, and Classick was so impressed that he told her she could come back whenever she wanted without needing to pay. “I had goosebumps,” he says now over the phone from the studio. “I stood there and said, ‘Please play that back again.’ I just told her then, straight up, ‘Whatever you need, I got you.’”

Cover Story: Getting Lost with Ravyn Lenae

In the middle of the buzz that day, she was introduced to local musicians Monte Booker — Lenae was already a fan of the innovative young producer and had been talking with him for a few months over DMs — and Smino, a playful and inventive rapper managed by Classick who was starting to bubble up in Chicago. The three soon started working on each other’s tracks as members of the collective and label Zero Fatigue, but the bond went beyond music.

“I was just seeing how many people were trying to actually sign her and take advantage of her,” Smino says. He and Booker knew she was a kid and wanted to protect her, but they also realized she was headstrong and intelligent. She commanded respect. “We just tried to give her a little safe space. Like, ‘You good over here with us. Don’t worry about them niggas.’”

Whenever Lenae wasn’t in school, she was at Classick Studios. “I didn’t even have my license yet,” she says. “I would stay at the studio and then Monte would have to take me all the way back to the South Side and then come all the way back to drop me back off at home. My mom would be like, ‘What are you doing there? You smell like weed!’”

Speak to anyone in Chicago’s music scene and they’ll tell you that the city’s creatives are interconnected in ways that outsiders can’t comprehend. And Lenae grew up as her hometown was going global, shortly after Chance The Rapper released Acid Rap and helped put Noname, Jamila Woods, and Vic Mensa on the front pages of blogs and magazines worldwide, when Kanye West was at his pre-meltdown peak and Chief Keef was the most thrilling rapper alive. She looked up to Smino and Booker, but she felt like she had Saba, Jean Deaux, Noname, Mick Jenkins, and even Chance within reach.

“We really pride ourselves in being original” in Chicago, Classick says. “We gravitate towards those who are their true authentic selves, so if you have your own thing going on we embrace it and support that.”

That sort of community also means talent doesn’t stay quiet for long. Lenae recorded Moon Shoes at Classick Studios and uploaded it to SoundCloud, where it blew up across the city. Atlantic Records caught on and signed Lenae to a deal. Moon Shoes came down from SoundCloud and went back out as a major-label release. She was still 16.

“What changed in me is the desire to please my ears. The music that inspires me made this burst of energy.”

“A lot of things weren’t discussed around me signing and what that means,” Lenae says. “Talks about money and all the real shit would have been helpful for me. My mom was like the main person helping me, and she doesn’t know. She’s learning at the same rate that I am. We felt like fish out of water. I feel like I’m just now kind of getting an understanding of what all this shit really means.”

What was that kid like? “I think that person was eager. Maybe a little cocky,” she remembers. “Maybe a little naive. But very, very, very rooted and sure of where I wanted to go.”

Signing to a major opened doors. She went out on her first nationwide tour as the main support for Noname; she’d already been introduced to Noname’s fans via a feature on “Forever,” from her Telefone LP, and crowds seemed tapped in. Lenae’s mom came with her and sat behind the merch table.

The opportunity to tour with SZA after CTRL a year later, with Smino alongside her on the bill, was bigger still – though there was inevitably more pressure. Lenae was mostly opening, the lights were up, and fans were buying merch or drinks instead of listening to her. It was, she admits, “definitely work.” There she learned to persevere through sets, to command a stage regardless of an audience’s reaction.

Backed by a major label, the experience of two nationwide tours, and a community that rendered greatness achievable, Lenae seemed set to explode. After graduating from high school, she bounced between the studio and the road. It was the life she’d dreamed of since she first shouted along to “Baby Boy” on that home video.

And then things got quiet. She retreated from the hype. There were four years of silence between Crush and Hypnos — an enormous stretch in an era of hypervisibility. It’s a period she’s clearly still grappling with.

“You kind of start to doubt the things that made you who you are in the first place and what made people interested,” she says. “I don’t know why we do that, but more voices get involved, more ideas, more opinions. More versions of what you think you should be like start to trickle in. I’m still learning how to tune that out.”

Cover Story: Getting Lost with Ravyn Lenae

The day after the studio session, Lenae meets me on the corner of a leafy street in Sherman Oaks. She plans to take me on a hike she’s not been on before, as if intentionally doing the most Los Angeles thing possible. It is, she assures me in advance, “more of a walk than a hike.” This turns out to be untrue, and we are almost immediately scaling what feels like a cliff face in the midday sun.

This weekend marks the beginning of a ramp-up to the album release cycle: late-night shows, never-ending interviews, every angle of promotion. The next few days will be full — a FADER shoot by the Bronson Caves tomorrow, then a multi-day video shoot for “One Wish,” one of Bird’s Eye’s standout tracks. It is the only song on the album that is expressly not about romantic love or its fallout, and today it is consuming Lenae as she fights through thorny branches two paces in front of me and tries to breathe normally through what is swiftly becoming a serious workout.

“One Wish” is about Lenae’s father, a man she’s still trying to understand. “We had a very strange relationship growing up,” she says. “He was kind of in and out.” She has seven half-siblings on his side, none of whom are as close with Lenae as the two younger sisters she grew up with. She does credit her love of music to him, though, even beyond that lightning-strike moment when she heard Jay-Z mashed up with 3 Doors Down. “We spent a lot of time in the car together, listening to music. I feel like I got a lot of my music taste from him,” she says. “He would always take the longest routes anywhere because he just loved being in the car, playing music. He’s not a huge talker. We bonded over those moments.”

The song itself, however, focuses on the disappointment that her father inspired in her as a child. It’s set on Lenae’s 10th birthday party, which her father promised to attend before calling to say he wouldn’t make it. Her voice on the track is almost childlike, gentle and breathy, and the song is more swooning than furious, its glissando backing vocals and stuttering sample obscuring the pain in Lenae’s lyrics: “Called me on my birthday, I thought you’d be on your way / Candles burned down to the cake, still not seeing your face / I can’t spend this one wish on you.”

Cover Story: Getting Lost with Ravyn Lenae

Lenae’s relationship with her father has improved over the past few years, particularly with Lenae in Southern California and her father relatively nearby since relocating to Arizona. “Deciding to get closer to him has just dawned on me, in a way. I’m getting older, I’m dating, and I feel like I need this connection with my dad — or need to at least try. So, we’ve been working on our relationship. I feel like we’re both in a space where we’re open and excited about learning about each other.”

She’s nervous about the video shoot though. Her dad agreed to come up from Arizona to feature in it, playing himself. He still has no idea what the song is about. “I’m trying to figure out the best way to explain it to him without him feeling a little blindsided or pissed. I don’t want his feelings to be hurt.”

At what feels like the end of the climb, Lenae and I — both parched and exhausted — sit on the dusty grass and stare out over the hills. The occasional dog passes by, and Lenae greets every one of them, mid-sentence, with unrestrained joy. Los Angeles wheezes and sputters in the midday smog.

Lenae moved here almost three years ago, when Hypnos was all but finished and going through its final mixes. For all that she loved about Chicago, it was starting to hold her back. Producers and musicians and photographers were on the coasts; she was flying back and forth too much to justify sticking around.

“My music is Black music because I’m Black making music.”

Still, despite having been signed to a major label for half a decade, Lenae was in her early-20s, leaving home for the first time. “I remember feeling so sad at first. The first year I was here, I was crying in the shower every day, feeling so far.” A community had developed around her in Chicago: at church, at Classick Studios, at home with her family. Suddenly, that had evaporated.

The four-year period between Crush and Hypnos that lingers over all of our conversations drifts back into view. As Lenae sees it, the community she’s found over the past couple of years is a direct result of the loneliness she felt back then, just as the freedom she feels in her creative process stems from the restrictions she placed on herself for Hypnos. “What changed in me,” she says, “is the desire to please my ears. The music that inspires me made this burst of energy.”

I’m reminded of something that Lenae said in the studio yesterday, seemingly off-hand, about pressuring herself to actively engage with R&B for the sake of an imagined audience. The kaleidoscopic approach she took to the sounds on Bird’s Eye, she said then, was a conscious rejection of that structure. When I bring it up now, she pauses, seemingly careful to ensure she doesn’t misspeak.

“I wanted to be perceived as somebody who is engaging with Black music as a Black artist,” she says. The last two years have steeled her resolve to rebel against those structures. “Even down to what we allow Black women to look like in music, I want to reject, in a sense. But, at the time, I thought it was important for me to engage with it.”

This touched every part of Lenae’s art. She was, she says, “placing the rules on where I could go musically: starting chords, songwriting style, what I was listening to around the album — a lot of Brandy. And this need to prove vocal ability, being able to run, and being able to belt. Just the things that we look for in R&B, in Black music — I felt a challenge in that, and I wanted to prove myself in that area. The climate we were in, as well, had a lot to do with that — George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. I felt a sense of responsibility with my music.”

Since releasing Hypnos and moving to L.A., her range of vision has expanded: “Now I feel like I have this more nuanced idea of what Black music is and what that can look like. That can look like rock. That can look like jazz. That can look like punk. That can look like indie. It can look like anything. And I’m not rejecting R&B at all, I’m just adding more to the family.”

I mention Prince’s hastily recalled Black Album, written and recorded intentionally to connect with a Black audience, and Lenae sees parallels with the ideas she was trying to pursue before Bird’s Eye.

“It’s really interesting that he went down that path,” she says. “But I think every Black artist does at some point. You can’t really escape that. A part of us always wants Black people to approve, to connect with our music. I’ve had to make peace with that, in a way. Even when I started this album, I was thinking, ‘If I dip my toes in that, I might lose Black people. Or if I do that, I might lose Black people.’ But I can’t center my decisions around that. My music is Black music because I’m Black making music.”

Cover Story: Getting Lost with Ravyn Lenae

Three weeks after our hike, Lenae calls me from Los Angeles. The video shoot for “One Wish,” she says, went better than she could have imagined. Her father drove up a day early from Arizona and she called him before the shoot to explain what he’d be hearing the next day: “I blanketed over what I felt my childhood was like and how I wished he was there more.” She didn’t play him the song in advance, though, so the first time he heard it was on set. “There was a scene where I was in the back seat and he was in the front seat driving, and I had to actually sing the lyrics. After we shot the scenes, he got super quiet and went in his car for a little bit. I think he got on the phone with my grandmother. I could tell that he was taken aback.”

He was only supposed to be in town for a couple of days, but, as the hours ticked down to minutes and the adrenaline crept up, Lenae realized they wouldn’t have enough time together. She asked him to stay one more day. They had breakfast to talk about the video shoot and, eventually, the feelings it brought out of them both. “I just told him it’s important for me to have this song on a project. In order for me to move forward, I have to address this feeling in music. He understood that.”

Ravyn is as expressive on the phone as she is in person, walking from one idea to the next and stopping as she goes to smell every flower. She apologizes more than once for going on too long or wandering off the path of an answer. When we speak, “Love is Blind” and “Love Me Not” are a few hours from being released, and those pre-Hypnos years that have hovered over our interviews loom even larger now. As the album release gets closer, she has been thinking about “what that was” — the drift and torpor that characterized her early 20s. “Where was my brain? Where was my heart?”

Cover Story: Getting Lost with Ravyn Lenae

Lenae spoke to her mom yesterday and told her, for the first time, that she’d been depressed in that period. “I was not happy with myself,” she says. “I wasn’t happy with my relationship, my friendships, my music. I just wasn’t in a good space. And I think that showed up in how many rules I put on myself and I put on what Hypnos had to be.” She was grappling with the way she was perceived as well: “I just didn’t feel comfortable in my body or in my image.”

It seems inevitable now, when Lenae talks about it in these terms, that she struggled after leaving Chicago for Los Angeles. She was trying to fulfill the talent that had propelled her for the first two decades of her life, before it was too late. On our hike, she spoke exasperatedly about how the industry has changed in the near decade since she first emerged, the need to cultivate an Instagram presence instead of relying on the strength of your SoundCloud uploads. Things change fast. In that context, it’s not unreasonable for an artist to think they have a five-year window to make it. Maybe it’s two years. One year to go. Six months remain.

With that clock ticking, the friends and collaborators that Lenae had relied on at home splintered and then seemingly disappeared, and the family she loved was reduced to an image on FaceTime. She was a 21-year-old woman moving hundreds of miles away from home for the first time and rebuilding a life. Leaving home in your teens or early twenties is scary and lonely. Just being in your teens or early twenties is scary and lonely. The average young adult has innumerable identity crises, often all at once. But Ravyn Lenae was not an average young adult. She was a preternaturally talented Black woman grappling with how she would present herself to an audience that could — and now it seems inevitably will — number in the millions. It’s no wonder she built walls for herself; she hoped to fill the resulting room with a community that could make her feel safe again.

Lenae chose to dismantle those walls as she made Bird’s Eye, to explore and experiment. As we walked back down towards her car from our hike in the midday sun, strayed off the path, and got completely lost in the lengthening grass — “this is so on brand for me,” she said — Lenae told me her voice is constantly changing. “Classical music isn’t in your chest,” she said. “It’s all in your head. So I wasn’t taught how to belt. I live in my head because it’s comfortable for me. It feels good.” But lately she’s tried to knock that down too. “With the music I’ve been making since Bird’s Eye,” she said, “I’m belting way more. It doesn’t have to sound perfect. I’m letting the emotion drive the notes. I’m still finding my voice.” She’ll find it as she searches the unknown, reworks and expands her sound, transforming what she’s written into something new and unexpected.

Hair: Jacob Dillon
Makeup: Laura Dudley