Rita Ora Knows Who She Is, Just Don’t Ask What Her Lyrics Are
Rita Ora needs you to work out the lyrics to 'Anywhere', because she doesn't know them.
Like the best album titles, Rita Ora’s Phoenix says it all.
While it’s the British pop-star’s second album, the first, 2012’s Ora, doesn’t really count — because despite being signed to Jay-Z’s label Roc Nation at the time and boasting #1 UK hits ‘RIP’ and ‘How We Do’, it was never released in the US.
Ora, who had been signed to Roc Nation since 2008, was stuck in industry hell: the label wouldn’t let her out of her contract, and they refused to release the multiple albums of material she continually worked on.
A spate of features on other artists’ songs (including Iggy Azealia’s ‘Black Widow’ and Charli XCX’s ‘Doing It’) kept Ora’s name around, and then she landed a Billboard US Dance Club #1 with ‘I Will Never Let You Down’, produced by her then beau Calvin Harris. But even then, it wasn’t her moment: once they broke up, Harris allegedly refused to let her release it on an impending album, or even perform it live.
“Obviously if I could have changed the circumstances to be better, I’d will it,” Ora tells me on the phone, ahead of beginning her world tour in Australia next month. “I think my journey happened for a reason.”
“I think my journey happened for a reason.”
While she waged the war to release new music — eventually parting from Roc Nation in 2016 — Ora focused on other projects. In the last few years, Ora developed a habit of popping up everywhere — from playing Christian Grey’s sister in the Fifty Shades Trilogy to hosting America’s Next Top Model. She even performed at Mother Teresa’s canonisation as a saint.
It was a savvy strategy out of a bad situation. Where other singers stuck in troubled contracts have struggled to remain relevant (see Jojo, Tinashe), Ora made sure she stuck around.
“I’m very happy that upcoming artists get to see the struggle,” she says. “To see what some people are going through regardless of who they are.”
The downside of being omni-present is that sometimes people weren’t exactly sure what she did. It’s to the point where for the past three years Ora’s been the focus of a reoccurring segment called ‘What’s Rita Ora Up To?’ on Who? Weekly, a celebrity podcast with a devoted cult following. Phoenix makes it clear she’s a singer, first, so I ask Ora if other endeavours where mainly a way to remain afloat while working out her music career. Her answer is diplomatic, but fair.
“I think I’m really lucky to have lots of outlets for creativity, and to put out music,” she says. “[But music’s] my therapy — it’s just the best feeling in the world.”
Hell Of A Life
Ora tells me that Phoenix is the result of years of writing, which makes for an eclectic, energetic listen. The 16-track album collates most her singles from the past few years, including many of her collabs, such as ‘For You’, a duet with Liam Payne for the 50 Shades soundtrack and Avicii’s ‘Lonely Together’. The process was long — and rocky.
‘Girls’, Ora’s song featuring Bebe Rexha, Charli XCX and Cardi B, felt engineered for radio play, a Lady Marmalade-esque line-up about wanting to kiss girls once you’ve had a glass of red. Instead, it attracted criticisms of queer-baiting for a male gaze, which prompted Ora to apologise — and clarify that the song was written from personal experience, outing herself as someone who had “romantic experiences with both men and women”.
Given that Ora’s spoken about ‘Girls’ extensively elsewhere, we chatted about moments of self-doubt more generally. All-in-all, she says she grew a lot making Phoenix.
“It [ended up being] an amazing experience, because I learnt a lot about myself, and my songwriting. I had a great team around me and could really express myself,” she says. “I got into my vulnerable side, and used it to my advantage — I wanted this album to be an open book, and I wanted people to have an insight into my life and my journey.”
It’s the newer tracks which are most exciting, blending pop with the soul she sung as a child in church in inviting ways. Stand-outs include ‘Velvet Rope’ (which, no, isn’t a reference to Janet), ‘Cashmere’ and ‘Let You Love Me’, where Ora’s voice is warm and breathy, less anonymous.
Suitably, those songs are more emotionally involved with sharp lyrics and neat hooks. It’s far less formulaic than earlier trop-house and EDM-esque efforts, where Ora’s presence was stifled somewhat in favour of a broad appeal to break out. It’s nice to hear her.
But sometimes, like on album opener ‘Anywhere’, anonymous works better. Its chorus is indecipherable, a mesh of Ora’s voice chopped and screwed into bleeps and bloops. It’s an infectious song which captures how words fail a state of limerence — it’s perfect to thrash around to, but it’s damn hard to sing along. I ask if Ora knows the lyrics.
“No, I don’t, to this day,” she says. “When Alessio did it, he really just kind of took my voice and chopped it up and made a beat out of it. There really aren’t any lyrics, so if you wanna ask your readers, maybe you can just make it up.”
But, given she’s about to launch her world tour in Australia, I need to know what she sings live. I tell her I just bleat out random things.
“Me too!” she says. “When I perform it, it’s even crazier — I don’t know what I do. I just dance.”
Rita Ora’s Phoenix is available now. Tickets for her Australian tour this March are on sale now.
Jared Richards is a staff writer and Junkee. You can regularly find him at Club 96. Follow him on Twitter.