On a breezy afternoon in early September, I'm waiting for Raury in the lobby of the fancy midtown hotel he's staying in, a space that feels slightly above his status, but is indicative of where his rising star will soon take him. As the multi-talented singer-rapper-producer gets dressed upstairs, across the room, the lobby DJ starts his early evening set with some ambient R&B while men in suits huddle around the bar with their trophy girlfriends sitting quietly by.
These are the last few hours of Raury’s whirlwind week in the city, and he’s readying himself for a packed night that'll include a "dinner obligation" (likely with reps from his new label, Columbia Records) and a DJ set at super-exclusive West Village club Up & Down. Tomorrow, the 18-year-old will briefly return to his hometown of Atlanta before embarking on a Europe trip that'll wrap just in time for his New York debut at Webster Hall, followed by an opening slot at OutKast's #ATLast Festival.
Things have been moving fast for Raury since the release of his anthemic and glorious "God's Whisper," which preceded his Indigo Child debut, an affirming mission statement that arrived just two months after his high school graduation. Three years in the making, Indigo showcases the forward-thinking musician's pop-leaning sensibilities, expert songwriting and laid-back rapping prowess, establishing Raury as a crossover talent with the ability to soundtrack American summers, not just summer festival stages.
When Raury finally appears in the lobby, he's draped in an oversized knit hoodie and strappy leather sandals, looking more like a kid on a comfy vacation than a major label-signed star with dinner obligations. For a while, he shirks those concerns as we head up to the pool deck and he splays out on a cabana and speaks, calmly but deliberately, about his adolescence, ambitions, and various artistic outlets. His excitement and nervousness are apparent, his pure joy to be the subject of an interview tangible. For any fan of genuine people finding success, watching Raury step into his self-imposed spotlight is nothing if not reassuring.
Over the course of an hour, Raury also discusses having his first song placed in a feature film (the ScarJo-starring Lucy), finding creative counterparts in Lorde and Chance The Rapper, and how "Hey There Delilah," a 2006 popcorn ballad by the Plain White T's, inspired him to learn guitar.
You've been making music since your early teens but it seems like you’ve had other creative outlets along the way. Was there a moment when you decided to pursue music over everything else? [I was into] photography, book writing, writing poetry, writing stories. I did drawing and painting. But there definitely was a moment when I decided to do music and nothing else. I look at painting and art and photography and all those things as a part of the music. I wanted to do art, and nothing else mattered. So, when I decided I wanted to do music and nothing else, I quit football, track, didn't try out for soccer. I was just 14, and a lot of people looked at me sideways for it, but I knew what I wanted to do.
Tell me about your first time recording a song. Keri Hilson graduated from my high school, and she has a younger brother by the name of Kipper Hilson, also known as Kip. He had graduated, but he would be DJ-ing at the homecoming events and other things like that. When I decided all I wanted to do was music, anything that was music-related in school I found a way to be a part of it. If there was a basketball game, I would be DJ-ing. If there was a fashion show, I would be handling the lights. So, I was handling the lights at this one fashion show, and Kip was DJ-ing. We got to be friends, I followed him on Twitter, and he tweets about how he's having studio sessions in his basement. So, I was like, "I wanna come." I went and recorded there, and I wasn't used to knowing that your stuff has to be mixed and all that. The first time I recorded, I was heartbroken. I was like, "I can't do this. This sounds horrible." My delivery was bad, I didn't have studio etiquette, I had to punch in my verses a hundred times… I felt like shit. I kept going though, and eventually things got better. When we started mixing and mastering and stuff like that, I was like, "Oh, Okay. This is how it always goes down." But yeah, my first recording, it was really devastating. I was really contemplating life.
"I'm not just a rapper, I'm an artist. I'm a creator."
How'd you get into playing guitar? Were you self-taught or did you take classes? It was completely self-taught. I'd been begging my mom for [a guitar] since I was ten, and got it when I was 11 for Christmas, and for that whole year I was playing around with it, untuned. I didn't learn a thing that year, but I just never put it down. Eventually I started learning things from YouTube and UltimateGuitar.com. Then I went to camp for the first time, and there were a bunch of guitar-playing hippies there, and they got me on the right track.
A big part of why people learn guitar is to play songs they already know and love. What was that song for you? It was simply because of "Hey There Delilah" by the Plain White T's that I learned how to play guitar. I had a girlfriend at camp, and she loved that song. I listened to it, and I was like, "I like that song too, let me learn it." The only time I'd see her was when I was at camp, so when she was gone, she was gone. So that whole time, I'd talk to her on the phone, and I just wanted to play that song for her. And I learned it. [Laughs]
Your debut mixtape, Indigo Child, has been out for a little over a month now. How long was that in the works? I started creating Indigo Child when I first met my manager Justice when I was 15. I was playing guitar for a band, and he had another artist that was playing a live show and wanted a full band. Justice was a good friend of Kip's, so due to him knowing Kip and Kip knowing me and me being in a band, we got connected. At the first practice, I met with Justice and realized he was a manager, so I forced him to hear me rap. He gave me his number thinking I wasn't gonna hit him up, but I did, and I was annoying, and we got it moving. I was supposed to be dropping my first project around the same time as Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city—October 21, 2012.
That's close to two years ago. What happened? I was a very heavy, heavy perfectionist. I did not feel like I was ready.
How does the Indigo Child that's out now match up with that project? If I had dropped it in October of 2012, I would've been seen as the fastest rapper on the planet. It was like, crazy bars. I didn't believe in myself as a vocalist back then. No 14-year-old boy thinks it's cool to be singing, especially a 14-year-old boy on the Eastside of Atlanta. So it was straight bars, man. I drew inspiration from [Andre] 3000 and Kendrick and I was listening to Joey Bada$$. So if anything, I would've been like that kid in Atlanta who's just a straight up rapper who's gonna bring that shit back and live in that hip-hop world. But over time, as I grew and I began to feel out more of what I like and where I wanna go, I figured out, "I'm not just a rapper, I'm an artist. I'm a creator, and I'm gonna do all that shit."
You're happy you waited? Yeah, definitely. I didn't feel like I had created my own sound. I felt like I was still just another rapper. So we started over. Justice asked me how long I needed until I was ready again, and I was like, "Probably about six months." Six months later, we started over again. Then we started over the third time! It got to a point where I was like, "Man, I might be pissing them off. They might not work with me anymore." But they worked with me and they allowed me to grow and they allowed me to become what I became today.
That's a function of a real A&R. Not just meeting someone and putting out a single, but developing somebody as an artist over time. Yeah. I mean, Justice and the guys were ready to sell their cars if they had to. They knew, and I knew, that at this point our lives, we're in each other's hands. That's how we looked at it.
"I'm trying to bring along a new era of genre-less music where somehow everything happens to mesh."
You initially got a lot of attention for "God's Whisper," and that can be a curse for some artists when it comes to releasing a full-length. Do you think you lived up to the hype? I definitely feel like I lived up to [the hype]. I'm still hesitant to even say that I made it, but deep down in my heart, I feel like I can be one of the greatest artists ever. When I go and sign into Twitter and look at what the people say… the fact that my music actually affected their lives for the positive, that's all I give a fuck about. The fact that my music makes the listener feel good about life. That's why I make music, because music changed my life. That Kid Cudi Man On The Moon album, when I was 14, literally helped me believe in myself and chase after the music thing.
With just one project out, you've already signed to a major label, Columbia Records. Did any part of you want to see how far you could take your career independently? [Labels] have been coming at us since I was 15 or 16, but we knew when the timing was right and we took the deal on our terms as far as what we wanted. I would sit down with every single label and tell them that I'm trying to bring along a new era of music, a new era of genre-less music where somehow everything happens to mesh. The type of music that Lorde is making. The type of music that Chance is making, the type of music your King Krules are making. It's all growing to be very universal, and I just really want to spearhead it. The water is boiling, but the tea isn't ready. I just wanna knock the pot over! [Laughs] Horrible analogy, but still. Columbia really understood that.
You're performing at OutKast's #ATLast Festival, a gig you were handpicked for alongside Childish Gambino and Kid Cudi. How excited are you for that? Such an honor. I couldn't… Obama could call me and be like, "I want you to perform at my dinner tomorrow," and I still wouldn't feel as good as I felt when I heard I would be opening up for OutKast along with Childish Gambino and Kid Cudi. It made me realize how much harder I have to work now, and how many more hours I have to put in as far as practice, and attention to detail with the live show. But above all, I just really feel honored. When I heard it, I wanted to crap my pants. I was like, "Alright, it's time. Hello world, here I come." It'll be the best performance I've ever done.
"God's Whisper" is in the closing credits of Lucy, which is a pretty weird and incredible thing. How'd it feel to get your first major movie placement? I was so happy for that, and I feel like that song perfectly fits that movie. I feel like that movie may have went over a lot of people's heads and a lot of people didn't really understand it, but I think getting my first placement, for that to be my first one, people are going to go back to it later on. Maybe the world will be at a point where a lot of people can really connect with it and get it, and maybe the movie will do way, way, way greater in hindsight.
Did you like the movie? I was completely exhausted from the studio when I went to see it with all my friends and stuff. I was halfway through it and I loved it, but I had passed out. I had passed out.
Did you wake up for the song at least? Oh yeah, I'd woken up for the song. And then I had went and saw it again, and I liked it. A lot of people told me they didn't get it, but that's okay.
Raury plays The Studio at Webster Hall tonight, Uncapped in Philadelphia tomorrow, and opens for OutKast this weekend at the #ATLast Festival in Atlanta.