“I used to cry every time I had to sing,” Rachel Chinouriri tells Clash. Now, whenever she gets on stage, she sings a ballad of unrequited love for a close friend. That song, ‘So My Darling’, was a breakthrough for the 20-year-old singer-songwriter, written in an impulsive moment of vulnerability after a phone call with said friend. “Even though it seems corny trying to explain it,” she says. “I think because I put all my emotion into it without being fearful, I got my best writing.”
Honesty has since become integral to her work, which straddles a line between indie-rock balladry and rich neo-soul. Chinouriri’s writing has evolved considerably in the years following her first recordings – made with a £20 microphone in her bedroom – but key features remain. Lush organic instrumentation, a willingness to be frank with her listeners and an eagerness to blend genres have quickly become her calling cards.
On her recent ‘Mama’s Boy’ EP alone, Chinouriri delved into lush pop-soul (the title track), bright new wave (‘Adrenaline’) and trip-hop-inflected folk (‘Riptide’). And in her lyrics, she recounts stories that are older than recorded music itself – tales of lost-love and boys meeting girls. Her writing is often strikingly direct, like the contents of draft texts that were passionately written and then hastily deleted. “When I’m putting my music out, it’s everything from my most vulnerable [moments],” she says. “People should know that I wear my heart on my sleeve.”
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Nevertheless, Chinouriri’s songs are not downcast in the slightest. In fact, while her lyrics dissect difficult relationships, the music behind them brims with a joyful fervour for melody and harmony. She has a borderline obsession with the latter, inspired by listening to Zimbabwean music as a child, played by her parents “in the car on the way to anywhere”.
That music, along with the odd 50 Cent or Brandy record from her siblings, soundtracked her early life until she was able to access a computer and seek out other styles – an exploration that led her to emotional, anthemic indie rock. Both British indie and the music of southern Africa remain important to her today. “Ladysmith Black Mbanzo, Coldplay and Daughter are my top three influences,” she says – no doubt aware of how unlikely the combination is.
The unconventional musical education continued into Chinouriri’s adolescence, when at the age of 16, she began two years at Brit School. There, she studied musical theatre – despite having never been to a musical before. “Some of these kids had been training since they were like two and everyone could dance,” she says. “Me and my friends couldn’t dance or act very well, so we pushed really hard to get on their level.” She explains that one reason for taking the course was the opportunity to perform and overcome her shyness. The other was to avoid the theory-heavy curriculum on the regular music course.
Her time at Brit School also helped foster a sense of discipline in her. “You couldn’t hide the work,” she says, when asked what she learned from the experience. “It teaches you there’s no cheating around being good and being successful, you actually have to put in the work.” That attitude may account for her rapid progression as an artist – as less than two months on from her most recent EP, she says another one is almost ready to go.
Rachel Chinouriri is still a work-in-progress but she has her sights set on having a lasting impact and making timeless music. With that in mind, there’s no guessing how far she can go.
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Words: Conrad Duncan
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