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Rachel Chinouriri: 'Indie-rock was always white boy bands. I would’ve liked to see a Black woman doing it'

 (Lauren Harris)
(Lauren Harris)

Rachel Chinouriri is nestled in the corner of a lemon-coloured cafe in east London. Sandwiched between two vintage shops just off Brick Lane, this particular spot is a newfound sanctuary for the 25-year-old indie-pop artist, who comes here often to write music, journal and empty her thoughts. On this occasion, she’s invited me to bear witness to those thoughts, which at present revolve mostly around the release of her hotly anticipated debut album.

'It’s either going to change my life or it’s going to stay the same. With the first album there’s a lot at stake for what happens next,' she tells me, wrapped in a technicolour Loewe scarf, cupping her latte with both hands for warmth. She speaks with the same delicacy as the wispy, sugary sweet, falsetto she has become known for.

By comparison, the themes of her album are in no way sugar-coated. Titled What a Devastating Turn of Events, the 14-track record will leave listeners emotionally winded at every turn. In the title track — her ‘proudest’ of the album — she tells the heartbreaking story of a cousin who committed suicide. Elsewhere, you hear the sting in her voice as she sings about eating disorders, childhood trauma and loss. ‘My old stuff was just me being like, “Ooh, I’m a girl, I have boyfriends and boy problems”, but anyone who knows me knows there are more layers than that,’ she explains. ‘I feel like every artist always says it feels like my most personal, but this really is.’

With the first album there’s a lot at stake for what happens next

Through penning those deeply personal songs, writing became Chinouriri’s way of processing grief. ‘I knew I needed to put [the album] out because I write music for therapeutic reasons. Even when I was a little kid and I was frustrated I’d find myself singing. Now when I put a song out it’s the only time I really feel like I’m over something.’

Raised by Zimbabwean parents who moved to the UK shortly before her birth, Chinouriri describes herself as ‘Croydon born and bred’ despite having actually being born in Kingston upon Thames and moving to Croydon aged three. Today she lives with one housemate, one chihuahua and one snake in Hackney Wick. ‘[My parents] like that I’m doing my thing and living my life. That’s kind of what they came to this country to do, to let me live my life, and that’s what I’m doing.’ She describes them as being incredibly proud of her — though they haven’t heard the album in full yet: ‘They haven’t heard the serious songs. But they also know that this is what I’m like. I’ll be like, “I’m writing a song about someone being an alcoholic,” and they’ll be like, “Here she goes again.”’

Rachel Chinouriri (Lauren H)
Rachel Chinouriri (Lauren H)

Aged 18, Chinouriri and her family moved out of London to Leatherhead in Surrey (much to her dismay — ‘I f***ing hated Leatherhead I’ll be so honest’), but not before securing herself a place at The Brit School, where alumni include Amy Winehouse, Adele and Raye, as well as classmates and fellow rising stars Cat Burns, Olivia Dean and Lola Young. ‘Everyone was so creative, I felt like I’d walked into the gates of heaven,’ she recalls.

It was during this time that she began uploading her music to SoundCloud, and at the age of 17, wrote her hit single ‘So My Darling’ — which went TikTok viral in recent years and has now racked up more than 47 million streams. It was in the same year that she signed with Parlophone. ‘I loved the indie rock thing,’ she says, ‘but it was always white boy bands. It would’ve been nice to see a Black woman doing it.' Growing up, she had two role models: V V Brown and Shingai Shoniwa of Noisettes, Black British women (the latter Zimbabwean-British) making indie-rock music.

That said, since the beginning of her career, Chinouriri has consistently listed her musical influences as Coldplay – 'I liked the way Chris Martin’s lyrics were so simple and sometimes they just hit you' – James Blake and Daughter. And yet, for the first several years of her career, she was continuously mislabeled as an R&B or Soul artist.

Cancel culture will make people retreat into a toxic space. I like people asking questions, even if it’s the dumbest question

'[My manager] warned me that it might be a problem and I might be perceived as R&B or Soul. I thought he was chatting s*** because my music is so obviously not that – surely not? But he was not wrong,' she says. By 2022, her patience had long worn out: ‘My music is not RnB. My music is not Soul. My music is not alternative RnB. My music is not neo soul. My music is not jazz. Black artists doing indie is not confusing. You see my colour before you hear my music,’ she wrote on Instagram. ‘That post changed my life,’ she tells me. ‘During the George Floyd Black Lives Matter movement, there were so many people saying, “We wanna listen to Black artists saying their thing”, so I was like, well I’m about to say it.’

Although it doesn’t happen anywhere near as much now, there were still a few instances in 2023 when she had to correct people — however, she would always choose to correct over cancel. ‘I hate cancel culture. People have lived such different lives, and with cancel culture there’s no understanding of people having lived such different lives. When someone is so blatantly, clearly discriminative, I’ve found that if you speak in certain ways you can get into those people’s heads more and it’s more progressive to have those conversations. But I have the patience for that, and understandably a lot of my Black friends don’t. And rightfully so,’ she says. ‘Cancel culture will make people retreat into a toxic space. I like people asking questions, even if it’s the dumbest question.’

Chinouriri doesn’t hold back when asking questions herself, particularly when inebriated and egged on by friends to DM famous acquaintances. ‘I’ll be getting drunk sometimes girl!’ she laughs, when I ask about her drunken message to Lewis Capaldi that resulted in her joining him on tour. ‘When you’re seven tequila shots down, suddenly you think asking to open for him on tour is a good idea. I’ve drunk messaged so many people. I’m sure there are a few artists who have received messages from me chatting absolute s***.’

When you’re seven tequila shots down, suddenly you think asking to open for Lewis Capaldi on tour is a good idea

Since then, not only has she joined Capaldi on tour, but Louis Tomlinson and Maisie Peters, while her newest video, ‘Never Need Me’, (dropping today) features Florence Pugh. So what’s the big dream, I wonder. Grammys? Headline shows? Number one albums? How will Rachel Chinouriri know when she’s made it? ‘When I buy a house. My goal always has always been to find a home or a safe space. If this year I do well I’ll be in a position where I can maybe buy a flat, that will be my I’ve made it moment.’ She pauses for a second. ‘My manager is gonna hate me for saying that.’

Rachel Chinouriri’s debut album, ‘What a Devastating Turn of Events’, is released on 3 May via Parlophone/Atlas Artists. Her new single, ‘Never Need Me’, is out now. She plays Koko on 6 Mar (koko.co.uk)