Ravyn Lenae on Balancing School and Career
The rising R&B star is barely out of high school—and is poised for takeoff.
Ravyn Lenae has been making a name for herself in the music industry since she was in high school—which was only a year ago. The R&B vocalist and songwriter now has three EPs under her belt including last winter's Crush, a wide-ranging showcase for her prodigious talents that she worked on with Steve Lacy of funk collective The Internet. We thought it was pretty impressive that Lenae was able to balance the demands of graduating with building a career in music, so we reached out via phone to ask her how she did it. Here’s what she had to say.
Spotify for Artists: While you were in high school, you released songs and toured. How did you balance the demands of being on a major label and the demands of high school?
Ravyn Lenae: I was fortunate enough to go to a performance arts high school, ChiArts—Chicago High School for the Arts—and they were much more understanding than a traditional high school would have been. Despite that, it was very, very tough to be gone from school months on end, and to catch up and remain at the same level as my peers. I don’t know how I did it, but I did it. [Laughs] Senior year, it got super-tough—senioritis mixed with everything else made it super-tough to keep my head level and remember that I was a student. But I worked through it.
What kind of music did you study at ChiArts?
I was classically trained in school, but I also studied jazz my junior and senior years. It was really fun, to step out of the classical mindset for a little while. But I fell in love with classical music when I studied there. It broadened my horizons, and it hugely influenced my writing and my approach to music. I learned how to sing in a healthy way, which I think a lot of singers aren’t educated on. I'm grateful to have had that, because you see these amazing singers who are out after the third show, because they’re not educated in singing properly. I’ve never missed a show because of being sick or my voice being out.
You did a lot of collaborations early on in your career. How did you meet collaborators while you were in high school?
I was looking for a studio, and a friend told me to record at Classick Studios in [the Chicago neighborhood] Humboldt Park. That's where I met Chris Classick, who’s the owner, and who at the time had just found Smino and Monte [Booker] before they had really released any music at all. It was just an instant connection between the three of us, me and Monte in particular. He was the first producer that I worked with so closely and intimately, helping me develop my initial sound. He’ll always be my brother.
When did you realize that you wanted to pursue music as a career?
From a very early age I knew that I was very intrigued by the arts—I just didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to do. My grandmother got me a guitar when I was about nine or ten, and I didn’t like that too much. At that age, I wasn’t very inclined to practice, and the discipline part of music didn’t really interest me at all.
Then I started taking piano lessons, which I liked a bit more. That's when I started composing and singing; I fell in love with singing, and I thought that I’d zero in on that. It was probably my sophomore year in high school, when I started making my own music outside of school. I hated every subject except English and writing—I’ve always been a writer.
When you were first writing songs, how did you write them? Did the lyrics come first, or did you work stuff out on the piano?
When I first started, while I was playing with the piano, my teacher taught me about four chords, and I would write a million different melodies and songs to those same chords. That strengthened my ability and my creativity, and [eventually I was] singing beyond those four chords. Now I usually create music with a beat first. I can’t really grab melodies and words from the air. Some people are very gifted in that; me, I am not. I need some type of inspiration from the music to be able to catch a feeling.
Do you think your approach to writing songs has changed over the years?
I think that a lot of things change, especially as you get older. You tend to advance in a way, and I feel that I have matured a lot with my songwriting, and my approach to writing and making music. I like to refer to the first stage of making music as being a baby, and first learning how to speak and wanting to say everything at once; at that point I’m getting all my emotions out, I’m spitting every word out, I’m using all my tricks. As I go down the line, and I get my second project and my third project, I step back a little bit and let the lyrics marinate instead of just babbling.
How did you wind up hooking up with Steve Lacy for the Crush EP?
It was honestly super-random. [Laughs] I remember I was taking a nap and my phone was buzzing off the hook, and I looked up at my phone and saw he had tweeted out my previous project, Midnight Moonlight. Then he sent me a Twitter DM saying that he loved my music and he would like to get together. I ended up going to L.A., and we started working on music together, and getting to know each other. It blossomed from there in a really organic way.
How has your live show evolved over the years?
Well, my live show has improved because I’m now only performing with my band, which is awesome. It’s very different from performing with a DJ. When I was on other tours, opening, the budgets wouldn’t be big enough for me, or I couldn’t afford bringing five other people on tour with me. I’m so happy that I’m in a place where I can mold my live experience into what I want it to be.
What has been your most surprising experience of the last year?
Seeing how fast people were interested in me and my music, which usually takes so long to do. People are able to relate to me and my experiences, and everything that goes on in my head.
If you had to give one piece of advice to younger artists who are also trying to balance their high school career with a music career, what would you tell them?
I would give them the same advice that I was given, and that is to be your full self, no matter what. Music is the purest form of anything we still have, and your heart should stay true to that, and to you.