The Official Chat with Rachel Chinouriri: "We owe the black female artists who came before us"

On her accomplished debut album What A Devastating Turn of Events, the singer claims her place in the pantheon of indie artists fighting to be heard, recognised and validated.
rachel chinouriri official chat

What's in a flag?

For Rachel Chinouriri, including the English flag in the artwork for her debut album, What A Devastating Turn of Events, is a provocative visual statement and a reclamation of both her Britishness and her musical identity as a black artist who just happens to make indie music.

On the album's cover, Rachel stands resolute in front of a mock-up of the house she grew up in in Hertfordshire, where her Zimbabwean family were the only black family on the street. Sitting in her record label's offices a few weeks out from the LPs release, she talks candidly and engagingly about the traumas of that past, and how they've informed her present; with a debut album that is both lyrically and emotionally potent, about searching for a place that you can call home, knowing that you can never quite go back to the beginning.

"It was traumatising," she admits. "You were trying to fit in with people who, evidently, thought "you're not one of us." It was very isolating in that sense, and I was the only member of my family who didn't speak Shona [the language of the Shona people from Zimbabwe], it's very difficult to be alienated in your own house."

But when Rachel moved out into the city, into London, Rachel realised that, despite the hardships, she missed her home and her childhood.

"So many of the hardships in that house were difficult," she tells us, "but parents are fine. All my siblings turned out fine. Our lives continued to be great even when we left that house, and that deserves to be celebrated.

"We were as British as anyone else on that street, so in a way I am going back...from loss to triumph."

what a devestating turn of events

Hi, Rachel - your debut album is out this week. How are we feeling?

Oh gosh, I burst into tears this morning. And then I got home...and I was like "oh, actually, I'm fine." I'm going on this big rollercoaster of emotion - what if it doesn't do well? I keep telling myself it'll be fine. The first week might matter...but this album is going to be out for the rest of my life, right? So I need to have a positive attitude in this situation!

It's a lot to take in, for sure, how long have you been waiting to release it?

Well...I signed to this label [Parlophone] in 2019...and now we're in 2024. The [original idea] was to launch me in 2020, I had an entire other album recorded and ready to go. I don't know where that is now....somewhere, I guess. But to get to this point five years later, I'm really itching for it to come out. I'm also really grateful, because I've had the time and space to think...what do I really want to do?

The first thing to note about the album is its title - so striking, and the title track is basically a poem set to song

It was really important for me to tell the story. When you're with a major, sometimes you might feel the pressure to have hits...but I'm very fortunate that my label have basically just let me do what I want, all the way down to the artwork and the length. Like, what's going on at the moment [with the length of albums]?

I've always wanted a long first album, and I will continue making long albums! But in this world where everything is shorter now, there were many conversations about shortening the songs. Sorry but imagine telling Celine Dion to shorten her songs? I think on this whole record, I have one song that's under three minutes. Just!

The album opens with Garden of I love a Biblical reference, but the thing about Eden is once you know too much, you have to leave right?

You're right, and that song is the safety net I had for myself. I was a little bird who needed to leave the nest - the Garden of Eden was described as the most beautiful place on the planet, but we were cast out by disobedience. The song is about having this beautiful thing that you have to ruin it to go back.

That was an important thing to me, for the album to start with Garden of Eden and end with So My Darling, going through all these massive emotions and traumas only to realise I want to go back to where I used to be...but I can't.

rachel chinouriri

You mentioned So My Darling - in many ways this album started and is anchored by that song, was it important for you to include it?

Every time I sing that song, it takes me back to being 17 in my bedroom, writing it and not really knowing what was going to happen next. I didn't know what my career was going to be, I didn't know what that song was going to do, and that was 7 years ago now. It's recently gone viral again, and it shows you that you never really know anything about music. It keeps coming back!

I think it makes the album feels nostalgic, it makes me feel nostalgic, especially for the people who have been here since the beginning.

You've spoken really candidly before about being miscategorised as an artist early in your career due to your race, so this feels like a reclamation of your space in indie music

For the foundations of what I want to be as a musician, a lot of black artists don't have the luxury of meandering [from a pre-determined path] at the beginning of their career. If I did make R&B music, that would be a very difficult box for me to get out of. No-one realises how much race and politics plays a part in the music industry behind the scenes, and I was very naive to that before.

We owe it to people like V V Brown, Estelle, Keisha from Sugababes, Shingai [Shoniwa] from the Noisettes, even Skin from Skunk Anansie, these were black women who were trying to do something (and doing it very successfully) at a time when they had no platform [to stand up for themselves]. They really fought the fight or artists like me, or Cat Burns, to stand here today, and we're doing it on their shoulders. 

Their struggles made it so much easier for us, so we have to pay them back. This is my own way of giving back to them. 

Your writing and production also feels very indebted to the likes of Lily Allen and Kate Bush - I think Lily in particular has never been given her dues

That is my queen. I love Lily Allen. I look at her and I think...she's not even a UK artist to me, she is a global superstar. It is so strange to me that she's not so famous outside the UK [for her music], but then Olivia Rodrigo brought her on stage at Glastonbury. She's an icon. She's an icon!

Never Need Me is the biggest banger on the record, how did that come about?

I didn't even like it at first! I didn't even send it to my label, but they loved it. It was a little different at first...we pitched it up, I was really inspired by the Kings of Leon, Sex on Fire. Everyone at my label thought it was the song, I finished it, I did exactly what I wanted with it. 

I think each song embodies a nostalgic feeling for me; everyone in school listening to Sex on Fire and the teachers being like "excuse me?!" When we handed it was really fun. Maybe I was wrong! I can admit that.

What would making the Official Chart with your debut album mean to you?

I've told myself not to aim for the sake of mental health...however! If I could just enter it, that's already something. If we could get anywhere near the Top 20, for my first album, I would be really proud of myself. Hopefully I can do it, because there's so many Zimbabweans in the UK, it would really mean a lot. 

What A Devastating Turn of Events by Rachel Chinouriri drops May 3 via Parlophone. 

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