Freya Ridings emerged to be the surprise success story of 2018. Her breakthrough came with ‘Lost Without You’, one of those rare, once-in-a-lifetime songs that immediately put a previously under-the-radar artist on the map. Such was its word-of-mouth appeal that it hit the Top 10 on four separate occasions during a commanding six-month run in the Top 40. And in an era in which hits are inevitably written by committee, ‘Lost Without You’ saw Freya become the first female artist to have an entirely self-written Top 10 hit since Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ returned to the charts in 2012.
By the time 2018 came to close, ‘Lost Without You’ became one of the Top 20 most downloaded songs of the year and the biggest hit from a new British female artist. She was the new star on everyone’s lips, from Taylor Swift to Niall Horan and Florence Welch, and appeared on numerous high profile TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic including James Corden and the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year.
She recently closed London Fashion Week at Richard Quinn’s show and her career streams to date have broken 150 million – and are still rising at a staggering 500,000 a day. Everything’s falling into place ahead of the release of her self-titled debut album this summer.
Her current emotionally-charged single ‘You Mean The World To Me’ shows that ‘Lost Without You’ was no fluke. Such was her growing stardom that she was able to call on two Game of Thrones stars for its video, with Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister) directing and Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) starring alongside Freya.
And that’s all before we consider her growing live plot. Freya recently sold-out all 14,000 tickets for her UK tour in advance, and is poised to hit festivals including Isle of Wight, Latitude and Wilderness. The scale of her shows is set to expand again with a bigger tour planned in the wake of her album release.
So the North London musician could be forgiven for feeling pleased with herself. If, that is, self-congratulation was remotely in the 24-year-old’s nature. Spend even just a few minutes in her company, however, and it’s clear that she isn’t going to be blowing her own trumpet anytime soon.
Self-deprecation, on the other hand, she can do; it comes naturally. But it’s emphatically not of the false-modesty kind. Freya is innately circumspect, borne of a childhood where she struggled with dyslexia, her self-image and a shyness she describes as “crippling”. Music was, she says, both her best friend and her salvation. At school, she escaped each lunchtime to the music room, and poured her heart out in song and on the piano. Listen to her music, which bristles with emotion yet has an innate restraint to it, which carries a universal resonance yet sounds like a private, inner conversation, and that wellspring of inspiration makes sense. Freya’s songs are fraught with tension, simmering with suppressed, sometimes even unacknowledged feelings. They are exquisite but tempestuous, beautiful but ominous. And they come, it’s immediately clear, from the heart.
“When you go to school,” says Freya, “anything that makes you different makes you a target. I was tall, a redhead, it made the whole thing a nightmare. Looking back, I was never, ever going to fit in. It meant that school was a very long and lonely process, which music helped me survive. I’ve always loved solving problems, but I couldn’t apply that to academic work, no matter how hard I tried. I’d be sitting there, really slaving, and I’d look up and everyone else had finished, and I was still only halfway through. That was deeply demoralising. But then I found this ‘thing’, and I was good at it, this thing that other people found quite hard to do, yet it came to me quite easily. If you’re looking for something to get lost in, that enables you to escape from where you are, it’s hard to think of anything more perfect than singing.”
Away from school, Freya’s life was the opposite of lonely. Growing up in a family of actors and writers, surrounded by similarly creative people, she was encouraged to express herself. “I’m blessed to come from a family where if you go, ‘I want to be X or do Y’, they don’t say no, they go: ‘How can we help to make that a really strong possibility?’”
As is so often the case with artists in whom you sense that making music is a compulsion, not a choice, Freya’s life as a singer and songwriter was transformed by a single event. “Someone at school said: ‘We’re doing an open-mic night.’ I had no idea what that was, or that it was just meant for the sixth-formers. I was in year 7 at the time, but I just thought, what the hell. They didn’t seem to realise that I was in year 7, maybe because I was as tall as them, so I performed at it. And it was this really life-changing night. My mum and dad came, they’d heard me play before, but I don’t think they realised what a big part it played in my life until that night. I was so incredibly shy, I’d never speak to people, and suddenly there I am performing to the sixth form and all the teachers. It was a lightning bolt, a moment where I realised: “Yes, I’m going to do this.”
She found her extraordinary, vibrato-rich, pin-drop voice that night, too. “I used to try to impersonate Aretha Franklin and Anastacia; I was obsessed with both of them, and with Ray Charles. So I sang quite low for a little girl, I did this whole raspy thing. Suddenly, though, I’d found my own way. To this day, I still can’t believe I got up there. I actually kept my coat on for that performance, like a security blanket, I went up on stage with my guitar, which was bigger than I was. And the reaction was insane. The whole room went crazy. And that was the moment where I thought: ‘Maybe I can take this thing that’s my own private thing, that I’ve done on my own, and actually share it with other people.’”
She wouldn’t, she says, go as far as feeling grateful for the solitude of those lunchtime sessions, but Freya is clear about what they taught her, and she talks about that period in her life without a trace of self-pity. “For that hour each day, all of myself came out. It has to go somewhere, or you go mad. Through those tiny little windows where I could be myself, I could just about hold on, but it was really hard, really dark. But it gave me a lantern to illuminate a way forward. I think they just thought I was a loner. But I love people! I come from a family of emotionally open, demonstrative people. At school, though, showing your feelings can all too easily attract the wrong kind of scrutiny; it’s not ‘cool’. To be cool, you have to act like you don’t care. And I care about everything! So I just had to batten down the hatches and wait until being uncool was acceptable. And get this: the second I left school, I lost loads of weight, and started thriving.”
Shyness and isolation weren’t the only issues Freya has had to contend with. Like so many women, in all walks of life, she has encountered hurdles whose continued presence in women’s lives both perplexes and exasperates her. “It can often seem like us women are not supposed to play an instrument or write our own songs, that we’re just there to sing and look ornamental. I just don’t think that can be right, that’s not who I am, and it’s not true for other women, too. It shocks me continually. And it produces another level of gratitude for how my parents raised me. How many girls dream of being actresses? Tons, right? But how many of them know that you basically have to write your own sitcom to be in anything these days? I wish I was saying, ‘Look at how things were, and how they have changed.’ But this is now. Women have as much to say. It’s crazy that it’s not seen as something that should be championed.
”When you’re at school and you’re one of three people that writes their own music and you’re the only girl that plays an instrument, you suddenly think: OK, so what I do isn’t the norm – but it feels completely normal to me. I’ve worked with a fair number of people since I was 16, and only two of the writers have been women. Or you go to the A&R awards and you’re the only woman at your table. That’s just a slight imbalance, maybe? So much of it is about expectations. It’s like the attempts to get girls into science and engineering; they don’t think it’s even a possibility. So many girls think they have to be singers, and don’t consider that they could just write."
Early collaborations alerted her to the danger of people wanting to change her sound, her look, her raison d’etre. She saw how easy it would be to go along with that, and how vital it was to be watchful for those that might want her to lower her standards or homogenise her music. “I would physically stand in the way of that bus if it happened now,” she laughs. “But it’s an interesting dilemma: compromise, or stay true to who you are. I’ve had so many people who have tried to change who I am, over such a long period of time, when actually, this is all I can do, and this is the only way I can do it.”
As you can see, while Freya’s music may be hushed, plaintive and confiding, in person, she is a country mile away from the teenager who hid in music rooms and behind coats and guitars. That’s another thing she credits her parents for. “I remember my mum saying to me once: ‘You do know that you can be like you are at home, but with other people.’ It took me a long time to realise that I could take that person out into the real world. Doing endless open-mic nights, slogging away, meeting people doing the same thing, who were often just like me, changed that. You know: ‘Ah, it’s OK.’ To not be pegged as ‘the shy one’, but as someone who was just doing my own thing because I loved doing it, was eye-opening. It felt like a cocoon cracking open.”
Freya is having to do some adjusting, but she isn’t taking any of it for granted. “I’m so grateful to the people who helped me hold on, who believed that it would work. And to those that didn’t! I can’t really absorb either the praise or the criticism. The second that you start valuing someone else’s opinion above your own is the moment you go mad. I’m incredibly grateful that people come to my shows, and are enthusiastic about the songs. I feel really humbled when people say that my music helped them in some way. I’ve made an album that I’m really proud of, but I’m determined to keep working hard. I’m certainly not going to rest on my laurels.”
Her songs express doubt, pain, regret and vulnerability. But there is steel at Freya’s core. She’s seen too much of the dark side for there not to be. Live, sitting at the piano, or strumming her guitar, she has distilled a short lifetime of uncertainty, and transformed it into songs of alchemical incandescence, magicked into greatness by one of the most powerful voices in a generation. If you doubt that steeliness, consider her comments on the name she trades under. “There was a lot of discussion at the beginning about whether I should use just my first name, or my surname too. My mum was like: ‘Hang on, men use their full names! Don’t make yourself smaller – other people will probably try to do that. Take up the room that you take up, don’t shrink yourself.’ I remember when I was at primary school, I’d write out my name on slips of paper, like I was signing an autograph, and everyone would be like: ‘You’re never going to need that for anything.’ So, yes, I’m going to use my full name, just like I wrote it on those pieces of paper. I’ve realised that your currency changes. I was effectively bankrupt at school in terms of how people saw me. Now, that seems to not be the case so much. My name is worth something, so I’m going to use it – all of it.”
She is ready, she says. Ready to get out there and put her message across. “If you’re going to devote all of your time and energy to something, who not make it something you love? And if you feel things too keenly, and you get punished for that in almost every area of life, but there’s this one area where precisely that quality is championed, well, that’s great, isn’t it?” Freya Ridings. Out of the music room, into the fire.