Rae Morris’s house is so nice it has brought on an identity crisis. “I find myself in this fancy location house in Primrose Hill,” says the musician, scanning the mirrored walls and mustard velvet upholstery that has made her home a sought-after set for fashion shoots and TV shows. “And I’m like: what the fuck am I doing here?!”
The chasm between Morris’s very ordinary childhood in Blackpool – her dad was a firefighter, her mother an NHS worker – and her charmed existence has been playing on the 29-year-old’s mind. She is about to release her third album, Rachel @ Fairyland, another collection of the idiosyncratic yet deeply catchy confections that have made her a lauded figure on the outer limits of British pop. Combining piano balladry with quirky production, piercing Kate Bush-style vocals and incisive, introspective lyrics, Morris creates indelible, euphoric tunes.
The new album serves as an unashamedly “rose-tinted” view of the north as a “Mary Poppins-esque universe,” explains Morris. It’s a concept echoed in the music, which is peppered with “orchestral Disney-esque woodwind stuff”. You can feel the yearning especially keenly on Running Shoes, a lush synthpop hymn to a pastoral idyll where animals graze and “the internet’s slow”. But Morris also misses less tangible things: the friendliness, the “practicality” and a feeling of normality she can’t seem to locate in London, where she lives with fellow musician and collaborator Benjamin Garrett (better known as Fryars) – convinced her to move to this ritzy neighborhood was its proximity to Euston, the gateway to the north-west.
Last summer, after [email protected] had been recorded – in the studio they installed in their basement – Morris and Garrett had a baby. It is a development that has compounded Morris’s sense of displacement. She is n’t keen on the idea of her daughter having a posh southern accent. “I think she’ll sound like she’s from Primrose Hill, and I’ll just have to deal with it,” she sighs, jokingly fantasizing about her success drying up and her family being forced to decamp to Blackpool.
It seems unlikely. That said, the past few years have been rocky for Morris professionally. Rachel @ Fairyland is her first release from Ella since leaving Atlantic, the major label she signed with at 19 for a “weird” amount of money. The music industry interest – based on a handful of demos she’d uploaded to Myspace – “completely blew my world away. Suddenly there were all these A&Rs coming down to my gigs at the Mad Ferret in Preston, some shit open-mic night.” Now, she wishes she hadn’t accepted such a massive advance, “because for the next eight years I was having to prove I was worth it”. To put it brutally, she could n’t: despite scoring a Top 10 hit with her 2015 debut Ella Unguarded, compared to labelmates Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit her numbers were “pathetic”, she says.
After her second album, 2018’s critically acclaimed Someone Out There (chart peak: No 20), she was dropped. She was upset, she admits, but she also seems remarkably sanguine. “I’ve always wanted to play massive gigs and be a national treasure-type,” she says, giggling at her own chutzpah from her. “But the things I love are always a little bit weird.”
Morris says her experiences in the belly of the pop machine weren’t exactly terrible – in fact, after making most of her new album alone with Garrett, she signed with another major, RCA. But being in that world from a young age had an insidious effect on her sense of self. [email protected]’s gorgeously sweeping opening track, No Woman Is an Island, focuses on the creepy ways in which female pop stars are molded by older male executives. “Not in any other area of your life would someone say: ‘You’ve got a really great smile, you should put that out there more,’” she says. “There was a lot of: ‘I wonder if you wear a crop top whether that would help?’” There was also the suggestion she be seen more often in public with her celeb mates. “’Maybe you could invite these famous people you know to this thing…’” She cringes.
But it was a flattening of her character that Morris particularly objected to. “You take me for polite and mild / But actually my life is totally wild,” she croons on No Woman Is An Island, a reference to the fact that she was viewed as dull simply because she didn’t engage in any out-there onstage antics: “Just because I’m not dancing around with very little clothing doesn’t mean that I don’t have many layers to my character.”
If her previous team were desperate for some provocation, they would have been delighted to hear new track Low Brow, a “very sexy banger”, she says. The song, written with Garrett, is about a lifetime of sexual experiences: wet thighs, faces “glistening” and a person “tunneling through my body”.
Morris says the song isn’t straight-faced but it has a serious side. When she first found fame, Morris was in a relationship with fellow Blackpool singer-songwriter Karima Francis and she found it “really annoying” that having a girlfriend meant interviewers seemed to view her sexuality as an appropriate subject for (strained) conversation. Low Brow was an opportunity to “discuss my sexuality in a way that was more fun and relaxed.” Although she appreciates the irony. “I know now everybody’s just going to ask me about it every single time.”
Writing a song with your husband about your past bedroom activity might sound a bit unusual, but everything about Morris’s demeanor screams extremely well-adjusted, down-to-earth and – yes – normal. When I worry that I’m perspiring on her swanky built-in sofa after a sweltering tube journey, she shows me a large milk stain on one of the cushions that happened while she was breastfeeding.
Conversation follows to other bodily fluids: we start comparing notes about bouts of norovirus spread by our children. Morris’s household outbreak occurred on a day of filming in her house. “[My daughter] was being sick, and I was being sick, and we had to do a video shoot. We couldn’t cancel because it was too late.” I gaze at the pink carpeted walls and picture the scene: even an inordinately cool Primrose Hill home and glamorous career isn’t enough, it seems, to insulate against everyday disaster.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism