Chicago Singer Ravyn Lenae Talks Crafting Her EP 'Crush,' Her Quick Rise to Fame & More

Jingyu Lin
Ravyn Lenae

“I don’t care if it’s the slow way, I just want to do it the right way.”

It’s a typically brisk afternoon in early-March Chicago, and in a few weeks, Ravyn Lenae is set to head out on her debut headlining tour. But sitting here in her manager’s loft-style office on the city’s north side, the 19-year-old R&B singer is quickly realizing how much she still doesn’t know. Clothes, wigs, lighting, set design -- even on recent outings opening for SZA and Noname, “These were never things I worried about,” Lenae admits. To wit, she’s just finished meeting with a newly hired stylist who spent the past hour asking Lenae about matters largely foreign to her: wardrobe cases, wig maintenance, hair extensions. “It’s definitely a more thoughtful process,” the R&B singer says respectfully, tossing her maroon-tinged braids around her head as she tries to wrap her head around what’s in store for her.

It hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere: In recent weeks, Lenae has seen her fame and critical acclaim explode thanks to the release of her funky and fresh new Crush EP. And while she knows taking creative control of her headlining live show is a luxury, it’s also an unforeseen task she hadn’t previously considered. Nonetheless, “People are paying good money to see you so you should put that much effort into what the product is and what they’re experiencing,” she contends. “It’s a big responsibility. It’s all about making sure people leave your show with the right feeling.”

Lucky for her, constructing a unique world -- in her case, one stuffed with slinky, tender vibes and all the feels -- is Lenae’s specialty. On Crush, she and producer Steve Lacy of the Internet (Kendrick Lamar, Tyler, the Creator) together concocted one of the most sumptuous and supple, meditative and detailed dispatches from a soulful young singer’s mind in recent memory. In its wake, she’s been critically praised, plotted a European tour and landed a slot at the tastemaking Pitchfork Music Festival in her native city. Still, Lenae says she’s a bit dumbfounded by it all. “I’ll be honest: I’ve listened to [Crush] so many times by now I can’t even tell if it’s good anymore. I was like, ‘I don’t even know if this is good or bad?

In conversation Lenae is soft-spoken and humble, but shows her age with the occasional giggling fit. Speaking of her music, she’s decidedly confident, but admits she was worried fans of her first two EP’s, produced by Chicago’s Monte Booker, may have been turned by with her new project’s more avant-garde sound. “I’m like ‘OK, I know I’m gonna lose a couple fans because this is very different than what I’ve been doing,” she says. “But,” she says with palpable surprise, “I’ve actually gained way more support.”

As it turns out, her new sound arrived rather unexpectedly even for her. After striking up a friendship with members of The Internet, while out in LA the neo-funk collective invited her to one of their recording sessions. “So yah, I was basically crashing an Internet session,” she clarifies with a smile. When most of the group stepped out for a break, Lacy remained and cued up a beat on his phone. “I’m like “Oh, I wanna do that one!” Lenae told him unprompted. Lacy didn’t mind: he set up a pop filter on his iPhone and within minutes Lenae had recorded the hook for what would become “Sticky,” the lead single from Crush.

That was only the beginning: in short order the pair soon met up for a series of recording sessions. The sound they were creating on the fly – an almost psychedelic brand of soul buoyed by unconventional guitar riffs and  – “was super-organic,” Lenae says. “I didn’t meet up with him with the intentions of like ‘I’m gonna change my sound,’” but being the type of singer who can readily adapt to her collaborators, one who Lacy has said is “not locked into a certain style or vocal range,” they landed on something special.

“And when I was listening back to the songs after I wrote them I was like “Whoa, this is way different than what I’ve been doing!’” she says. “It was more honest and mature.” A few weeks later, while eating dinner with members of team at Atlantic Records and discussing her next release, she decided to text Lacy. “What if we just do our own project together?” she asked him. The producer immediately replied, and made the pair’s partnership official: “I’m down!”

Going with her gut is nothing new for Lenae. Born Ravyn Lenae Washington, and raised on Chicago’s far South Side, the young girl who grew up on a steady diet of ‘90s hip-hop and R&B (Busta Rhymes, Outkast, Erykah Badu, India Arie) and would mimic Beyoncé videos at family gatherings, always knew she wanted a career in the arts. But when she enrolled at Chicago High School for the Arts and noticed most of her classmates were content preparing for an academic career in music, Lenae took matters into her own hands. Using $200 from her first paycheck working at a local non-profit, After School Matters, the then-15-year-old booked her first studio session at nearby Classick Studios. It was there she met the producer Booker, the rapper Smino and began going there several times a week to record.

“I put out my first song with no intentions of being famous,” she says of the spur-of-the-moment decision to upload the song “Greetings” onto SoundCloud as a high school sophomore. “Honestly, I wasn’t thinking at all.” But as is so often the case for now-successful artists who got their start on the democratic online platform, “I posted it and the reception I got blew me away. ‘Like, Wait, ya’ll actually like this?’ These were strangers tweeting the song out or commenting on it. So yah, that was the first push for me as far as making my own music and releasing it.”

Leane’s music soon found its way to an A&R rep at Atlantic Records who flew to Chicago and convinced Lenae to sign to the major label. Since then, she’s signed on with Chance the Rapper’s management and spent the past few years honing her craft. She’s also started learning how best to navigate the music industry. For one, Lenae says she’s come to realize who she can trust. “I had this idea like, “We’re all friends. We’re all honest.’ And that’s not the truth,” she says later that afternoon, at a traditional Chinese tea house a few blocks from her manager’s office. “Being from Chicago you kind of are shielded in a way from the other stuff that goes on in music and the industry,” she says. The early local support, she says, was crucial. “If I didn’t have those artists and that crowd cheering me on or being honest with me about the music it could have been a whole different outcome.”

She acknowledges that following a breakout release like Crush her next moves are crucial ones. It’s why she says she’ not rushing. As evidence, these days, when not on tour, Lenae still lives at home with her parents. “I don’t mind it at all!” she says defensively bursting into laughter with a warm glass of Jasmine Pearl tea in hand. “Plus, I’m hardly home anyway so it’s nice to come back home and see everybody.”

For now, Lenae says she’s “just existing in this moment and taking everything in before I decide what’s next. “I don’t care if it’s the slow way,” she says. “I just want to do it the right way.”