Rita Ora Discusses New Album & Calvin Harris: 'I Don't Control Other People's Minds'
It's nearly 3 p.m. on the second day of the inaugural Los Angeles edition of Made in America Festival, and a big crowd has gathered to catch Rita Ora's main-stage performance. It's a major upgrade -- two years ago, Ora played to a side-stage crowd three rows deep at the fest's first run in Philadelphia.
"I’ve performed in farms and bars and prisons," says Ora. "I've done all that work that feels like it doesn't really mean anything at the time, but it pays off at moments like this."
Ora, 23, is shrewdly aware of how crucial nailing her performance at Made in America can be. After signing with Jay Z's Roc Nation in 2009, she blew up in the United Kingdom when her 2012 singles "R.I.P." and "How We Do (Party)" both entered the Official Charts Company tally at No. 1, the type of homeland chart success that preceded British acts like Sam Smith and Charli XCX winning over U.S. audiences this year. But unlike Smith and Charli XCX, neither of Ora's early hits made much of a dent on the Billboard Hot 100, and she scrapped the U.S. release of her 2012 debut, Ora, as a result. “I was young,” she says. “I didn’t know how to be heard.”
Now, Ora is readying a new LP, due in January. But how will she finally succeed stateside? With a little help from her friends, for one. Iggy Azalea's "Black Widow," which moves 6-5 on the Hot 100 dated Sept. 20, is Ora's first top 10. And she’s pursuing a new career path: acting. Ora has landed a featured role as Christian Grey's sister Mia in Fifty Shades of Grey (due Valentine’s Day 2015) and its planned sequels. She also recently completed work in a supporting role opposite Rachel McAdams and Jake Gyllenhaal in the Antoine Fuqua-directed Southpaw.
The new career probably isn't a surprise to her psychiatrist mother and pub-owning father, who escaped war and ethnic strife in Kosovo and relocated to London when she was 1: Ora was named after Rita Hayworth, the favorite star of her late grandfather, film director Besim Sahatciu. "I love impressions and characters and how they dictate a room," Ora says of her new vocation. "It's all about energy."
Lastly, Ora is proving herself a master of smart branding deals, from her own line of Adidas clothing, which debuted Sept. 5, to a lipstick for Rimmel London and a big DKNY endorsement. She also has been a featured face of Madonna's Material Girl and Roberto Cavalli's latest collections. As a result, even without her own hit song or a major tour, Ora's earnings this year will easily exceed $1 million, Billboard estimates.
But Ora's new push hit a major road bump when the first single from her upcoming album, "I Will Never Let You Down" (No. 96 on the Hot 100 dated Sept. 20), sparked a very public feud with her ex-boyfriend, EDM superstar Calvin Harris, the song's sole writer-producer. Harris denied publisher's approval for all televised performances and sync licenses of the track, tweeting that he had a "damn good reason." Tabloids reported the rift was due to an alleged dalliance between Ora and Justin Bieber -- stirring up memories of her 2012 breakup with Rob Kardashian, who also accused of her cheating. Harris' ban forced Ora to cancel a planned appearance at the Teen Choice Awards on Aug. 10.
Shortly thereafter, Ora walked away from several red carpet interviews over the topic. But after performing the song live for the first time at Made in America (Harris' ban doesn’t extend to untelevised performances), she's ready to speak up. "I don't control other people’s minds, especially if they've written a great song," she says. "I couldn't care less that I couldn't perform it -- it was about my fans being disappointed, and that's my nightmare. But I performed it [at the festival] and I'm sure I'll perform it three years from now. It's a part of me. I'm not going to deny that." Ora declined to elaborate further on her history with Harris.
Meanwhile, she's hard at work on her new LP, fusing her soul, dance and hip-hop influences into collaborations with Prince and Diplo that put more focus on live instruments. "I wanted to make sure my band onstage was tight as f---," says Ora. "And the new album is exactly that -- it's tight, it's clean, it's not confusing. It's who I wanted to work with."
Ora previewed one Prince collaboration, the slinky "Single Most Amazing," in an ad for Cavalli, and the track appears to be indicative of her new live-band, hip-hop soul sound. "I'm obsessed with the world that is American hip-hop. I embrace it on this record. I'm from London, but that doesn't mean I can't embrace this amazing wave taking over every single radio station."
Ora cites Tina Turner and Freddie Mercury as her biggest influences, but her music/acting/branding arc more closely mirrors that of Jennifer Lopez. "I'm a singer first and foremost, but I love creative experiences," she says. "All these people I'm working with, they're all coming for the Rita Ora business. So why not do it all if you can?"
An edited version of this story orginally appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of Billboard.