“Is this me on the radio?”
Rita Ora abruptly pauses a conversation about the dueling merits of New York and Los Angeles, as the driver of her elongated white van turns the FM radio all the way up. Indeed, it is Rita’s song, “Your Song,” her new song, co-written by Ed Sheeran and released a few weeks earlier, blasting from the car stereo. Ora bites her lip and squeezes her eyes shut as the driver, helping us rumble up Soho at rush hour, says something congratulatory in front of the partition. She hears herself sing, “I don’t want to hear sad songs anymore/ I only want to hear love songs,” and lightly squeals.
“Wow! This is my first time hearing my new song on the radio!” Ora exclaims, her cheeks pushing up toward her oversized shades. She whips out her phone to document the moment on Snapchat, but “Your Song” has already concluded, and the disc jockey is adding an enthusiastic epilogue: “That was Rita Ora, with her new song ‘Your Song.’ Love that one!”
Ora tilts her phone screen away from her powder blue pantsuit, unable to capture the snap in time. “Missed it,” she laments. “But my name was on the radio!” A few seconds later, she re-fixes her gaze on the phone and briskly taps the screen. “I just had to text my mum,” she apologizes. “She’s like, ‘No way!’”
For Ora, hearing one of her songs on the radio should not be a momentous occasion. The 26-year-old London singer has scored nine Top 10 hits in the U.K. in the past half-decade; her debut single, “How We Do (Party),” was a radio smash across Europe upon its 2012 release, and helped yield the No. 1 debut of her first album, Ora, in the U.K. when she was 21 years old. But we’re not in the U.K.; that’s one of two reasons why Ora is thrilled to hear “Your Song” on the radio.
In America, Ora has collected one Top 10 single, and it was as a featured artist. Her biggest hits overseas, including “How We Do (Party),” have not taken off here. “Your Song,” which became Ora’s latest Top 10 hit in her native country following its May release, has yet to crack the Hot 100. She has 6 million followers on Twitter and nearly 12 million on Instagram, yet is often the butt of American social media jokes due to her consistent media presence, but relative lack of radio resonance. She is a personality in the U.S., but not a pop superstar. That distinction has led to derision (or at the very least, widespread snark) in the online echo chamber.
The other reason Ora is giddy? “Your Song” is her first solo single in two years, and represents a much-needed new beginning. Five years ago, Ora was touted as a must-memorize new name in pop, a surefire star with an irresistible personality and aggressive PR strategy. Her mainstream arrival in 2012 came after inking a five-album deal with Roc Nation in late 2008 and becoming Jay-Z’s latest protege. Seven-and-a-half years after that deal, in May 2016, Ora finalized her split from Roc Nation, without ever even having released an album in America.
While stringing together hits in the U.K., Ora had been trapped in label purgatory in the country she desperately wanted to conquer. She has spent the past few years playing arenas and serving as A-list tabloid fodder in one continent, while not being allowed to release music — and being meme’d into near-oblivion — in another.
But the past is the past, asserts Ora, who’s at once warm and loquacious, an old friend ready to fill you in on what she was up to over summer vacation. “Your Song” is a re-introduction with potentially high stakes for her future at Top 40, but it is relaxed, airy and unrelentingly positive, pairing its lyrical account of comfortable new passion with chattering beats. For all the frustration it follows, “Your Song” eschews drama — it is a light, great pop single, well-designed by Sheeran and producer-songwriter Steve Mac, with a confidence that Ora wants to exude outside of the song. “It’s a new chapter,” she declares. “When I was [in] what I like to call ‘limbo land,’ where I couldn’t put out music for a while, I thought, ‘Who am I? What am I?’ I’m this girl from West London, that’s who the f–k I am!”
And so a U.S. album, recorded in London and Los Angeles, is finally coming, on her new label home of Atlantic Records, likely before the end of the year. Sheeran will not be the only A-lister included in the album credits — Chris Martin of Coldplay, Julia Michaels, Stargate and Justin Tranter all worked with Ora on the project. Andrew Watt, who co-wrote DJ Snake’s 2016 smash “Let Me Love You” with Justin Bieber, believes the as-yet-untitled album will reveal Ora to be not just a U.S. star, but something much more.
“I work very closely with her and pay very close attention to the details of her voice,” says Watt. He adds with a deathly seriousness: “I do not look at her like Rihanna, Katy Perry, any of those people. I literally see her as like, Janis Joplin. You know? Janis Joplin, Ella Fitzgerald, Donna Summer. Those singers.”
Ora shies away from such comparisons, but remains not-so-quietly ambitious. The singer says that she’s been perfecting her plan to take America by storm for some time — accruing the respect of studio collaborators, chiseling down her full-length debut to its most radio-friendly components, taking on several non-musical projects to stay in the spotlight as her label drama gets sorted behind the scenes. Everything she does, Ora insists, is for the sake of her music career. “You know when you build a tent, and you put all the stakes on the ground, and that’s the shape your tent’s going to take?” she asks. “I know that’s a very weird metaphor, but I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing.”
The tent has been built, and its sturdiness is about to be tested. Ora knows that U.S. audiences don’t know her music like they should, but she’s betting that her reign of hits will extend across the Atlantic. “I haven’t had my chance yet,” she says, “but it’s coming very soon. I think people now just want to see where my heart lies. And I think they are gonna see that.”
As the van bounces around downtown, Rita Ora mentions that she only has a few hours left in New York; soon, she’ll be headed to the airport and away to London, where she’ll prepare for Glastonbury Festival the following weekend. “I don’t really have any downtime,” says Ora, who’s constantly crossing the Atlantic. What does Ora do on airplanes?
“On planes, I like to write,” she says. She’s not talking about writing songs. “I’ve been writing this thing called Airplane Diaries, and it’s about — you know, if someone farts on the plane, or if I end up talking to someone,” she explains. “It’s about anything on the plane. Like, the food could be gross, or the food’s amazing. I was trying to fall asleep, but I’m freezing.” Ora is convinced that airlines wake up passengers by dropping the temperature of the plane multiple degrees in preparation for landing. “That’s my epiphany,” she says. “Like, you wake up because you’re frozen!”
When she was a year old, Ora (born Rita Sahatçiu) traveled with her parents to West London from Kosovo, and began inhaling British music in the years after relocating. “I used to be obsessed with punk,” she says, “and then I used to be a grime kid, because that’s my culture. I came from the block, so grime would be in our blood.”
The years that followed — open mic nights, scattered features, a Eurovision audition and eventually ending up at Roc Nation — pushed her toward a pop career, but she name-checks grime artists like Ghetts, Wretch 32 and Skepta as personal heroes. Ora would watch videos of British hip-hop performances before she was old enough to go to the shows, and study the intensity of the MCs’ audiences. “I grew up and learned about the culture,” she explains. “I was like, ‘I wish my fan base could [someday] be like that.’”
Following years of developing a following overseas, Ora was supposed to blow up in the U.S. in 2012. Jay-Z had signed Ora to his label, given her a cameo in his “Young Forever” video and booked her for his inaugural Made In America festival later that year. One day in February 2012, Jay-Z decided to bring Ora to Z100’s New York studios and play “How We Do (Party)” — a frothy dance track that lifts its refrain from the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Party and Bullshit” — on air himself. He gave a loving introduction before pressing play.
“This was all very spontaneous,” Jay-Z said at the time. “We just came to see some great friends over here at Z100 in my neighborhood and we knew they would like what they heard, ‘cause Rita is amazing.”
For Ora, getting that sort of co-sign from Jay-Z — who’s played mentor to eventual superstars like Kanye West, Rihanna and J. Cole — had been a dream, and far more impactful than simply having the hip-hop legend as a label boss. “I felt like I was on top of the world,” Ora now remembers “How We Do (Party)” and follow-up single “R.I.P.” (featuring Tinie Tempah) both hit No. 1 in the U.K. but failed to catch on at U.S. radio; Ora, a debut LP featuring contributions from Sia, Diplo and Will.i.am, was released overseas in August 2012 but never made it to U.S. shores.
Even as her singles underperformed in America, Ora begged to go on tour in the U.S., based on the encouraging social engagement she was receiving from fans in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. “I had an online ‘cool’ vibe going on, a presence,” she says. Her team didn’t want to do the tour, but Ora persisted.
“I funded my first U.S. tour myself — no one knows that,” she says. “I said to my team at the time, ‘I really think I should go and do … not massive venues, but a few thousand people. And they were like, ‘Nah, what’s the point? You’re not releasing any music there.’ I said, ‘I’ll show you the point — look at my followers. Look at how active my online presence is with my Instagram and Twitter. You guys are missing the point. This is the future! This is my age.’”
After Ora had performed at dozens of shows in Europe earlier that year, she played six U.S. cities in the fall of 2012; more importantly, the truncated tour is how Ora met a rising rap artist named Iggy Azalea, who opened on a few dates. Eighteen months after the tour wrapped, Azalea had Ora sing the hook on the single “Black Widow,” a snappy bit of revenge-pop co-written by Katy Perry. The song hit No. 3 on the Hot 100 chart. At long last, Ora had achieved radio success in the U.S., alongside her former opening act and a future Best New Artist Grammy nominee. “It was two girls who did their thing together on tour, and ended up having a hit, which felt fantastic for the both of us,” Ora says.
Yet as Azalea struggled to release new music following a commercial apex in 2014, so did Ora, who dropped one solo single (“Poison”) the following year but proved unable to connect with radio on her own, and still could not square away an album release date. In December 2015, Ora filed a lawsuit against Roc Nation, citing the company’s evolving focus on sports management and streaming as the reason she has been “orphaned” as an artist on its record label arm. “Rita’s relationship with Roc Nation is irrevocably damaged,” stated the complaint, demanding her release under California’s “seven year rule” that prohibits personal service contracts over seven years long. Ora and Roc Nation reached a settlement in May 2016, and the singer struck a deal with Warner Bros. one month later. (Roc Nation had not responded to Billboard‘s request for comment by time of publishing.)
“I wasn’t able to release songs, for reasons I can’t [legally] talk about,” says Ora, now sitting on a couch in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel as her crew picks up a few items before taking her to the airport. “There were moments where I was super-frustrated, but then there were moments where I was like, everything happens for a reason, be patient. That’s what I had to keep telling myself.”
In the meantime, she decided to pursue as many non-musical endeavors as possible to keep her visibility steady in the States. Ora appeared in films like Fifty Shades of Grey and Southpaw, while signing on as the host of America’s Next Top Model and the ongoing reality competition Boy Band; she’s also scored deals with Donna Karan and Roberto Cavalli, appeared in ads for Coca-Cola and Samsung and worked with Adidas on a sportswear line. And outside of her own volition, Ora made headlines for a messy split with Calvin Harris in 2014, and was briefly involved in the “Becky With The Good Hair” search when Beyonce’s Lemonade came out last year.
The onslaught seemingly created a jarring effect for U.S. audiences vaguely aware of her singing career. Ora was consistently on the periphery — on television screens, in the corners of films, on billboards and the front pages of magazines — but offering no bops at the center of her stardom. She was ubiquitous on social media, but nowhere on the charts. And that dichotomy earned Ora a sort of warped notoriety within pop culture.
In October 2014, a tweet from Ora’s account read, “Dropping my new song Monday if this gets 100,000 retweets,” a message that was deleted after receiving roughly 2,000 retweets. Hours later, Ora wrote that her Twitter had been hacked and that the new music tease had been fake — but Buzzfeed still proclaimed the stunt a “massive Twitter fail,” posting doubtful replies to Ora’s denial.
In 2015, Wendy Williams asked on her syndicated talk show “Who is this woman?” when shown Ora’s Marie Claire U.K. cover, in a sound clip that went viral. A year later, Williams invited Ora onto her show, and then asked the singer, “I know you from being the fashion girl. Every single magazine you open up, you always see Rita Ora, and I always say, oh hey! But what else does she do, what else does she do—[now] I got it.”
In 2016, the podcast Who? Weekly about C-list celebrities (A.K.A. “whos”) launched, as did its weekly segment “What’s Rita Ora Up To?,” in which hosts Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger dissect Ora’s oft-mundane weekly activities on social media, in the tabloids and beyond. “She’s a perfect who for us because she’s famous on another continent and she wants to be famous here,” Finger explained of Ora in an interview with Slate. “She’s got a thirst, a taste for it … and I think it’s because she’s been so close to being famous for so long.” (Full disclosure: Weber and Finger are friends with the author of this piece.)
None of these send-ups were career-killers for Ora; even Who? Weekly’s regularly scheduled updates are little more than a light ribbing of the singer they call the “Who Queen.” But Ora, a bonafide pop star in her native country, understands how she is viewed in the U.S., and can’t wait to change her image. “I think people… know that I work, a lot,” she says carefully when asked about her public image in the States. “The perception of me is different in different regions. I’ve released an album overseas, done festivals, played the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury — which for me is an iconic stage to be on. And over here, I’ve kind of… dipped into the pies? As in like, features, TV. And I’ve only done that because those were the only pies that I could reach at that point.”
That will change, Ora says, now that her U.S. reach can extend into the pop world. “Music can never wait,” she declares. “I want to dominate everything… I work really hard, to make sure I don’t get masked for something that I’m not.”
Like “Your Song” and her excellent 2014 overseas hit “I Will Never Let You Down,” the tracks that will make up Ora’s forthcoming U.S. debut hum along like well-oiled machines, with the singer’s vocal delivery showing refinement without ever overreaching as it slinks over various uptempo productions. “Falling To Pieces” shimmers with a trumpet hook, while “Summer Love” sprawls out before a drum-and-bass chorus crashes in with an immediacy Ora has rarely approached. For the candy-colored “Girls,” Ora says she worked with Charli XCX and Mø; the refrain goes “Sometimes, I just wanna kiss girls,” over a blinking beat. The songs successfully capture Ora’s current state, a self-described “party animal” with an eye on adulthood. If they aren’t sure things to impact pop radio in the U.S., they’re at least good bets.
Watt says that Ora flew he and his writing partner Ali Tamposi (Kelly Clarkson, Lea Michele) out to London to work on the album last year, and that the singer would often bring her seven best friends and family members into the studio to hear new music and give feedback. “One night, I put together this song for her, and we needed a live drummer,” Watt recalls. “Everyone was like, ‘Let’s get Adele’s drummer,’ and I was like, ‘No, we’re in London. We’re going to get David Bowie’s drummer.’ And they’re like, ‘Is this guy still alive?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll hunt him down and find out!’”
Sure enough, Ora and co. brought in 66-year-old Mick “Woody” Woodmansey, the last surviving member of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust lineup, to drum on a track. “He played on it and did the thing,” Watt gushes, “and then everyone went out that night, and I think we were probably up until seven in the morning.”
Looking back, Ora describes the recording process as “effortless” once her label situation had been clarified. After recording half of the album in London, she headed to L.A. with the intent of staying for a week, and ended up recording for months with various writers. “Every day we’d go to the studio, make some songs, then go and get drunk, and listen to the songs back and say ‘This is great!’ or ‘This isn’t working,’” Ora recalls. “And the next day, we’d go in and perfect it or work on something new.”
It’s easy to understand why major producers and songwriters want to work with Ora, despite the false starts of her U.S. career. As zealous as she is in her professional life, Ora is a delightful hang — not to mention a music nerd. As she munches on a slice of the Bowery’s prosciutto pizza, smothered in tabasco sauce (“I have it on everything,” she confesses), Ora starts listing off new artists that she’s been obsessed with lately: Raye, H.E.R., Billie Eilish, NAO. She’d love to talk about why Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner is one of her favorite albums of all time, but needs an hour to do so, not the few minutes she has left before she heads to the airport. She heard that SZA’s Ctrl album debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and she thinks that that’s fantastic.
In a few months, a Rita Ora album will likely debut on the Billboard 200 for the first time. This is the moment that Ora has been anticipating for years: an honest shot at becoming a pop star in America, of having her message unadulterated and spread across a full body of work. She says that her forthcoming album represents who she is, completely. If it doesn’t work here, at least she shared herself on her terms.
“I can’t wait for the world to experience my vision and my sound,” Ora says. “I’ve got some amazing friends in this industry who I respect and who respect me, from the work ethic and for my knowledge of music and my love for punk and my growth in learning. I surprise a lot of people in my knowledge of music alone.
“I think that people judge a book by its cover,” she concludes of herself. “Not on this occasion.”