Rachel Chinouriri
Martina Martian

Entertainment

Singer Songwriter Rachel Chinouriri On Her Intimate New EP, 'Better Off Without'

The TikTok star talks industry racism, vulnerability and making viral hits.

Rachel Chinouriri’s new EP, Better Off Without, begins with a familiar sense of dread. “Somewhere beneath the surface / I wanna find if you’re the problem or the purpose,” she sings over a melancholy beat, fit for a coming-of-age movie. The track, “All I Ever Asked,” taps into the indie singer’s psyche as she processes a difficult relationship. Her lover is curt but apologetic, then equal parts affectionate and withholding. It’s an emotional whirlwind that many know well, and by the time we get to the chorus, Chinouriri is practically begging for clarity. “Just a little more time/ Was it really that hard to do?” she belts, “It was all I ever asked of you.”

The rest of the project winds through the relationship’s eventual demise — from “Happy Ending,” which mourns the future she didn’t get, to title track “Better Off Without,” a song that sheds the weight of a breakup, and finally, “Fall Right Out of Love,” in which Chinouriri commits to moving on. A release describes Better Off Without as “a story of heartbreak, but also of acceptance, [and] knowing exactly who you are and what you want.”

The record is a follow up to the 23-year-old singer’s debut EP, Four° In Winter. Though the projects differ thematically, they’re both raw reflections of Chinouriri’s life. “I’ve always been super vulnerable,” she tells NYLON over the phone. “I’ve always written music for myself and how I feel, so I don’t know how to write it any other way.”

The singer attributes much of her success — which includes going viral on TikTok — to her time spent at the Brit School of Performing arts in London, where she studied musical theater. “I loved it,” she says of the experience. “You could dress how you want, be how you want. You were never too strange. You were never too boring.”

Chinouriri’s honest lyrics and enchanting vocals have led to many viral hits. Though her songs — like “So My Darling” and “All I Ever Asked,” which have been used over 232 thousand times combined — are deeply personal, they’ve captured a massive audience of people who see themselves in the music. “I like to say that I’m an internet kid,” she explains. “I’ve always had a lot of social media presence, in ways, and interacted with people online, but when you do that, you are able to be more vulnerable.”

Better Off Without was released Friday, May 20th Via Elektra Records. To celebrate its debut, Chinouriri spoke with NYLON about the making of the album, her plans to go on tour, and her plight for respect as a Black indie-singer:

When did you start making music?

I started making music properly when I was like 14, when I did it in secondary school. But I would say professionally since I was 18.

Have you always wanted to make indie music, or did you play around with different genres?

[I] always started with indie. It's kind of never been different. Since I was 14, I was always making indie music. I call it wonky pop. I was heavily inspired by Labyrinth at one point, when I was like 15.

Oh, I love him.

I know I'm so happy Labrinth is getting his flowers. I've loved him since, I don't even remember when, from his first couple of albums. But yeah, I started liking the wonky pop sort of thing but it's always been indie — the songwriting, the guitar, that's always been my thing from the beginning.

What did you like to write about back then?

Men, just men. I'm trying to think, what else have I written about? I've written about guys in different ways, whether it's relationships or family-related issues. It's either guys or personal issues. I've written quite a lot about depression.

I find myself writing about super dark things. I think I kind of struggle to write about happy things. There was a point in my life where I was really, really, happy and I kind of had nothing to complain about. Then I realized I didn't write any songs in that period, at all. Then when everything started to crumble in the pandemic, I was like, "Oh, here we go. I got my stuff to write about." So yeah, I write a lot about negative emotions really.

Does songwriting help you process those emotions?

Hundred percent! I feel like music is not a want for me, it's a need. I can't imagine myself, even if I had a normal job, not making music, because it actually gives me peace of mind. People who know me personally know I struggle with talking. I kind of ramble a lot, and it takes a lot for me to figure out in my head what I want to say emotionally without going on five different tangents to get to it. When I write it in a song it's super-simplified to me, and it helps me understand it. And once I let it out and let it go, I feel a lot of relief every single time. I kind of can't wait for this EP to come out.

How long did it take you to make Better Off Without?

All the songs on it are new. I've been writing songs for five years. I have like 200 or so songs, but those four songs that I picked were all probably written in the last seven months.

I was in a five-year relationship, and I left that relationship about eight months ago. Even though I was writing those [new] songs, I didn't think they would become the EP, but they have become the EP. They kind of just found their way to each other, and perfectly digest my entire relationship from beginning to end — of beginning to doubt the relationship all the way to the point where we don't talk to each other anymore. So yeah, it's probably in the last six months where this has come about.

Were “All I Ever Asked” and “So My Darling” written recently too?

"So My Darling," I wrote when I was 17, actually. So that was like five years ago. But "All I've Ever Asked," I wrote that [at the] end of last year. And yeah, it's been a journey. "So My Darling," that going viral was quite random, but I've been trying to go viral on TikTok for years and it just paid off with the song that is my oldest song.

What drew you to TikTok after experimenting with other platforms?

My manager, if I'm really honest. When TikTok first came about in — I don't know, it didn't come about in 2019, but my manager was using it in 2019. I remember she was like, "I love TikTok. It's so funny." And I was like, "Oh, this is a baby app. I don't want to use these like 12-year-old kids dancing, and all this."

And she was like, 'I swear to you, it's actually really funny. Just try and see how it goes." So I started using it and she was completely right. It was extremely funny. I found people like GK Barry, [and] Izzy Oakley, who are like old London TikTokkers, and they were just hilarious on the app.

Then I started using it a little bit for music. But then I actually started just being myself, which was just like funny content, and that was what was continuously always going viral for probably the first year. Then I started trying to incorporate my music into it.

What has your experience as a Black Indie artist been like?

Oh, Lord. Where do I begin with that one? I feel like I was scared to say before, but the industry is racist in many ways. Subconsciously, I kind of thank God that I'm with a new label now. I'm with the Atlas Arts and Parlophone, and I feel like Parlophone have done a great job in hiring POC people, lots of different genders, lots of different ages in the office.

There's super young people, people my age, people who are way older — so you've got a broad range of knowledge and people who can speak to each other about different things and have strengths in different places.

Before being with my new label, it was just me and my management team, and we fought so hard. My management team is a white man, Duncan Ellis, and he's managed other Black artists before. He explained before I entered the industry, he was like, "You're going to have to really fight that whole R&B thing." And I was kind of like, "Ah, nah. That won't happen. It's obvious that I sing indie music. Right?"

I was completely, blissfully, unaware of how — I want to say, stupid, people can be sometimes. Because it's purely racism, and it's so obvious. Behind the scenes, it's always being said by my manager. Other white people on my behalf will say it, like “It’s racist to put someone in the genre.” And everyone's like, "Yeah, yeah. Of course, of course." And for years that was the case behind the scenes, but still, on the surface, [the way I was described] was very R&B.

The other one was “hip-hop songstress,” [or] “hip-hop infused.” Answers [in interviews] being changed to R&B and throwing in artists like Erykah Badu and stuff like that. Who I love — but aren't the people who I'm trying to be like, if that makes sense.

I just hit a point where I was like, you know what, I'm either going to lose my mind and be quiet and just thank people, or I'm going to speak up about it. And if I speak up about it and I lose everything I have, I'd much rather that and have peace of mind than to just carry on being someone who I'm not — especially when it's something that is so vulnerable to you. My music is very vulnerable and personal to me. And yeah, just being Black in the industry is...you can't describe it any less than being a complete headache sometimes.

Do you think that the industry is changing at all?

Hundred percent. I think, especially with the team I have, they've always been fighting for me behind the scenes. Even when I said I wanted to speak up about it, they were all like, "Yes, please do speak up about it,” and “We’re rooting for you." And my managers, they were just super proud of me.

To have that sort of backing and support, it's kind of insane from the industry too. In my head, it seems insane, but then it's also like, it’s just how it should be. People should be able to speak up about stuff like this — about being called “urban,” being called “R&B,” just for the sake of being Black.

[It] doesn't make sense to put me in articles like I am similar to Lily Allen, and then in the same sentence say that I'm hip-hop-infused. Lily Allen is literally so far from hip-hop, it's unbelievable. But I'm being called hip-hop purely because of my skin, and that's racist.

How do you think you’ve grown as an artist over the years?

I definitely used to write more for myself and emotionally before. Then I started trying to write for what I thought other people wanted to hear, and that's when my music definitely changed.

Even though it was me, it wasn't my truest self, I guess. And now with things like "So My Darling," one of the first songs I wrote blowing up on TikTok — it kind of reminded me that the songs that I've written by myself, and did by myself in a time when no one had opinions on my music is what has done me the most well, and I should remember that and stick to my guns when it comes to writing.

I'm kind of starting to go back into that, but obviously, I've learned a lot of skills from working with other people. And formulating a song in a better way, making sure it translates in the best way for me and for other people. I guess it's just [that] my younger self of writing has just grown up a little bit or changed just a little bit.

Do you plan to release a full album soon?

A hundred percent. I think that time is coming soon. I think it's been long enough. And my last EP was basically two songs shy of an album anyway. I definitely had multiple songs I could have added to that to turn it into an album, but I didn't.

What excites you about going on tour?

Meeting people. I think I'm really sociable. I love even going on nights out and just chatting with random people. I love that. And I love hugging people and connecting with people. And like I said, I'm very much an internet kid. I haven't actually done that much live stuff.

This year, I'm going to be doing so many gigs. I think with all the training I had from Brit School, which has literally trained me to perform, then the pandemic happening in between. I'm just really ready to go out, perform, see how I am at gigs, try out all the skills I've learned, [and] become a better performer. I think the top priority is meeting people who I speak to online and who have supported my music so much. I think it's meeting them, which is really pushing me the most.

Better Off Without is now streaming.