“What do you think? Should we go see Mariah Carey or Bruno Mars?” asks Rita Ora, planning her Saturday evening’s antics in Las Vegas. In terms of respective set times, the pop star could technically go see Mariah’s Caesars Palace residency then be done in time for Bruno’s headline slot at Rock In Rio festival. “Yeah? Sorted. You’re coming with,” she smiles.
Rita’s arrived at the MGM Grand where she’s staying to present at the Billboard Music Awards (held here in Sin City last night). Entering her room is like landing in Aladdin’s Cave. She’s only been here a hot minute but all her worldly possessions appear spread out around her. Apart from some Chanel trinkets that have gone astray somewhere between London, the East Coast, LA, and wherever Rita’s been jetsetting to for the past 48 hours.
Louis Vuitton suitcases crammed with outfits are strewn all over, boxes of scarves, bags of rock t-shirts (Bad Brains, Bowie, Circle Jerks), a hat case filled with headwear and a hairdresser who’s sat on the bed with us, cutting Rita’s casual, long white braids out to prepare her for an ultra glam red carpet look tomorrow. Four different choices from room service are on the bed. Wherever Rita Ora goes, she has options for every eventuality, ready for whatever takes her flight when it eventually arrives. She relentlessly believes all of it will. That’s why she’s constantly on-the-go. Rita has looks for days, business deals to make reality and a music career she’s almost re-launching from scratch. “Guys, where are my socks?” Thankfully, she has socks too, somewhere among the clothes rubble.
Born Rita Sahatçiu, 24 years ago in Pristina, Kosovo, she was barely a year old when her parents fled the war-torn country with their family—including her older sister Elena,who now acts as her manager—moving to a housing project in West London. Named as a nod to her filmmaker grandfather’s favorite actress Ms. Hayworth, Rita showed an early aptitude for the spotlight, the seeds of which were sown when, at six-years-old, she scored the starring role of Cinderella in the school play. Eventually she enrolled in Sylvia Young Theatre School, whose alum include Amy Winehouse and Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton. In 2009, despite featured appearances on singles by Craig David and Tinchy Stryder, she auditioned for the Eurovision Song Contest, a cheesy European talent competition.
She sailed through and was offered the chance to represent the UK, but wisely went with her gut and pulled out. Thanks to some savvy management reach out, by the end of that year Rita was in New York meeting with Jay Z. Fourt-eight hours later she signed to Roc Nation, and two years after that, when Rita was still a teenager, her debut record, Ora, went to number one in the UK. The album included four songs which also went to number one and its long-protracted follow-up (two years is an eon in pop terms), is being readied for a release later this year.
As is par for the course with any ambitious performer in the game, Rita isn’t merely a singer: she’s an Adidas collaborator, and the face of Rimmel London. “I approached them,” she says, asserting that she’s is her own head honcho carving out all her own opportunities. She’s also dabbling in the film world with a cameo in Fifty Shades Of Grey, plus a meatier role in the forthcoming boxing drama, Southpaw, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rachel McAdams. Rita plays a crack addict. Oh, and thanks to the British edition of The Voice, where she appeared as a coach alongside her friend Will.I.Am, Tom Jones and Ricky ‘Kaiser Chief’ Wilson, she’s now a primetime TV darling.
“People think just cos you’re famous suddenly things happen for you. I create everything. It’s all me!” Rita might be going halfway across the world in a few days, just to secure a sample for one of the songs on the forthcoming record. I ask if that’s really necessary. “It’s just…” she sighs. “I think it’ll help make it happen.”
Rita’s need to be on top of all things at all times means that the events of last week should really have her raging furiously while tucking into her room service. The lead single, “Poison,” off her delayed second album was due for release today, post-Billboard Awards. Radio in place, promo ready to go, the grand unveiling days away, but as is typical with modern impatient fandom, the drum-heavy track leaked last week. Rita laughs, tearing a chicken leg with her teeth. “It’s fucking annoying, I hate it. But, whatever, it’s online and you can’t help that it happens. It’s annoying you can’t present the song the way you want it to be presented. At the end of the day though, people have been digging it, so it’s kinda good they’re leaking it.” She smiles. “The fuckers!”
The one thing that leaves Rita baffled is people’s description of “Poison” as a potential EDM-leaning indication of what the rest of her second album is going to sound like. “I don’t think it’s electronic-y at all,” she protests, keen to separate herself from that world. “I think it’s more passionate. It’s weird that people are calling it that because to me it’s more of a rocky, edgy pop record made by a pop star, which is what I am.” The track was written by Rita’s “amazing friend” Julia Michaels, and singer Kate Nash who she’d never met before. “It has that English-ness to it. Originally I wrote different lyrics: ‘I could have you for breakfast and codeine for lunch.’ But I decided not to put that in. I’m not afraid to say anything about drugs, but I wanted people to understand the value of the song—a song about love being poison—more than the controversy of everything around me. I wanted it to have its own meaning. It’s pretty self-explanatory,” she says, quoting the line “I pick my poison and it’s you / You’re going straight to my head and I’m going straight to the edge.”
“It’s a cry for help,” she continues. “If I hear myself saying that out loud then it helps me figure it out. I’m a 24-year-old girl, this is a new chapter of my life, and now I can move on.”
Despite the pull of other other opportunities, Rita insists music remains her ultimate focus. It’s become therapy for her, hence the self-explanatory nature of the subject matter. This weekend in Vegas you can’t move without seeing the face of her ex plastered all over everything. Even in her hotel, the Scottish, resident DJ’s well-groomed visage dons the side of the building’s monstrous exterior. “It’s annoying to explain my music, whether it’s jazzy or bluesy or R&B-y,” she says, when I seek further nuggets. “It’s a feeling for me. I went for this record with my gut, I wanted it to be diverse, not just 12 pop songs. I wanted it to have a presence and a meaning. I asked myself, ‘What can I do to make something timeless, something I still want to perform in 10 years?’ You can’t please everybody but you’ve got to start pleasing yourself, and I wasn’t doing that with my debut.”
Nevertheless, Rita has no regrets about her first album; she was 18 when she recorded it. “Now I need music to mean more. To me. Lyrically. With [the debut’s singles] ‘Party And Bullshit’ and ‘Hot Right Now,’ I was having a fucking party. [Producer] DJ Fresh’s ‘Hot Right Now’ was an amazing opening single. It was the first drum & bass record to be number one [in the UK]. We made some history. I’m not trying to be different now, I just want there to be more substance. I wanted to reference things that happened to me personally. I wanted people listening to say, ‘You know what? She’s not afraid to mention it, or to talk about her ex-boyfriends.’”
I ask if she feels she’s taken back control of her own music career, after perhaps being under the thumb of label Roc Nation and Jay Z when she first came through. “I don’t think I was never in control,” she says defiantly. “I relied on the advice of others because I was naïve, young, and completely in awe of Jay Z and the world. I was so happy to be signed to someone I loved. My label did no wrong, but they couldn’t know what I wanted. Only I could figure that out.”
Figuring it out has encouraged her to have a “If you can’t beat ’em, join them” mentality when it came to choosing the right collaborators. She’s cagey on the specifics of this follow-up—and all I’ve heard is the single—but does allude to reconnecting with Norwegian songwriting trio Stargate, who worked on her first record, and using her reunion with Will.I.Am on The Voice to her advantage. “I loved how genius he was with Fergie, helping her to become this rap, pop God, so I asked him if he could teach me how I could pretend to rap without actually rapping.”
So we’re due to meet Rapper Ora now? “No! It’s not a rap! It’s more swaggy talk. Let’s not have Noisey saying: EXCLUSIVE! Rita Ora Becomes a Rapper!”
Rita has also worked with her pal Ed Sheeran, adding her own edge to his chart-topping songwriting. “I did this incredibly beautiful song with Ed about our friendship; he’s one of my best friends. It’s amazing having a friend in this industry of the opposite sex that you haven’t hooked up with. He’s such a legend. I respect him in so many ways.” Rita and Ed gambled into the wee hours after his set at Rock In Rio on Friday night. Rita won around $600, which sits on her bedside table, next to her watch. “There was one point when I ran out of chips and Ed put my watch on the table. I was like, ‘NOOOOOOO, you put your bloody watch on the table!’” This anecdote leads me to take her to task on why she’s so often vilified in the press, presented as a person whose fame precedes all other accomplishments. (Even on Noisey we’ve run articles that asses Rita from both sides of the fence: see Why Isn’t Rita Ora a Bigger Deal in America?and Why Do so Many British Artists Make a “Breaking America” Video for further reading.) My question leads to the following exchange.
Noisey: You never connected here in the States before so people don’t understand why you’re famous here…
Rita: I didn’t release my album in the States. That’s the reason why I haven’t connected here.
There’s a lot of harsh press about you. Does it cause you upset?
Give me an example. Like what?
I saw a quiz on PopJustice from earlier this year titled “Why Do You Hate Rita Ora?”
Really?! Who hates me? What were the reasons?
Some people believe you’re successful because you’re famous, and that’s it.
I’ve headlined a tour, I’ve had several number one singles and a big album, I’ve done design campaigns and amazing collaborations. I don’t wanna sit here and talk about what I’ve done but what you’re gonna see with this new record and with time is that I love my music. I don’t read any of that stuff. If there’s one bad thing, then there’s 10 more good things. I love supporting others, I’m a nice person and I’m dedicated to my job, whatever it is. I have a good time, but I work really hard. I might not have released an album for nearly two years so people might have just forgotten how I came onto the scene. People will recognize my music this time and all those other people? Well they can just fuck off.
How important is being famous to you, being seen out in Hollywood, being “cool”?
[Scoffing.] I mean, I’d like to consider myself as cool. My friends are cool, but I’m a weirdo. I’m all about weird movies and watching animations that have been made on acid, like Alice In Wonderland. I’m just honest, I don’t sit around talking for the sake of it. Some people in this industry do that and are good at it, but I hang out with the people I genuinely like, and that I hope like me back.
What do you want to prove with this album?
That I’m a credible singer who can sing. I don’t sit on The Voice and coach people for no reason. I clearly must be doing something right, right? All this negative energy, you have to block it out. I can only imagine what my good friend Iggy is going through, let alone me with that fucking shitty PopJustice quiz. I’m lucky, I’m blessed I’m doing what I love and that I can support my family. You’re gonna see my gratitude and my appreciation on this album, you’re gonna see me complaining about all my shitty love stories, then you’re gonna see me recalling all these memories in my life: the first time I kissed a person, my first boyfriend… It’s a balance. The selective people that have written with me have seen that I’m writing about controversial things, but they understand that it’s time. It’s time for me to share it, to state the reason for why people think I’m famous.
Do you think it’s especially cruel trying to develop as an artist when you’re already in the public eye from a young age?
It’s not cruel but it’s just difficult because of the expectations, and then it’s the self-pressure, and then it’s the whole judgment of people thinking they know who you are because they know your name. It’s harder to say who you are musically once you’re already out there. But I want people to understand why Rita Ora is everywhere, and they will. In many ways, I’m a new artist debuting an album—it’s just that you know me already.
/ / /
This weekend Vegas is even more amped than usual. Thanks to ginormo three day music fest Rock in Rio and the Billboard Music Awards. Every pop star is here, including her ex-boyfriend who’s now on the arm of the Biggest Female In Pop Right Now. I wonder how Rita feels being in a room with all those contemporaries. “I feel like I’ve done something to be in a room with amazing people,” she says, without hesitation. “Why would I put myself in a different category? I learned this from my mum: pay respect to people, be appreciative and believe in yourself because nobody else will until you do it first.”
Unprovoked Rita begins to wax lyrical about the brilliance of Taylor Swift: “I think she’s one of the most incredible songwriters of our generation. I’m not even just saying it. I absolutely adore her music and love what she stands for. You pay respect to people who deserve it—Beyoncé and Madonna. When Madonna was going through it on this last record, I was one of the first people to post my support on Instagram. Don’t battle her because of her age. I’m a girl’s girl, I support women and it comes back to you. I’d love that support. There’s a fine line between believing in yourself and being a fucking arsehole. I don’t step on people’s toes.”
Rita is anything but “a fucking arsehole.” As we leaving the hotel room to embark on our night out, fans chase her through the lobby, snapping running selfies as they go. “I’ve never seen you say no to a fan, Rits,” says her hairdresser as we pile into her chauffeur’s Escalade. Driving towards Caesars Palace, Rita is dressed to impress having received a personal invitation to meet Mariah backstage. Where one hour previous she told me she was looking to keep tonight casual, I find Rita in her room sporting a black sheer gown, thigh-high boots, a belly chain, perfect blonde extensions, nipple tassels, a Chanel belt and a matching clutch. Among the items in said clutch is a small seashell, a gift from Miley Cyrus. It’s a good luck charm Rita keeps with her at all times and one which Miley christened by peeing on it—presumably part of some fortune favors the bold sealing ceremony. Back in the Escalade her driver’s pre-empted a potential request for false lashes by having them all ready in the car for her pick-up. With the aid of my iPhone torch, her hairdresser’s steady hand, and a gigantic pair of kitchen scissors we help fix them to her face as we nip through traffic. “Oh we’ve done whole red carpet looks on-the-move before,” she says as I panic that together we might take her left eye out. I don’t doubt it. For Rita, it seems time to give her a break. As Rita moves on from her debut you hope it’s all celebratory parties now and zero bullshit.