UNCO[V]ERED artist Freya Ridings’ story of triumph and finding her passion is one that could easily be made into a film. In childhood, Freya struggled with dyslexia, her self-image and a shyness she describes as “crippling”. At school, she escaped each lunchtime to the music room, and poured her heart out in song and on the piano. Music was, she says, both her best friend and her salvation. As 2018 rolled around, Freya became the first female artist to have an entirely self-written UK Top 10 hit (with ‘Lost Without You’) since Kate Bush‘s ‘Running Up That Hill’ returned to the charts in 2012.
“When you go to school,” says Freya, “anything that makes you different makes you a target. I was tall, a redhead, it made the whole thing a nightmare. Looking back, I was never, ever going to fit in. It meant that school was a very long and lonely process, which music helped me survive. I’ve always loved solving problems, but I couldn’t apply that to academic work, no matter how hard I tried. I’d be sitting there, really slaving, and I’d look up and everyone else had finished, and I was still only halfway through. That was deeply demoralising. But then I found this ‘thing’, and I was good at it, this thing that other people found quite hard to do, yet it came to me quite easily. If you’re looking for something to get lost in, that enables you to escape from where you are, it’s hard to think of anything more perfect than singing.”
Away from school, Freya‘s life was the opposite of lonely. Growing up in a family of actors and writers, surrounded by similarly creative people, she was encouraged to express herself. “I’m blessed to come from a family where if you go, ‘I want to be X or do Y’, they don’t say no, they go: ‘How can we help to make that a really strong possibility?‘”
As is so often the case with artists in whom you sense that making music is a compulsion, not a choice, Freya‘s life as a singer and songwriter was transformed by a single event. “Someone at school said: ‘We’re doing an open-mic night.’ I had no idea what that was, or that it was just meant for the sixth-formers. I was in year 7 at the time, but I just thought, what the hell. They didn’t seem to realise that I was in year 7, maybe because I was as tall as them, so I performed at it. And it was this really life-changing night. My mum and dad came, they’d heard me play before, but I don’t think they realised what a big part it played in my life until that night. I was so incredibly shy, I’d never speak to people, and suddenly there I am performing to the sixth form and all the teachers. It was a lightning bolt, a moment where I realised: “Yes, I’m going to do this.”
Freya is clear about what those solo lunchtimes sessions taught her, and she talks about that period in her life without a trace of self-pity. “For that hour each day, all of myself came out. It has to go somewhere, or you go mad. Through those tiny little windows where I could be myself, I could just about hold on, but it was really hard, really dark. But it gave me a lantern to illuminate a way forward. I think they just thought I was a loner. But I love people! I come from a family of emotionally open, demonstrative people. At school, though, showing your feelings can all too easily attract the wrong kind of scrutiny; it’s not ‘cool’. To be cool, you have to act like you don’t care. And I care about everything! So I just had to batten down the hatches and wait until being uncool was acceptable. And get this: the second I left school, I lost loads of weight, and started thriving.”
Early collaborations alerted her to the danger of people wanting to change her sound, her look, her raison d’etre. She saw how easy it would be to go along with that, and how vital it was to be watchful for those that might want her to lower her standards or homogenise her music. “I would physically stand in the way of that bus if it happened now,” she laughs. “But it’s an interesting dilemma: compromise, or stay true to who you are. I’ve had so many people who have tried to change who I am, over such a long period of time, when actually, this is all I can do, and this is the only way I can do it. I always said to myself that I would never end up in a situation where I was contractually obliged to wear hot pants. First, because that’s my worst nightmare, and second, you shouldn’t be forced to wear things you don’t feel comfortable in. People still tried. Not a chance! I would literally rather jump off a cliff. All I have ever done is trust the feeling. You can’t overthink this, you just have to trust it.”
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Freya laughs when she recalls some of her early efforts. “I tried to play the guitar and perform upbeat covers in pubs, and I’d go home and think: ‘Why isn’t this working?’ I knew I wasn’t moving in the right direction. My mum said: ‘Have you ever thought of taking the songs you sing here, which are full of emotion, full of expression, outside the house?’ I’d been trying to write all these perky songs, there was one called Daisy Chains, about making the best of a bad situation, and it was just horrific. And then I’d go home, sit at the piano and be all like, ‘I feel SO ALONE!’ And the two worlds never crossed. I’m sure there was a fear, too: that you show the world your real self and they just go: ‘Yeeeurgh.’ And then you have nothing to hide behind. But literally the moment I did it, the moment I took those songs out of the house, things fell into place.”
Her songs express doubt, pain, regret and vulnerability. But there is steel at Freya‘s core. She’s seen too much of the dark side for there not to be. Live, sitting at the piano, or strumming her guitar, she has distilled a short lifetime of uncertainty, and transformed it into songs of alchemical incandescence, magicked into greatness by one of the most powerful voices in a generation. If you doubt that steeliness, consider her comments on the name she trades under.
“There was a lot of discussion at the beginning about whether I should use just my first name, or my surname too. My mum was like: ‘Hang on, men use their full names! Don’t make yourself smaller – other people will probably try to do that. Take up the room that you take up, don’t shrink yourself.’ I remember when I was at primary school, I’d write out my name on slips of paper, like I was signing an autograph, and everyone would be like: ‘You’re never going to need that for anything.’ So, yes, I’m going to use my full name, just like I wrote it on those pieces of paper. I’ve realised that your currency changes. I was effectively bankrupt at school in terms of how people saw me. Now, that seems to not be the case so much. My name is worth something, so I’m going to use it – all of it.”
Freya Ridings‘ self-titled debut album is out 19 July. Grab your copy, and hear more from Freya by clicking here.
UNCO[V]ERED premieres on Saturday at 12noon, right after the Spotify Countdown. Channel 801, only on Foxtel.