RAHEL IN NEW YORK, FEBRUARY 2015. PHOTOS BY CHARLIE HIMMELSTEIN. MAKEUP: ALISON SMITH USING SURRATT BEAUTY. HAIR: CLAY NIELSEN.
There’s something about Rahel’s voice that’s overwhelmingly special. The singer’s breakthrough debut album Alkali (released collaboratively by rapper Le1f‘s Camp & Street and Chicago label Lo Motion) has received some much-deserved attention and puts her pure soul in the spotlight. Her coy sweetness can mirror Aaliyah’s (like on the album’s intro track), but she is by no means without range, opening up on more upbeat jams like the single “Serve.” Many have praised Rahel for her complementing features on tracks by Le1f and fellow Camp & Street member DonChristian, but with Alkali the emerging artist proves she can easily sit at the forefront of R&B’s newer, cooler, proportionately passionate wave.
While her album was released February 10, Rahel is playing tomorrow night at Cameo Gallery in Brooklyn alongside Joey Labeija. Prior to the showcase, we got to know more about Rahel’s musical roots, inspiration, and future.
NAME: Rahel Haile
BASED: New York
EARLY LIFE: To be honest, I grew up with music always present, but in the peripheral. My parents, both Eritrean immigrants, raised my siblings and me in the Bronx and sent us to private school, so we were exposed to a very wide range of music. I was quietly obsessed with music as a child. I say quietly because in the grand scheme of first-generation things, my education always took precedence. It really shaped my early music years. My school had a super-progressive, left-of-center summer camp that I went to as a kid, and some of my earliest music memories are of me singing folk music, music of the Civil Rights Movement, and counterculture music of the ’60s that I learned there. When I was nine, my friends and I formed a group that performed at local political events, once performing with Pete Seeger. So before I knew about my later muses/mothers—Brandy, Mariah, Erykah, Sade—or what was poppin’ on TRL or 106 and Park, my foundation was Pete.
MEETING OF THE MINDS: I met Le1f and DonChristian in college at Wesleyan, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t know I could sing until after we were friends. I was kind of low key about singing in college, so they were the homies before we started collaborating musically. Le1f was always on his music grind, but when DonChristian got on it too I felt inspired to take it more seriously. We’re a tight group of friends that work and play collaboratively, and Camp & Street is a reflection of that mindset.
SERVE IT UP: “Serve” was shot in Martha’s Vineyard. It was the first place Don and I envisioned when we heard the song, and it inspired much of the writing, too. Martha’s Vineyard is beautiful and quaint and, I feel, a bit haunted. I wanted to embody that, so Don, Sam Jones, and I came up with a Grey Gardens-meets-R&B Witches of Eastwick look and feel.
GRAND DEBUT: Thematically I wanted to focus on brutal honesty with the self and being “grown.” Alkali is an album about the ebb and flow of love, and that honesty, that saying-it-like-it-is approach is what I wanted to bring to the forefront—talking about love was the way I needed to touch on honesty. I find it’s really easy to be preoccupied with ego, pride, and insecurity when it comes to significant others, but I wanted to look beyond that. I wanted to tap into how powerful and self-gratifying it is to be vulnerable. When I met Jeremiah [Meece, of The-Drum] I was sort of at a crossroads—I wanted to quit my job, I had the desire to sing but no plan, men were acting like boys. His sound was everything I needed to hear; it made me want to be unabashedly sincere. He’s located in Chicago, so we had to plan trips and pack all of our work into those brief windows of time. It took so much coordinating, time and patience. I’m glad it took a year and change, though.
NEXT STEPS: Honestly, I’m just feeling proud of myself and my friends for helping me put out a body of work. There was a ton a growth that took place during the making of it, so I’m not going to overlook that personal victory just yet. But I have plans for the next album—directions, sounds, visuals—that I’m letting marinate, but I’m going to take my time and do it right.
VISIT RAHEL’S SOUNDCLOUD FOR MORE INFORMATION.