FEATURE: Londoner Rachel Chinouriri has finally come home

FEATURE: Londoner Rachel Chinouriri has finally come home

The journey to the Londoner’s debut album has been fraught. It only makes ‘What A Devastating Turn Of Events’, the indie-pop star’s defining statement, stronger and more resonant

By Alex Rigotti I NME.com

That is a strong fucking woman,” Rachel Chinouriri nods knowingly. She’s talking about the actress Sophie Turner, for two reasons.

Last September, the Game of Thrones star announced she and singer Joe Jonas were divorcing, triggering a wave of tabloids to scavenge for exclusives about the split.

Turner has mostly kept schtum, except for the odd social media post – which is the second reason why we’re talking about her today.

Rachel Chinouriri on The Cover of NME (2024), photo by Elliot Hensford
Rachel Chinouriri on The Cover of NME. Credit: Elliot Hensford for NME

A week before NME meets Chinouriri in late December, she discovered that Turner shared her introspective hit ‘All I Ever Asked’ onto her Instagram stories.

“I’m just as surprised as you are”, she says in her smooth voice. Initially flattered that Turner even liked the song – which went viral back in February 2022 – Chinouriri soon realised why she posted it and became even more touched.

“That song was made for when you put your all into everything, and you feel like someone’s failed you,” she explains.

“Clearly she’s going through something quite traumatising, which is tough. The fact she’s managed to find a way to embrace that toughness through a song – which is coincidentally my song – is quite mad.”

26-year-old Chinouriri has spent her life writing through her own traumas. Once a form of escapism against bullying in high school, the singer transferred to the BRIT School (AdeleAmy Winehouse), and studied musical theatre.

For the past seven years, she’s been honing her vision of indie music, and she’s now ready to release her debut album ‘What A Devastating Turn of Events’ in the coming months.

Today we are at Tileyard Studios in north London to talk about her highly-anticipated record, where Chinouriri can be found patiently perched between racks of Cool Britannia-inspired couture.

She’s getting ready for her NME Cover shoot; her brows are being coated with gel, to be made as skinny and slender as the noughties would have it.

Rachel Chinouriri (2024), photo by Elliot Hensford
Credit: Elliot Hensford for NME

Chinouriri wants to recreate the visual and sonic aesthetics of that era on her debut. The noughties represents a period of her life where she was eagerly learning about British pop culture icons such as Alexa Chung, OasisThe Libertines.

Taking inspiration from this era is Chinouriri’s way to reclaim her position in British society and the indie scene, where Black womanhood is routinely ignored and misrepresented.

“It’s me trying to relive the place I grew up in, but also understand that those things caused me so much trauma,” she explains.

“Even though I was having some of the worst times of my life, when I heard songs like [Phoenix’s] ‘1901’ or [Kings Of Leon’s] ‘Sex on Fire’, they used to make me so happy. I wanted an album that felt as nostalgic as those songs.”

Chinouriri is the only member of her family born in the UK. Born in 1998, her Zimbabwean parents settled in Forestdale, Croydon with Chinouriri and her four older siblings.

The area is replete with greenery, grazing horses and cul-de-sacs inhabited by elderly folk and squealing kids. It’s also the kind of place where “everybody knows everyone, but everyone definitely knows you if you’re Black,” she notes.

As one of six students of colour at her secondary school, Chinouriri was bullied due to her race. Her mother worked long hours, her father was ill, and Chinouriri didn’t speak their native language, Shona.

But the Chinouriri family was musical; whilst her brother practised saxophone in the garden, she would retreat to her room and sing.

“I’ve always lived on edge, because at any moment things can go to shit”

Paper-thin walls and constant threats to “shut up!” from her family impelled Chinouriri to sing in a hushed whisper, like Elena Tonra from Daughter.

Chinouriri’s gossamer voice would translate perfectly to the delicate indie-pop songs she wrote, and in 2018 she scored her first hit: ‘So My Darling’, a perennial promise to love an unrequited crush-turned-friend.

But as the singer made her face visible, she was no longer ‘indie’; she was ‘R&B’, ‘soul’ or more insultingly, ‘urban’. At first, she stuck to her guns with debut EP ‘Mama’s Boy’; frustrated with being boxed-in, she adopted a more electronic angle with 2022’s EP ‘Four° in Winter’.

It was a “blessing in disguise”, says Chinouriri, when her acoustic rendition of ‘So My Darling’ went viral on TikTok in late 2021. After the chaos of the pandemic, a “terrible” relationship and the mounting misinterpretations of her music, ‘So My Darling’ was an indisputably indie showcase of Chinouriri’s talent. It now soundtracks over 100,000 videos on the platform.

“That song proved to me there is an audience [for my music],” says Chinouriri. “It was a very beautiful moment for me.”

Rachel Chinouriri (2024), photo by Elliot Hensford
Credit: Elliot Hensford for NME

Two years ago, Chinouriri began writing her debut album, embarking on two writing trips that would help her discover what home means to her.

A “life-changing” stay in Hereford reminded her of the verdant surroundings of Forestdale, where she lodged at songwriter Glen Roberts’ (AURORAJoy Crookes) converted barn. “There were animals, it was very beautiful, simple and slowed down.”

But it was a later trip to LA in early 2023 where Chinouriri’s anxieties began to amplify. Emerging musicians often take trips to LA for writing sessions; some fly out four or so times a year, but visit for no more than a fortnight. Chinouriri, who has a fear of flying, elected to stay for five.

Chinouriri was desperately trying to finish her album. Her first arena tour supporting Lewis Capaldi on his EU leg was fast approaching, and LA’s isolating environment exacerbated her deteriorating mental health.

“I was having a terrible time,” she says. “Trying to come up with 35 different times of when you’ve been traumatised and explain it to people who are like, ‘I need to be out of here by four and be in bed by nine’. It was soul-crushing.”

“It feels nice to have a community of girls who understand where you’re at”

She started pulling her hair out, often broke into tears and found it difficult to work. By the last day, she ditched the studio for the house of songwriter Aaron Shadrow (Doja CatTrippie Redd); a vent session led to lead single ‘The Hills’.

“By the time I wrote that, I was like, ‘I do know where I belong, and I belong back in the UK, in London, with my friends and family,’” she says. She turns her head away and playfully hisses: “Goddamnit, did it work!”

‘What A Devastating Turn of Events’ has allowed Chinouriri to flex her creativity. She wanted the album to be personalised, weaving in soundscapes and voice notes to make it feel like an audiobook and a journey.

There’s the fan-favourite, garage rock-inspired ‘Never Need Me’, which people scream at concerts despite snippets only being available online. “A lot of people are like, ‘I feel like I heard this song in my teen years’,” says Chinouriri.

She also pays homage to national treasures Lily Allen and Kate Nash on the bluesy ‘It Is What It Is’. Chinouriri indulges in a hyper-enunciated monologue, expressing her displeasure at a flighty lover. “There’s something about hearing how someone speaks which makes them even more personable,” she says about her vocal style on the track.

‘It Is What It Is’ additionally celebrates the friendships Chinouriri has developed. There is even a voicenote from one of her close pals, Eurovision’s Mae Muller: “It feels nice to have a community of girls who understand where you’re at, they give me so much advice.”

Rachel Chinouriri (2024), photo by Elliot Hensford
Credit: Elliot Hensford for NME

But as the title suggests, Chinouriri writes about heavier topics, and they follow abruptly after a string of feel-good hits. That was entirely intentional, as she says she has often received “life-changing, traumatising news” out of nowhere.

“I wanted to emulate that with the album – BOOM!” she declares. “You’ve been hit with something and it forces you to change your perception on things.”

The album is cleaved by its title track, ‘What A Devastating Turn of Events’; the song features zero chorus (take that, LA) and is written in tribute to a relative in Zimbabwe.

It’s a tale of a young woman spending the night with a new lover, only to be ghosted. She discovers she’s pregnant, and faced between the shame of having a child out of wedlock or getting an abortion, she takes her own life.

“It was scarily similar to what happened to me,” Chinouriri explains. “The choice she made was different because of the environment she grew up in, what people told her, the lack of support she had, but our bloodline was the same. It’s heartbreaking, but I’m grateful something has been made to remember her.”

The album is a “journal”, and on the final page is ‘Pocket’, a ballad evoking the intimacy and warmth of a Billie Marten song (complete with twee whistles and handclaps for extra nostalgia points).

It’s as though Chinouriri is finally at peace with herself, looking into the future and ready for what’s to come. Things are looking up for her too: her album’s due out later this year, she can count global superstars as fans, and she’s recently got a new beau.

“I’ve always lived on edge, because at any moment things can go to shit,” Chinouriri says. “Now it seems like I randomly take calls and it’s like: ‘Guess what? You’ve got The Cover of NME.’”

Rachel Chinouriri’s debut album ‘What A Devastating Turn Of Events’ will be released later this year on Parlophone