IN CONTEXT, THE pressure of repping her entire country to the world makes her task as the next Roc star seem relatively breezy. But Ora’s up for both. She’s been singing since she was a kid, absorbing her father’s record collection—Eric Clapton, Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Celine Dion—and she learned music well enough that she landed a spot in London’s prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School, which Amy Winehouse also attended. Forced stints in musical theater (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) didn’t quell her love for singing, though all that soul she felt didn’t play so well in the Broadway-bent curriculum.
“I was always that person in school who was rifﬁng,” she explains mischievously, and sings an example of the contrast between their style (The Sound of Music-friendly) and hers (straight from the school of R&B classics). Still, Ora’s been somewhat known in the U.K. since she was 16, when she appeared on a string of American Idol–esque shows before duetting with R&B/U.K. garage superstar Craig David on the sweet ballad “Awkward.” She was also a regular singing at her father’s pub: “That’s where my addiction to whiskey grew,” she cracks. She was actually working the bar circuit when an A&R recognized her at a Lykke Li show and put her on the radar of the Roc, which ﬂew her to New York in 2009 and nearly signed her on the spot. “She’s a career artist,” says Smith, who ﬁrst met her at that Roc Nation introduction. “She could have the same audience as a Santigold and a Katy Perry at the same time. It could play in both of those arenas. The way she dressed and the way she acts, you could tell she could walk in all of these places. She can hang with everyone from a guy in the Marcy Projects to someone in the Village to someone Uptown. That’s just her personality.”
Though dying to drop her album ASAP, she was purposely left by the label to incubate, a rarity in the cash-strapped music industry. “They knew what it was, otherwise they wouldn’t have signed me. But they knew my music could be something bigger,” says Ora. “I’d be like, ‘Put me out!’ I was the eager singer that wanted to just make music. I wanted people to hear everything I was recording. And they were like, ‘Rita, relax. You’ve got us. Wait. Find yourself.’ The best thing that Jay ever taught me was patience. Breathe, ﬁnd what you are and what you want to write about. No one can tell you what you are. Find yourself.”
Ora heeded Jay’s advice (who wouldn’t?), and took a thoughtful two years to try to ﬁnd her writing voice, during which she just kinda grew up a lot: going to raves with her friends in London; experiencing young love (her rumored current squeeze is Dancing With the Stars alum Rob Kardashian); and—most importantly—helping her mother struggle through breast cancer, which inspired a song called “Fair” on her as-yet-untitled debut album (Mama Ora has since recovered). “There were a lot of things I didn’t know about myself,” Ora says. “It took two years to ﬁnd the conﬁdence. But I’m a very honest person, I generally speak my mind. I feel like my fans wanna hear me: a real girl, saying something real. I found an opportunity to express a real-life story through music.”