SHE’S GOT QUIRKY SUPERMODEL LOOKS, DOWN-TO-EARTH PERSONA AND AN OBSESSION WITH AIR JORDANS. YET, ROC NATION NEWBIE RITA ORA JUST WANTS TO SING—MINUS THE TWITTER EXPLETIVES. TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT POP’S NEXT ANTI-DIVA
Words: Julianne Escobedo Shepherd Photos: Matt Doyle
IT’S JUST SOUND check, but Rita Ora is belting like she’s prepping for a National Anthem performance at the Super Bowl. Perched on a stage in a Manhattan warehouse space gussied up for a private party being thrown by upscale jeweler Cartier, where she’s performing later, the bleach-blonde, crimson-lipped singer is hitting every note with rapier-like precision, and warbling with the kind of convincing fervor you’d conjure if you were auditioning for The Voice. About eight people total are in the room, half of them disinterestedly stocking champagne in the back, but she still gives it up: “We’re gonna shiiiiine,” in a slightly rasped vibrato, her backing band full and shimmering. When the song breaks she uncoils her performance posture, looks out into the room at her tour manager, Cez Darke, cocks her head, and wonders into the silence in a British lilt, “Was that awright?” It was actually pretty awesome, but this is the Rita Ora way—in the ﬁrst lap of her relay to stardom, she’s taking nothing for granted. The 21-year-old spitﬁre is next up in Roc Nation’s elite cadre, and, having already established herself as a favorite of Jay-Z’s, you might expect a little attitude. But the only one she’s got is an around-the-way pluckiness and a generous spirit. “I’ve always tried to be independent,” she says later, virtually swallowed by a huge leather couch in the Manhattan ofﬁce of Roc CFO Tyran “Ty Ty” Smith. “It’s just my personality. I’ve always been the type to motivate the camp. I’ve always wanted to be the fuel for something—for music, the fuel for my family, the fuel for my best friend. Helping someone with what I’m doing.” An ethnic Albanian, Ora was born in Kosovo in 1990—just as Serbians and Albanians were about to explode into brutal war. Her parents, a psychiatrist (mum) and a club owner (pops), anticipated the conﬂicts, and moved Ora and her sister to West London before their homeland erupted. She barely lived in Kosovo—she’s been in Britain since age 1—but still cites the lilting trills of Kosovan music as a huge inﬂuence. And, oh yeah, the entire country is counting on her, including President Atifete Jahjaga, who Ora has yet to meet, but it’s on deck. “This is the thing: No one from my country has done this or even been on MTV or in the charts, so it’s like what to them, you know?” she says. “I deﬁnitely feel like everyone’s watching. It’s such a huge honor, I’m just a normal girl. I have this opportunity to really make history for our country, but I try not to think about it.”
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 rif?ng,” 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 ?ew her to New York in 2009 and nearly signed her on the spot. “She’s a career artist,” says Smith, who ?rst 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, ?nd 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 ?nd 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 ?nd the con?dence. 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.”
Ora is refreshingly idiosyncratic and uncontrived, and when she says she’s a normal girl, she’s not just saying what you want to hear. She’s a fashion plate with a sense of adventure— her VIBE photo shoot preceded a paparazzi-stalked run on Coney Island’s rickety Cyclone roller coaster; she’s recently taken up waterskiing; and once, at 15, she walked around wearing a leotard with a hole cut in the stomach in homage to the shooting scene in the ?lm Death Becomes Her.
Most intriguing, though, is that she’s in it for the music, which these days seems rare for any singer on the pop track. Halfway through an interview at Roc Nation, Ora breaks into an a cappella version of the ?rst song she’d ever written: a three-chord ballad called “I’ll Be Waiting,” with vibrato that shows off her range and invokes a little bit of ? ashy Aguilera-style trills, without the throatiness. Simply, she loves to sing. “Music is a job that revolves around your personal emotions,” she says. “So if it is personal, you might as well take it all the way. That’s what de?nes a musician versus a pop star, in my eyes. Jay, for example, he took it all the way within himself. He understood the personal touch you need to do to make an iconic record. That’s the shit I admire. Unafraid to be personal… At times I’m just like, ‘Yeah, you really do love music, innit?’”
SOUND CHECK IS a wrap, and Ora has a few hours before putting on a show for the select crowd of fancy fashion folks, boss man Jay-Z and Beyoncé included. Instead of chatting it up before showtime, she insists on saving her voice, communicating through miming, lipsynching or interpretive dance moves. It’s goofy and cute, but also about integrity: She’ll do what she needs not to mess up a gig, even a small intimate one.
Roc Nation is clearly setting Ora up for the big time: There’s an upcoming summer tour with Coldplay; her debut album features songwriting by The-Dream and Drake; and in February, she and Jay had a cotillion of sorts when he debuted her Notorious B.I.G.–lifting ?rst single “How We Do (Party),” on New York City pop radio station Z100. In the video, she vamps happily in a skully and bikini the colors of the Jamaican ?ag, a nod to one of her idols, Gwen Stefani. But rather than shouting out No Doubt, critics made inevitable comparisons to fellow Roc Nation superstar Rihanna. Ora herself told The Guardian that Jay believes she could be as big as Ms. Fenty.
Directing Ora in a Rihanna direction is a lofty proposal, but it’s not hard to see why the Roc is going that way—beyond, of course, global expansion and ensuing dollars. Ora’s got enough pluck and personality to carry a mainstream narrative, and already she’s breaking records: Earlier this year “Hot Right Now,” a rave-pop hybrid with producer DJ Fresh, became the ?rst-ever drum ’n’ bass track to hit No. 1 on the U.K. singles charts. Meanwhile, her own Drake-penned U.K. single, “R.I.P.,” is more of a straightforward club banger, and features rapper Tinie Tempah lustily declaring that “I can feel your Ora” (get it).
Even as Rita racks up praises, she’s keeping her Nikes planted. Tugging on her baggy jean shorts and stretching out her slim legs at the Roc of?ce, she says earnestly, “I don’t really care about that [fame] stuff, man. I don’t think it’s important. If it happens, it happens. But it’s something you shouldn’t care about or want to control, because you can’t. You can only control what you put out. What happens after that is not in your hands.”