“I’m Not Afraid To Walk Alone”: Ricki-Lee Goes Independent

24 May 2023 | 1:46 pm | Bryget Chrisfield

"I look back at that girl, and I wanna give her a pat on the back because I was offered a deal from a major record label, and I said no."

Image of Ricki-Lee

Image of Ricki-Lee (Supplied)

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She's spent almost two decades constantly kicking goals in the music biz, and Ricki-Lee has always forged her own path. After coming seventh in Australian Idol in 2004, aged just 18, Ricki-Lee said no to an offer from a major record label and instead chose to sign with an independent imprint: “I look back at that girl, and I wanna give her a pat on the back,” she admits.

In March this year, Ricki-Lee released On My Own – from her forthcoming fifth record (due later this year), written and produced alongside lauded Australian production duo DNA – together with the announcement that she had founded her own record label: “I’m literally doing it On My Own through my own label and owning my own masters.”

Ricki-Lee’s first new music release in almost three years (after 2020’s Last Night), On My Own, immediately rocketed to the top of the Australian Independent Label Singles and Australian iTunes Singles charts. After Ricki-Lee teased on social media back in April that she was “bursting at the seams” to reveal a “little secret” she’d been keeping, it turned out she wasn’t just holidaying in New Zealand, where she was born but was also there to shoot an epic music video for her aptly titled comeback single. 

We checked in with this multi-Platinum-selling hitmaker to discuss her pathway to success, the importance of assembling a network of trusted professionals, what it takes to run your own record label and how she managed to avoid an unforeseen Alone experience while filming the On My Own video on top of a glacier in Queenstown.

Honouring Baby Ricki-Lee’s big dreams

Ricki-Lee: “The start of the year was wild; having to make music while having two other jobs – it’s quite full-on! I mean, I was filming a TV show [Australian Idol] – doing two live TV shows a week – doing a national radio show five days a week [temporarily filling in on NOVA FM’s Kate, Tim & Joel] as well as making music and planning it all. Yep, there were a couple of moments where it was pretty overwhelming, and I don’t know how we got through it, but we did. Sometimes it’s quite hectic, but I really enjoy it. 

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“Over these last few months, I definitely got a helluva lot of grey hairs [laughs], but I think about when I was a little kid, and all I wanted was to be like my idols. I wanted to be like Michael Jackson and Céline Dion and Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey and Beyoncé, and all of my favourite singers and artists, but I wanted to do all of the things that I’m lucky enough that I get to do now. And through the days where it’s really hard and I struggle, and it’s tough – and I don’t have a minute to myself, and all I wanna do is sleep, but I’ve got a million things to do – that’s what keeps me going. I think about that little girl, and I never wanna let her down.

“So, yeah! It’s tough, but it’s the most rewarding job in the whole world. I get to do what I’ve always wanted to do since I was a little kid, and I don’t think a lot of people get to say that, so I never take it for granted. It’s very humbling every day that I get to wake up and do what I love, and I’ll never forget that, and I’m never gonna be the type of person that just is like, ‘Oh yeah, that’ll do’ – that’s just not who I am.”

Announcing independence through On My Own

“It’s kinda the perfect song, right? Very fitting, very fitting. As soon as I wrote [On My Own] it was really clear that that was the one that had to launch everything because the song is so epic and amazing, but also because I’m doing it on my own, we’re putting it out ourselves and it’s a whole new thing. I love the line, ‘I’m not afraid to lose it all, I’m not afraid to walk alone’ – I think that’s really poignant and poetic as well, you know? So the reception to the song has been awesome because what it means to me is one thing, but what it means to everyone else and the way it’s interpreted – how it applies to people’s lives – is really different, which I really like.”

How to rock a strapless gown on a glacier 

“The thing is, everyone thinks that the ice and the snow and the glacier part was the cold part [of the On My Own shoot], but I was fine! It was actually the ‘fire in the rain’ scene – which is the first half of the video – that was the worst because it was outdoors, late at night. It was zero degrees, we were up the top of the Crown Ranges [Queenstown, NZ], the wind was blowing through, and the wind chill was freezing! I was standing in a freezing cold pool of water, I was being rained on with freezing-cold tank water out of a fire hose; that was awful and horrific – that was the hardest part of the whole thing! So standing on a glacier in a gown with the sun shining on me on a beautiful day was a walk in the park; that was the easy bit.”

“Let's get you onto a glacier!” 

“The video director’s name is Benn Jae, and he’s a very, very dear friend of mine. We’ve been friends for over ten years, and we’ve never shot anything together. He took the photos for my wedding back in 2015, but that’s not shooting a music video, is it? [laughs] And he’s like me, he’ll go to the end of the earth for a great idea, and we literally did that for this song. 

“So it was a combination of both of our ideas. I wanted fire and rain – that was really my only thing – and I wanted scale, I wanted size, I wanted it to look like I was on my own and there was no one else in the world. And he said, ‘Cool, I live in Queenstown! Get on a plane, get over here. Let's get you onto a glacier!’ And I was like, ‘What? You can do that?’ Like, I didn’t know that that was possible, and I think that was what made the video so epic. The start is so intimate and empowering and powerful and all of that, and then I throw my hands out, ‘Watch me start a fire in the rain,’ and then all of a sudden, it’s just this figure alone on a mountain and, yeah! I just really love it so much.

“And we did that with only two cameras. That was a drone on the glacier getting all those big, wide shots. For those last shots in the video, the chopper couldn’t even land properly because it wasn’t a flat surface. So the pilot chopper – who did Mission Impossible – he’s awesome, he’s also crazy [laughs], and he just put the skids into the side of the mountain and was hovering, and I had to jump out! Me and the safety officer had to hike up to the top of that peak of the mountain. The chopper flew off and left us and went at least a kilometre away, and the safety guy kind of hid behind a rock somewhere, and that was literally just me at the top of the highest mountain we could find. They sent the drone in, and it was just going around me at sunset – it was unbelievable. Wild. 

“We had to change the filming date because initially, we were doing it earlier in the week, but it was all weather dependent. We had to take the advice of the chopper pilot because the weather up there in the glaciers and in the mountains can change so quickly. And it’s happened to them before when they were filming The Hobbit and things like that, where they’ve dropped people off on the mountain and haven’t been able to come back and get them – The Hobbit crew had to hike down for six days!

“They didn’t tell me this until after they’d filmed it because I probably wouldn’t have done it, but the safety officer that was with me had a pack with him; he was prepared for us to have to stay on the mountain – he had food, he had blankets, he had a tent, he had all of that stuff in case we had to stay on the mountain if the weather changed.”

Making a statement: ‘I’m back!’

“I think as the landscape has changed in the music industry over the years, everyone’s budgets are shrinking because everything is different now, and so we’re not seeing big, glossy, beautiful, epic, cinematic pop videos anymore. I don’t remember the last one I saw – from an Australian artist – so I really wanted to go all out. We’ve got so much coming this year and I wanted to really make a statement that this is the start of an album, but also make a statement with the video and say, ‘I’m back!’”

From Idol to iTunes and beyond

“You think about the difference in the music industry from when I started – I mean, I did [Australian] Idol in 2004; social media wasn’t even a thing. We sold physical albums, and streaming wasn’t a thing. So it was all physical, then iTunes came in, and that was, like, people didn’t know what to do; the music industry people didn’t know how to deal with it. The labels didn’t know – it was such a big change. And then iTunes became Apple Music and Spotify, and all the streaming services, and that was so different – that’s changed everything again.

“So I think we’ve seen so many changes over the years and had to learn so much and evolve and grow and change with the industry as it’s grown and changed. I think it’s really fascinating, and I’ve always been kind of a student of it all. I love learning how everything works and why things happen, and I’ve just always been that way, so yeah! It’s certainly a challenge, but it’s really fun.”

Label Background

“When I was on Idol, Sony and BMG merged. So the year before, the first season of Idol, the label automatically signed – the top six, I think. And then, when the merge happened in 2004, we were told that under no circumstances is anyone getting signed unless they come first or second. I think because they went through a whole change, people were made redundant, and so much of their roster was let go, so they were streamlining.

“So I think I was lucky that I didn’t automatically fall into that contracted album or single or record label deal. I was kind of a free agent when I came off Idol, and so I was able to make my own choice, I was able to decide – for myself – what I wanted, which, you know, as an 18-year-old – I look back at that girl, and I wanna give her a pat on the back because I was offered a deal from a major record label and I said no. And I chose to go with an Australian independent record label because I liked what they were offering me: they were the only ones that were asking me what I wanna do as an artist and who I wanna be rather than kind of telling me the box that I was going to be put in, and that just immediately sat well with me. And that’s where I felt that I wanted to go. 

“I mean, that was the start of everything for me. And I started my career with an independent record label, so everything was harder. We didn’t have the huge budgets of the major record labels, we had to be resourceful. I had to be involved, I had to understand the business and why things work the way that they do rather than being served everything on a silver platter – not saying that that’s what happens to everyone on a major label, but I do know lots of artists that have had that experience, and they don’t really understand the way the business works, because they’re not involved in it; those decisions are all made for them. Whereas I was fortunate enough to be privy to all of the conversations and to be able to kind of get in the weeds with the people that I was working with back then. And I think, as well, that it also instilled in me a sense of independence that I had to work really fucking hard. I never expected anything, so all of the success that we had I’m so proud of because we were up against the best of the best and people with aaaall of the money [laughs], and we had a tiny little budget. And the things that we were able to achieve, I look back at and think it’s incredible.

“That’s why – even when I eventually signed with EMI – I have always made my music and delivered it to the label. I’ve always put my own money towards production budgets and songwriting trips, and music videos; like, if there were ever shortfalls, I’d make up the difference, or I’d pay for half. So I always had invested in myself and backed myself and put my own money in. But I guess now I’m all in, right?”

Fatherly business advice

“My dad is an incredible businessman, and the most important and valuable piece of advice he gave me was: it’s called the music business for a reason, don’t ever let anybody run your business for you; you have to know everything that’s going on at all times. 

“But, I mean, even back in those early stages of my career, when I was 15 doing gigs in nightclubs, I was the one that was talking to the bookers and doing the negotiating – for myself – and I was the one invoicing people and collecting the payments for gigs. I was 15, 16 years old – like, what are you talking about? [laughs] But that’s what my dad instilled in me: that you have to be part of the business, you have to be the one in the driver's seat, or you have to know what’s going on; don’t let all of that slip out of your hands ‘cause, you know, shit can go south real quick.”

Cutting her teeth on the GC circuit

“When I started doing gigs, my parents – especially my dad – said, ‘If your grades slip, you don’t get to do it anymore.’ So I was very determined that I would continue to get As and Bs as well as doing gigs and music. I was a determined little thing [laughs].

“The Nerang RSL was my first-ever gig. I used to sing all over the Gold Coast. I used to sing at Melbas and Shooters and The Avenue and the Clock [Hotel] and the Lansdowne pub, and Fishos [Fishermans Wharf Tavern] and all of those kinds of places. 

“I worked seven nights a week when I was in Grade 10. I think they knew [I was underage], but they didn’t want to ask – you know, they liked the money they made at the bar from having us play and having a full venue, so they weren’t gonna change that. But it was funny, I think a lot of people just assumed I was in uni because we’d sing for 40 minutes and then have a 20-minute break, and in the break, I’d be behind the sound desk – in the nightclub – with my textbook out doing an assignment, and they thought that it was a uni thing, but it was my Grade 10 maths assignment [laughs]. So that was all very fun and, yeah, it was kinda tiring at times.” 

Never taking the easy road

“I have been through times where I, unfortunately, did let people have a bit too much control – what’s the saying? ‘Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile’ – and I’ve absolutely been taken advantage of. Discovering those things at the time and moving on from things has been really hard to deal with. Making big decisions and big changes in my life that people sometimes think, ‘Woah, you’re crazy!’ But they’ve all been for the greater good.

“I think if you make decisions based on fear, you never make the right decision, you know? It’s very important to have a clear mind when you make decisions, and that’s why sometimes things take a little longer, at times, to decide on, or if you’re in a bad or toxic situation, sometimes it takes a little longer to get out of because emotions are involved. It’s not always easier to do some things, and I never take the easy road when it comes to things, just like when I said no to signing – what kind of an 18-year-old who wants to be a pop star says no to signing to a major record label? – like, that is wild! And that’s why I said I wanna give her a pat on the back, because just to have the presence of mind to know at 18 that that wasn’t the right thing for me is, I think, really incredible.”

The logistics of founding a record label 

“Now, under our own label, we get to work under our own framework and on our own terms. But when I think about the creative process and the decision-making process on all of the major things over the last – gosh, what is it? 11, 12 years – we were always so involved in the process. We were a real driving force – and when I say ‘we’, it’s me, my manager Rich [Harrison, also Ricki-Lee’s hubby] and my publicist Trent [Titmarsh] – for all of those years, not just with the creative and the delivery of the music and the product, but also the strategy, the rollout and the execution of the marketing, the PR, the social media, the music videos and the live shows.

“I’ve worked really closely with my publicist Trent since 2011, my manager Richard’s looked after me since 2010 – that’s our core team – and we’ve been lucky enough to work with the most amazing people in the industry across publishing and record labels and A&R and marketing and advertising and all of that, and we’ve learnt so much! And, I mean, I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years; it’s really not that different to the way that it’s worked for me, I’d say since probably 2011. 

“Obviously, I work closely with Simon [Moor] from my publisher, Kobalt. I have my agent – we have a great team. My video director Benn Jae’s a very good friend of mine. The person that did the artwork also did the artwork for my Fear & Freedom album; you know, we’ve worked with a lot of different people. We keep people that we love working with, we’re very loyal. And I’m very loyal, and I like to continue to work with people who are great at what they do, and that’s what we’ve been doing.” 

Going AWAL

“We distribute through AWAL, so we have someone there who is our main person. It’s amazing that we live in a world where artists can put out music independently through their own label and, you know, deliver the music to a distribution company. It's so cool that artists can own their own masters and do all of that and that there is a platform like AWAL to distribute and put things out.”

“I’m the one paying the bills, and I get to make the decisions” 

“I think the best thing about putting out music independently through my own label is if we like a song and we wanna do something, and we’ve made a decision, that’s it! We can jump immediately, and I really enjoy that, it’s really fun. Not to say that we’re making off-the-cuff, quick decisions; we've been planning this for a very, very long time. 

“In a world where pace and momentum is everything, I think it is really important to be able to act swiftly. These days everything is about pace, and the more people that are involved, the longer things take. And the thing that always got in the way of momentum and making swift decisions was the label.  

“But I think at the end of the day, it all comes down to money, right? The person paying the bills is the boss [laughs] and is the person in charge. Under a label structure, I guess you’re kind of beholden to what the label wants. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, but it’s like: they’re paying the bills, so they make the final decisions a lot of the time. 

“It’s kinda fun now: I’m the one paying the bills, and I get to make the decisions and kinda execute amazing ideas, and if something doesn’t get done or if something falls through the cracks, that’s on me [laughs].

“So, really, it’s not that different other than being able to just say I wanna do this and not have to wait three weeks for a meeting and then wait three weeks for an answer – that’s really the only difference, it’s just the momentum. We can have a meeting, make a decision and by the end of that day, there is a plan in place for that to happen. I think we just cut out so much time, I guess, and we’re able to be a lot more swift with things.”

Assembling a network of trusted professionals

“I think it can be dangerous for people to think that they know everything and to never listen to people’s opinions. I have so many people in my life – and in my professional, working capacity – whose opinions I value and trust, and I very much lean into that. At the end of the day, you have to go with your own gut and your own instincts, but I’m also a team player, and I love sitting down and listening to what people think, whose opinions I value and trust – not just kind of throwing it out there to Twitter and being like, ‘Hey guys, what do you think about this?’.

“And I think, at the end of the day, it’s my career and my life, and I’m the artist, right? And no one’s gonna ever care as much as I do, but you have to always try and surround yourself with people who are passionate and who champion you and who empower you to do great things – and this is from a young age, from early in my career – because otherwise it’s really hard to get anywhere when you don’t have cheerleaders and you don’t have people that are helping you along the way. 

“So I don’t do it all on my own, I have a wonderful team of people around me that I trust and whose opinions and talent I value, and they are amazing – all of them – at what they do. And I’m lucky that I get to do what I love to do because we all get to work together.”

“My favourite three words are: I’ll do it” 

“I’m certainly a lot busier than I was, but I never underestimated how big of an undertaking this was because I knew the realities of it. So I’m really enjoying it. I love getting my hands dirty and getting in there, and I’ve always been that way; you know, my husband isn’t even allowed to pack the boot of the car [laughs]. My favourite three words are: I’ll do it. Like, everything from photo shoots and the creative and the vision of things to the execution and the retouching of the artwork. Of course, I don’t do it all myself, but I’m super-involved and invested in the finer details of everything. I’m a perfectionist. I'm one of those annoying people that will not let something go, like, something can be a centimetre off, and it has to be fixed. 

“I love working with great people, and I think as well, like with the music video, I love partnering up with someone who’s just as crazy as me and wants to do something just as epic and grand and big - empowering them to do something amazing; that’s really fun to be able to do that with people.”

“It’s the song I’ve been trying to write for my whole career”

“To bring it back to On My Own, when I say the line, ‘I found sparks in the darkest places/ So watch me start a fire in the rain,’ it’s like: if you throw me a challenge, watch me – I will do it. If you say I can’t do something, I’ll figure it out, I’ll do it, I’ll get it done. That’s why this song is just so perfect and so special to me in so many ways: you know, releasing this on my own label, but it’s also like the song of my life; it’s exactly who I am, it’s the song I’ve been trying to write for my whole career. It’s empowering, it’s powerful, it’s strong, it’s about independence and knowing who you are and never giving up on yourself and getting through things that you thought, at times, might break you, but flourishing in spite of it – it’s all of those things wrapped up into one.”

Upcoming fifth album update

“We haven’t set the [release] date yet. So I was in the studio this week, and next week I’m in the studio finishing off. We’ve made the decision on which [songs] will be the next two singles, so we’re finishing the production on those, getting them mixed and mastered, and then we’ll decide which order they will go out. So once they’re finished, we’ll have meetings with our team – and all of those people whose opinions we value and trust – and then after that, we’ll make the final decision on the order of the singles. Then once we’ve done that, I’ll finish the rest of the album while we’re rolling out the two singles.

“And then once the album is finished, I’ll set the date. So I would say it should be finished in a couple of months and [will be released] by the end of the year.”

You can stream/download Ricki-Lee's new single, On My Own, here