The Perks Of Being A Wallflower

4 January 2018 | 2:35 pm | Cyclone Wehner

"I think, when I was more honest with myself, I was writing better music. I'm not trying to over-complicate anything."

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Jordan Rakei was once the best-kept secret of the Antipodean soul scene. But, now based in London, he's an international phenom. Indeed, the tastemakers' fave from New Zealand via Brisbane recently issued Wallflower on the hallowed label Ninja Tune.

In September, the humble Rakei and band embarked on a triumphant US tour, performing his dub-reggae, acid jazz, neo-soul, broken beat and avant'n'B. "They were the best crowds we've ever played to," Rakei enthuses. "They were really excited... The crowds scream the lyrics." He's since headlined Shepherd's Bush Empire in London (covering Frank Ocean's Lost with friend Alfa Mist). From late December, Rakei hits Australia for a big "homecoming tour".

The singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer is often described as Australian, but he deems himself a New Zealander. In fact, Rakei originates from Tokoroa on the North Island. He migrated to Brisbane with his family at three years old. In recent years, Rakei has learnt more about his father's heritage as a Cook Islands Maori. "His culture was partly neglected because he was raised by a foster family," he explains. "He moved from the Cook Islands at a really young age - at the age of eight or something. He's a full Cook Islander, but he was raised by white parents because, I don't know, it just didn't work out in those days. So we sort of neglected that whole Cook Island culture for most of our lives until we went there on holiday and met all the family and have stayed in touch ever since. But that was only maybe eight years ago."

It turns out that Rakei's interest in music was encouraged by his dad, who introduced him to artists as diverse as Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa and even early house. Rakei took piano lessons but, from 11, was cutting hip-hop beats. Eventually, he gravitated towards jazz and soul. A gigging keyboardist in his teens, Rakei made his solo debut with 2013's Franklin's Room via Bandcamp, slowly generating online curiosity. Living with profound social anxiety for a long time, Rakei subsequently transplanted to London as a form of exposure therapy. He hasn't looked back.

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Rakei's breakthrough came when Disclosure approached him to guest on their blockbuster album Caracal (together with The Weeknd, Sam Smith and Lorde). The Brits had a pal who'd caught Rakei play in Oz and raved. He graced the ballad Masterpiece. "I was just a small beatmaker singing over my tunes at that stage," Rakei recalls. "I went into this session and the first thing they said was like, 'Hey, we usually make the beat and the singer usually comes in and sings, but we know you make beats. Do you wanna drive this session?' I was like, 'What?' I guess they just gave me confidence to know that I'm on that level. It's just a matter that they're famous and I'm not."

Last year Rakei presented a groovy first album, Cloak, thematising his inherent "introspection" and discovery of meditation. He laid down the streetwise track Snitch with REMI, the pair agreeing to a feature swap (Rakei croons on the Divas And Demons single Lose Sleep and cameos in the video). "He's just this fireball of energy," Rakei extols of the Melbourne MC. "He's so genuine. We think about the world in the same way."

Remarkably, the prolific Rakei has released Wallflower just months after Cloak (not to mention an EP under his deep house alias Dan Kye). He liaised extensively with London musicians, including The Invisible's Dave Okumu.

Wallflower's greatest revelation is the assured Lucid, which, sounding akin to a lost psychedelic Jeff Buckley epic, Rakei posits as his number one song. "I feel like Wallflower's a bigger progression and more of a bold album than Cloak." Reconsidering Cloak, Rakei reckons that he wasn't always on-topic lyrically ("some of the songs were just more about love or whatever"). And so, with Wallflower, he delved deeper into his history of anxiety, the lead single Sorceress cleverly figurative. "I think, when I was more honest with myself, I was writing better music. I'm not trying to overcomplicate anything."