Raffaella Talks Growing Up In NYC, Billie Holiday, and Working as a Woman in the Music Industry
I met Raffaella on a lonely bench in a Prospect Heights park. She called my attention from a guesstimated 50 feet away, as I was distracted by the music in my ears.
“I wore pink for this!” she told me, in her magenta tank top with Levi’s shorts borrowed from her sister. That was just part of the cool girl who is almost finished her French literature degree and makes nostalgic tunes about quitting dance at the age of five, fictional stories about breaking into bougie houses, and her ex’s mommy issues.
You can listen to Raffaella’s new EP Ballerina here.
Allison Barr for Pink Things: Can you tell us who you are and what you do?
Raffaella: I’m Raffaella, that’s my first name in real life and in my artist project. I’m a singer-songwriter, student technically, sort of. I don’t know, my student and my actress side are these weird secret hobbies that I don’t really talk about even though I’m not ashamed of it. I think I just see music as my main path.
Pink Things: What have you acted in?
Raffaella: I’ve been auditioning since I was 16 and I got really close a bunch of times. It’s challenging because all of the descriptions were based on how the character looks. For example: pretty but doesn’t know it. And every time I cry, I have to somehow look beautiful doing it. It’s challenging to act and think about how I look while reciting the words that middle-aged white men wrote for a 16-year-old girl. When I started writing music I thought, “This is amazing! I can create my own content and people will listen?!”
Pink Things: How has growing up in New York influenced your music?
Raffaella: It’s hard to differentiate between how it has influenced my music and how it has influenced me. It’s very influential in terms of the energy and the pace at which I create. I need there to be sound going on outside; it’s difficult for me to create in silence. It’s hard for me to write without something chaotic.
Pink Things: Do you feel like it’s more competitive?
Raffaella: Not really. I feel like it’s actually kind of better to be an artist in New York. Every time I’m in an Uber in LA, they ask me what I do, and I make up a profession every time because everyone’s a singer and actress there. Here, it’s more unique. A lot of the artists and producers that I’ve worked with have moved out to LA, so I feel like the ones that have stayed are soldiers.
Pink Things: You went to USC for a year. Do you enjoy creating in New York more than LA?
Raffaella: I think that the place doesn’t actually matter as much. What’s more impactful is if I’m reacting to a particular relationship or experience. Inspiration is very random.
Pink Things: You’ve talked about film a lot. I want to know what your favorite movie is.
Raffaella: I love Taxi Driver, that’s a big one; Silence of the Lambs too. I love Jodie Foster.
Pink Things: How was film influenced your music? Or film scores?
Raffaella: I love film scores. I just saw Phantom Thread recently. Jonny Greenwood did the score, and it was so good. The way that it interacted with the lens, it felt like a ballet. The movie that has probably influenced my music the most is West Side Story because I grew up watching it. When I was three, I used to sing Maria to strangers on planes.
Pink Things: No way, how cute! I read that you transferred in your freshman year of college to figure yourself out. I did too. How has music helped you do that?
Raffaella: It’s definitely helped me a lot. It’s proved to be a very healthy outlet in terms of figuring out how I feel about people. A lot of the songs I wrote about my ex-boyfriend had this undertone of numbness. I write what are, essentially, diary entries. They’re different segments or experiences that happen in my life, and I find it’s constructive. I’m excited to be old and to be able to listen to them to remember all the relationships that I had. It’s a cool way to connect with others and help them remember those parts of their lives as well. When I listen to The Shins, I think of middle school; when I listen to Hozier, I think of my freshman year of college. Even if it’s not necessarily narratively matching up with whoever is listening to it, if anything, there’s that same feeling. That’s always underneath the words and the music.
Pink Things: What do you hope womxn take away from listening to your music?
Raffaella: I think that creating is so powerful. Growing up, women are often taught to be passive, and I believe that the act of creating is a way to rebel against that. The fact that they’re listening to it, and acknowledging that it’s possible to use your own voice, with your poetic license to break the rules. You can write a bop about how your boyfriend’s a dick. There are ways to communicate honestly and creatively, and no one can stop you. We’re often so afraid of upsetting others, and I think it’s silly. I try to be as honest as possible in my music, and as self-deprecating as possible in a way that I hope is not fishing for compliments. Instead, it’s finding liberation and exposing my flaws to be able to grow from them. I grew up listening to Regina Spector, and she taught me that you’re allowed to write about whatever you want to write about, in whichever way you want to write it.
Pink Things: When you were talking about working through what you’ve been taught, like being passive in your art, how did you develop the honesty that’s integral to your art?
Raffaella: First of all, my parents are incredibly supportive, I just got fortunate. No matter what, I had the people in my life that were allowing me to do what I wanted. It’s kind of like ripping off a bandaid, you have to start doing it and test the waters and see how people will react. You have to practice doing what you want to do, having reactions and dealing with those reactions.
Pink Things: Was there a woman in your life who encouraged you to be bold, pursue music, or taught you how to be confident?
Raffaella: Yes, definitely, and there have been a lot of them. I grew up with many strong women in my life. I’m one of four sisters, we had all female dogs growing up, and I had my mom, of course. My mom has always been very strong and supportive. She taught me to prioritize my brain and not focus on boys, which I didn’t do a great job of. My sisters were extremely helpful in terms of raising me and showing me what it’s like to be a strong femme. They taught that it’s okay to love painting your nails, to do these stereotypical “female” things, while at the same time being extremely capable of doing everything else.
Pink Things: You mentioned Regina Spektor, but what about other women in music who encouraged you?
Raffaella: I grew up listening to Billie Holiday. She is the baddest of the badass women. Billie had this joy in her voice when she sang. Her voice sort of crackled when she sang, and I have definitely adopted that. It’s very sorrowful and joyful all at once. Billie taught me a lot about tension in music and how negative experiences in your life can seep into your voice. You can sing about a happy moment, but it will be weighed down by other experiences. It creates this beautiful tension and contradiction and helped me embrace adversity, transforming something painful into something powerful.
On another note, I saw Kacey Musgraves at Governor’s Ball, and I’m in love with her. She was wearing this tight outfit that made her look fabulous and she didn’t look like how a pop star is supposed to look with a “perfect” body. Her body is perfect because it’s healthy and it’s beautiful. I was like “Whoa, you’re allowed to do that. You’re allowed to love your body, wear tight things, look beautiful and cool and own it.” That was a powerful moment for me, just to know that it’s possible to do that. Another thing about my sisters is that they definitely taught me a lot about body confidence. It’s not as bad in the music scene, but in the acting world, body image standards fucked me up for sure.
Pink Things: I see that you hang out with a lot of other femme artists. Who are some of your friends who have inspired you?
Raffaella: I’m obsessed with Samia. I think she’s a genius. She is humble, kind, giving, and so passionate. Growing up, I struggled with friendships, especially female friendships. I never really had a friend group; I was very much a floater. It’s incredible to have friends now that inspire me and who I don’t have to feel competitive with. I believe that jealousy is really easy to come by when you’re with other artists, but I think we have a great thing going. Even if we feel jealous, there’s nothing terrible about it, it’s only human. It just depends on how you interpret it.
No matter what, I want the best for them, and I want them to succeed to their highest potential because I know that they are capable of that. I’m not talking just about Samia, but also my other creative friends. Not only do I love them, but I think that they’re good at what they do, and I think as many people as possible should be able to benefit from that. I call Samia my Paul McCartney, and I’m her Brian Wilson. She inspires me to be better, and I hope to encourage her to do the same. I’m so grateful to have found her.
Pink Things: What has your experience in the music industry been like as a girl? What kind of scene are you involved in, and is it predominantly male?
Raffaella: Definitely predominantly male. I’ve worked with a lot of different producers and a lot of the time, it’s men. After a while, I wanted to see what it was like to work with a female producer. So, I requested one. I’ve worked with a few now, and I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would.
I realized I was sort of struggling to convince myself that I liked them because they were women. It’s difficult because I think there need to be more female/femme producers in general. I don’t know why there are so many male producers, but my mixer is a very talented woman, and I love her. Many of the people who work at Mom & Pop, my record label, are women.
Pink Things: I feel like every girl can probably relate to that. It’s good you’re with the right people now.
Raffaella: It’s a male-dominated industry for sure, but I try to surround myself with really great people, and a lot of those people happen to be women. It’s fantastic when their ears are a part of the project and hear things that maybe others can’t.
Pink Things: We ask everyone this, what does pink mean to you?
Raffaella: Oh, I have a good answer to that!
When I was three years old, I was obsessed with the color pink. I remember thinking pink is the best color, and I remember being so sure of that feeling and that opinion, and I genuinely have not been as sure of anything ever since.
Pink Things: Are you still incredibly passionate about pink?
Raffaella: No, no. no. My favorite color is red now. I don’t know what it was about it, but it provided me with that level of certainty. I’ve been trying to search for that same feeling ever since.
I have this one lyric from a song that never will be released, “Had a favorite color at the age of three / Now I never seem to have much certainty.” Pink was security and beauty. I feel like there are so many other things that have gotten in the way of that feeling for me. I don’t know who I am and what I believe because everything is a result of what has influenced me and gotten into my head. When I was three, I didn’t have that all those intruding thoughts.
Loving the color and not having it being tied to femininity is an important skill to practice. I’ve struggled with my relationship with femininity and my responsibilities towards it. I try to figure out what it means to like a color; to potentially like it because it’s feminine, or simply to like it because it’s a good color. Colors are a big deal. There’s a way to embrace a stereotypically feminine color and make it something else. I think that’s extremely powerful.
Pink Things: I love that. Okay, the last question I have for you is what do you have coming up?
Raffaella: I have a show in September at Webster Hall on September 19th and September 20th. It’s a part of my tour with Sigrid. Also my new EP Ballerina is out now!
Pink Things: Congratulations! Well, that’s the end. Oh my God, we talked for an hour.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Raffaella’s Ballerina blends bubblegum pop with subversive lyricism to create what it would sound like if Lorde created Frank Ocean’s Super Rich Kids. You can hear the EP now via Mom+Pop on all streaming services. You can also see her play live in Los Angeles’ School Night show on September 9th.
Allison Barr is a 20-year-old artist from Portland, Oregon, currently based in NYC for the summer. She is currently studying Photojournalism and Cinema Studies in hopes of pursuing a photography and cinematography career.