A classically-trained pianist born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, 21-year-old songstress Raffaella exudes the sharp yet dreamy charm of Jean Luc-Godard’s New Wave starlets. When Raffaella was only one-day-old, her parents brought her to an astrologist, who told the family that songwriting is her gift. Aptly, she grew up sneaking into jazz clubs and performing impromptu living room renditions of “Hairspray.” After graduating high school, Rafaella traded coasts and pursued acting at the University of Southern California, where she joined a sorority. Her time on the West Coast was formative: after observing her sorority’s toxic environment, she moved back to New York, transferred to Barnard College, and started uploading her music online. In 2016, she caught the eye of band BRÅVES who invited her back to Los Angeles to record. There, she met photographer Francesco Carrozzini, who tapped her to provide the title track for his documentary “Franca: Chaos and Creation” celebrating his mother, the late Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani. We spoke with the up-and-coming songstress about meeting Francesco and Franca, the inspiration behind her music, and new single “Sororicide.”
How did you get into music?
My grandma is a classical pianist, a Juilliard grad, and I grew up listening to her play. I started studying classical piano when I was four but by the time I was 13, I decided that I was done cutting my nails short (my teacher forbid long finger nails)—so I started to learn how to sing. I remember the first time I sang “April in Paris” I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. My teacher thought I was such a freak—I broke out laughing right after singing it. I think I just felt overwhelmed by this bizarre new catharsis; it was an unbelievable connection. It seemed ridiculous to me that people were still attempting to write new music, everything seemed boring in comparison with Ella [Fitzgerald] and Billie [Holiday]. So the next step for me was to join those foolish artists and start writing songs.
How did you get involved with the Franca Sozzani documentary?
Over the summer of 2016, I moved out to Los Angeles to write songs with BRÅVES. At the end of our last session, Francesco Carrozzini stopped by for a quick hang with a 6-pack of Peroni and a great tan. I had no idea who he was, other than a very well-dressed and well-mannered Italian man. We had just finished recording my song “Vigilante,“ so we all listened to the rough cut together. I could tell Francesco was somebody important. He was such a fancy man, so I felt pretty nervous but also excited to hear his thoughts. He ended up liking what he heard enough to hire me to sing the title song for his documentary. So I was at the right place with the right people at the right time.
What was the best part of working on the documentary?
The fact that I am at all associated with such an unbelievable woman was the best part of working on the project. I had the chance to meet her at the New York screening of the film. She was luminescent. I like to think I have a good grasp on the English language, but every word escaped me when I shook her hand.
Who do you look to for musical inspiration?
Father John Misty’s lyricism and contradiction; Regina Spektor’s quirky classicism and wit; Billie Holliday’s charmingly dark depth and gritty elegance.
How have your studies at Barnard influenced your music?
I would not be able to write music without my education. As a French Literature and Philosophy major, I didn’t really set myself up for post-college with any sort of practicality. Instead, I dedicated myself to classroom dissections of Baudelaire’s poetry and 16th century French satirical fables. I did, however, need to fulfill a bunch of core requirements, but my science course was titled “Physics for Poets,” and it was pretty awesome—the paradoxical relationship between quasars and black holes blew my mind. I’ve always loved interdisciplinary learning, integrating creativity with academia. Last month we discussed manipulations of the Bible’s commentaries within an archaic scholarly approach to education; the protagonist of the book we were reading made a joke that if, according to David’s Psalm, God blesses us in our sleep, then we should be able to just sleep all day. This idea stuck with me and led me to write these lyrics: “God’s nice when I dream / so I’ll stay sleeping / where it’s easy believing.”
You’ve explained that Sororicide, the act of killing one’s own sister and the title of your new single, was informed by your experiences around women who put each other down in order to get ahead. Can you talk more about this, as well as the ways in which women can support and empower each other (especially now as we fight against the Trump administration)?
The moment that really woke me up was when a girl shared an inspiring Facebook post on a sorority page about a boy who needed a date for a social event. When I read her suggestion that “any young housewife/socialite in training should strap him down and never let him go,” I realized that I didn’t want to live in a world in which women were doomed to passivity. My experience at the beginning of college shed light on this sort of mentality where beautiful, intelligent, and capable young women turned dressing and housekeeping into laudable arts. It felt unfair, like their very existence depended on their appearance. The boys seemed comfortable and free to grow into their own individual identities, while the girls’ self expression was inextricably linked to the boys’ judgment of them. This all seemed crazy to me, especially since all of the girls I knew seemed so much smarter than any of the boys I met. Yet these girls put each other down. And I was quickly sucked into their mindset. It felt like we were all infected with the same insecurity disease, or a poorly led competition.
That being said, other than the obvious—let’s support each other instead of knocking each other down—I can’t really offer a list of specific ways for women to support and empower each other, because everyone has her own subjective understandings of empowerment and support which won’t necessarily jibe with my own. I think it’s important to recognize that one female cannot speak on behalf of all females. My experiences are not necessarily universal. What we can do, however, is start the discussions early, teach girls to become young women unafraid to have their own, well-informed opinions and identities.
Describe your sound in three words.
Dreamy, witty, chill.