Rukhsana Merrise’s songs may vary in genre, but her beguiling voice and knack for storytelling are constant across her entire musical oeuvre. Hailing from West London, the singer-songwriter has been steadily building up a varied back catalogue since her 2015 break-out EP September Songs. Already, she’s collaborated with the likes of Kojey Radical, Ghetts and toured with artists such as Oh Wonder and Michael Kiwanuka.
Fired with ambition, but known for her down-to-earth personality, Merrise is reconciling the contradictions of being a young and independent woman today. Delivered in two parts — Child and Today — Merrise’s forthcoming album is a celebration of duality and an exploration of the contrasting sides that make up her personality. The album is a considered, mature body of work sure to consolidate Merrise’s reputation as one of London’s most exciting emerging talents. Ahead of its release, we spoke to the talented musician about her distinctive sound, musical referents, and the challenges facing London’s creative scene.
“All my songs have an element of storytelling,” says Merrise faced with the difficult prospect of describing her eclectic sound. “No two songs are the same and that’s what I feel I do best as an artist. There’s always something new. All the songs are very guitar-led, with lyrics coming from an honest place, regardless of what genre they slip into.” Merrise’s creative practice plays something of a cathartic role in her life with frank lyrics taking centre-stage. “Music has always felt like therapy to me,” she says. “Being able to say what you wanted and create sounds unapologetically has always intrigued me.”
As she rattles off a lengthy list of artists she holds dear, it’s clear that music has always been of central importance to the West-Londoner. “Some days I’ll listen to my favourite songwriter, Joni Mitchell, then to Brandy, whose vocal arrangements amaze me. Karen Carpenter often softens my heart on a grey day. I admire Kanye West for forever pushing boundaries, and Shania Twain for her perfectly sweet vocals,” she says. “Other inspirations are Stevie Nicks — need I say anything more — and Dennis Brown, my favourite reggae singer, who serenades my house on a Sunday while my mum cooks dinner.”
It comes as a surprise to hear that she didn’t initially see a future in music. “I never really had any intention of taking music seriously after school,” says Merrise. “In 2009 a friend of mine took me to the studio and introduced me to [producer] PRGRSHN. That’s when I started to nurture my singing and songwriting talents and develop as an artist.” Since then it’s been a lot of hard graft honing her craft and perfecting her sound — but it hasn’t been without its perks. The chief of which may well be her working relationship with Grime star Ghetts. Merrise is full of admiration for the East-Londoner, who is a dream collaborator. “He’s incredibly talented and extremely humble. My first experience of working with him was for Talk About It. I remember asking my friend Kadz [Ghett’s Brother] if he could get the song to Ghetts to see if he wanted to jump on it. When he agreed I was extremely excited about what would come of it. He’s a pleasure to work with and very genuine. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Whilst they hail from opposite ends of the city, both Merrise and Ghetts are products of London’s thriving music scene. The list of stars the British capital has produced is endless, but their heritage is under threat thanks to rising rent and council reforms challenging the livelihoods of live venues. This is something Merrise is urgently aware of, though she’s unsure how the situation will develop. “Not having venues to perform in is an issue. Fifty to three hundred person capacity venues are perhaps even more important than larger venues. New acts count on the smaller venues when starting out. I also strongly believe that intimate gigs are the shows you will always remember. Nobody tells the story of a musician playing to a thousand people. The story always starts off with some small, sweaty venue and an artist jumping on stage, playing, and blowing the fucking crowd away. I’d hate to think what the future holds, but I do have hope that there are some niche venues that won’t become luxury flats no one can afford to live in.”
In spite of her attachment to her hometown, Merrise still sees the downside of city life and how it impacts her creative process. “I come from London and consider it to be an amazing place. However, my creativity tends to be much freer when I step away from it. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle and lose sight of what’s important. With London being slightly chaotic, your thoughts aren’t as fluid or connected as when you’re away from it all. Escapism is necessary. No matter where you come from.”
Escapism is exactly what Merrise’s music affords to her fans. It’s also something to look forward to from her debut album next year. “I haven’t released a body of work for some time and feel like it would be really nice to warm people into the different sides of it. Each part is carefully divided by songs that represent the album titles. The more moody and rebellious songs are probably in Child and the more reflective and joyous songs are in Today. As a whole, I’m really proud of [the album] and excited for people to explore a part of me they might not have seen before.”
Merrise choosing to release her album in two parts is something of an unusual move for a debut, but for this adventurous artist, it makes perfect sense. “I guess the two parts represent and showcase the journey I’ve been on and explore my contradictions as a human being. I’m deeply reflective and fully owning my mistakes in one part, and the second part showcases another side of me, one that is completely in denial.”
The process of making the album has been a difficult one but it’s something Merrise has approached with passion and curiosity. “Nobody teaches you how to make your first album, they just say its hard! That it was, but it’s authentically me and it’s been so worth it. It’s moulded me, broken me, and made me a better person. You can hear it between the two parts of the album. I can’t wait for people to explore it.”
So what’s next for the talented singer-songwriter? As always, she’s got her eyes fixed firmly on the future. “I’ve got another single that I will release before the year’s out. I’ll also be announcing the album date, so keep your eyes peeled. Then I’ll start recording my next project.” With talent, charisma and an unrivalled work ethic, 2019 may well be the year of Rukhsana Merrise.
Rukhsana Merrise will release ‘Child,’ part one of her debut album ‘Child O’ Today,’ on December 14.