If you’ve listened to Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, seen Solange live, or caught certain shows by Carly Rae Jepsen, you’ve likely heard Ava Raiin before. You might not know it — she’s rarely on center stage. But Raiin has put years into her background singing career, and she’s so good that some of music’s most influential names have trusted her to enhance their work. This week, she released her debut album, Ava Raiin.
Born Michelle Renee, Raiin spent her childhood moving back and forth between Minnesota and Texas. She’s influenced by artists from Prince to Portishead, having listened to all sorts of music as she grew up and started singing. The day after college graduation, she relocated to New York City, honing her voice alongside a newfound family of background vocalists.
In this sweet, career-spanning interview, Raiin explains how she made her name, why she loves Twenty Feet From Stardom, and what she’s doing to fight injustice.
Cecilia Johnson: You grew up here in Minnesota, right? Where were you, and for how long?
Ava Raiin: I grew up on the Southside, so East 25th Street was where I spent most of my time, and then I spent a little time in Bloomington, St. Louis Park, and Richfield. I went to Kennedy High School for part of my freshman year and part of my junior year.
It was kind of tough moving around so much. My sister and I counted, and we went to somewhere around 10 schools from elementary through high school. But having a twin definitely always helped, because you always have that ally.
Does that on-the-move feeling come back during touring?
Yeah, maybe that’s why I enjoy touring so much. I’m used to being all over the place and meeting new people. Being in the moment and trying to enjoy the experience as it happens, and not attach too much to it. I didn’t know I was being prepared!
I was going to ask if you missed any places in Minnesota, but if you’ve taught yourself to not attach, maybe not.
I definitely miss my grandparents’ house. They live near Lake Nokomis — well, my dad’s parents actually both just passed away in April. But. I miss this basketball court my sister and I used to play at all the time in Bloomington. Little things like that. First Ave, you know; Shorty and Wags chicken wings. That’s not there anymore.
Was your focus more on sports or music when you were a kid?
My parents were more supportive of sports, and not so much about music. They weren’t excited about music, and I didn’t really understand that, because it was what I obsessed over. So I grew up playing basketball, and I ran track. But in high school, I would sing the national anthem before the games and then run on the court and play. [laughs]
I didn’t have formal music training until around high school, but I always sang. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, and I used to record over my mom’s cassette tapes. I would do that on my own — I’d try to mimic the songs I heard on the radio.
When I joined school choirs, my friends liked to hear me sing songs, and I really loved that. I was naturally shy, so that was my way of connecting with people. It was easy for me to make friends that way.
It also helped me cope with moving around so much.
Are your parents more into you and music now?
My mom lives in Texas now; she moved from Minneapolis like six years ago. And then my dad is in the Philippines living his life. He hasn’t seen me perform since school choir. My mom, on the other hand, has come to South By Southwest when I did some background singing gigs. I sang there with Solange a few years ago, and Blood Orange last year. I’ve also had my own solo shows at South By Southwest.
I almost don’t know where to start talking about back-up singing.
You want me to just tell you how I got here? Right after I graduated from college — literally, the day after — I moved to New York. I just knew that’s what I was going to do. I had like $500. But I had a job waiting for me.
I thought I was going to be a lawyer and a singer, so I was at this law firm as a paralegal, and at night, I would go to these open mics in the city. I met the background singers for an artist called Chrisette Michele, and she needed background singers, so they asked me to come in. Then the soundcheck of the first gig, we got fired.
Then Chrisette pulled me aside, and she was like, “I know you hear what’s going on.” I was like, “Yeah, rehearsal sounded kind of wack.” She’s like, “I know, but I like you, so I’m going to hit you up for the tour in a couple of months.” I went on tour with her, and that’s how I got started. Her career took off after that, and I toured with her for a few years.
I met Solange on the last tour I did with Chrisette. Solange was the opening act, back in her Hadley St. Dreams days. Long-hair diva days. She was working out of the same recording studio I was working out of in New York, and a few years after that, the owner (now my husband) contacted me because she needed a background singer. That was when things really took off, in around 2013.
I toured with Solange for like a year, and that’s when I met Dev Hynes. He was on the tour, because he produced Solange’s True EP. He and I clicked instantly, and after I finished that tour, he had just put out Cupid Deluxe [as Blood Orange]. I was on four of the Freetown Sound songs [“By Ourselves,” “Augustine,” “Juicy 1-4,” and “Thank You”] and toured for that, and I met Carly Rae Jepsen through him. I was touring with both of them at the same time for a while.
Through a friend, I met Jack Antonoff, and I started doing gigs with Bleachers. And Melissa Etheridge…I’ve been doing all kinds of stuff.
How does your job depend on who you’re singing with? Like, how do you have to use different skills or focus on different stuff if you’re singing with Carly versus Dev, etc.?
For me, it’s being mindful of the style. They’re all such drastically different vocal styles, so I have to practice a lot. But I like all the songs, and that makes it easy.
I do feel like all of these artists I work with are parts of my own natural personality, anyway. We’re all so multifaceted, so I find bits of myself in their music and their style.
Have you seen the documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom?
Oh my god, I love it. It’s one of my favorites. It’s very accurate. It did a great job of depicting what the life of a background singer is like.
Lisa Fischer is in it, oh my god. I just love Lisa Fischer. If you ever get a chance to hear her live, you need to do that. [laughs]
I believe you! I just watched it for the first time recently.
I really liked the interviews that they did with all of the women. We get to learn so much from these established artists. What was your takeaway from it?
First of all, I’d never seen Stop Making Sense [by Talking Heads] before, and they included that clip of “Slippery People.” The very next night, I watched Stop Making Sense.
My dream is to be one of those background singers in Talking Heads [Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt]. They were so amazing. Their dancing? How do they have that kind of energy? It’s a full-body workout, but I don’t work that hard. [laughs]
I don’t know how many people could!
I love their style, their fashion, everything. Dev was inspired by them, too.
I also appreciated the way the movie acknowledged the downfalls of being a background singer. Being taken advantage of and underappreciated.
Yeah, underappreciated; underpaid. There’s definitely a lot of that, especially when you’re first getting started. Especially when people are like, “It’s a great opportunity, so you should make half of what you normally make!” I can’t take that kind of chance on a maybe. It’s a major issue in the industry.
I have to eat. I have bills to pay. I am a professional, and I’m dependable. Respect me.
Do you hang out with a lot of other background singers?
I do. We have a community in New York. And it wasn’t even something I was intentionally seeking out — I’ve always been more of a loner. But you meet people. You have gigs with other people, and they introduce you to other people. Next thing I know, I have all these brothers and sisters that do what I do.
We support each other and buy each other’s music and go to each other’s shows. It’s like a little family that I wasn’t expecting.
That’s cool. Speaking of community, I was poking around your Twitter, and you’d retweeted some stuff about the Philando verdict.
Ugh, oh my god.
I was like, the Twin Cities have had such a couple of rocky years. How has it felt to be so far away? Or do you feel connected via the internet?
I feel connected through the internet, thank god. And I’ve been trying to do my part. A lot of the time, I’m gone, and I can’t attend the protests. Then when you do go to some of them, you feel like, “Am I really helping?” So I’m trying to donate to as many causes as I can: Planned Parenthood, Black Lives Matter, everything.
But it’s really taking a toll on me. I was on tour when Philando happened, and that really hurt.
You have an interesting angle on this having sung with Solange, because A Seat At The Table became such a spiritual album, especially for folks of color, since coming out.
It’s really deep. To sing that music and feel helpless at the same time kind of magnifies the hurt. But, you know, I’m confident. I feel like change is happening, slowly. I’m just going to try to do my little part. Contribute to the resistance in my own way.
I cried at the Philando verdict. I remember being in Minneapolis. I remember being a kid, and we would get stopped on the highway by police for no reason. That was 20-plus years ago, and it’s still the same thing.
Hopefully, we all keep working. Keep fighting.
Keep making art.
Keep making art, too. I feel like that’s my way right now.
Thinking about the album, what’s something about it you’re most proud of?
I’m proud that I finished! [laughs] I’m proud that it’s out. I can’t believe this is a thing that people can go online and buy.
I think what I’m most proud of is that it captures the true essence of who I am. I feel like when you’re a singer working in the industry, it’s easy to conform and do what everybody else is doing. I love what’s out there — I love the ratchet; I love the pop. But I feel like I found me in my own music. I found my own sound.
I’ve been working in music for a long time. I put out a little EP, and then I took it off Bandcamp pretty quickly, because I was just doing it to be doing it. But I feel like this is me. I had this other title for it, but then I was like, I’m just going to self-title it.
That’s what I was just going to say! Thank goodness it’s self-titled.
It’s quirky; it’s weird; it’s soulful. It’s me.
You’ve been talking about being shy, but as you put this album about, do you think you’re growing through it?
It’s definitely something that I have to work on every day. But it’s funny how when you actually face your fear, things work out. Even doing this interview: it’s cool. It’s like a conversation. But I definitely had some anxiety about it.
Music used to be something I just did for me. I did the background singing, and that was fun and work. But this is me putting my stuff out there, and that’s a lot. I’m taking it one step at a time.
Are you still touring with other artists as a background singer?
Oh yeah, I have dates booked with Blood Orange. And probably some stuff with Carly.
Tell him to come to Minneapolis.
I know. All my friends out there are like, “Yo. He don’t show the Twin Cities no love.”
But I’m going to continue background singing. I’m planning to take this album on the road, so when that happens, I’ll be too busy. But for now, I have stuff booked in September and October. I’m just thankful that for now, I get this little break to promote the album.