Just as we’re about to cross the street to Madison Square Park, the walk sign trickles down to 6, 5, 4, 3…that’s not enough time, I think to myself, and I stop in my tracks at the corner.
But Raffaella, standing to my left, knows better. Born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the singer-songwriter knows there are actually five more seconds for us to cross before cars ramble across 6th Avenue. I listen to her, yet scurry across the street while she strolls along unfazed. She knows there’s plenty of time.
Raffaella, whose influences include St. Vincent, Lana Del Rey, Regina Spektor, and Billie Holiday, is just at the beginning of her career. However, she’s already proving she’s a rising star with the incisive, dark, and clever wordplay that contrasts against a delicate tune in her latest release, “Sororicide.” Inspired by her short-lived time in a college sorority, its members claimed sisterly love but stabbed each other in the back. The song’s floaty melody and ethereal vocals belie its cutting and sardonic lyrics, avoiding cattiness by crossing over into comedy with graceful delivery.
How do you feel under all that concealer? Are you breathing?
I can be your friend, if we just play pretend.
After joining the sorority, she was bleaching her hair blonder and blonder, curling it until it burned. She was changing into a person she didn’t recognize, that even her parents couldn’t pick out of a lineup in a sorority photograph. “I came up in this liberal world of hippie granola, sort of artsy fartsy Upper West Side New Yorkers and then I came to L.A. and it was so pretty, and everyone was so pretty and manicured and I was like, “Oh, I wanna do that!” she says. It was part social experiment, part desire for approval, she says. “I’ve had this pattern, even since middle school, I was attracted to these girls and I wanted to know that I could be approved by them and once I worked hard enough to get in, I hated it and I hated myself,” she says. She was looking for an identity, but didn’t know what this newer, blonder one would entail.
Coming back to New York after a school break freshman year, however, she realized she missed discussing literature and cinema and, she says, “how goldfish produce their own alcohol in the winter from their ethanol and that’s how they keep themselves warm, by getting drunk.” These were not the conversations she was having at the sorority, which she says revolved more around socials, costumes, themes, or how one could procure a status-worthy husband. She knew she had to leave.
A savior, interestingly, was J.D. Salinger. “I think that [he] definitely taught me not put on a show for people,” she says of the author, whose characters often pursue authenticity in both themselves and others. “I’ve always found honesty and being–this sounds so cliche, but–truthful to yourself a challenge and a really important one. I feel like he bullied me into doing that and made me…hate phony people,” she says, quoting Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye character Holden Caulfield (though she much prefers Franny and Zooey and Nine Stories).
Feeling surrounded by phonies, Raffaella came back to New York for good after finishing her freshman year on the west coast. A classically trained pianist, she felt inspired and started putting music on SoundCloud, covers of artists like Bill Withers, Jeff Buckley, Rihanna, and The Animals. Eventually, a talent manager sent her work to Los Angeles-based band BRÅVES, who were so taken by it they invited her out to L.A. to record with them. Raffaella has also since performed at events orchestrated by The House of Peroni, Galore magazine, and The Standard hotel.
By learning what she wasn’t, Raffaella thereby learned what she was and what she could be. “Once you’re around people you’re not like at all, that’s when you can figure out who you really are,” she says. “I found that I love baggy jeans, I love literature, I love reading, and I love talking about it. I love talking about school. I love loving to learn,” she says, sitting on a leather chair in a vintage Rugrats t-shirt she got at the Melrose & Fairfax Flea Market in Los Angeles with a black leather jacket, high-waisted pants cropped and frayed at the hem, and black heeled boots. Her bright red handbag sits on a chair nearby. Her hair is no longer blonde, she hardly manipulates her hair now, and doesn’t like wearing too much makeup. She is still figuring herself out, she says.
While Raffaella does that, though, she continues to pursue music, fascinated by the contradictions between darkness and lightness as exemplified in “Sororicide.” “I realized how much I loved the darkness in comedy. That’s definitely something that I chase. I find that it’s a really cool challenge to make something light from darkness and I think contrast is my favorite thing in the world, contradiction as well,” she says. Her musical talents and exacting sense of humor are ripe for the artistic, alt-pop microverse that’s developed in the last few years, though she also chases a soulful, stripped down sound. Nothing phony, in other words.
This coming year, Raffaella will be recording, developing, and releasing more work, all while concentrating on graduation (she is now halfway her senior year). Not to mention she’s acting as well–and has been since she was a child, professionally since she was 17–and just booked her first major film role in an independent movie where she plays a musician, a role for which she taught herself guitar. You can also see her in the Jenny Slate vehicle Landline, released earlier this year.
“I want to just keep doing what I’m doing,” she says. “I want to perform a lot more. I want to keep writing, I want to keep collaborating, I want to keep acting. It’s cool having those moments where you’re kind of outside yourself,” she says, excited yet quietly anxious. But she knows there’s plenty of time.