At five years old, when my kindergarten class was tasked with taking turns standing at the front of the room and telling our peers what we wanted to be when we grew up, I had no problem coming up with my answer. “I’m going to be a singer,” I declared confidently.
It was a bit of a pipe dream for a small-town Maine girl like myself, and plenty of people along the way kindly offered their advice of always keeping a plan B, but I never did. To me, having a backup plan meant I didn’t believe I would be successful, but I did believe. So I forged ahead, focused, determined and optimistic enough about my future that I opted not to go to college; a choice that shocked and concerned many of my elders.
As the rest of my classmates went off to college, I moved to East Orange, NJ, to continue working with a producer I had been collaborating with in NYC during my last two years of high school. I stayed in the home of a man who was convinced he knew how to develop me as an artist and could get me signed to a major label. I didn’t know anything about the business other than I wanted to be in it, so I sang the songs that were written for me, I dyed my hair an orangish color that was supposed to make me appear edgier, and I role-played future interviews with the press so I would be “ready”. The goal was to be comfortable telling my story about who I was. Not my real story of course, that was too simple, wholesome and boring. I was told I needed EDGE. I was instructed to take on a persona and story that wasn’t mine. To be someone I wasn’t. I was told that I just needed to be this character to get in the door and then once I had some success, I would be able to do whatever I wanted. They called me Lynx. Lindsey was too normal. All of it felt wrong. It was fake and I don’t do fake well. But I went along with it for a few months because I had already risked everything to be there and I had no plan B, remember? Eventually, I showcased for Epic Records and was told I was being offered a record deal with a sizable advance. At that moment when I should have been thrilled that my dream was possibly coming true, I knew in my gut that it wasn’t. It wouldn’t be the kind of career I wanted if I signed. I didn’t want a record deal at the cost of being inauthentic. I turned the deal down and went back home; defeated and discouraged.
I’ll spare you the lengthy details of the next 5 years but let’s just say there were more trips to NYC to work with new producers. Then there was the phase where I played in local cover bands and became a wedding singer. Eventually, I started writing original songs and booking solo gigs around the state of Maine. Less than a year into creating my Myspace music page, I was discovered by an indie label in NYC and was once again offered a deal. It was a 360 deal this time, with very little advance.
My lawyer advised me that this was NOT a great deal by any stretch of the imagination, but he had known me since I was 18. He knew how badly I wanted to leave my small-town life and go for it in the music business. He informed me of the risk I would be taking and told me the choice was mine. I was 24 and already feeling a little “old” and late to the game (which in hindsight is pretty hilarious to me) and I figured at least this time I was being offered a deal as my real self, so I signed.
The label said I was “green as a writer” (which I was) and there was only one existing song of mine that excited them, so I sat at my keyboard day after day writing new material, trying to figure who I was going to be as an artist. What made me special? What would make the label want to release an album of mine? What would make ME happy? I didn’t know. I had so many different styles and genres bouncing around in my head that deciding which one was more me was incredibly challenging. I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go until the day came that I heard an Old Navy commercial on my TV and recognized the voice and song as Ingrid Michaelson, an independent artist I had found on Myspace months before. I cried tears of joy. I cried because it felt like such a big deal to hear an artist who was NOT on a major label, coming through my tv speakers. It meant that could happen to ME. I had a whole new kind of goal I was aiming for. I wanted THAT.
Less than a year later, that dream came true. My manager at the time set up a co-write with Tim Myers, an artist whose music was all over commercials. We wrote a duet called “Brand New Day” and a few months later it was the new song powering national Target commercials. My family was thrilled. My hometown was proud. It felt like success. My father had passed away two days before I got the news that Target was going to use my song, and it felt like a parting gift from him; a yin to the yang of my current state of brokenness. I wanted so badly to make him proud. And I thought he might have actually liked the music I was making because it was sweet, wholesome and optimistic like me. To be honest, I think it was the first time I felt like ANYONE in my family liked my music. They had never really understood the kind of R&B music I made in my early days. I thought I finally had a shot at making some headway in the business so I continued writing sweet, quirky singer-songwriter songs in the hopes that it would bring me the kind of fulfillment and validation I so desperately desired. SPOILER ALERT: It didn’t.
A few years of singing in a soft sweet voice and I was over it. I missed the soulful part of my voice; the hearty part that came up from the depths of my soul and was loud enough fill a room without a mic. I knew I was limiting myself by only sharing a small part of my musicality with the world. I had so many other styles of music I wanted to write and sing but I felt boxed in by my perceived reality of what the outside world wanted from me. I felt accepted and well-received as the quirky, cute singer-songwriter girl and that felt good. I’m a people-pleaser at heart. But one night after an ill-attended show at Rockwood Music Hall in 2010, I called my sister from my room in the Chelsea Hotel and painfully told her I was done. I couldn’t do it anymore. I wasn’t happy. For the first time in my life, I swallowed the possibility that maybe I wasn’t meant to be an artist. Maybe I simply wasn’t good enough. Maybe I’d been wrong all these years. “I should just be a writer, “ I told her, through tears. There was no way I was giving up on a career in music altogether, of course. I’m too stubborn for that. I knew I was a decent songwriter and was comforted by the thought that writing for other artists could be a way for me to explore all the different styles I wanted to write.
So that’s what I did. I wrote with the intention of writing songs that could work for other, more successful pop artists. I had gotten out of my record deal, and my publishing deal had just ended when I got word that Demi Lovato was going to record a song I had written a week before. Even better, they were going to keep my background vocals on the song! WHOA. My first cut in the pop world and I owned my publishing. Things were looking up. The A&R that chose my song for Demi’s album took a liking to me and started introducing me to people around town. I started to have momentum as a writer. I got into the room with some of my heroes like Rodney Jerkins. I had songs recorded by two of my favorite childhood artists: Deana Carter and Mariah Carey. I thought I’d finally cracked the nut and found my place in the industry. SPOILER ALERT: I hadn’t. My people-pleasing co-dependent nature got me right back where I started; making music from a place of trying to be what I thought people wanted me to be instead of just being who I am. I became more invested in outside validation than in trusting and following my own creative impulses. I was lost. Again. Until…
My boyfriend at the time had just started playing around with producing in Logic and one day I walked in the room to hear what he was working on and I loved it! I felt inspired for the first time in a long time. We wrote 6 songs that week and decided to start a band called FARMDALE. The songs were messy; part punk and part soul. They were nothing like what I’d been writing in the pop world and I liked that. I had just signed an admin deal with Secret Road (a music licensing company) and knew they were powerhouses in the synch world; a world I was familiar with from my Target commercial days. I had a feeling the songs we had written were very licensable and sure enough, I was right. I turned the songs into my team at Secret Road and within a few months, FARMDALE had their first placement on a TV show called GRACELAND.
One placement led to another and before we knew it, we were hearing our music everywhere: TV shows/promos and national commercials for brands like Applebee’s, T-Mobile, JC Penney, Xbox, Lexus, Chase Bank, and more. I knew these songs would never have been played on the radio but I didn’t care. I was having FUN and we were making decent money; something that hadn’t always been the case in our musical careers thus far. Even with Demi Lovato and Mariah Carey cuts, there wasn’t much money coming in. The days of songwriters getting paid well from cuts are long gone. If your song isn’t a radio single, you aren’t making much. And if you don’t have a draw coming in from a publishing deal, you’re making even less. In the synch world, it’s a whole other ballgame. If you’re an independent artist who owns your masters and you land a song in a commercial or TV show, you’re getting paid on both the publishing and master side of the license, which oftentimes means making more than you would on an artist cut, and your music has direct access to the public. People hear a song they like on a commercial, they Shazam it, they discover you and BOOM you might have just earned yourself a new fan, without radio or touring. And more importantly, without a record label. You can be fully independent and still make a living in music! What a concept. Even more exciting to me, the world of synch thrives on a range of musical styles and genres. Hallelujah.
So here I am. I’ve spent the better part of the last 5 years writing whatever kind of music I feel inspired to write. No rules. No boundaries. If a song feels like an artist pitch, I could try to find an artist who will record it. If it feels licensable, I give it to my team at Secret Road and see if there’s a music supervisor who agrees with me. Fortunately for me, lately, they often do. As it turns out, my natural inclination to write optimistic, feel-good songs is very licensable. I love building people up and making them feel powerful. As a kid I used to joke to my father that I wanted to be a motivational speaker on the side. Sometimes I feel like that’s what I’m doing with my songs. I’m trying to anyway. I figure if people are going to hear a message from me, I want it to be one of empowerment, inclusiveness, and self-love; all things I’ve had to fight for in my own life.
To keep things organized the way my Type A brain likes, I currently have 3 artist projects/personas that I release music under: Lindsey Ray, Rayelle & Olly Anna. Both Rayelle and Olly Anna have been very well received by music supervisors in the last 2 years, landing placements in several TV shows, network promos, movie trailers, and commercials. This year began with both Rayelle and Olly Anna landing multiple songs in international Samsung ads, helping those projects gain fans from all over the world. Because of Samsung, my song “Get Dat” (released under my Rayelle moniker) is my most successful synch song to date, reaching almost 4 million streams on Spotify. That’s not much for a well-known artist but for a relatively unknown artist like myself, it feels like an incredible feat.
Is synch the be-all-end-all for me? The endless cure for my artistic woes? Probably not. But it has given me perspective on the music industry as a whole. I know now that the main ingredients to my creative fulfillment have nothing to do with radio singles and praise from industry suits and big whigs. For me, fulfillment comes from having the freedom to create whatever I want to create and to perform it in any way that feels right. The freedom to release my music how and when I choose. The freedom to no longer worry about picking a lane or figuring out what one thing makes me special as an artist. I don’t have to pretend to be anything I’m not. I can simply be all of the things that I already am. And thanks to synch, I’m able to survive doing what I love most: SINGING. It doesn’t matter that each of my projects only has 1,500 or so Instagram followers. I mean, yeah, I’d love to have more of a fanbase to interact with but I know these things take time, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m just happy to be more creatively fulfilled now than ever before and still feel like I’m just getting started. The truer to myself I’ve been, the more success I’ve had and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I no longer question whether I’m worthy of being the vessel for my music. I know I am.
Listen to Rayelle’s new song “Freedom”
Header image by Emma Lee Photography