INTERVIEW: Freya Ridings finds a musical Rosetta Stone in public pianos

Freya Ridings

Freya Ridings photographed at Outside Lands in San Francisco on Aug. 11, 2018. Photo: Joaquin Cabello.

SAN FRANCISCO — “Introverted teen turns to music rather than her friends to entertain herself through school.” It may be a cinematic device, but it’s not the story of U.K. singer-songwriter-pianist Freya Ridings. She didn’t have friends in school, and music was more of a solace than a hobby.

“I definitely didn’t want to be alone,” said Ridings, 24, who’s poised to have a breakthrough 2019. Following two years of maturation and acclaim, she has created a niche as a songwriter in the mold of Florence Welch, with the performance presence of Tori Amos.

“I think the hardest thing about school was the isolation, because I love people. I’m incredibly close with my family and we can all be ourselves, but I was very different in school,” Freya Ridings said. “I was very tall, I was a redhead, I was really bigger than the other kids. It just isolated me from the pack. I was like the black sheep, definitely. The [piano room] was the only place I was allowed to actually be myself. So yeah, I found school an incredible difficult time but music got me through it.”

That wasn’t the only obstacle Ridings has had to face. She describes herself as “heavily dyslexic,” and to this day she hasn’t been able to learn to read sheet music. That can be tricky for a pianist and can dissuade many from even trying. Ridings did, though, and for college, she was accepted into the prestigious BRIT School in London; other attendees included Adele and Amy Winehouse.

“I struggled with reading, writing,” she said. “When it came to reading music, I really struggled [and] all of my music teachers kind of gave up on me, and I just did it myself. I repeated the songs in my head and just worked them out day by day.”

Despite her preferred style, which borders on classical, Freya Ridings still harps on her own piano ability.

“I still don’t think I’m very good at piano, ironically,” she said.

If you ask pianos, they may disagree. Ridings, more or less, kick-started her career with performances on public pianos scattered in various locations: Subway stations, parks, school field trips and family vacations—wherever she would go, she would find a piano unexpectedly. The habit started all the way in school.

“We went to a swimming pool once, and we went to the changing room doors and there was a room with a grand piano,” she said. “I was like, ‘How does this happen to me?’ There’s something magical about it because I feel like every piano has its own unique identity.”

Freya Ridings

Freya Ridings at Outside Lands on Aug. 11, 2018. Photo: Shawn Robbins.

Eventually, she started posting videos of herself playing at London metro stations. The last time she did that, hundreds of people turned up, and police shut the performance down.

All of that has happened in the last couple of years. Listeners and fans might presume Freya Ridings is a natural performer. But she didn’t have that going for her, either. She grew up singing for family, but it took a school open mic performance to get the courage to pursue it further.

“I was extremely shy at school, and I didn’t used to speak to anyone,” she said. “So that night was kind of a life-changing night for me because I finally found a way to be my truest self and literally found my voice in a time where I didn’t really have one. It kind of changed everything for me.”

Not even the BRIT school broke her out of her shell. Ridings went in presuming she would find other students like herself. After all, it attracts the best, and the admission process and audition are so strict. But unlike her previous music educators, she found supportive teachers who inspired her. And her parents showed their confidence in her by making the required move south from London to live nearby in Croydon.

“I was so excited about it for so long because I thought I’d go there and find my tribe, and I didn’t exactly find my tribe,” she said. “It was the same sort of isolation that I felt before, which just meant that I wrote even more songs.”

Freya Ridings

Freya Ridings at Outside Lands. Photo: Joaquin Cabello.

The songs that Freya Ridings has so far released broach loneliness; getting lost in it, overcoming it, and fearing the unknown. Her newest single, the ethereal “Ultraviolet,” is about having someone see the beauty in what you believe is your warts. Her first single, 2017’s “Blackout,” is a sparse arrangement that shows off her trembling vibrato to match the heartbreak of a past love. A funereal cover of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps,” got many paying attention in late 2017.

“Lost Without You” shows off Freya Ridings’ range, and she builds from quiet to commanding. The song, her biggest single so far, is about balancing the need to be brave during a hardship while realizing that it’s human nature to care for those closest to them.

“Standing on the platform, watching you go,” she sings. “You said you wanted to see the world/ And I said ‘go’/ But I think I’m lost without you.” Writing and singing the song helped Ridings get through a difficult time

“Personal experience is my No. 1 inspiration; my relationships and people, they mean more to me than anything else, so it’s when there’s troubles or when there’s difficulties in my relationships, songwriting has always been the thing that I turn to to kind of anchor me through the stormy times in my life,” she said.

To this day, Ridings doesn’t write songs the traditional way, with a notebook and pen. She will either note inspirations in her life, even if they’re a word or phrase, or she will sit down at a piano to play and let inspiration strike. She’s never far from a voice recorder.

“I always shut my eyes when I write and I never use a pen and paper because I’m dyslexic, so I just sing into my voice memos on my iPhone, and that’s the way I’ve always written,” she said. “I’ve written a lot of things in soundcheck. It’s almost like when you’re not allowed to write is the time when you want to. When you’re on tour and away from a piano, when you get your hands on a piano you’re like, ‘Oh I’ve missed you.’ It’s it’s almost like a friend.”

Ridings finished recording her debut studio LP late last summer. The record, due out early in 2019, will add some flourishes to her sound. There will be string arrangements, for one thing, and Ridings describes it as more cinematic. But she has already released two live records: 2017’s Live At St Pancras Old Church and 2018’s Live at Omeara.

She recorded the former at her first headlining show. Ridings said it also let her listeners know more about her through her live performances. She’s also gotten her first taste of international touring in the past year, with Outside Lands and Lollapalooza being her biggest stages so far in North America.

“It’s just still really strange that the songs that I wrote in such an isolated place is actually the thing now connecting me with so many people. I just find that kind of beautiful,” Ridings said. “I think it’s the moment where I truly accepted myself and who I actually was, that everyone else kind of did, too. And it took me a long time, but every time is like a little cliff dive where you just have to take that risk.”

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