Rita Ora Living Life Out Loud
For Rita Ora, music is everything. It’s why she came halfway around the world to Australia, searching for the next generation of talent on The Voice, and it’s the driving force in everything she does–especially this new chapter, which she says is focused on work, health and above all, happiness.
Here is the full interview for Vogue VIPs.
A year is a very long time to spend not doing the thing you love. Which is how long Rita Ora spent, in our pandemic annus horribilis, never once setting foot onto a stage. Not that she didn’t sing at all. Throughout 2020, Ora noodled around in a makeshift home studio, trying out different things to see what stuck. One of those things was Bang Bang, a total knockout, shake-your-body dance single that sampled, of all things, the Crazy Frog ringtone. It’s classic Rita Ora: cheeky, irreverent and fun–so much damn fun!–with her honey-smooth vocals sliding all over the track. And, she says proudly, a lot of what you hear on the finished product she recorded herself.
“I bought a whole laptop. I set it all up,” the 30-year-old singer shares. “I did Zooms with my
team and I was like: ‘Okay, how do I use this?’” Still, these are skills that both she, and her
sound engineer Cam, hope that she genuinely never has to use again. “It’s so much work,” Ora
admits. “All I want to do is focus on singing.”
So yes, Ora did sing in that strange year when the world stopped. But not once was she on
stage, which, if Ora is being very honest with you, and herself–and me, since I’m the one she’s telling, in pre-lockdown Sydney after shooting her Vogue Australia cover–that’s the
thing she really loves doing the most.
Because you can sing all you want into your laptop as you try to press the spacebar at the
same time you take off on one of your immaculate vocal riffs, but it’s not the same, is it? Nothing compares, really, to how it feels to be zipped into something sparkly, hair glossy,
lashes curled, ear mic’d up, as you strut into a stadium of 33,000 people and you open your
mouth and sing.
“I feel extremely trapped when I don’t perform on stage, because it’s part of my identity,” Ora
explains. “I never really pictured what it would be like to not be able to do it.” By the time she did, it was already too late. “I lost a lot of my adrenaline,” Ora admits.
Which is why, when she was given the opportunity to headline the 2021 Sydney Mardi Gras earlier this year, she “went running like a Tasmanian devil”, she jokes. “I just wanted to go, go, go, because I was so eager to get that feeling, and that rush. So when I got out there, and I saw all those faces–because it wasn’t like easing back into it, I mean, we did 30,000 people. And it was live. And it was Mardi Gras! A historical event–so as soon as I got out there, I looked around and I had to stop myself from crying ... I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be able to perform.” Ora says all this in one breathless go, curled up in her bathrobe at the end of a long day on set. But she’s not exaggerating when she says performing energises her; even just talking about performing is fizzing her up. “I didn’t want it to end,” Ora enthuses. “I was like: ‘This is why I do what I do.’ It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Almost six months have passed since Ora shot this cover for Vogue Australia. Back then, she was living in Sydney – in a seaside, sun-drenched mansion in Mosman – filming The Voice alongside fellow coaches Jessica Mauboy, Keith Urban and Guy Sebastian who became “my mini family”, she says, in a time when she “found a crazy love for Australia”.
Right now, though, Ora is in Paris. She’s just arrived from Los Angeles, where she is currently
working on her third album, to film a top-secret project that combines her two greatest loves,
music and fashion, and about which she really can’t say anything at all. (“You’ll have to wait
and see,” she shares cryptically.) Ora is Zooming from her hotel room, fresh from an early
workout, chatty and friendly and relaxed in a taupe hoodie and diamond studs all the way up
her ears. Her sister Elena, her manager for more than a decade, has dialled in from another
room. Working with Elena is “like having a best friend around all the time,” Ora reflects, “and
also it’s nice to have somebody who’s like ...”
“She has to be nice now because I’m on the chat, but she woke me up at eight and forced me
to go to the gym,” Elena interjects, with the deadpan authority of an older sister. “Rita’s actually really funny,” Elena says later, when asked about a side of her sister that people don’t
get to see. “She just loves life, which is so important. A lot of people don’t know how to, I think, enjoy the little things in life, and Rita does. Like a croissant ... like going to our vintage jewellery shop that we go to ... little things like that.”
The Ora sisters are close. Just two years and change separate them in age: both were born in
Kosovo to Albanian parents Vera and Besnik Sahatçiu, with Ora arriving in November 1990 into an increasingly unstable country. Before her first birthday, the family packed up their lives and fled for London, where her father ran a pub. Ora worked there as a teenager, pulling pints and performing on open mic nights. Did the punters at the Queens Arms in Kilburn, North London, know that they were watching a future pop icon, with more top 10 hits than any
other female British artist–more, even, than Shirley Bassey? Probably not. They just knew her as Besnik’s girl, the one with the voice. “People seemed to like my voice every time I would sing, whether it was at my dad’s pub or in the school choirs,” Ora recalls.
A teacher encouraged her to apply for London’s prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School, whose alumni include Amy Winehouse. “When I got in, I thought: ‘Wow! I must be good,’” she says, laughing. Ora loves talking about this part of her life. It was a simpler time: before record deals, and record deals breaking down. (Ora signed to Jay-Z’s label Roc Nation in 2008 and released her debut album but petitioned to be released from her contract in 2015; now she is with Warner Music). It was also before the round-the-world tours, and paparazzi, and much-publicised romances, and even more-publicised heartbreak–she dated Calvin Harris during 2013 and 2014 and they wrote a suite of songs, but when the relationship ended he reportedly refused to let her release them. Before all that, Ora was just a 15-year-old girl listening to quite a lot of Jagged Edge and Ashanti, working in a sneaker shop with her fingers crossed behind her back that one day she might be a star.
It’s what makes her such a great coach on talent shows, a role she has served on The Voice UK and, now, The Voice Australia. Ora understands what it’s like to be a teenager with a big voice and a dream, because she was one once too.
If she has advice for her younger self, it’s “you’re going to be fine”, and she has a similar message for her artists on The Voice to not beat themselves up. “You make a mistake and it’s okay, we’re all human,” Ora explains. “We’re all learning, especially on a show like The Voice.”
Music is everything to Ora; a true “lifesaver”, she muses. It’s something she is constantly reminding herself whenever she’s on stage, or sits in that chair on The Voice, or settles into a recording booth. “You put [music] on and you don’t feel alone,” Ora explains. “You’ve got something there that protects you, that gives you that shield of confidence, or that shield of
sympathy, or whatever mood you need.” Music has “saved” her on more than one occasion and gotten her through “friendships, relationships, self-worth, self-discovering, confidence,
independence, sorrow, loneliness”.
“It’s the only thing I rely on to bring me joy,” Ora emphasises. “It’s probably the one, [the] only thing I know I can rely on.”
The first decade of her career was full of highs: four UK number-one singles, 3.7 billion streams of her second album Phoenix, performances at the Oscars, the Obamas’ Christmas Party, the canonisation of Mother Teresa in Vatican City. But there were lows, too. “This is one of the best jobs in the world. It’s unbelievable, the appreciation you get from making music, it’s incomparable to anything I’ve ever experienced. But at the same time, you have a lot of sacrifices, a lot of time on your own,” Ora explains. “Music has been that fulfilment for me in those moments.”
The biggest lesson from that time was patience. “I wanted things to happen then and now,” she reflects. “I’ve realised that’s not how life works.” Ora he has been guilty of “burning the stick at both ends”, desperate not to miss out on a single step of her career, which was going at “150 miles an hour”, and all those spontaneous nights out with your friends that litter your 20s. “I exhausted myself,” Ora admits. “This next phase of my life, I’m protecting myself. “It’s all really about making the right choices and focusing really hard on my work and my health.” Or, as she put it when we first spoke in Sydney about her current life plan: “being happy–that’s it”.
Ora certainly looks happy, beaming radiantly on this Zoom despite jet lag–remember that?–and an early start to her Paris morning. It might have something to do with her new relationship with the filmmaker Taika Waititi, who she was first linked to when she was living in Sydney. The couple recently made their red-carpet debut at the premiere of The Suicide Squad in Los Angeles.
“I’m in a great place in my life, that’s all I’m going to say about that,” Ora says. She is trying to keep some things for herself: “I just think, respectfully, privacy is important.” It’s a lesson learned, often the hard way, from more than a decade of living her life in the public eye. “Yeah ... I learned a lot in my 20s,” she says, ruefully.
Ora is channelling these learnings into her new album, which will be released next year. She hopes it surprises people; the songs will address her “vulnerability”, something she is more confident in sharing now. But also, “you gotta remember, music is fun”, Ora says. “Sometimes it’s not that deep. It’s all about just feeling good and having that moment of ‘Gosh, I miss my friends.’ And this is a song that I would put on if ... we were all dancing in the garden, you know what I mean? Sometimes it’s as simple as that. So I think there’s that balance of the two.” She’s bunkering down in sunny LA to write the record and so far it’s been the best sort of work, because it doesn’t feel like work at all. “It feels like I’m on holiday, kind of,” Ora smiles.
God, how she missed that in our pandemic year–almost as much as she missed performing on stage. “I just want to be back on that bus. I miss my tour bus so much,” Ora says. She wants nothing more than to be on the road with her band, a different city every night, sleeping in that tiny bunk – “I love lying in the bed and it feeling like a boat,” Ora grins – rocking from side to side, dreaming of packed, sweaty venues. That’s home for her, really: the tour bus, and the arena, and the light behind her and the crowd at her feet, the best feeling in the whole entire world.
By Hannah-Rose Yee
Photographed by Ben Morris