Words by:
Photography: Ivor Alice
Styling: Charlie Benjamin
Makeup: Fey Carla Adediji
Hair: Danielle Igor

“I’m really an overthinker – in a good way and also a bad way.”

George Riley is speaking to me from her bedroom in Shepherd’s Bush, laughing at herself while recalling the stage fright she felt during her childhood. The west London singer often speaks a mile a minute, fuelled by the endless source material going through her mind. Recently, she’s been reading Octavia Butler, Paul Beatty and is showing me her first edition copy of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks through the camera. Riley is someone who contemplates the present times in complex ways. “I love all that sci-fi stuff,” she admits. “That influences my music as well; a bit dystopian sometimes, to soundtrack whatever world I’ve got in my head.”

Top and skirt: Llomaell
Corset: Di pensa
Boots: Vintage

The 23-year-old’s artistic subject matter often details society’s fractures and issues pertinent to her generation: the taxing nature of social media, the climate crisis, the grind to make ends meet. Songs like last year’s TRIXXX namechecks Geoffrey Chaucer over ominous, creeping production sitting somewhere between R&B and trip-hop: “Float toward paycheck/ Succeed need safety net,” she asserts. Her visuals are equally imaginative. In her newest video for Power, directed by fellow rising singer Joviale, Riley fashioned herself into a Hilton-esque socialite, complete with a bobbed wig, flashy sports car and miniature white dog, Coco. Moments later, the protagonist is a gleeful purple demon resembling a terranean Ursula. She bludgeons her former self to death; a visual representation of her ego taking over her.

It sounds dark, but Riley is bubbly when explaining her vision. She likes to present serious topics with “a bit of fun” and is eager to reflect the world around her playfully. “I get my inspiration everywhere really,” she beams. “I never studied music; I went down a more academic route because of my parents [her father is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Westminster]. I think that’s pushed me to be in different spaces and think about stuff outside of music. I journal a lot, so I don’t tend to think about lyric writing too much – it kind of comes out naturally.”

Vest: Uchi Couture
Bralette: Di Petsa
Jeans: Liam Hodges
Shoes: Clarks Wallabies
Earrings: Published By

Power will feature on her upcoming project titled Interest Rates; a tape, due for release at the end of June. It’ll be the first complete body of work in her still minimal discography that began in 2019, with HerstoryInterest Rates, she tells me, is informed by a love for multiple genres – dub, jungle, alternative R&B – and produced with regular collaborator Oliver Palfreyman. The two met by chance at a festival a few years back, hitting it off over a shared love of the underground styles that have come to define their work together. Take Power’s percussion, glitchy with fluttering jungle beats, or the way Cleanse Me spends the majority of its three minutes muted and near-acapella, until Palfreyman’s gong-like synths spring in towards its close. “This is me wanting to show the breadth of sounds that have inspired me,” she says, “because I don’t subscribe to just one thing.”

The potency of her releases belies the fact she’s a relative newcomer. Riley first started making music growing up in Shepherd’s Bush, singing from a young age and performing in local venues like Paradise. Born to a Jewish mother and Jamaican father, she remembers dancing to Craig David in the house and soaking up the records – “Stevie Wonder, Aretha and Sade”– that her mother frequently spun. Her father, Mykaell Riley, briefly spent time as a recording artist, playing as a drummer and backing vocalist in 70s reggae band Steel Pulse. But music wasn’t something she was urged to pursue as a career, she says. “You’d think that because of my dad I would [have been], but I wasn’t really. I think it’s a bit of the immigrant mentality of being encouraged into an academic route. He was like, ‘Don’t do music, you will die!’” she jokes.

Instead, she studied Politics and Philosophy at Leeds University, all the while continuing to use music as a release. She often felt stifled by being one of the sole Black students in a majority white environment, having to combat “constant projections” over her race. It would take a while for her to formulate her musical and personal identity, to be able to create songs she felt satisfied with. “Aside from understanding my Blackness, music is what grounds me. Meeting other Black musicians felt like being part of a community. The people I’ve met have helped me grow as an artist and as a person.”

Now, Riley sees her music as a chance to express her identity, ideas and above all, her independence. “If you’re Black or femme, there is turmoil in being an artist and marketing yourself, and then being on social media that’s subject to all of these politics,” she shares. “It feels like you have to do everything to subscribe to the norm – the colourism, sexism, all of that – to be liked and accepted. It’s not fun.” And in an industry that is so often mentally and financially draining, she wants to keep her creativity safe from outside pressure. “There’s obviously the tangible aspect of surviving off doing what you do. That’s important, but at the same time, you can’t put the onus on art as the only source that pays you – because right now it’s not paying me, but it’s definitely fun. I don’t ever want that feeling to go away.”

Interest Rates; a tape is out via AWAL on 24 June