All photos by TheOnePointEight
I’ve been waiting for Moxie Raia, who in recent months has captivated both LA's art kids and its industry insiders, outside of her Downtown LA loft for about 15 minutes—long enough to break a sweat in the indiscriminate late winter sunshine, and long enough to make me nervous. A few days earlier, I’d been waiting in the same spot when Raia canceled: Justin Bieber had just called asking her to open for him on his national tour the following week, and she was already late for rehearsal.
Today, however, it’s a false alarm: Her manager calls to say she’s just getting dressed.
Inside the converted Fashion District warehouse, my photographer and I note the sign Scotch taped to the elevator (“!WARNING! NO MORE THAN (2)PEOPLE AT A TIME THIS ELEVATOR WILL GET STUCK!”) and opt for the stairs. We pass a crew of impossibly stylish twentysomethings on their way out for the day, their presence heralding the gentrification encroaching on a neighborhood still dominated by wholesale garment shops, fruit stands, and overflow from neighboring Skid Row.
“Come in!” Raia calls when we arrive, her voice beckoning from the bathroom, where she’s finishing her makeup. The 25-year-old singer-songwriter greets me with the hug and smile of an old friend, the same kind I receive after we met for the first time a few weeks earlier.
In a few minutes, she’ll give me a quick tour of her place before we pile into her manager’s SUV to make the half-hour drive across town to her North Hollywood rehearsal space. There, she’ll spend the afternoon working with her vocal director and a choreographer before heading home for a wardrobe change, then double back to West Hollywood’s SoHo House to perform her longest set yet—six songs—to a crowd of industry hawks and friends from the building.
“No one sees the past five years, or past 12 months,” Raia says. “But the past three months have been one thing after another, after another, after another. It’s like, I put in the work, and now it’s giving back to me.”
With her wide pout and round cheeks, Raia resembles a young, darker Alicia Silverstone, though in the baggy jeans and beanies she favors, she’s more Clerks than Clueless. But Raia’s appearance is where her resemblance to traditional pop stars end.
On any given night, you might find her cooking a vegetarian dinner for her and her longtime engineer-collaborator, Dan Glashausser, mid-songwriting session, or scrawling lyrics about prison reform for a collaboration with James Fauntleroy. Or, more often, hanging out with friends and friends-of-friends from the building, a rotating cast of artists, musicians, designers, and others who might bring over a new beat they composed, give haircuts on the building’s rooftop, or spontaneously spray paint the walls of her hallway with upside-down peace signs.
“You know, like anarchy, revolution,” Raia says, laughing as she explains her logo. She’s motivated to make music, too, that reflects disruption and a social message, citing the influence of John Coltrane and her hero, Stevie Wonder. “I want to talk about social issues on the album. I want to talk about women's roles in society versus men's, and how we think about social norms, and why we do the things that we do. We're really just animals on this planet, but we're socialized. I want to pick apart what we habitually do and just go back to like, the core. Which to me is what's inside of you—your love, your soul, the child in you, your intention.”
Jazz-influenced “message” music, made by a singer who lives in an artist's loft and sports sweatshirts and combat boots on stage, may seem like an unlikely candidate for the next wave of pop. In a week, however, she’ll board the fully-loaded tour bus—which she Snapchats with gusto—in which she’ll be spending the better part of the summer. Between stops on Bieber's Purpose circuit, she’ll put the finishing touches on 931, her mixtape named for her building’s address, which premieres today exclusively as a free download on Noisey; film a video with Pusha T for their single “On My Mind”; and continue honing her debut LP, for which tracks like the Fauntleroy collab, and other social justice-focused songs, may be destined.
“It’s called 931,” Raia says of her mixtape, “because moving into that building and having that free creative space and finally being out of that deal was really representative of me being free with my music. This is the music that naturally comes out of me when I sit down.”
Raia leads me around the two-story loft, gesturing as she talks, her slight dancer’s frame enveloped in a hoodie, baggy camouflage T-shirt, and baggier Adidas track pants. A disheveled top bun frames her impeccably, though subtly, made up face. A hint of her New Jersey accent still lingers as she guides me, capping her vowels with a subtle “H” when she gets excited or worked up, which is often.
The space is all high ceilings, exposed concrete walls, and aging bay windows, though these days it’s marked by the sparse, quietly ordered chaos of someone who doesn’t spend more than a few hours there at a time: A crowded clothes rack peeks out from the bedroom upstairs, though I’m forbidden from going any further because Raia deems it too messy. In the kitchen, a bowl of pomelos and a near-empty handle of Jack Daniels are among the the only visible provisions. Candles, a record player, and a basketball rest precariously atop a rented Steinway, on which she’s written songs like 931 cuts “Rudimental” and “For You.”
Across the room, a whiteboard displays a color-coded breakdown of 931, with the names of collaborators like Pusha T, Wyclef Jean, and Goldlink, delineated in parentheses.
The mixtape, produced by Glashausser and his brother Tom under the moniker Glashaus, follows in the path of artists like Kehlani and Chance the Rapper, albeit with the added heft that comes from having Bieber and Ariana Grande manager Scooter Braun’s management team behind it: It is a project meant to be considered on par with an album, though in Raia’s case it’s less of a single, focused idea than a muscular introduction to her breadth as an artist at last in creative control. Its singles offer near-perfect pop made visceral by Raia’s jazz student roots and acrobatic vocal range, left just rough enough around the edges to get under your skin.
Take, for instance, “Rudimental,” whose lo-fi Motown vibes nod to Lauryn Hill in both melody and message, or the obsessive fever dream trap of Pusha T collab “On My Mind.” Ballad “How to Feel” punctuates the sparse production with the occasional not-quite-cracked vocal or breathy gasp, moments of vulnerability that make way for belted lines like, “I’ve set everything you said in stone / And that’s why everything I know is lost.”
“I feel we live in a time where it's cooler not to give a fuck. Not to feel. It's almost like if you're in a relationship, and you feel something, you're weak,” Raia says, lunging forward to emphasize “weak.” She makes an effort to overcome that impulse in her music. “It takes strength to feel, and to put yourself out there.”
Born Laura Raia, Moxie spent her childhood in the New Jersey beachside town of Red Bank—”Not the Jersey Shore,” she’s quick to note—where her family of six moved an average of once a year, thanks to her parents’ side business flipping houses. The flux brought her especially close with her stereotypically boisterous Italian-American family, and listening to her parents’ soul and Motown records became the constant that centered her growing up. At 13, Raia moved out to live with her older sister in New York City and attend Professional Children’s School, where she doubled down on her passion for music towards her dream of studying jazz at Columbia University.
After two years of “living in the library” and playing the occasional club show, Raia relocated to LA and connected with Freddy Wexler, the songwriter and industry impresario behind hits for the likes of Lil Wayne, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and Tiesto. At Wexler’s behest, Raia moved in with six guys to join his experimental songwriting collective, dubbed The Brain House. It was there, during a late night jam session, that Raia earned her nickname when she continued to sing after a rat scared everyone else off stage.
“One of them was like, ‘Damn, you’ve got a lot of moxie!’“ she says. A good melody is hard to let go of. The nickname stuck, as did her tenacity: a viral cover of Big Sean’s “Beware,” along with her five-song R.P.Y. mixtape, would go on to land her a deal with Capitol.
Raia declines to share much about the nearly three years she spent with label, other than that the relationship ended in July. A dig into her catalog reveals little to show for her time there, save for two singles, “Buffalo Bill” and “I Love It When You Cry,” and a smattering of moderately successful EDM remixes. The vocals on these dance collaborations are hers, though over-processed into bass-drop oblivion; it’s not difficult to guess why she may have been unhappy with the trajectory of her soul and R&B ambitions.
“[Getting out of the deal] was really hard. I just kind of expressed how unhappy I was,” Raia says, though she adds that the label was ultimately understanding; she remains managed by Wexler, who introduced Raia to Braun and with whom he shares a management partnership. “The [Capitol] president said to me, ‘I think you're gonna be a huge star, and I don't want to create an enemy.’ I was like, ‘You're really smart!’”
Cut loose from her contract, Raia relocated to her current spot at 931, subsisting off of what remained of her label money in a creative free-fall. She spent, and continues to spend, her Saturdays mentoring kids in Watts, growing close enough with some to have them over; their paintings are among the contributions to her hallway mural.
Roving from open studios to late night parties to later night conversations throughout the building, Raia embedded herself in the collaborations, and the hustle, of 931’s community.
“I was like, OK, I’m going to make the project that I’ve wanted to make my entire life, haven’t had the tools, the strength, the confidence to do,” she says of the mixtape, which she began working on last July. “It allowed me to have my own studio, where I could make everything myself. And have freedom. And experiment.”
Later that afternoon, we convene at Alley Music Studios for rehearsal, where we're joined by Raia’s choreographer, Edwin Moore, and her mononymous vocal director Ejay, whom Raia only half-joking refers to as her spiritual advisor. The space looks something like a kid's secret clubhouse built by rock 'n' roll dads, a pine paneled room whose surfaces and furniture appear to be upholstered exclusively with old band T-shirts.
Raia swaps her hoodie for an oversized cardigan, but otherwise makes no fanfare of taking her place behind the mic. She rattles off a few melodies half under her breath, as if unsure she wants anyone else to hear them. It's similar to the twinge of hesitation I pick up on earlier in the day when she sings me lines from her songs—a fleeting uncertainty before allowing the ache that anchors her voice to unfurl. For all her conviction, it’s easy to overlook Raia’s relative inexperience on the live stage, and it becomes clear why we’re not allowed to stick around for the rest: Here is where her almost relentless warmth, tenderness, and confidence is peeled back, and the work begins.
"For awhile, I decided to just gonna shut off all feelings, because that's easier than feeling pain. But it's not natural to shut down parts of your body like that. It's not natural to feel a blank," she says, patting her chest. "I shut down parts of being a woman. Even in how I dressed, in my posture. But I need that again. I want to feel. Ejay reminds me to look at videos of myself when I was a kid, because that's the purest you."
I ask what he thinks about Raia hitting the road with Bieber.
“I was very excited, but I already had a vision of it happening in January,” he says, softly but matter-of-fact. Raia has good reason to trust his intuition—though Ejay keeps his clients confidential, they reportedly include Beyonce, Sam Smith, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and the cast of Empire.
“He did! He told me he had a dream about it, seriously,” Raia says, laughing. “He told me two years ago, at the height of my time with my old manager, ‘You know this is not the manager you’re going to end up with. Your team is going to completely change.'”
So what might her future hold post-Purpose?
Without hesitation, he says, “I think the world will be exposed to something greater than Adele.”
For now, Raia just hopes the night's crowd at Soho House will dance. The room is small, and the sound is lacking, but all eyes are on her. Though her look is the same, give or take a tank top and some makeup, the sinuous figure on stage commands a swagger entirely absent from the giddy, bashful one crouched before me hours earlier.
Raia’s body heaves into each chorus, bouncing low then skipping up, her back arching into the desire that drives “On My Mind.” Her moves are seductive, but not performative—she’s not sexy because of what she’s wearing, or saying, or doing, but because she feels it. Friends from 931 whoop and cheer from their booths flanking the stage, and though not everyone dances, even the row of cross-armed executive types in the back nod along.
Just as quickly, she collapses forward into the desperation of “How To Feel.” The muddled acoustics are particularly hard on the track’s minimalist beats, but as the din of the crowd picks up, her voice cuts through with the climax’s hysteric plea for the catharsis of vulnerability: “I used feel until it hurt to laugh / I found ecstasy in a tear / But now I don’t know / I don’t know how to feel.”
The hesitation and uncertainty of the rehearsal space, of the soured record deal, of the creative free-fall, of the five years of hustling, are gone, at least for the moment. In their place is something more honest: Moxie Raia, on her own terms at last.
"Up here," she says, still catching her breath as she points down to the stage, “This is where you feel it all."
Andrea Domanick is the West Coast Editor of Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.