Rita Ora Explains How She Felt After The "Girls" Backlash

The singer talks 'Phoenix,' controversy, and how she's risen from the ashes.

Photo Courtesy of Permanent Press Media

Rita Ora is ready for her re-introduction. Friday marks the arrival of her sophomore album Phoenix, her first-ever global release and proper U.S. album rollout. As far as re-introductions go, Ora has eased us into her new era as publicly as she possibly could. "As soon as I got the taste of the interaction from the public with interest," she tells me, "I definitely didn't want it to end… I wanted to work, I wanted to be present, I wanted to hold my own."

And she definitely did. Ora is a self-described "workaholic," capable of maintaining her status as a pop music fixture with a slew of high-profile gigs in fashion and television, even as the drama with Roc Nation played out behind-the-scenes. This drama meant that Ora has had to deal with a less than perfect release schedule for this album; its cycle essentially started back in 2017 with the release of her single "Your Song," which peaked at No. 7 in the U.K., but simmered just below the Hot 100 in the U.S.

"Obviously, my story wasn't ideal," Ora admits. "I had a few back-steps, but you know what? It made this album 10 times more special, and it makes me feel like this record is worth it, because of all the fighting I had to do to be heard."

"I technically feel like I'm starting from the beginning," Ora tells me, adding, "I wanted this album to really represent the great rebirth of me coming into my own as a 27-year-old woman." She's been working on Phoenix for four years now, but only material from the past two years made it onto the album.

Of the album's already-released singles, "Girls" felt like it had a chance to dominate the summer airwaves, and build momentum to Phoenix. But, instead, the song got a negative response from many queer pop artists who felt it recalled the intrinsic homophobia of Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl," with NYLON's editor-in-chief Gabrielle Korn also pointing out that there was a lot of encoded misogyny in the lyrics. (It shouldn't come as a surprise that "Girls" was written by men.)

Ahead, we chat with Ora about re-introducing herself to the world with Phoenix, what keeps her motivated, and about learning how to speak her truth—and how the world might not receive it with open arms. Phoenix comes out this Friday, November 23.

Earlier this fall you were saying that you weren't at all nervous to put Phoenix out in the world. As the release is rapidly approaching, has this changed at all?
I'm excited. I mean, I'm obviously nervous, but I'm nervous with everything because it's my baby. I'm so proud of this record, and I'm happy to just let it do its thing.

You've been working on Phoenix for years now. Does it feel strange to link all of these songs together, kind of become a time capsule in that way, or does it all still feel emotionally relevant to you?
The reason why I called it Phoenix is because it was a fresh start and a brand-new beginning. Like a phoenix, it's reoccurring, and it has lots of lives, et cetera. It's my first global release, so I technically feel like I'm starting from the beginning, and I wanted this album to really represent the great rebirth of me coming into my own as a 27-year-old woman.

"Soul Survivor" feels like an apt conclusion to the album—can you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind it?
It is really about feeling like it's all over, and like you have no hope left and, god knows how, feeling like, You know what, I can do this. It was actually written as s-o-l-e, like one individual person, but I thought it easier to relate to if it was s-o-u-l, but the meanings are really the same. I did it all in one take, it's one of my most wonderful moments.

Plenty of people have tried to restrain you from having your voice heard in one way or another. Did that have any effect on the way you approached this album once you finally could?
Obviously, my story wasn't ideal, and I had a few back-steps, but you know what? It made this album 10 times more special, and it makes me feel like this record is worth it, because of all the fighting I had to do to be heard. I'm happy that I'm in a place now in my career where I can find the balls to do that, and really take charge of my own destiny.

What do you kind of hope fans will take away from this album?
I think, the patience that I had—I can only imagine that they had, too—to have waited for this album. It's a long time coming. [Phoenix is] for them, my gratitude for their patience and their support over the years. I really want them to listen to it with open ears and just let go.

Speaking of patience, what kept you focused and level-headed through all of this?
My addiction to work. I really am a workaholic. I'm so determined to kind of be that boss woman that my mother is, and that my grandmother is. I just don't want it to end or stop right now.

What happened to the rumored rap collaboration for Phoenix?
It's being saved for something.

How long until it's released?
Soon. Not too long.

What's up next for you?
As soon as this album comes out, I will probably jump back in in the new year and start working on my next [album]. I feel like now the groove is in. I'm not gonna stop, and I'm just gonna keep making loads of music.

What have you been finding inspiration in lately?
I think it's just all the newcomers, you know? All the new artists that are coming through and the support they're getting online. The whole craze of independent artists just taking over. I love Billie Eilish and Rosalía.

In all the talk of the new album, what do you think people are still missing?
I believe it's all gonna explain itself when the album comes out. I think that's what I've missed these past few years, is just having that body of work that really represents me.

What is your favorite song right now on the album that you are excited for people to finally hear?
"Soul Survivor" is really important for me. It's one of my most I guess close-to-home songs I've ever been a part of. "Falling to Pieces" is my reflection of the world that I live in at the moment, so it's a very jolly song, but the lyrics aren't as jolly as you think they are.

"Girls" received plenty of pushback from fans and queer pop artists. How does it feel, looking back, as you prepare to release it as a part of Phoenix?
I'm not gonna say it didn't upset me. Of course, it did, because my intentions were always so pure with that record. I knew it was gonna be a shocker because I don't think people knew my truth, because I never spoke about [it], and I didn't speak about it because I come from a country where that's not really that open yet, you know?

I'm one of those people that, unfortunately, can't just openly speak about that. Being from Kosovo—we're definitely evolving, but I thought that was a great representation of somebody that, unfortunately, hasn't got the freedom that other people do have.

I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the LGBT community… I was always with them. Some people had points that they were confused about, but I saw by putting out that song that the world is so sensitive, and I guess it was still a very sensitive situation to talk about that.