When she was just a kid, Kayla Rae started writing music, singing songs and hustling toward stardom. Twenty years later, she's one of Denver's brightest pop singers...though it's hard to shine during a pandemic.
Her work ethic comes from her mother, who spent her childhood in and out of foster homes and later managed to raise five children alone, moving them from Minneapolis to Colorado Springs to be closer to her sister.
Rae was just six when she landed in Colorado with her siblings and mother. “She hustled. She grinded it out with little to no help. I just want to give her everything,” Rae says of her mom. “I can barely take care of myself. How did she do it with five kids?”
Five years ago, Rae moved to Denver to live with her best friend and try to make it in the local scene. After finding a couple of jobs to pay the bills, she started recording music in her bedroom on gear that she'd picked up along the way. Her first couple of years in town, she played largely empty bars, failing to get much traction. But she kept hustling.
“I just kept my head down and did what I felt I was good at,” Rae says, remembering that she didn't worry about the lack of recognition. “When the time was right, all of that would come to me. And it did. There was a good year or two when I was out here constantly doing music and constantly doing shows and not getting a lot of love. I had a lot that I had to prove, and once I started to step up on my own, that’s when I got the love that I deserved.”
Feeling that love, she finally left her day job, "which was really good money,” she recalls. “But I was unhappy. I was so drained all the time, performing on the weekends.”
Still, she knew music alone wouldn’t pay the bills just yet. So she posted photos on Instagram demonstrating her skills braiding hair, and soon she found herself running a business out of her home. “I think it’s really important as an artist to be self-sufficient in whatever your income is,” she says. “When you’re traveling or doing shows, you don’t have to answer to your boss. You just make your schedule and decide how much money you want to make that week.”
While many in Denver’s music scene conceal their day jobs in order to create the illusion that they are ultra-successful, Rae says she's committed to transparency and hopes to encourage others to quit posing and speak frankly about their financial realities.
“I feel like everybody needs inspiration from one another,” she says. “I don’t ever try to hide it. I still do hair. I get a little bit of income from music right now, but it’s not enough to fully support myself. I’m going to continue to grind it out until I don’t have to.”
And even when money is coming in, she knows that the music industry can be a grind of its own. She likens building fans and an industry network to being a politician, hitting the streets and shaking hands. As long as artists are working, creating music and meeting people, they’ll find success, she says...if they're good.
Rae's big break came after she met Rosa Jad, the energetic KS 107.5 DJ. In 2015, the two struck up a friendship, and Jad became an evangelist for Rae, talking her up to friends and colleagues. Jad introduced Rae to the hip-hop station’s programming and music directors in 2017; 107.5 DJs started going to the singer’s shows, and they eventually invited her to play Summer Jam, opening for Wiz Khalifa and Rae Sremmurd at Fiddler’s Green.
In 2019, Rae played some out-of-state concerts; early this year, she went on a radio tour, promoting her music to stations in Texas, Arizona and California, doing interviews with DJs and networking with programming directors. At the end of February, she even opened for Doja Cat and Tyga at a sold-out concert at the Fillmore Auditorium. That was the last show she played before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the live-music industry.
“Everybody came together and helped me put on one of my favorite shows,” she says. “That first second I stepped on stage, I got to see everybody. I’ve been living in that high ever since. It’s such an amazing experience.”
Memories of that high have kept her going over the past five months. Since the city shut down, she’s been playing it safe: staying inside, wearing a mask when she has to go out, forgoing what few opportunities there are for live performances.
Instead, she got busy in the studio back in March, working on a new EP, Pressure, which came out in early July. The project, produced by Jon Bonus at Denver’s Side 3 Studios, is about self-empowerment, with a few love songs thrown into the mix. While the album's smoky tracks are radio-worthy, her goal was to make something that she could use to connect intimately with her fans on social media.
“I wanted to take off that expectation of getting on the radio,” she says. “I wanted to put out music that I thought was dope and I could play in my car and listen to over and over. I wasn’t expecting an EP at the start of it; it just kind of formed itself. The songs are very true to me. Some of them are very thoughtful, some of them are light, some of them are vibey. It was important to me to have a project that is so cohesive. There's a piece of me in every song. It’s very special — I feel like I gave birth.”
With no live gigs, making money through her braiding became even more important. Once barbershops and hair salons were allowed to reopen, she started working at home again. Customers are required to take their temperatures at the door; everybody wears masks; social distancing is in order. So far, Rae has remained healthy.
There’s a reason she’s committed to staying inside.
“COVID is all up in the air,” she says. “I’m totally fine going back home and staying in my bubble. We can have a summer of not going out, and we'll survive.”
Not that staying in is easy...not when she wishes she could be performing the new songs on Pressure.
“I’ve been so tempted to be like, ‘Ten people, come out, I’m going to perform here,’” she confesses. But so far, she's held out. “I want to get back on stage when it’s right and get back on stage when it’s amazing.” For now, she’s settling for Instagram Live shows and trying not to worry about why her career was suddenly put on pause.
Rae has a spiritual sense that things happen according to the universe’s plan.
But there is one thing she's been willing to venture out into crowds for: to protest racist police violence, a subject she talks about with fans on social media. Paying attention to what’s going on in the world and being part of urgent conversations is part of an artist’s job, she says.
“Artists, specifically, are just trying to reflect the times right now,” she explains. “Everybody shared that three months when we were on lockdown. You felt very alone and very much together with everyone.
“With the protests, it’s important for artists to document what’s happening and give hope to people,” she continues. “It’s been a strange year, and it’s hard to know what’s going to happen next. It’s been hard to wake up some days because the world seems so crazy now. Art and dance and music are helping people.“
Hear more from Kayla Rae at kaylaraemusic.com.
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