Raye Zaragoza is a galvanizing presence, a self-assured artist making music to fight for, represent, and celebrate those left too long outside the spotlight. Known for tenacious feminist anthems and fearless protest folk, her stage presence teems with determined morale. However, Zaragoza was not always the fortified woman of color who takes the stage today.
As a Japanese-American, Mexican, Indigenous woman, Zaragoza spent much of her early life trying to assimilate with the world around her, to meet punishing standards of beauty synonymous with just one color of skin—and not her own. Raye confesses, “I truly thought that in order to be beautiful, you had to be white.” She has come a long way from that youthful pain, proclaiming “I am proud to be a multicultural brown woman with insecurities and a vibrant intersectional identity that I continue to grapple with. I hope young girls of today will know that the It Girl is whatever the hell they want to be.”
This rightful confidence radiates across Woman in Color, Zaragoza’s sophomore album out October 23 on Rebel River Records, her own independent label. The album delivers powerful missives about embracing one’s own identity and discovering the power behind it, all across brisk, emotive, compelling folk melodies. Once deemed “one of the most politically relevant artists in her genre” by Paste Magazine, Raye Zaragoza now offers an intimate exploration of coming into her own, in a country where for many, simply existing is political.
Raised in New York City, Zaragoza grew up in a studio apartment on Houston Street with her mother, father, and two siblings. Despite financial limitations, her parents were fervent believers in the power of performing arts and committed to cultivating their children’s creativity. This meant that money earned went first to mortgage, second to bills, and third to arts education and opportunities for Raye and her siblings. When Raye was fourteen, her family moved to Los Angeles and by eighteen, she was living on her own in North Hollywood, gigging at farmer’s markets, restaurants, and at one point, once a week at The Republic of Pie—in exchange for nothing but a slice of pastry. She moved back to New York City as a young adult, bartending at The Knitting Factory and The Bitter End while developing her East Coast audience, before rising rents sent her back to California.
By 2016, Zaragoza had bounced her evolving career between two coasts and come into adulthood with a nuanced perspective. Her priorities were shifting, her musical style changing, and her focus becoming clear. In tandem, she had become increasingly connected to her own identity and increasingly aware of the injustices surrounding the Indigenous communities of Standing Rock; she was emotionally gripped by the violence and dangers ravaging her people and the protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline and felt compelled to fight back in the way she knew how. In swift form, she penned “In The River” and enlisted her brother to create a music video. The release went viral and Zaragoza suddenly found herself on a new kind of stage—one significantly more public and truly important than she ever could have imagined. She travelled to Standing Rock that winter.
In the aftermath of that breakthrough single, Zaragoza released Fight For You, the protest-driven debut she says had her “finding my voice as a woman of color.” The album drew rampant praise from the likes of Billboard and Paste Magazine as well as touring opportunities with Dispatch and Donovan Woods among others. For many years, Zaragoza had smothered her natural identity to please homogeneous pop culture, but upon releasing her first full-length, she discovered its beauty, significance, and necessity in a broader conversation; she was ready to celebrate what made her “different” and invigorate those of similar struggles to do the same.
For her sophomore album Woman In Color, Zaragoza enlisted Grammy-nominated producer Tucker Martine (Neko Case, My Morning Jacket, First Aid Kit, The Decemberists, Modest Mouse, Sufjan Stevens). She says, “Tucker’s musical purity and precision both challenged and excited me. The creative relationship was synergistic from the start, and I knew he was the person to make these stories come to life.” In just ten, ten-hour days in Portland, the pair stretched Raye’s prolific songwriting into life-size experiences, adding lush layers of instrumentation with notable guest players including Colin Meloy (The Decemberists), Laura Veirs, Dylan Day (Jenny Lewis), Andrew Borger (Norah Jones) and Kyleen King (Brandi Carlile). Zaragoza calls the experience “one of the most creatively fulfilling experiences in my life so far.”
Throughout the process of writing and recording, Zaragoza pulled from an eclectic pool of inspiration not limited to Joni Mitchell, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Norah Jones, Blind Pilot, First Aid Kit, and even the Clarissa Pinkola Estés book Women Who Run With The Wolves. The resulting record is as multifaceted as the artist who wrote it. Throughout ten emotionally turbulent tracks, Zaragoza reckons with growing up in a society that equates whiteness with beauty (“The It Girl”), memorializes her mother’s story of immigrating to the United States (“Change Your Name”), pays homage to Indigenous women who were kidnapped and murdered, never to be found (“Red”), protests deep-seated societal injustices (“Fight Like A Girl,” “They Say,”), and emboldens the listener to be all that their beautiful individuality entails (“Running With the Wolves,” “Rebel Soul”).
Woman In Color flares with the fierce spirit of Raye’s acclaimed debut while embracing the compelling pep of Martine’s pop touch and elaborating upon her storied relation to identity. Through this album, Raye has written a collection of spirited canticles for herself, for womanhood, and for all the people who had to come together in such an event of divine coincidence that led to her existence.