“I’m a lover,” Rayana Jay said, without a missing a beat. She looked up and deliberated her answer for a second before continuing. “Yeah. That’s really what it comes down to.”

The Richmond-born singer-songwriter perched atop a stool outside a cafe on Grand Avenue, at ease amidst the bustling Thursday night crowd in downtown Oakland. Her head rested firmly on the heel of her palm; her long, mauve-polished nails drummed out an even rhythm on her full lips. The evening wind blew a strand of long, black hair across her face.

“A very passionate person. Very hard to understand, but kinda desperate for everybody to understand,” she said, a small smile turning up the corners of her mouth. She reached up to smooth the stray strand of hair back into place. Yet with her easygoing demeanor and sarcastic humor, Jay — one of the standout artists leading the wave of rising Oakland talent — appeared difficult to misunderstand. And the success the Bay Area singer has encountered the past year resoundingly echoes that.

Just last year, the 22-year-old began gaining traction on Soundcloud with the release of her first EP, “XXI”. Then, late this August, Jay dropped “Sleepy Brown” as the first single off her debut album — a song which has now garnered over 88,000 plays on Soundcloud. Her second single from the work, “Nothing to Talk About”, premiered on The Fader not too long after. And earlier this October, Jay released Sorry About Last Night, her soulful, jazzy, and achingly-honest 7-track debut work.

The album — “I’m gonna call it an album, fuck it. A debut album. I’m so excited,” she laughed during our chat — was completed over the course of only a couple months. Since she began recording, Jay has attempted to be as efficient as she can, demonstrating a fierce focus and drive that sometimes escapes those struggling in their creative process.

“If you don’t have to leave for something, there’s really no reason to take a break from what you’re doing. Not if you love it. I don’t work a nine-to-five. This music shit is what I do,” Jay expressed matter-of-factly, casually referencing her long-standing experience in the field. The artist, who’s sung professionally for only three or four years, has already worked extensively with local veterans like 1-O.A.K., Caleborate, and Elujay — as well as Bay Area producer Mikos Da Gawd, who produced two singles off Sorry About Last Night. Although having participated in church choirs most of her childhood, Jay shared that she really began recording when she joined Youth Radio, an Internet and public radio station based in downtown Oakland, while a junior at El Cerrito High.

“I applied [to Youth Radio] and ended up getting into their...internship program. They gave us a little tour, and [when] they finally showed us the studio, I was like, oh, wait a minute. You mean I could come here and make music for free? Like I can actually do this?” She recounted. Six months later, Jay released her first studio-recorded single. Yet, finding her sound — and the full, husky voice that smoothly guides listeners through each of her tracks — was not necessarily something that came as easily.

“Yeah it definitely took a lot of heartbreak, actually,” Jay said slowly. Her gaze flitted to the clamor inside the cafe for a moment before returning to me.

“All the music I make is about love. ‘Cause I’m a lover,” she added with a quick smile. “So, when I actually went through an intense heartbreak, I couldn’t — I couldn’t hear music anymore. Music had just vanished from my life. It’s like I’d gone deaf.” Jay delved into how, in order to come out of the process, she grew enormously as an artist in her search for sound — something that had previously come so fluidly — as she tried to “make music when there was no music.”

Outside of love, Jay draws inspiration from the works of other R&B artists: notably, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and Solange’s recent A Seat At The Table, which she described as “one of the most honest albums I’ve ever listened to…[an album] that’ll leave you with something.” For Jay, authenticity, alongside alcohol — “The cover for ‘XXI’ is a bottle of Hennessy!” she stated unabashedly — is a plain necessity in the creation of her own work.

“That’s what it is,” Jay said, slightly shrugging her shoulders to emphasize the simplicity of her words. “There has to be a level of honesty at all times. I have to be honest with myself. I have to be honest with people listening.” More than anything, Jay emphasized that she just wants — like the musicians who move her to create — to leave listeners with something, to stir in them a feeling they can carry beyond a superficial sound. And Jay continues to create because music, in her own words, “is keepin’ me alive, honestly.” The art form has become a medium to help her move through her personal struggles with mental health, a subject she found to be often stigmatized in the Black, artist community.

“Music has definitely been a lifesaver. It’s become much more than a hobby now,” she said as our conversation wound down. “It’s one of the only things I get angry about...when I can’t create. When I don’t create. When somebody’s telling me how to create...I’m ready to fight for it.”

Jay sat up a little straighter, her eyes’ clear gaze alight. It wasn’t difficult to see how her passion so effortlessly shone through the gorgeously, timeless sound and raw emotion that make up her music.

“This is one of the only things I have that is for me, and that is mine,” she said passionately. “I wanna be a legend. Legendary. All caps. And with spaces between every letter. In bold.” Jay spaced out the image with her hands above her head, unconcerned by the looks of strangers passing by. She winked playfully.

“Iconic!” Jay cried into the dark Oakland street and laughed freely. “Legendary.”

By Eda Yu