Irina Rimes with her music, in her home near Bucharest.

After a decade in Romania, Moldovan-born pop star Irina Rimes is writing her next chapter.

Irina Rimes logs into Zoom in her car and greets me from the driver’s seat. “Let me share something with you,” she says and turns the phone camera around to reveal the Eiffel Tower, bathed in an orange sunset.

It’s February 2021, and Rimes, one of Romania’s biggest pop stars, has been in France for nearly two months. She hasn’t moved there, as Romanian publications suggested, but is in the midst of some life changes. The public first noticed them in mid-2020, when the singer revamped her style: She ditched her long hair for a medium bob and adopted less-girly outfits. “It’s my big vice,” Rimes explains from the car. “If I don’t make a major change every few years, I don’t feel like I’m evolving.”

Known for her honest, vulnerable songs about love, Rimes has fans of all ages. They shout her lyrics at her concerts. In the past five years, the singer, born and raised in Moldova, has released dozens of hits, which have garnered more than 360 million views on YouTube. She has won several awards for her music and has written songs for other artists, such as Romanian pop stars INNA, Antonia, and Andra. She also is a member of the jury of the Vocea Romaniei (Voice of Romania) music contest.

Rimes was born on 22 August 1991, five days before the Republic of Moldova proclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union. I first heard her name in 2012, when every Sunday my mother and I would watch a reality talent show called The Star Factory. It featured 16 young people (half from Romania, half from Moldova) living in a house, taking singing lessons, and competing against one another to become famous.

The pandemic has offered time and space for introspection and creative output.

Rimes was among the participants and performed a song by Romanian artist Madalina Manole. I saw it again years later on YouTube. She sang gravely, dressed in a black dress and lots of pearls around her neck. She was 20 years old and a student at the Chisinau Conservatory. I liked her naturalness. “I’m a country girl,” she told me later. “I raised ducklings, chickens and turkeys. I even had rabbits.” 

Rimes was born in the village of Izvoare in the north of Moldova. She spent her childhood playing pranks with her younger brother, Vitali. They stole cherries, strawberries, and melons from the fields, and let the chickens out of the neighbor’s henhouses. They had one rule in their family: In the evening, when their parents came home from work, everything had to be clean.

Until she was 6, Rimes lived much of the time with her grandparents, who lived in nearby. “My grandfather worked as a bricklayer in the church, my grandmother sang, and I was either in the church or in the cemetery next door all day long,” she tells me with a smile. Her grandmother on her father’s side, for whom she is named, taught her to sing carols and recite poems.

Rimes takes a deep breath and starts reciting one of them from the car. Her voice, with a Moldovan accent, travels from Paris to Chisinau. We both giggle: It’s a comic poem by Andrei Lupan, a Soviet-era Moldovan writer. Rimes recites long passages with the cadence of a rap song. I’ve heard her recite that poem on Instagram, at the request of fans. Rimes thanked them for their praise and sang a capella snippets of the songs they requested. She struck me as genuine as 10 years ago on the talent show stage, where she made it to the finals but didn’t win.

Rimes calls Star Factory the first turning point in her career. That is where she met Andi Banica, a Romanian artist with whom she moved to Bucharest in 2012. She married him when she was 22. (“So early?” journalists later asked her. “I got married because I fell in love,” she answered.)

Four difficult years followed, during which the artist tried to establish herself under the pseudonym Irra. She released several English-language singles, accompanied by music videos. Although she had TV appearances, the project didn’t prove popular with the public. To make a living, Rimes wrote songs with Banica and sold them to performers in Moldova. Even though they had debts and a rusty Matiz car, they were a happy couple. “Love made us feel that we had something valuable, and that we had to fight to secure our future,” Rimes says. 

Meanwhile, new performers from Moldova were taking the Romanian music market by storm. In 2013, Carla’s Dreams, a band known for wearing hoodies and painted faces, released the song “P.O.H.U.I.” with INNA. Collaborations with Romanian artists Loredana, Antonia, and Delia followed, which became instant hits. Moldovan artists such as Nicoleta Nuca or Olga Verbitchi came to the attention of record companies after taking part in X Factor talent contest. In 2016, it was Rimes’ turn.

The Breakthrough 

Our conversation continues in Rimes’ apartment, which she and boyfriend David Goldcher have rented in a Paris suburb. The two met at a recording session in France; Goldcher is a producer and part of the French music duo We Are Gold.

Rimes takes off her leather jacket and sits at the dining room table. We’re back in the spring of 2016, to an evening spent in the Quantum Music studio in Bucharest. Rimes and her husband were trying to write a song for an artist named Rucsy. It was after 9 p.m. when Banica suddenly looked at her and told her that she had a hit. They set about matching the words to the melody. They worked all night and by dawn they had “Dreams” (Visele). 

The artist likened the song (and the video that followed) to a “cosmos where she’s dreaming of somebody, and the colors start flowing out of them the moment they touch.” She identified with it. “That’s when I said this song stays with me, it’s going to be my first single; and it was.”

“Dreams” made it onto major radio stations across the country and began climbing up the charts. Within half a year, it became the most-played radio song in Romania, and in less than a year it surpassed 14 million views on YouTube. (Today it has more than 25 million.)

I imagined her pirouetting around the house at that point, celebrating with champagne and loud music. Rimes shakes her head. “It’s a reason to rejoice, but it’s not like winning the lottery. If I get results, it means the work has paid off.”

After the rapid ascent, the door to success was finally open. Rimes had no time to lose. She had to prove she wasn’t just a one-hit wonder. She spent nights in the studio working on her first album. Around the same time, another change was happening in her: She and Banica were getting a divorce. It was the moment, Rimes says, when she became independent: “I got a car, moved into a nice apartment by myself, and started building from there.”

For Rimes, songwriting is above all about translating her feelings into lyrics. She rarely talks about her personal life, except in her songs. For example, all the songs on her debut album were inspired by a real love story Rimes experienced after her divorce. The singer used her emotions as plasticine to compose her songs: “Words are hard/It’s nicer to put them on paper/We’re still just poetry/And after a while, we’ll be heroes/The heroes of our songs.”

The album “About Him” came out in 2017 and was a hit. The artist filmed a video for each of the 10 tracks and combined five of them into a short film. The first track, “Bandana,” was made in collaboration with Romanian trap artist Killa Fonic and racked up almost a million views on YouTube in its first three days. “It’s my story, but it’s also your story, those of you who breathed love deep into your lungs,” Rimes said at the time.

Her second album, “Cosmos,” was released a year later. Although Rimes only had a few concerts in Moldova, I saw her on the news and on TV shows and heard about her from my peers, who diligently watched the Voice of Romania show, where she had become a juror. My mother stuck by her because “she’s one of us.” There was no doubt: Irina Rimes dominated the Romanian music market, and her success reverberated all the way to Chisinau.

‘I’m a Strong Woman’

Because celebrity is a two-sided coin, the singer has not escaped criticism or tabloid scandals. The tabloids speculated about the reasons behind her divorce from Banica. Rimes denied everything that was written, most recently on the podcast of Romanian journalist Catalin Maruta: “No one cheated on anyone, no one had any children [with somebody else]. We were simply looking for different things in life, but we parted nicely, naturally, like two mature people.” Proof of this was that the two continued to work together after the split. “Andi is the man I can work best with, he’s a mountain of talent,” the artist told Romanian journalist Andreea Esca.

“I have everything I need: friends, a team, inspiration, love.”

When Rimes was appointed by the Ministry of Culture as an honorary ambassador for Constantin Brancusi National Day, critics said she was not competent enough to talk about the Romanian sculptor. Culture Minister Bogdan Gheorghiu explained the choice: “We tried to take advantage of Irina Rimes’ popularity to promote the cultural phenomenon,” referring to the more than 1.2 million fans who follow her on Facebook and Instagram. Rimes defended herself by saying that she does not aim to analyze the sculptor’s art, but that she allows herself to feel it: “I could learn a lifetime about Brancusi and, in turn, encourage the young people of the generations I am addressing to learn with me.”

Although she would like to see all the misleading press disappear, she says life in the spotlight has hardened her. “I can get over scandals, over betrayals. I’ve learned that I’m a strong woman.”

Until the pandemic, Rimes juggled concerts, studio work, and filming the Voice of Romania. At the same time, she was working on songs with other performers. In a year, she released two singles in collaboration with Mahmut Orhan, a DJ from Turkey; a song with Zdob and Zdub, an alternative rock band from Moldova; a song with the Romanian band Taxi; one with the popular Romanian band The Motans; and a duet with Moldovan singer Guz. “I had such a busy schedule that at times I was crashing like an overheated laptop,” she tells me.

She says she learned to be persistent from both her parents, whom she saw working all the time. Valentina and Tudor Rimes had no free time. Irina’s mother was a tax inspector and later became an accountant. The artist’s father runs three shops. They raised their children with strict rules and no endearments. They first told them “I love you,” when they were adults, Rimes says. 

“‘Life is hard everywhere,’ my mother used to tell me. You give yourself two slaps and you move on.” Her mother’s stories have become something of a mantra, and last year they turned into a single, “Do It (Baga),” made in collaboration with Romanian artist Bruja. “Do work, do it well/ Do it, no one will do it for you,” goes the chorus. “It’s an anthem of those who work hard,” says Rimes. “That’s what I’ve done and that’s my advice to anyone who asks me for a recipe for success.”

Reassessing During the Pandemic 

On 16 March 2020, in a state of emergency was declared in Romania because of COVID-19. Concerts were postponed; travel was banned; everything shut down overnight. For Rimes, the isolation was timely. She set aside more time for herself, played sports, read, watched films, and talked to her mother more often. The rest of the time she used to create. “I had time to think about it all and sift through it all, among many moments of introspection.”

The decision to change her style came naturally. “The concept was ‘Irina is turning 30,’ and we need to drop the dresses and skirts a bit,” she says. She opted for a shorter hairstyle and bold, colorful outfits. The bangs, a hallmark, she kept. The new look heralded a new album, which she released in May 2020.

“The Pill” (Pastila), created during the pandemic, contained 10 tracks, some of them made in collaboration with famous names from the Romanian trap music, such as Amuly, Bruja, or Nane.

“I thought I could put the sensibility of my songs on a sound like this, more aggressive, and it worked,” Rimes has told her fans.

“I wrote, as usual, about myself, but also about the things I’ve experienced even in the pandemic,” the singer said in an interview with VICE. “I wanted this to be an act of arrogance, to put out an album when I want and how I want.”

Her time in France came after she translated “Dreams” into French and released it there five years ago, at the suggestion of music executive Zola Garcia. The two decided to collaborate further during the pandemic. Meanwhile, “Vivons Les,” the French version of Dreams, has racked up over 1.5 million YouTube views.

She told me that the decision to make music abroad was a difficult one, as it involved serious investments of time and money, and the risk of losing both. “It’s like jumping into the ocean without a life jacket, not knowing how to swim.” But fear of failure or uncertainty has never stopped her from taking on new work. She bought a French textbook and after half a year of pandemic tutoring became almost fluent.

But she had no plans to stay there. “For me, Romania is home. Wherever I end up in this life, I’m still going home.”

In one of our conversations, I venture to ask her a question that had been haunting me for some time: “When do you know you’ve worked hard enough and can stop?”

Rimes answers calmly: “When I have a few million in my bank account, a house by the sea, when I’m satisfied with what I’ve done in this life. I’m working for myself, to feel good, but also for my future child, so that they have everything they need.”

As for that future child: She does want to become a mother, but not yet. She isn’t ready to cut back on her schedule. “I’m still halfway there.”

‘I Have to Belong to Everyone’

I finally meet Rimes in person in July 2021. “You’ve caught me in a transition phase to a big new chapter of my life,” Rimes tells me in a recording studio, where I accompanied her to record a Russian voice-over for a Moldtelecom commercial.

With Tesla the cat.

“Every five years there’s a radical change in my life,” she says. “It’s like finishing one notebook and having to start another. And you know how it is, when you start a new notebook, you write beautifully, without scribbling.”

The pandemic has reset her priorities and reshaped her relationship with work, she says. She realized she could deliver results at a more leisurely pace, and that rest has healing powers: “I realized that you can have a very active life, but also manage to relax so you can gather your strength for the things that are coming.”

She also wants to be selective about the work. “I’d like to think bigger, the steps to be wider, the decisions to be bolder, the amounts to be bigger. I’d like to take on fewer projects, but see them through to the end, so I don’t end up in hospital after every big project.” 

I ask her what she thinks of the changes in Moldova: For the first time in the country’s 30-year history, it is led by a pro-European party and a woman president. She says the latter is “impressive and encouraging” but that she doesn’t discuss politics and religion. 

“… The artist belongs to everyone, to those who are communists and to the pro-Europeans. I have to belong to everyone. I don’t aim to influence people with my political views and, if I’m going to be an opinion-maker, I’d like to urge people to be brave, to love, because that’s what my music is about.”

I remember what she had told me when I asked her how she felt on the verge of her 30th birthday. When she was young, she imagined that when she reached that age she would have more definite answers. But considers herself at peace: “I have everything I need: friends, a team, inspiration, love. I’m on the right track.”

Victoria Colesnic is a freelance journalist based in Chisinau, Moldova. This article was initially published by Decat o Revista. Photos by Raluca Margescu, used with permission. 

Translated by Ioana Caloianu. Reprinted with permission and edited for clarity and concision.