We are excited to give you a glimpse into the creative process and music of songwriter Ruby Gill from Johannesburg, South Africa. Ruby’s music is upbeat and full of appreciation and expectation. Her sound promotes a vision of a healthy hopeful world, while still recognizing the brokenness around.
EXCLUSIVE DOWNLOAD: We are also delighted to announce that there is a link to a free download of Ruby’s fun single “Winter” at the end of this interview. Check out our conversation with Ruby, and then follow the link to download the song. Hurry—only the first 100 people can download the song for free!
Emily Cardé: How did you get into writing music?
Ruby Gill: Well, I wrote a song called “Kickstart Your Engines, Baby” when I was 11. It had some great metaphors about glitter and magazines and somewhere it used the word “groovy.” Then I grew up (just a little), and big things happened and little things happened, and I needed a way to process a whole lot of things. Songwriting became my therapy and got me through. I learnt some really bad ways of coping in high school, and making music turned my life around. At some point, it just became part of me, and I fell in love with turning words into feelings and notes into facial expressions and stories into song.
Ethan Weitz: Who or what are your biggest inspirations?
Ruby: Man, I grew up on Joni Mitchell, Enya, and Vusi Mahlasela in my mother’s arms; and on The Clash, Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and “Mr. Brightside” in my father’s.
My early years gave me winters and autumns and learning to fight and stand up for myself and childhood scraped knees and skating on varnished floors. My teens left me heartbroken and learning and full of wonder at humans and how humans could be and how I could be and what music with other voices and bass drums and ginger guitarists could be. I learnt to play C.P.E. Bach and played broken cellos, and learnt to not care what my face looked like when I sang. My vague attempts at adulting brought actual, real love and harmonies and electronic things and mountains and rivers and birding (and more birding) and looking at Jupiter’s rings and moons. People inspire me, but the universe inspires me more. People who are also inspired by the universe inspire me most.
Emily: How would you describe yourself as an artist?
Ruby: Honest, a little bit cracked, reflective. Big and stripped and not afraid of feeling things. I want to make music that reflects what’s difficult in its complicated bits, and breathes when things are easy.
Ethan: What is the hardest part about making music?
Ruby: Making it often. Liking what you make. Making it better.
Emily: Tell us about the first song you ever wrote.
Ruby: Four chords, great reflections on the complexities of 11-year-old life. Catchy (not really in a good way), super pop. A whole lot of “na na na na-na-na” bits. Can we pretend it wasn’t really a song?
Let’s skip a few years on, to when that Tsunami happened in Japan. I had a family member who kinda went missing but mostly just couldn’t get hold of us for a few days whilst they took shelter in an old gym. I wrote a long piano piece called “Missing in Japan” and I learnt how to really pour myself into something—all of me, even the angry bits and the sleeplessness and the relief and the normalcy. Five years later, I wrote some lyrics for “Missing in Japan” that had nothing to do with a tsunami, and the song’s going on my next album. It was my first attempt at writing that felt right, and it’s been with me through everything.
Ethan: What are you listening to right now?
Ruby: I just discovered Everything Everything and I’ve been shouting it super loud in public a lot. It’s really screwed up, really selfless, and full of life. I just rediscovered David Gray and he’ll always be my best. How’s about some Aurora Asknes, too? I’ll never not be listening to Glen Hansard (it’s my dream to play the girl from “Once” on stage). Leo Stannard, Blossoms, and that one Julien Baker song about a Sprained Ankle.
Emily: What do you think is the most perfect song ever written, and why?
Ruby: Without a doubt, the Dire Straits’ “Romeo & Juliet.” It’s the realest story I’ve ever heard, and it moves and it’s broken and it makes me feel every human thing all in five minutes and fifty-four seconds. It’s interesting, complex, and achingly simple. It’s self-deprecating and mean and forgiving and reckless and desperate and so perfectly reflective of what love is.
Ethan: Can you tell us a little bit about the album you’re working on?
Ruby: I’m so excited to finally be putting this music out into the world. Half of the album is super stripped and raw, just as it was written. The other half is big and it moves and it’s experimental and all kinds of new for me. I wanted to package the two different halves of me—the one attached to a piano and processing things ‘til three in the morning; and the one that dances really badly and lets go and wants people to get up and shout along. It’s a celebration and lamentation of being alive, through all the complex and magical and really shoddy things that come with that.
Emily: What are some of the big style changes you are making from your old music?
Ruby: I think I’m definitely falling in love with technology (doesn’t mean I’m good at it—I still can’t turn the kettle on without something exploding most days). I used to think that the only things that were beautiful were old grand pianos and raw voices and acoustic guitars called Angus. I’m learning to love the bassiness of crackly synths and filters and percussion (oh my word, percussion, of all kinds). I’m exploring dance-y music like it’s a new city (slowly, with lots of getting lost), and it makes me want to sing louder and move more and make people happier. I’m also becoming less afraid of saying what I actually mean, saying more important things, and in more meaningful and powerful ways. Also less boring, if that’s a thing. I wasn’t super innovative in my demo days. Harmonies have always played a massive part in my music-making, but now they’re not the only cool thing happening.
Ethan: Tell us a bit about the music scene in Johannesburg.
Ruby: It’s a mad scene, and it’s definitely busy transforming in big ways. I’m in a love-skeptical relationship with it, for sure. I can’t not love it—it has shaped me and let me grow and I’ve worked with the best people and discovered the best friendships (musical and just generally human). I’ve had the best audiences and experiences here. The music coming out of this scene is mind-blowing. South Africa in general is really breaking our slightly slow internets with superbly African sounds, and new and bold sounds.
On the other hand, it’s apathetic. People don’t like to leave their comfort zones and the mass audiences seem scared of feeling things. There’s a lot of people who aren’t doing anything very original—but that also makes those who are doing incredible things stand out even further. There are some current acts here that I’ll carry with me all my life: Josh Kempen, Nakhane Toure, Caroline Leisegang—a whole lot of good here. There are new venues transforming parts of the city, new festivals and studios and spaces for art and creativity.
I’m going exploring in new parts of the world soon. I want to give this music a different kind of chance in a different kind of space. I’m going to miss these city lights greatly, but I’m mad keen for musical adventures in a place where I can do a little bit more, be a little better, reach new kinds of listening.
Emily: Since “Winter” is the big song you are promoting right now, and it is a very catchy song, can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for that song and its meaning to you?
Ruby: We wrote “Winter” over three crazy days in studio, experimenting with new sounds and exploring different ways of music-ing. It’s about loving in a generation that loves newly and strangely, and it’s about loving people who love back differently, or don’t love back, or love back later and complexly. It’s about letting go, and about what happens before and after letting go.
It’s my debut into the world of loud, and big, and possibly even happy. It’s a new season of creating things. I’m so excited to share what comes afterwards.
EXCLUSIVE DOWNLOAD: And now, the moment you’ve all be waiting for! Below is the link to your free download of Ruby Gill’s “Winter.” Follow the link and then click the “Download” button below the song. Remember, only the first 100 downloads are free, so get it now.
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All photos courtesy of Ruby Gill.