CM In Depth

Ruth B. Takes Another Step Towards Stardom on Her Own Terms

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.

By Adam Kovac

Ruth B. isn’t getting recognized on the streets much.

It’s a weird state of affairs. After all, she’s arguably the most famous pop star to ever emerge from Edmonton (apologies to k.d. lang). Heck, she might be the most famous person to come from Edmonton, period (apologies to Nathan Fillion, Michael J. Fox and, of course, world-renowned curler Randy Ferbey).

After her 2017 debut album, Safe Haven, blew up, Ruth B. found herself living in New York City for a stint. There’s perhaps no greater city in the world for a rising musician with millions upon millions of views on YouTube to seek refuge than the Big Apple, where even the most recognizable celebs can find some kind of anonymity amid the hustle and bustle. Yet even upon returning home, being stopped in the street is a rare occasion for Ruth B.

It’s not that Ruth B.’s time in the spotlight is up - if anything, her star is about to burn brighter with the impending release of her second full-length album, Moments in Between. At just 25-years-old, it’s a collection of songs that seem destined to cement her place among the finest Canadian singer-songwriters performing today. No less an expert than Sir Elton John has listed Ruth B. as one of his favourite Canadian artists.

But despite her accomplishments, despite her momentum, despite having earned a legion of adoring fans, Ruth B. still can’t get recognized in her hometown. Of course, the circumstances that find her back in Edmonton could be a contributing factor - as she prepares to release Moments in Between, the COVID-19 pandemic is still very much a thing and masks are a de rigueur fashion statement.

“I keep it pretty chill. The mask thing has been really nice, it kinda just blends with everyone else at this point. But I’m always grateful when somebody’s appreciative of my music. It’s really humbling,” she says.

Eventually, bare faces will be seen in public again. With a killer set of new songs, collaborations with some of pop music’s leading producers, and momentum on her side, it seems Ruth B.’s days of casually blending in are numbered.

PHOTO: GABRIEL LN/WWW.GABRIELLN.COM

The story of Ruth Berhe may start in Edmonton, but the story of Ruth B. starts on the now-defunct social media platform Vine. Back in 2013, a teenage Berhe began posting videos onto the app. Soon, her content included her singing brief snippets of cover songs. Though limited by the six-second time limit of Vines, her talent was immediately obvious — her soulful, plaintive voice, usually accompanied by a few piano chords, was immediately distinctive for its innate musicality.

To paraphrase a great Canadian author, if you post it, they will come. A brief clip of Berhe singing a line she wrote about being one of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys went viral, getting tens of thousands of hits within a day. That single line was turned into an entire song, which she self-released on YouTube and iTunes. Her Vine fans took notice; history repeated itself, as many took to their own social media accounts to post their own versions. And they weren’t the only ones taking note of Ruth B.’s talent — she was soon signed to a deal with Columbia, who released “Lost Boy” as a single. It proved to be a smash hit, charting in Canada and across Europe and peaking at 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number six on the Adult Top 40 in the United States. Multiple Juno Award nominations followed, including a win for Breakthrough Artist of the Year. Perhaps a more significant impact can be found online: The video for “Lost Boy” has been watched more than 150 million times on YouTube and has over half a billion plays on Spotify.

With a mask on, she might be hanging onto the last vestiges of her privacy, but that kind of success is definitely life changing. As we’ve seen too many times with others who have found massive success at a young age, these stories don’t always have a happy ending. But as her music illustrates, Ruth B. has been wise beyond her years for a long time.

“I think in the beginning, I struggled with it a lot. It’s like a different life. But I think at the core of it, I feel like I really stayed the same. The essence of who I am and what matters to me really just hasn’t changed. I’m still obsessed with reading and hanging out with my close friends and all that stuff. So, it’s crazy, because the world around you changes and when that happens, if you stay the same, it’s not as overwhelming. I think in the beginning, I felt like I had to change, which is what freaked me out. But I think as you grow older, you just figure out you don’t have to do that.”

Even with a strong sense of self, with so much success coming before she hit her mid-20s, you could say the past few years have been a bit of a whirlwind. Yet in that time, she never stopped writing. Rather than a rushed job, Moments in Between is the result of years of work, in two very different environments.

“The past four years have been pretty much all over the place. And this album, I’ve been working on the songs, I guess, ever since Safe Haven came out. But me being kind of a perfectionist and not wanting to rush the music, I just kind of wanted to take my time and let the songs come organically,” she says. “So, I’m really excited for people to hear them just because it really is like a collection of moments and stories over the past few years of my life. And when you put these 10 songs together, I think they describe who I’ve become as a person really well.”

There’s a truism among artists that the first album is the easiest to write. After all, you’ve had your entire life to craft and perfect the songs. The second album, though, is the tricky one – that’s when the pressure is on to follow up a well-received debut, but in a compressed time frame. Yet, Ruth B. says the opposite was true – that Safe Haven came with the stress of following up an ultra-successful first single. Moments in Between, on the other hand, has the confidence of an artist who knows her own voice, knows her way around writing a hook, and isn’t intimidated by the studios or producers.

“With ‘Lost Boy,’ I was super anxious about making sure people liked everything else I was doing. I was new to writing, new to working in studios — I was just frazzled. But with this one, it was just way more relaxed, and I wanted to have fun with it and enjoy it. A lot of the earlier songs that I wrote for this, I had moved out to New York and was living there and was, like, in this new season of my life where I was just young and in New York and exploring and having fun. And then the other half of itkind of took me back to my roots, because with quarantine and COVID, I came back to Edmonton and just started writing again from home in my room.”

Those writing sessions would often take place at 1 a.m. with the singer starting “with no melody and no lyrics. And then in like two hours I’d have a song that I’m super proud of and obsessed with.”

Other songs would be laboured over for months on end, pieced together a lyric at a time.

“For me, there’s no proper way of doing it. It’s just whenever inspiration hits.  I do really enjoy the process of just sitting there with nothing, and then finishing with a song. And usually that, for me, starts with playing chords.”

There’s a rumour that Paul McCartney would write songs by chanting nonsense words (the legend is the original hook to “Yesterday” was “scrambled eggs”) and Ruth B. follows a similar method.

“I find it’s the best way, because even singing nonsense, or you can literally just talk about your life, but singing it. I’ll sing about what I’m going through, what I’ve been upset about, what I’ve been happy about, and then something in there just makes sense.”

While Safe Haven was the work of one young woman, on Moments in Between, she threw herself into the collaborative process. She asked her management to set her up on a series of “blind dates” with various producers in New York. For the first time, she found herself with co-writers whose other credits include big names like Solange and Ellie Goulding.

The outside input is detectable in subtle ways: the hip-hop beat and synths of “Holiday;” the acoustic guitar that drives “Sweet Chamomile” and “Favourite;” the jazzy chords in first single “Dirty Nikes.”

“This was a whole new experience of letting other people into the writing process. So, I just said, ‘I don’t want to be biased, I don’t want to research anyone. Just throw me in there with whoever and let’s see what happens,’” she says. “So, I started doing that and then I kind of found two or three that I really, really vibed with and became friends with them and we just started writing. It was really weird at first because it was such a ‘me’ thing; writing was very intimate to me. But I think if you find the right people, it actually makes it so much more fun and so much more beautiful. Putting your mind in someone else’s and seeing what you both can come up with is so much fun.”

Perhaps no song shows the strengths of this approach to writing as much as “Situation.” The wistful atmosphere combines with lyrics like, “You say we’re having fun, then you say I’m the one/But this is so dumb, got me confused” to perfectly capture the ennui that comes with dating in your 20s. It’s no wonder that Ruth B. points to the track as her favourite on the album.

“I really love the production on that song. I love the sound and I love the story of it, too,” she says. “It’s super honest about a time when I was just confused in this relationship; I didn’t know what was going on. I think it encapsulated that feeling, particularly the bridge. I’ve always wanted to try a bridge like that, where it was just like seven words, but really pretty.”

With four years spent on the album, there was plenty of material that didn’t make the cut. Some older songs were cast aside in the interest of the album feeling like a cohesive whole that represented a portrait of Ruth B.’s current life. Others have seen the light of day as singles released to tide fans over. And then there’s “If I Have a Son.”

Released in June 2020 at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, “If I Have a Son” paints a stark and heartbreaking portrait of the fear that police violence strikes into communities. “If I have a son, I’ll teach him to be brave. Cuz if I have a son, he’s never really safe. When you run to the corner store for a snack, I want to know you’ll make it back,” Ruth B. sings over a simple, mournful chord progression.

By all the metrics that made “Lost Boy” a hit, “If I Had a Son” was not. But the song may have been Ruth B.’s greatest artistic breakthrough, a plea of raw honesty that perfectly resonates with the time. Of any song in her catalogue so far, it is the one that is begging to be rediscovered by future generations; the subject matter, tragically, is timeless.

“Writing that was very much therapeutic for me and very much just writing in a journal. When I sat down to write that, it was more me just being so torn up and not knowing how to feel and not wanting to look at my phone because everything I was seeing was so stressful and just overwhelming,” she says. “So, I sat at my keyword to write the song and now, looking back, I think it’s the song I’ve been wanting to write and been wanting to share. I didn’t know how to get that real in music, to get that honest and vulnerable. But I think it just opened up this new part of me that wants to talk about stuff that really matters. And you know that you don’t have to keep it surface level. Like there’s real, real stuff that people go through on an everyday basis that a lot of people don’t even understand. And so, for me, that’s all I wanted to do was let people know this is real and people deal with it. It’s not just a hashtag on Twitter.”

It’s become de rigueur for celebrities to take a stand on social issues. The state of the world has made it impossible for anything to not become politicized – with the stakes being what they are, saying nothing is still seen as a stance. The result has been a lot of empty rhetoric and low-effort, symbolic gestures. If the world could be healed by Instagram posts, we’d be in utopia by now. A song and accompanying video like “If I Have a Son” is an act of real courage, of an artist undeniably tying herself to a movement that has no shortage of enemies. But while Ruth B. says she understands that some of her peers are more reluctant to have some skin in the game, she says that her own experiences made taking a stand a choice that was easy to make.

“It’s something I’m passionate about. I know that it’s something I’ve dealt with, in terms of prejudice and racism, it’s been a part of my life as a kid, so it just is genuine for me,” she says. “There’s definitely a sense of, like, how are people going to receive this? I know some people aren’t going to like it. But ultimately, you just have to stick with what you believe. Not everyone’s going to rock with that, but that’s okay.”

Like others of her generation, Ruth B.’s path to stardom has taken a very different form from pop hitmakers from the past. Take the boy and girl bands of the ‘90s - they were carefully groomed and styled from inception, tooled to resemble what executives believed would generate the maximum popularity. While that era undeniably produced some catchy music and even some enduring stars, it was a soulless exercise in converting art into pure commerce; as the formula was perfected, it was essentially an algorithm brought to life.

But the new generation is finding fame on their own without record company makeovers. That has let figures like Billie Eilish be legitimately weird without sacrificing their marketability.

“It gave me the freedom to create my own stuff,” says Ruth. “And I think that’s
where, really, my love for writing and the importance, for me, in creating my own music came from. Because for two years, that’s exactly what I was doing, creating what I want to create and saying what I want to say.”

For now, that involves telling personal stories, whether it’s about what it’s like to grow up as a Black Canadian, or the heartbreak that a ratty pair of sneakers can bring bubbling to the surface. Moments in Between is a pop album, for sure, but it’s a dignified, stately, often subdued a air. It’s a song for bedrooms and chilled out study sessions, not for lighting up the dance floor. We’ve seen artists take a turn for the bombastic before (hi, Taylor Swift!), but for now, Ruth B. is happy to go back to her childhood bedroom and write songs about the moment she’s living in.

“I love to listen to that kind of music every now and then. I love to dance to it and enjoy it with my friends. But for me, it’s just, I don’t connect with making that kind of music. And maybe one day, well, I really don’t know. But right now, I think what I’m super interested in is just, you know, telling my honest stories, and I don’t think they ever sound like that.”

She’s not getting recognized on the streets of New York City or Edmonton. But with a strong sophomore effort, a stronger sense of self, and an end to a global pandemic in sight, that likely won’t be the case much longer.

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