I meet Ruth Royall in Woodruffs cafe. ‘My favourite spot!’ she says, settling in at the table by the window upstairs, from where we can see the hardier worthies of Stroud pottering blithely about their business on a chilly March afternoon.
Having moved back to Stroud after nearly a decade of living between Bristol and London, studying and making music, Ruth has come back to the town an accomplished and sought-after musician, described by BBC Introducing’s Sam Bonham as ‘the South West’s Princess of Soul’. She left Stroud aged sixteen and, after studying in Bristol, has been working with the likes of Mo Pleasure from Earth Wind and Fire, Kevin Mark Trail from The Streets and Vula from Basement Jaxx. She has also toured Germany, Holland and the UK, and has performed in the iconic Abbey Road studios, at Glastonbury Festival, in The Roundhouse, the Jazz Cafe, and the legendary Ronnie Scott’s Club.
This hectic session musician schedule hasn’t stopped her from working on her own music, however – she is about to release her debut EP, recorded in the UK and the USA, about which we will no doubt be hearing more soon, but in the meantime she is about to embark on a tour, which will stop off at the Lansdown Hall in the heart of her home town, with a group of musicians she met in Berlin.
Perhaps slightly awkwardly for an accomplished musician about to release her official debut record, I remember Ruth from years back, when I was editing the arts pages of a Stroud newspaper. Aged just 13, she had formed SubJustice with a group of friends, and took their chunky, funky sound out to the venues of Stroud, full of youthful energy and fire when in full throttle performance mode, but always charmingly coy between songs. I wrote encouraging reviews, which I note with glee are quoted on the internet in write ups of Ruth’s progress. At the time, though, they were one of the most exciting bands in Stroud, a young group that clearly had potential – especially Ruth, who wrote most of the songs – and warranted such enthusiasm. Ruth blushes, winces and laughs when I remind her of the band - ‘you don’t still listen to that do you?’ she asks, a sort of pleased embarrassment painted all over her face. ‘I’ve always been drawn to ballads and mood music, and jazz was a big part of my life when I was a child,’ she says, moving on. ‘I progressed into soul from jazz and I think that all that was naturally there when I began writing music – I never consciously sought out a style, it just came up. I come from a musical family. There were always instruments in the house, so writing was something that I just did, and didn’t think about. I was about 12 or 13 and my uncle asked in passing what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I said I think I want to do something with my songs. I hadn’t realised until I said it out loud and I was like, "Oh! Actually yeah, that’s what I want to do". I never had any formal song writing training, it all came about just from writing as much as possible.'
I tell her that I have been listening to SubJustice’s self-produced album Cato Street on and off for years and that, set against her recent recordings, I can hear a definite progression in her voice from the sometimes awkward rock’n’funk stylings of that debut to the very powerful and polished jazz- and soul-inflected vocals she delivers now, influences which filter through alluringly into even the poppiest music she makes. It’s definitely a progression rather than a change I’ve noticed. There was always something unique and potent waiting to be fully unleashed in her voice, I tell her. ‘I was a very earnest, misunderstood teenager,’ she says with a self-deprecating chuckle. ‘I’ll have to listen to that again. I’ll have to re-listen and see if I can see it!’
Not entirely misunderstood, mind; Ruth has clearly had a great deal of support for her choice of career from her family, notably her mother Helen, who gave Ruth the space to be creative from the age of eight. That support has paid off in spades – the track I was lucky enough to hear from her forthcoming debut EP, Lover You Need, which is to be released in the summer, is a beautiful nu-soul song that, whilst it clearly owes a certain amount to bands like The XX and London Grammar, is distinctly and defiantly Ruth. The live videos she posts on her social media are equally exquisite and accomplished. This is a voice that has been allowed a little time to reach its peak, and Ruth has clearly relished the space to find something original to say with her songs. Shows like The Voice often neglect the inner voice, but Ruth has that in spades, to go with her potent singing voice.
Ruth has without doubt put in a great deal of hard work and slog over the past few years – she has paid her dues as far as musicianship goes several times over – but the big step up, the thing that has got her firing on all cylinders, seems to have been a trip to Berlin a few months ago. ‘I went to Berlin for a holiday,’ she tells me, ‘and got up to sing in a couple of clubs. I hit it off with some of the musicians so much that they asked me back. I also kept getting asked by the audience when I was going to do some more sets, so I went back to Berlin twice and connected with some seriously wonderful musicians.’
Now she is about to embark on a pre-EP tour called The Berlin Connection, a show featuring some of her favourite musicians from the city, including Lionel Haas on keyboards, producer, composer and drummer Jerome Bonaparte and Or Rosenfeld on bass. Ruth and the band will be celebrating the jazzier side of her musicianship on the tour. ‘I love that city,’ she says, ‘and can’t wait to show off what I found there.’
Ruth Royall and The Berlin Connection come to Stroud’s Lansdown Hall on Friday, April 28th. Tickets are £10 in advance and £12 on the door and the band will be playing their longest set of the tour there in honour of Ruth’s home town. Visit the facebook event page here for further info.
It’ll be very interesting to see where her music takes her next...
Adam Horovitz is a writer with a particular interest in poetry, which allows him to scrape a living and keeps him (for the most part) off the streets. He has also worked as a journalist and editor for local papers, literature festivals and, from 2000 to 2008, Glastonbury Festival’s official website.