Inside Ruth B’s Outspoken Debut
August 31, 2016
Rolling Stone, August 31, 2016
By Daniel Kohn
Two years ago, Ruth B was a 19-year-old working at Marshalls in Edmonton, Canada, when she had an idea. Inspired by her love of fantasy novels, she wrote her first song, “Lost Boy,” a spare, soulful piano ballad about loneliness, packed with Peter Pan references. She uploaded six seconds of the chorus to Vine, which she’d previously used to post clips of herself singing Drake and Lana Del Rey songs.
“Lost Boy” scored 84,000 likes in just a week, and a few months later, she had a deal with Columbia. This summer, the song became a Top 40 hit. “If someone told me a year ago that people would ask me for pictures at Starbucks,” she says, “I would’ve just laughed.”
On a recent summer afternoon, Ruth, 21, sits in a Laurel Canyon, California, studio, deep into recording her first album. She’s joined by Joel Little, the 33-year-old New Zealander who spent two years working with Lorde, producing and co-writing Pure Heroine. “There’s definitely pressure – I can’t deny that,” says Ruth.
Little became intrigued with Ruth when a friend sent a demo of her songs. “She had this phenomenal catalog,” he says. He’s also noticed similarities to Lorde: “They both have these authentic voices, and they’re telling stories about what’s happened to them.”
But for Ruth, getting used to the pop music game has been a struggle. She has a hard time with “the whole look-at-me thing.” When people began commenting about her looks on Vine, she started obscuring her face. She also worried about entering the studio: “My biggest fear was that I don’t know the proper terminology.”
Those fears have gone away lately. She’s bonded with Little over pickup basketball games and has gotten comfortable speaking up in recording sessions. She’s excited about hiring a band and shaping its sound. “You’ll have no problem with that,” says Little. “Boss status!” Ruth adds with a grin. “You gotta know what you want!”
Though she’s shy in person, Ruth doesn’t hold back in her lyrics, which read like a diary of turbulent adolescence. “Superficial Love” slams shallow relationships (“I’m flawed/If you don’t like that, get lost”). “If by Chance” is about getting dumped for someone else – and then asking to be taken back. Ruth says most of her songs are true: “I’m not afraid to have my heart broken and go out and meet people,” she says. Adds Little, “When I heard a couple of the songs, I was like, ‘Holy shit, this girl is going through some stuff!'”
Ruth, whose last name is Berhe, grew up in Edmonton. Her parents emigrated from Ethiopia in the Eighties, and Ruth is fluent in their native Amharic language. “It’s a huge part of who I am,” she says, adding that her parents instilled “relentless ambition” in her. Still, she never imagined her current situation: living in L.A., gearing up for her first big tour in the fall. “I always think back to when I posted that first video. Now, when I announce it, people go nuts. It’s like, damn, life is crazy!”