Music marks our lives. We define ourselves by genre, fandom, style, taste. We mark emotional milestones by album, and a single song has the power to rush us backwards through time. It’s accessible and limitless – anyone can make music and anyone can enjoy it. More often than not, though, we forget that our dearest tunes are composed with one part natural talent, and one crucial part complex, careful mental acrobatics. Crafting a song that resonates with another human, let alone crafting a radio hit, is hardly effortless, but people like RuthAnne could fool us.
RuthAnne started out as a songwriter; she’s the mind behind the ASCAP award-winning (and generation defining) song Too Little Too Late that was picked up by none other than JoJo. Later, she went on to write for Britney Spears on the iconic Work Bitch, and wrote for One Direction – having most recently collaborated with Niall Horan to create the hit Slow Hands. Now, RuthAnne is stepping out from the shadows and writing for herself. Did we mention she just happens to have a heavenly voice?
We chatted with RuthAnne to ask what it’s like to be an indispensable part of the music industry that’s so often hidden, and what it means to be finally moving into the spotlight as a solo artist…
Has music always been a clear choice for you?
Oh, yeah. I didn’t ever feel like it was a job really, since I was seven I was always singing and dancing and acting for my family – it always felt like my thing. I just grew up busy with it naturally!
As a writer and a singer, did you train for either of these arts, and do you think it’s important to?
I actually never got formal vocal coaching – I think I might have done one lesson! I just studied a lot growing up. I immersed myself in music, I’d endlessly watch what singers did and I’d study music videos and songs, and I’d keep picking up a lot of ticks and tricks while going along the way. Now, everything and everyone I’ve worked with, like artists and collaborations, I think I took something from. Really, as a songwriter there’s no real place to learn the craft, you just work on it, and as a musician I feel like it was just in me. I always developed both parts.
From square one, how did you go about making yourself known in the professional scene?
When I was seventeen I won a songwriting competition! It was my dad, actually, who entered me. I was in a girl band at that time, and when I found out I won it suddenly the man who managed The Script at the time was like, “I wanna bring you to LA and make you a star!” So, I went, and on my first day there I co-wrote Too Little Too Late which JoJo ended up singing, and that blew up! After that took off, people were like, “can you do that again for us?” I suppose I went about the industry in a kind of backwards way, I started off high and from then on I realised I had to focus on keeping myself consistent.
What was your early experience of the music industry like?
(Laughs) Oh, I didn’t like it! I hated it. I didn’t know songwriting for others was even a job first of all, until after Too Little Too Late, and then it was kind of an accident. I remember writing that and thinking “this song isn’t for me, I want someone else to sing this”. In my life at the time, though, I was very lonely in LA and I missed my family so much, I had to really learn to how to be a songwriter by myself. Later, when I moved to London is when I started really liking it and finding my stride with the industry. Eventually, when I went back to LA I was ready for it. Irish-girl-goes-to-LA was always gonna be a whoa kind of culture shock. It was a love-hate relationship.
Has your process ever changed?
As I’ve gotten older I’ve been figuring out which writing process works for me and what gets the most out of a session, like talking with the artists and getting a feeling for which ways to approach work. I have a songbook, but lots of times I don’t expect those songs to get used for a specific project, and I expect to come up with something new.
So, how does a collaboration usually unfold?
Oh, it’s kind of a big discussion. You ask the artist to tell you about their own style, details about their life, their mood and ideas, and you just listen to them and work towards an understanding, really. When I write with someone else it’s all about working out what the story that they want to tell is.
You’re the wordsmith behind so many hits – what’s it like to adapt to so many others’ styles and messages?
It’s easy now, definitely. I started off as a child exposed to so much diversity in my music, my family would play their collection of Carole King but also Led Zeppelin, and Lauryn Hill as well as Usher. I think – especially in Ireland, we have a real melting pot of music – I learned quite early to have broad tastes and associate with different genres and stories, which I think was really good. My influences have always been broad, and that’s helped me the whole way through this career.
I just wanna bring back female vulnerability. Having confidence, being vocal and not afraid to tell it like it is
Transitioning from writing for others to doing it for yourself, is it a completely different experience?
I think the only thing that’s different is that I end up prioritising myself. When I’m working on a collaboration I feel like I’m often in the role of a therapist; I feel like I have to focus on getting something out of the other artist. My role in the room is either to guide them, or to act like a kind of song doctor. When I’m the artist in the room, though, my role becomes everything! That makes me very controlling. I’m controlling about the production, the harmonies, the lyrics… the producers become my therapists. Whereas when I’m working with someone else, I try to find my story in their story.
Is there anything you hope to convey or achieve with your own music?
I just wanna bring back female vulnerability. Having confidence, being vocal and not afraid to tell it like it is, I think that is ageless and genderless but I want to be a role model for girls who are, well, going through the things we all go through. I’m not just trying for radio plays or chart positions, it’s not about that for me.
How would you describe the flairs of your own style?
Oh, I think I’m a little like Lauryn Hill, or Alicia Keys in her first album. That specific kind of soulful pop!
For Debut readers setting out as writers, what advice would you give them on finding their voice?
Practice your craft. Also you’ve gotta trust the process, lots of people think it’s just overnight, and a lot of people know that if that’s how fast you want things to be, it will probably only last that long. As writers, we need to remember that it’s a journey and a process. Years ago I was really worried about shortcomings, but it takes you having to grow up and grow into who you really are, and that’s all part of it. People often want to change the things that are unique, but if you have, say, red hair or a weird accent, I find that really those unique things are what people will actually gravitate to. Most of all, practice. Don’t be disheartened when it’s bad, don’t search too hard, just let it be. Good art will always find its audience.
Has anything surprised you within the Music industry, having seen both sides of the coin now?
There are surprises every day! (Laughs) It’s rollercoaster ride. I guess it’s the male dominancy, really. I see very few women higher up and that’s been pretty surprising to be honest. There’s a lot of male producers and stuff, but lots of amazing female writers who aren’t in as many rooms getting as much attention. For example, six males writing a song for Selena Gomez are not gonna have the same insight that bringing a female on board would give you.
What have you found most rewarding so far?
Whenever somebody tells me that a song of mine helped them through something, that’s amazing. I’ve gotten some really beautiful messages about The Vow from women talking about their connection with their babies and their husbands and so on. When you go somewhere and hear people singing your song, of all different backgrounds, singing the words and melodies that you’ve written… That’s really incredible. Sometimes people even say, “oh, that was the soundtrack of my teenage years!”
JoJo’s Too Little Too Late was certainly mine…
Aw! (Laughs) Thanks so much!
I’ve heard a little preview of your upcoming music, it sounds amazing! What can we expect from you in the coming year?
Thank you! I’m gonna be releasing songs pretty quickly, I’ve had this album in my head for ages! I’m gonna be releasing a new song every six to eight weeks. I’ll be doing some dates in Ireland and England this year, and it’s just gonna be about getting my own music out there, telling a lot of real stories, sharing a lot of soul. I hope, someday, I’ll be doing my own tour!
Words by Esmeralda Voegele-Downing