For many queer youth, the first step of admitting that you’re different can be a scary and very powerful thing. Understanding who you are and accepting this intrinsic part of your identity can be as shattering as it is liberating. Western Massachusetts’ feminist folk band Ruby Mack understands this predicament all too well and chronicles it with their new single “Milktooth” from their upcoming album Devil Told Me.
As much a “coming out” song as it is a song of empowerment, “Milktooth” has the makings of a gay closet door opener, much like Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” or Erasure’s “Hideaway” was for boys. “[‘Milktooth’] is a queer coming of age song and a reminder to stop letting your demons feast upon your fears and lies—these demons limit the possibilities of your life’s narrative with their linear paths and binary whispers,” explains vocalist/guitarist Emma Ayres. “It’s a raw lullaby about letting go of your childhood and all the stories you told yourself about who you are and what your life is worth.”
During a time when LGBTQ rights are being stripped away by the current White House administration, songs of empowerment and courage are especially needed for the queer community. Those who stand to suffer the most are the young and impressionable who might fear for their safety or emotional well-being in this threatening social climate.
“I was more nervous to record ‘Milktooth’ than any other song on the album because I truly felt the weight of its meaning,” says Abbie Duquette (bass uke). “I will never forget the feeling of sitting in the booth with Andrew Oedel [our sound engineer], Emma, and Abs [a.k.a. Abby Kahler, vocals and fiddle] as we listened to Zoe [Young] lay down the guitar and vocals — and then later when Abs did what Abs does best and poured their heart into their fiddle playing.”
Using the metaphor of losing milkteeth to symbolize the emerging acceptance of one’s sexual identity, Ruby Mack lean upon the that imagery in the song. “We all lose our milk teeth as we grow up and have our adult teeth grow in and replace them,” says Emma. “The cycle of loss and growth defines human experience. It’s a hymn to believing that you deserve what you want for yourself. This song is a page from my diary and I gave you the key.”
“Emma first played the song for me when we were touring in Austin last September,” Zoe recalls about the song’s origins. “At that time, the song had more of a gritty rock feel. I however felt it as more of a lullaby prayer so I recorded my own version of the demo with that in mind. The lyrics are so poignant and personal that I felt the song needed the soft power that a prayer holds, and that’s what the studio version ended up being.”
“It was breathtaking and so wonderful to hear some of my closest friends take my breath way like that,” says Abbie of the recording process. “I knew we had something special. This song is simple and gentle, and I was extra careful to lay down a bass line that would help ground but not overpower Zoe’s phrasing, nor Emma’s beautiful lyrics.”
A band whose musical chemistry is as powerful as their friendship, Ruby Mack’s collaboration is built on mutual respect and awe of each other’s talents. Their interpersonal rapport shows beautifully through their gorgeous four-part harmonies and the gentle interplay of the instruments. No one band member overshadows the other.
“I think it’s really uniquely ‘us’ since the fiddle part and some of the harmonies didn’t exist until we began recording,” explains Abs of their connection. “Improvisation is one of our strong suits and something that brings us a lot of joy. I think much of our true magic is made when we’re tapping into that source and bringing something to life for the first time on the spot. ‘Milktooth’ is grounded by the bass, Zoe’s angelic voice soothes and enthralls, Emma’s powerful lyricism is on display, and fiddle swells are spun from somewhere deep within me but also very much outside of myself.”
The support and care they project in this song to those who might be at the coming-out crossroads is their way of paying it forward. The lyrics “Holy woman said I deserve what I want / And I told her what I want is you / You’re the only chance I’ve got / To build my sorrow into someone new” may seem mystical or metaphorical, but is, in fact, based on truth. “The holy woman in the song is a reference to a woman who housed the band when we were on tour in Nashville, who kept emphatically saying to us: ‘You deserve what you want”,” reveals Emma. “This sentence became a mantra for me whenever I doubted my intuition. The mantra became this song”
For Ruby Mack, “Milktooth” carries so much weight and truth, and it holds a special place in their musical oeuvre. “Writing this song became a promise to myself to always listen closely to all the everyday prophets around me,” concludes Emma. “This song is a tiny prayer sung in the nondenominational pew of the universe asking that everyone can exist happily as their truest selves and an ode to my age-old muse.”