Ruby Amanfu doesn’t remember much about moving to the U.S. from Ghana when she was 3 years old. But the singer-songwriter does remember vividly what it felt like to step into Nashville, even as a toddler. “I remember the sights and the sounds and the smells,” she says. “It was such a big shift and I think that’s why it was such a shock to me.” Many years later, Nashville is home, and the place where she’s been making and releasing her music to the world.
“I don’t leave my house often,” she tells American Songwriter. “Seeking and finding peace, that’s what my life is about right now.” Amanfu, who’s been recording music since she was a teenager, has been creating portals to that peace through her songs, like her most recently released single, ‘You Belong.’
“Life is hard,” she says. “There are so many moments of chaos, internal and beyond, the only way to get through it is to keep coming back to the center,” she says. “Because I know how sustaining that is for me, I definitely find I try to give those directives to others. I need them, so why wouldn’t others need them? And if those directives can come in the form of music, then that’s what I’m here to do.”
To get to this point, Amanfu’s path has included a major-label deal and a pop hit in the UK in the form of 2003’s ‘Sugah,’ touring with Jack White and singing on ‘Love Interruption,’ as well as providing the background vocals for Beyonce’s ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself.’ She also sang a cover of Meredith Brooks’ ‘Bitch’ for Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere. “All those experiences are seeds planted along the way,” says Amanfu. “Each of those experiences uniquely inform where I am and who I am today.”
The experiences she’s had over the years have changed the timbre of her voice — singing with White allowed her to discover “this little girl had a belt that I could use in a new way” — and also how she uses it. In between writing her own songs, Amanfu has also written songs sung by others. Most notably, she co-wrote H.E.R’s huge hit ‘Hard Place,’ which was nominated for Song of the Year at the Grammys in 2019, and the track ‘Heaven’s My Home,’ which earned a Grammy nomination for the Duhks, in 2006. It was this track that first allowed Amanfu to realize the power of her voice.
“I wrote that song with Katie Herzig and it was one of those days where you just show up and do the work,” says Amanfu. She recalls the lines, Life’s hard, I’ve always known that, Never been handed no welcome mat, gave her a perspective she wanted to share with others. “Whatever this message is, it felt like it was sitting in the center of my soul,” she says. “The dust never quite settled on it and it made me realize the power of words.”
Amanfu recorded the song as Sam and Ruby, the duo she was part of at the time, before the Duhks did. The song, she says, changed the way she approached songwriting and instilled an “unlikely activism” in her to speak on how she feels about the things she observes. “With what this last year has looked like, there was nothing [to do] but to stand up for and speak out against those things,” she says. “And obviously the creative side of things allows me to do that eloquently. I can speak to a hard subject directly, but with a soft edge, in the melody and the lyrics.”
To that end, Amanfu collaborated with Leigh Nash on the track, ‘Good Trouble,’ inspired by the late U.S. Congressman John Lewis. “That was the first song for me where I was reflecting on what my life experience had been, alongside somebody who’d had a particularly different experience to me,” she says. “That was the first moment of songwriting allyship I feel like I’ve ever taken. You hear about ally-ship in so many contexts but I realized, ‘oh wow, you can do this in songwriting too.’ We can be allies in song too.”
Working with others brings out the most vulnerable parts of Amanfu, even if she’s not writing for herself. “Being in a room with someone like Gabby (Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson aka H.E.R.), where your job is not to write your story, your job is to help her write her story, has helped inform and hone certain skills,” she says. “Whether that’s increased ability vocally or in terms of empathy and being able to sit with somebody in what they’re sitting in. That helps me be real with myself. At its best songwriting is that, it is baring that and getting as close as you can to your true self.”
As she sees it, Amanfu feels she’s as close as she’s ever been to her true self. She wrote ‘You Belong’ as a way to try share that feeling with others. Even though she’s in a fulfilling relationship with her husband, fellow songwriter Sam Ashworth, she wanted to remind those who may not be, that they are still whole in and of themselves. Listening to the song, like many of those on her Collections albums, of which she has released 3 volumes, is like listening to the voice of a comforting older sister, who shares her hard-earned wisdom with you. Fans can rest easy knowing there’s more to come, in between the work she’s doing for a few new TV projects too.