Nashville-based singer-songwriter Ruby Amanfu is fresh off the release of her latest solo album, Standing Still. The album takes a different approach from previous efforts and sees Amanfu tackling nine covers from artists like Bob Dylan, Kanye West, Wilco and more, in addition to one original. We chatted with her about touring with Jack White, discovering music in a public library, the beauty of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and more.
When did you first start writing songs?
The earliest memory I have is taking a walk with my dad at a young age, and just writing songs about whatever I would see on the walk. The first time I thought to ever enter a songwriting contest was in third grade. We had a talent show, so said “I’m gonna write a song, and me and my girlfriends are gonna do a dance.” We did, and we won. Around fourth grade I started entering literary competitions with both poetry and lyric writing, where you didn’t have to incorporate a melody, you just turned in the words, so it was based on just how those words jumped off the page. So from about fifth grade onward, I felt like I had a sense of it.
At what point did you decide to pursue a career as a musician?
I knew straight away. I knew it was between three things, and they were all kind of creative: interior design, being a chef or being a musician.
What made you choose music over the other two?
I think the easiest to begin was being a musician because that tool, obviously, comes out of my mouth, more than anything. Even though, I did go to school to study music, I don’t think I necessarily had to. As cooking school, as with interior design, I would have had to go to a tremendous amount of school, but I chose less school. The one thing I knew how to do without schooling was the thing that was already bringing me into the light, on its own.
What’s your typical songwriting process like?
I think for any writer, there’s a time when the muse is really bright and the muse is really dim, so I definitely wait on the muse. That’s the big thing. I don’t ever try to force it. Luckily, it can be kind of inspired out, not forced out. If there’s a time when I know I’m getting ready to be in an intensive situation where there’s a studio, or a co-writes with another writer, or if it’s my work, or another artist’s work where I cowrite or write songs for them, I definitely try to saturate myself with music and with words. With books, poetry and lots of music that inspires me, and live concerts, as well. I guess that’s the biggest ritual, to just saturate myself with it at a time when I know I have to put it out there.
Otherwise, when the muse is just on its own, just buzzing around, I make sure to get my document ready to go on my phone and my GarageBand on my iPad to start putting down chords. Sometimes the lyric and melody come together at once, and sometimes the melody comes on its own. It’s very rare that the lyrics come plain without a melody. Even if I set out to write a lyric, I always get the melody in my head as I’m writing it down.
What drove your decision to return to your solo work after your recent collaborative projects?
I began as a solo artist when I was in high school. Going into college at Berkelee, I had to come up with an album, with the help of a local Tennessee guy named Dave Matthews. He helped fund my new record and it was all songs that I had written. It was released at the local Tower Records in Nashville and the local Tower Records in Boston, and Best Buy and FYE and all those places. So, I had been on this journey for a really long time as a solo artist. My first major label album was released out of the U.K. in 2003. In about 2004 or 2005, I started working with Sam Brooker and started doing Sam & Ruby. We ended that in 2010, and I met Jack in 2011, so it really went on hold, at that point. It was always something that I was doing, and it was always my focus and what I had been known for.
In 2010, I put out a small project through Charlie Peacock, it’s an EP I had on iTunes with my publishing deal with him. When Jack came around, I put it on hold for a minute and explored this part of things — singing back-up — which I had never done before. It was really exciting and super fun. First it was Blunderbuss and then recording Lazaretto, by the end of that, I was ready to go back out on my own and really focus on what my first love of this career has always been: my solo work.
Is there anything that you took away from your time as a backup singer that made its way into Standing Still?
I think there’s a precision that comes with being in a supporting role. It’s almost more important. It’s like working in a restaurant kitchen. You’ve got a chef that creates the recipes, but it’s everyone else in the kitchen that executes those recipes. If anyone in the kitchen misses their mark, then every diner knows it. It’s one of those things that taught me extreme precision and excellence in what I do.
What was the song selection process like for the album?
it was important for me because, first and foremost, I am a songwriter. In doing a record, in doing a collection of songs where most of them were not songs that I had personally written, it was important for me to still be a storyteller while singing those songs. So it was all about the lyrics and choosing songs that told my story as well. I think sometimes people listen and they’re like “She has a Kanye West song on her record. How is that in any way related?” But for me, it’s about the lyrics. I listened to all these songs and was like “Well, it’s not going to be in the style of a Kanye West song, or a Wilco song or a Brandi Carlile song, but the lyrics are definitely true to different things I have experienced or am experiencing in my life.” I just wanted to be able to stand up on any stage and feel like it was part of my story, so I could still remain a storyteller.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Bob Dylan comes to mind, very strongly. There’s also a woman named Cindy Morgan who I discovered all the way back when I was younger. She has a poetic way of saying things. James Taylor is another huge one for me. Bill Withers; quintessential.
How were you exposed to these writers and artists?
It wasn’t anything my parents listened to. I think it was just kind of keeping my ears perked from the time I was a little girl. We moved from Ghana, West Africa to Nashville,Tennessee when I was a toddler. Sensory overload is an understatement, but it also caused me to be extremely aware of new sounds. So when I would hear those artists, I’d think “Wow, I’ve never heard this before.” And it would just naturally resonate on a soul or a spiritual level or a part of me I hadn’t discovered that had always been there. My parents listened to gospel music and classical music, pretty strictly. Everything else I discovered in social settings with friends, or just in a grocery store or in a library. There was a library called Donelson Library, at the time, and they had a little music station and I would go after school and put headphones on and listen to music in the library.
What do you think is the most perfect song ever written and why?
I guess I’ll go with the one that comes to mind first, which is “Blackbird.” When a song can be so complex and so simple. We all know it’s not about a blackbird, yes it has the sound of a bird chirping at the end of it, but it’s a song about a grand struggle that so many of us face when we wanna break free from something. Even the choice; it could have been a bluebird, a blue jay, but it wasn’t. It was a “Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly / All your life / You were only waiting for this moment to arise.” I know that’s my personal journey, so maybe that’s why I relate to it so much and think it’s so perfect. It’s my favorite, not that I don’t love “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But when it comes down to something I can listen to in one fluid thought, and feel like I’m just floating on my back in the water, that’s the one.