We’re all familiar with that cheesy “you know my name, not my story” quote, right? It’s always being shared across social media, often in an attempt to sound #Deep. Despite its cheesiness though, inverting it to “you know my story, not my name” was the first thing that came to my mind when I tried to describe Irish singer-songwriter RuthAnne Cunningham.
Songsmith to the stars, RuthAnne’s stories have been sung by the voices of Britney Spears, Bebe Rexha, One Direction, Niall Horan and JoJo. But now, with the release of her debut single The Vow on March 22nd, RuthAnne is finally ready for you to know both her name and her story.
I meet RuthAnne during the midst of the Beast from the East’s chokehold over London, which also seemed to have thrown RuthAnne’s scheduled shoot later after our twenty-minute timeslot into jeopardy. Warming herself up with a small bowl of porridge from Pret a Manger and surrounded by some healthy-looking smoothies to aid the cold she was be battling, RuthAnne has called LA home for about “six or seven years” now, so the snowstorm may have felt like a distant memory from her humble upbringing in Ireland. “I was quite sheltered. I grew up in a very middle-class home in Ireland. I hadn’t travelled. I hadn’t seen the world,” she reflected when talking about career beginnings.
RuthAnne has previously explored a few high-profile solo breaks under the name Rooty. Speaking at more than a mile a minute, RuthAnne revealed with an Irish twang why she ditched the Rooty moniker for this next chapter: “[Rooty] still will be an alias; as in, the 50 Shades song is under Rooty [and] the Lindsey Stirling song I did. There’s stuff out there that will always be there as that – and it’s my nickname. I have UK friends that are like (in a British accent) “Rooty! Rooty!”, they call me that all the time, and I have American friends, so it’s my nickname. I still wear my chain (pulls out a gold chain which reads ‘Rooty’) so yeah it will always be there. But I think for this album and for my solo project, I think that RuthAnne just fit the project and it was more ‘me’.”
RuthAnne’s big break as a songwriter came in 2006. Aged just nineteen, a song she had written two years prior titled Too Little Too Late had finally been picked up; Too Little Too Late went on to become one of teen prodigy JoJo’s signature hits and make chart history. “[I was] sitting in Ireland and I get these e-mails going, ‘[Too Little Too Late has] just done the biggest jump in Billboard Chart history, from sixty-three to three.’ I immediately went ‘…f-fuck me!’ (excited stammering). We were behind Justin Timberlake – My Love, which is such a tune, and a T.I song featuring Ludacris – I can’t remember what it was* – and I was like ‘oh my God, we’re the number three song in America!’ Like, I have written this song; like, it was absolutely crazy, and my life changed, and all I remember about it was just being- I thought, then, ‘well this shit’s easy, isn’t it!’ (laughs) but it’s not, it’s not at all,” RuthAnne recalled of that moment, with a surge of infectious exhilaration. “I just had a lucky break with that song, you know, very lucky,” she mentioned humbly.
Hold Your Head High…
As the years went by, that “lucky break” is what helped RuthAnne score more huge hits for major names – perhaps most notably for the one and only Britney Spears with her ‘iconic’ anthem Work Bitch (“thank you!” she gushes when I describe it as that). “All I’m going to say about that writing session – cos Britney wasn’t there with me – [is] it actually was written in all different parts all around the world. So, there was like, the beat; will.i.am did the ‘work bitch’ part; we did the melodies [and the] lyrics part which she sings, and it was literally all put together by will.i.am, so he’s the real genius behind that song, so I’m going to give him the credit. But the guy that I wrote our parts with – like the melody which she’s singing – I was like oh, we didn’t really know what it was going to be; we were just writing ‘hold your head high…’ – we were just honestly having fun for twenty minutes. He brought it to will.i.am and they started slotting in the pieces. So it was, like, really amazing to be a part of her history and music legacy and it was just really cool.” Modestly, RuthAnne goes on to recount the astounding after-effects of Work Bitch’s release: “I got called on the phone six months after we’d done it, and my friend went ‘do you wanna hear who’s on our song?’ and I go, ‘yeah’ – and then he played me Britney and I go, ‘oh, but that won’t come out, will it?’ And he goes – ‘it’s coming out in four days’. Then [Britney] tweeted my name. Then I went to the Vegas show; I brought friends. I’ve gone to see it a few times and she opens with it, and there’s Work Bitch merch, and then I’m in a gym and it comes on, and I don’t tell anyone I’ve written it, and it just motivates people and it’s amazing to be a part of.”
Work On Your Craft 10,000 Hours
Of course, as RuthAnne alluded to, her naïve assumption aged nineteen that “this shit’s easy, isn’t it” was very wrong – nobody gets to the stage where they have a notable contribution to Britney’s legacy without authentic hard work. What are her top tips for all the female creatives out there who wish to follow in her path? “You’ve got to really love music to do this,” RuthAnne started. “You’ve gotta really wanna be in music; you can’t do it for the money or the fame, because it will not come that way and it won’t last. You’ve gotta be in it for the long haul. You’ve gotta be prepared. You’ve gotta work on your craft 10,000 hours. You’ve gotta keep writing. You’ve got to be really good with people and making relationships; you’ve gotta make real relationships, not the fake Hollywood ones. You’ve gotta really be invested in the people you’re working with and create; like with me and Niall [Horan], we’re really good friends and that’s why we write really good together. And also, I think for females, you’ve got to set the standard of respect that you want to continue with – and that’s all I’m going to say about that.”
The Value of Music
Something else that songwriters should be prepared for are the shockingly measly royalty rates from streaming services. Although the Copyright Royalty Board recently announced plans to increase songwriter royalties from streaming platforms from 10.5% to 15.5% (“thank God,” RuthAnne remarked with a sigh of relief at this news), the value of music still feels cheapened by the rock bottom prices offered by streaming services. These low royalty rates are a major issue for songwriters in particular because streaming services now make up over 50% of music consumption among consumers, as confirmed by Nielsen, which effectively makes audio streaming platforms the primary source of income for lyricists. As a seasoned songwriter, RuthAnne asserted that the royalty rates are “an absolutely diabolical, disgusting, vile tragedy.” She clarified further: “the value of music- I think about it, and I’ve just gone to get a haircut, I go to get my make-up done – it’s gonna cost me like £150 to £200. Per streaming at the moment, I get 0.000007 cents split between all the writers. But then the labels- so, for like, every 1.5 million streams, the labels, who own the master – $6000. And the writers have to split $800; so if you’ve written a song with four people, $200 goes in your pocket. 1.5 million streams might seem a lot these days; that means you need to have over 200 million [streams] to even make anything that’s worth it. Now, a lot of songs that are average hits don’t make that type of thing. I mean, In the Name of Love has 640 million [streams] – but that was a huge song. So, for the average songwriter it’s getting harder and harder to be a songwriter, because you really need to be having radio hits and whatever, and I just think it’s so wrong because what part of the song do you sing? You sing the lyrics and the melody, and we’re getting paid the least.” Although RuthAnne huffed that the royalty predicament is “kind of annoying,” she optimistically closed by emphasising that she is “happy that they’ve done that.” RuthAnne speaks at such a rapid pace, but her knowledge and professionalism shines through with every frantically spoken word. The fact that she was able to accurately recite those huge numbers her songs have done without even thinking shows just how much the work that she does truly matters to her; it’s obviously really special to RuthAnne that her stories reach individuals on such a major scale.
What Is Going to Get On Radio? What Is Gonna Sell?
Reflecting on her prowess as a songwriter, RuthAnne enlightens that “you’re kind of a therapist” when crafting lyrics for an artist. “Your job is to get the story out of them and help them tell it and that’s it. So, when you’re working with Niall Horan, when you’re working with Pixie Lott, you know, anyone, your job is to kind of get their story and write them the best song so that they feel connected with it, and it’s something real.” Then, switching from passionate artist to shrewd businesswoman in 0.000007 seconds, RuthAnne carried on by illuminating that “when you’re writing for other people these days, it’s really competitive, so you have to think ‘what is going to get on radio? What is gonna sell?’ I don’t really operate that way as a person in general – I like to just write what I feel; luckily for me, some of them moments have ended up being on radio. It’s not really how I operate, but it’s how you’re ‘meant to’ apparently – but I don’t really do that.”
But what about when you’re writing for yourself? Does that change the process? “When I’m in the session I kind of have to be my own therapist, or I need the producer to be my therapist so I can get out what I want to say, so I think that’s the main difference; that when I’m working for me, it just has to come from me.”
RuthAnne’s Artistic Vow
It’s taken a hot minute for RuthAnne to get to this point where she transitioned from behind the scenes success to standing in her own spotlight, where she could sit and talk about an actual solo career comprising of therapeutic songs that come from her. “When I was younger, I [had] the songwriting success, I did the JoJo song and whatever, [but] I was like ‘I’m an artist, I want to do my own project,’” she starts when clarifying what exactly took so long. The problem, she explains, is that she couldn’t unlock her lyrical perspective as a solo singer: “But I realised throughout those years, that to be the type of artist that I wanted to be- which, like, you’ve got your Amy’s, Lauryn Hill’s, Alicia Keys’, Adele’s, they really talk about real things and they have a lyrical perspective… it really took me seeing the world, getting fucked up by a few people – guys-wise – and then I had my lyrical perspective. I was like, ‘I wanna be a voice for females,’ that they feel like they listen to it and go ‘oh that happened to me!’ Because when I used to listen to Lauryn, I really felt like it was coming from her and I felt that, and I wanted to be a voice for females these days that’s not about as much sexualised, as much strength- well, about, like ‘I’m fine, I don’t need you’ type of thing, which I think we need that. Of course, everyone goes out and does that, but I also want to be able to go out and be vulnerable, and I want people to listen to it and go ‘oh she’s just like me!’ and I think that’s my lyrical perspective, and I think now that I have that, I was like – and I found the sound – I was like ‘it’s the perfect time.’”
I Found the Sound
That “sound” in question is an homage to the retro soul and hip-hop sounds RuthAnne grew up on, which was debuted by RuthAnne at her UK showcase two days prior to our meeting. Superman (which RuthAnne agreed has a really universal feel that both you and your mom would enjoy) particularly stood out largely due to RuthAnne’s magnetizing, powerful voice; “Superman, who’s gonna save your soul, when you ain’t so super anymore?” she bellows over the chorus’s slick beat. “I want to fly the flag as the Irish female and bring soul back and hip-hop and everything,” she commented to me.
Based on the women who influenced RuthAnne growing up, it’s no surprise that for her own music she finds herself naturally gravitating towards these sounds. “Lauryn Hill – obsessed. She is my religion,” RuthAnne begins. “Alicia Keys. When her album came out, I learnt every song on piano. I was obsessed with her. Alanis Morissette – the Jagged Little Pill album. Mariah Carey. So, Mariah was more like my vocal inspiration; when I was ten I would sit with a tape recorder (sings) just learning all her rifts, do it again, do it again – no one was telling me to do it. I was just obsessed. I saw her and I was like, she is the best vocalist of all time. Whitney. Celine Dion.” RuthAnne announces each artist’s name with such passion and power that it’s undeniable to hear how important these women have been to her. “Who else?” she asks herself. “Beyoncé. Actually, Destiny’s Child – big influence of mine, the harmonies you hear in my songs. Brandy. Jill Scott. Erykah Badu. Any of those. Neo-soul; Floetry. But Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé were a huge influence as well. All those, really. And then also the greats: Aretha Franklin. Etta James. Carole King, yeah.” In terms of the girls of today, RuthAnne is a major fan of SZA and Alessia Cara: “I really like SZA. I think she’s saying some really cool stuff and I think it’s really interesting. I like Alessia Cara too. I think she’s got a real good perspective.”
Twelve Boys vs Three Girls
Being such a huge supporter of female musicians, it’s no wonder that RuthAnne is “100%” aligning with Bebe Rexha’s mission to breed genuine comradery among female creatives. I mention Bebe’s name (RuthAnne wrote Bebe and Martin Garrix’s big hit In the Name of Love, and performed her own stunning acoustic take on the future-bass banger at her showcase) and as soon as I refer to Bebe’s outspoken nature when it comes to female rights in the industry, RuthAnne lights up: “Yeah! She just did a dinner for all the females to come together. I was meant to be there, I just wasn’t there. Yeah, all the female creatives, she wants us to kind of band together. I really like what she’s doing.” Although RuthAnne actively backs Bebe’s motion that in order for female representation in the industry to rise, “females [need] to come together, hold hands [and] uplift each other,” RuthAnne doesn’t shy away from the realities of it all: “The problem is that it’s a male dominated industry, and males don’t want too many females in the room. So the problem with the females is, we’re fighting to be that one girl in the room because, I can go to a writing camp-” she fleetingly pauses; “twelve boys vs three girls.”
RuthAnne elaborates that women are “the lesser party,” and then details the predicament female creatives constantly find themselves in: “so what’s happening is that, females want to, like- I want to support females. But they’re like, ‘we only can have one of you in the room,’ so you’re like- everyone’s fighting. And also, the Grammy situation, the artist situation; there’s so little room for women on radio, which is a big problem, so all them artists feel like they have to compete.” However, she then brightly offers her solution: “but the truth is, that all of us can exist, all of us have our own lane; Bebe [Rexha] has her own lane, Camila [Cabello] has her own lane, like, you can exist. We do just need to be like ‘do you know what, make the best art you can and we’ll support you’ and put it out – and then we’re all in our own lane. For me there’s no comp– I don’t feel like I’m competing against any of them, because my album is my album, their album is their album, and there could be 50,000 people who like mine and 50,000 people who like hers, and I’m like, ‘there’s enough people in the world to share,’ or you could like both [artists], do you know what I mean?” Although asked rhetorically, I do know exactly what RuthAnne means, because female artists are frequently and unnecessarily pitted against each other. Fortunately, RuthAnne continues that she doesn’t “really stress about that” but further reiterated the importance of female comradery and diverse representation: “I think with all this #MeToo and #TimesUp, females now more than ever need to support each other, need to not be slut-shaming each other or trolling each other, and there’s a lot of pressure on females with Instagram to look perfect, and to look a certain way, to look like Kylie Jenner, to look like whatever. It’s really important that we embrace our imperfections, our weird quirks, and not try to all look the same because, to be honest, sometimes I’m on clothing websites and I’m like, ‘all these models look like Kylie Jenner’. I don’t have a body like that, so can you show me one that’s, you know what I mean, more diverse? I think that we could use more diversity with female culture.”
Make Good Art
We wrap up our conversation by discussing life mottos: “I have two,” RuthAnne says. “I had them tattooed – I’ve got ‘make good art’, which I got from a Neil Gaiman speech, which basically he said ‘when you’re poor make good art, when you’re rich make good art, when you’re broken-hearted make good art, when you’re happy make good art’ – just always the main thing is to make good art. And then the other one is ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ which I have on the back of my neck. My mum gave me a book when I was sixteen and I was like, ‘I haven’t been discovered yet! I haven’t made it yet! I’ve gotta go to LA but I’m scared! I don’t want to leave home!’ She gave me a book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, and I got it tattooed in 2012 as my ‘you have to move to America; every day that this [tattoo] is on you and you haven’t moved, you’re not feeling the fear.’ And I think that a lot of people operate out of fear – that’s why we get jealous, or we do stupid things, so my motto in life is, like, just fucking do it. Don’t be afraid of it.”
RuthAnne… you better work bitch!
Listen to The Vow by RuthAnne on Spotify
*This song was actually Money Maker, by Ludacris featuring Pharrell Williams.