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20 Questions With Nancy Ruth

The Canadian jazz vet talks sultans, reggaeton, huckle buckle, Gaugin & much more.

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Nancy Ruth first brightened up this site when she shared her romantic single Turn the Lights Back Down back in August. Today, the globe-trotting, high-flying jazz singer-songwriter and pianist illuminates us further by answering my pointless questions. Frankly, I’m amazed she was able to sit still long enough to get through it. But I’m glad she did. I suspect you will be too …

 


 

Introduce yourself: Name, age (feel free to lie), home base, other details you’d like to share (height, weight, identifying marks, astrology sign, your choice).
My name is Nancy Ruth. I’ve been touring for 35 years so that makes me … 50 or so? I still think I’m 22, so it doesn’t matter. I have two home bases: where I grew up in Victoria, B.C., and Malaga, Spain, where I go to write and put my bands together for European and African tours. If I were a boxer I’d be a 5’5” flyweight, but I’m a music artist, so who cares what I weigh? I’m a Capricorn, and I love goats so I guess that means I was born under the right sign 😉

What is your musical origin story?
When I was eight my grandfather gave me a ukulele, and curiously, the first thing I learned to play was the Phrygian scale, which flamenco is based on. So, I always knew I’d end up going to Spain. While I was growing up I busked on the docks in Sidney, B.C., where my family had a sailboat, and later went to the Royal Conservatory and New Westminster’s Douglas College to study classical music. After one too many recitals singing arias, I quit music school, dyed my hair black, and joined a heavy metal band. After three years of touring Western Canada singing heavy rock covers, my restless nature led me to a total immersion into jazz, which I can happily say has kept me busy and fascinated ever since. I’m seduced by the endless study and practice of harmonic possibilities.

What do we need to know about your latest project?
Breathing In Indigo is a song that perfectly reflects the chaos and uncertainly we’re living in, but ironically, I wrote the song a couple of years ago. It took me two years to finish the recording and mix to the point where I was happy with it. So, perhaps it’s just as well it took so long, and that it was released during this pandemic due to its timely theme. It’s also a true reflection of my sound, the synthesis of jazz, flamenco and rock. Turn the Lights Back Down is the followup single — a ballad urging us to cut down on distractions and tap into the love that connects us all. These two singles are exactly what I’d like to express right now. I hope people can relate.

What truly sets you apart from other artists?
I don’t know anyone else who left a perfectly good life of steady gigs in the best country in the world, Canada, to blindly follow an artistic urge to another country without a plan, a job or a single contact, only to go into self-imposed isolation with no phone or Internet until they got some of the music out of their head. It was a risk coming to Spain alone like that (20 years ago now!), but I’m glad I followed my instincts. My music is uniquely Spanish Canadian; not a fusion, but rather a real symbiosis of all the life experience and music I’ve digested in both countries and a life of touring in between.

What will I learn or how will my life improve by listening to your music?
I hope it will give you the courage to follow your own path in life, however illogical or impractical it may seem to others.

Tell us about the first song you wrote and / or the first gig you played and what you got paid.
My first professional band gig was in 1985, in some biker bar in Osoyoos, B.C. On our way there, we crossed the U.S. border to Oroville to get cheap gas, and got reprimanded by customs. Also, our guitarist had a drug-related incident on his record, so they wouldn’t let him back into Canada without doing a bunch of paperwork, stripping our van, and generally giving us a hard time. Needless to say we were late for the gig — quite a dramatic start for my first road trip. Still got through the show and got paid, though; actually, a bar band gig paid about the same in 1985 as it does today.

What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you gave?
In 1992, I was invited to sing for the Sultan of Brunei at his brother Prince Jefri’s royal palace. It was strange to me that even though he was the richest man in the world at that time, and could buy anything he wanted, he had me singing with a keyboard player and tracks instead of a full live band. It also surprised me that he’d sometimes have me sing the same song (Kuda Hitam) five times in one night. I guess he really liked that song. Also, I was performing for his harem and some other international guests who shall remain unnamed. Other than that, they treated me well and I enjoyed looking around at all the gold, diamonds, Picassos and Matisses.

What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you’ve seen another artist give?
I’ll never forget the first concert I went to as a teenager at the Vancouver Coliseum: Rush. Neil Peart’s drum kit took up half the stage and I just couldn’t believe it. I was overcome with excitement by the whole spectacle of a big production like that, along with Geddy Lee’s crazy high vocals.

What do you want to be doing in 10 years?
Touring nice venues in Canada with enough of a budget for every bandmember and roadie to have his own room. That’s a sign of success right there. Ask any sideman.

What living or dead artists would you collaborate with if you could?
Living: Robert Plant. I’d like to have him sing with me on my Moroccan project.
Dead: Paco de Lucia and Chopin, together.

What artist or style of music do you love that would surprise people?
Even though I’m primarily a jazz artist who is heavily influenced by flamenco, I occasionally enjoy the crunchy guitar sounds of bands like Metallica. I seem to vibe with the primal nature of it. I get the same visceral reaction from the kind of raw flamenco performances you can only experience in private ‘juergas’, or parties, that don’t get going until about 3 a.m. I also love the music of North Africa. The whole sound and concept of microtones gives me crazy feeling, in a good way.

What are your favourite songs / albums / artists right now?
I’m listening to Vancouver guitarist Itamar Erez and his gorgeously warm and complex album Mi Alegria. Also, a new discovery from Montreal, Dominique Fils-Aimé and her richly layered vocals.

How about some other favourites: Authors, movies, painters, you name it.
Not that it’s high literature, but reading Edgar Rice BurroughsVenus books when I was a kid instilled in me a yearning for travel and adventure, and also gave me the confidence I needed to think I could go anywhere and do anything I could dream up. As for movies, there are two that I can watch time and time again: Lawrence of Arabia and The English Patient. Both are set in the desert. My favourite painter may well be Gauguin. I once had a great gig playing the piano on a yacht in French Polynesia, and that experience really impacted me. Gauguin truly captured the sensual nature of the people and the warm mystique of that exotic place.

Who would you be starstruck to meet?
Joni Mitchell. My dad actually went to art school with her in Alberta in the ’60s, so I’ve been aware of her since I was a kid. But it wasn’t until I was much older that I understood what a brave genius she is.

What’s your favourite joke?
The Pope dies and goes to heaven. When he meets St. Peter at the pearly gates he sees a gorgeous chalet, and says “that home is so beautiful, it must be for a pope like me.” St. Peter says, “I’m sorry, but your home in heaven is that little bungalow over there. The luxury chalet belongs to bassist Ray Brown.” The Pope shakes his head, confused, and protests, asking why a bass player would have the better house. St. Peter replies: “Popes come and go, but do you know how hard it is to find a good bass player?”

What superpower do you want and how would you use it?
I would love to have the superpower of teleportation — to just say ‘beam me up, Scotty’ and to instantly arrive at the gig instead of having to endure so many long flights and drives while touring.

What skills — useful or useless — do you have outside of music?
I can tie a bowline with one hand, which is only useful if you fall off a boat and someone throws you a line. I’m good at chopping wood and banging nails, having grown up in the bush. Kind of a useless skill now, though, as I have to be careful with my hands, being a pianist.

What do you collect?
Banana stickers.

If I had a potluck, what would you bring?
Huckle Buckle. Made with fresh wild huckleberries … fun to find and pick when they’re in season (it that a B.C. thing?).

What current trend or popular thing do you not understand at all?
Reggeaton. I met Nicky Jam and Daddy Yankee in Miami at a Billboard Latin Music Conference several years ago — I enjoyed hearing their stories, but I still don’t get why anyone listens to that noise.

Tell us about your current and/or former pets.
I grew up with a black lab retriever and would love to have one again someday. Being on the road all these years, I don’t even have a plant, so it hasn’t been possible, but maybe that’ll change now that tours are on hold. I’ll have to find a lab sitter when I hit the road again. I also had a white rabbit when I was a kid going through my ‘I’m going to be a magician’ stage. Unfortunately it got eaten by a raccoon.

If you could have any other job besides music, what would it be and why?
Hahahaha very funny. If I knew the answer to that I’d be rich.

What’s the best advice and/or worst advice you were ever given?
Worst advice: ’Nancy, if you really want to make it big, you should go country.’ Bad advice because I would make a very inauthentic country singer.
Best advice: ‘Follow the fire in your belly.’ I have done and still do, and life has been a great musical adventure so far.

Hear more from Nancy Ruth below, and try to keep up with her via her website, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.