[7 August 2014]
When Scottish singer-songwriter Lesley Rankine screamed her way through her years in Silverfish, one of the UK’s most brutal, raucous, soul-annihilating bands, few would have guessed the artful swan she would become years later in Ruby, a band of diverse musical colour, which saw its front-woman negotiate her way through a tricky universe of genre-defying sounds. Ruby was always going to be a difficult project that would leave many people scratching their heads.
In the beginning, Ruby’s use of jazz and hard, brash, industrial beats was a mix that seemed somewhat suspect. Instead of rocking, the band swung; rather than thrash, it grooved. Yet the very ingredients they used—the requisites of most rock bands—had been turned on their heads and used inversely. Along with producer and multi-instrumentalist Mark Walk, Rankine had managed to take the rough scrapings of industrial rock and fashion a sound that simulated a huffed and edgy Flora Purim housed in an iron tower, crooning against the echoing metallic clatter.
In 1995, came the release of Salt Peter, a smoldering debut that fused chugging hip-hop rhythms, noisy samples and bursts of punk rock with bluesy jazz riffs. At the centre of the mechanized grooves was Rankine’s haunting, mercurial voice, which bled a mix of sex and menace. It was a surprise turnabout for many who had been used to the singer’s blazing screams in Silverfish. This time, Rankine was far more concerned with the abstract, nameless emotions tied to female sexuality. Her proclivities for bizarre word-play and double-entendres impressed (and baffled) critics everywhere. Her sly and deeply chilling observations on “Paraffin”, a song about sexual entrapment, heralded a new kind of narrative lyricism that did away with the usual metaphors of pop-song endearments.
Pretty soon Ruby gained ground in the alternative-rock scene and Salt Peter was a critical success. A notable act in the US and UK, the band played many venues and shows worldwide, including the Reading Festival and Lollapalooza. Though Ruby was indeed a band, Rankine embodied her band’s qualities of female strength and passion as a lone figure behind a microphone. Her naked revelations of personal discovery and cool, silent detachment gave the artist an air of mystery, often misconstrued by the press as the routine practices of an “Angry Young Female”.
In truth, Rankine was assimilating a more visual approach to her songwriting that left no room for the common pop-singer etiquette. Her lyrics were overlapping layers of subtext and metaphor, heaped upon one another in a dizzying, collage-like method of communication. Lyrical structures were often deconstructed like building blocks and reformed and shaped to insinuate three entirely separate forms of expressions. One particular line in “Saltwater Fish” goes: “This pretty speckled length of twine that’s wrapped around your neck is mine”. Yet another irregular affectation of language has Rankine contemplating a lover’s headspace in “Swallow Baby”: “And maybe you can see me lie, out of your one good eye around the back of your dull head so hollow baby.” Ruby was a band where sound and verbiage met with cacophonic and quizzical results, where nuance, cadence and flow were flipped and reversed by a single sample, turn of phrase or vocal undulation in the name of individual musical expression.
Six years would pass before the public would be treated to another volume of work. Short-Staffed at the Gene-Pool initially suffered record company delays before it was eventually released in 2001. Many changes in the band’s label ensured a rocky start for the album’s distribution, leaving Rankine with many legal grievances before she could make a full return as a recording artist. Other changes were apparent too, particularly in the band’s musical direction, which had now shed much of the rock influences heard on their debut. With Mark Walk on board again, Short-Staffed was a much slicker affair that featured a heavier use of samples and, this time, a much stronger influence of jazz.
Furthermore, where Salt Peter explored the darker realms of sexuality and passion, Short-Staffed was an album suffused with bolder, brighter colours, as well as a sensual warmth that glowed from the depths of the fluttery, playful rhythms. Numbers like the drum ‘n’ bass shuffle of “Queen of Denial” were scribbled with the lines of jazz that recalled the work of Ornette Coleman. On the sweet, gentle rumble of “Roses”, the sonic experiments were further pushed into jazz territory, with Rankine now adding electronic manipulations to her already transmutable voice.
Short-Staffed also explored dance-floor material and the hard, electro-funk of “Grace” (the album’s first single) introduced listeners to a unique fashion of Motown grooves and punk-rock aesthetics. Rankine’s lyrics edged closer to jazz-speak with the singer invoking the scat-singing of Betty Carter, further abstracting the narrative structures of song. Short-Staffed didn’t capture the same amount attention like Salt Peter had (most likely due to the band’s limited touring this time around), but it was an album that captured the imagination and infused it with expressive colour. Short-Staffed showed a woman entering the tumultuous terrain of adulthood with an assured foot.
Then there was a long stretch of silence that saw the band on hiatus for nearly thirteen years. It had been assumed by most that Ruby had simply folded as a band and that Rankine was perhaps living a simple everyday life. In truth, that is pretty much how the artist spent those years, living the common life and raising a family. Tired of the industry demands which had by now sapped her creative energies, Rankine focused on motherhood and exploring others careers, with music in the far corners of her mind. After more than a decade, creative juices had begun to stir and with the help of her guitarist brother, she began to lay down tracks for what would eventually become Revert to Type, an EP of unpolished, raw confessionals that revealed ugly truths and earnest beauty in equal measure. In 2013, Ruby unveiled numbers like the rough and tumble “Last Life”, the sparsely elegiac “Waiting For Light”, and the chiming, ethereal “Lush” to give listeners a taste of what the artist had been up to as of late.
Ruby released its newest recording, Waiting for Light, in early June. The album further explores the reaches of both rock and electronica, and will undoubtedly take in many more musical influences. Recorded in Rankine’s home in Scotland, the album is a private affair born out of domestic life and it reveals a woman who is now forging the curve in the arc of her fortuitous, challenging and intriguing work as a songwriter.
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Can you describe your first forays into music? How did you first get interested in making music?
Music was always present in my childhood. My Mum would always play records or the radio in the house and she used to play guitar and sing to us. My Grandad ran the local male voice choir and used to practice his new scores on the family so music was just an integral part of our lives. My brother Scott was the first one to start playing music and playing in bands and my first foray into making music was with him. We put a covers band together in the hope of playing local clubs and trying to make some money until we realized I would be too young to even get into the clubs we would be playing (I was 13), so game over.
I got into my first ‘real’ band when I was about 19, by accident. My friend was a drummer who wanted to reply to an ad in the music press from a wee garage band called the Grizzelders, but was too shy to go to the audition on her own so she took me along. When the band hired her as their drummer they said, “Now we need a singer, how about you?”
Silverfish was known for its aggressive, loud nature. I remember once reading that you had a scream that could take down the members of L7, Babes in Toyland and Courtney Love in one shot. What are your memories of that band and your involvement in it?
We had a great time in that band. It’s really where I learned to write songs. I don’t think we really realized at the time how lucky we were—our rise to notoriety was pretty speedy and we just took it all in our stride. Yes, the way I used my voice, it was very loud. I think I’m actually on a Swans live album roaring my approval at the end of their set.
If Silverfish favoured a more “masculine” sound, Ruby was a complete reinvention of your sound and self. It definitely leaned heavily toward a femininity that you did not really explore as much with Silverfish. It was also new exploration of your voice; in Silverfish you screamed, in Ruby you sang. Even the metaphors you used in Salt Peter described a more private and sensual world. There was still anger on Salt Peter, but that anger was refracted through a more willingness to interact rather than to barricade the listener with the aggression of the anger (as in Silverfish). Can you talk about the process of building Ruby the band, and Ruby as an artistic persona to explore all these other feelings?
It was time for Ruby. I’d been listening to, and playing, really loud, aggressive music for many years and I was yearning for melody. To me it was just a natural progression. I’m just not the kind of person who can keep doing the same, or even similar things, year-in, year-out. I need change, movement and growth. I cannot be static. In Silverfish I was as loud and aggressive as I could be, so the only direction to go in was to become less aggressive, more subdued. However, I always feel the need to explore and express darker feelings lyrically. I’m not much of a one for writing happy songs. Darker is just more interesting.
When it came to making the first Ruby album I had a list of elements and ideas for textures and aesthetics that I wanted to include and it was just a case of trying to find the sounds and moods of songs that would fit these criteria. It’s pretty much the way I still work: start off with a bunch of random, disparate ideas and try to make sense of them.
Following the release and subsequent touring of Salt Peter, you relocated to New Orleans. This was a very interesting and weird time in your life. Some pretty creepy things happened, a lot of crime, and it all ended with a homicide in which the evidence had been buried in your trash. This is a story right out of Unsolved Mysteries! Can you describe this time in your life (which, obviously, wasn’t the most comfortable)? Just what was going on in your mind as you lived through such strange circumstances?
Situations are often weirder looking at them from the outside. When you’re living it, it feels more normal. Yes, I think New Orleans was going through a bit of a bad crime patch, lots of car-jackings and murders. To me it was just a beautiful city with a whole heap of character, a really nice, slightly European, slightly dark vibe and I had some good friends there. I just used to have a really great time every time I was there. But living there I felt very vulnerable. Some of my friends would say “you’re a woman, living alone, you’ve got blue hair and loads of expensive music equipment. You’re a bit of a sitting duck”. And the alarm system on my house had a special code I could punch in to tell the security company I was being forced into the house at gun-point. I felt I was constantly being told “don’t do that”, “don’t go there”, “don’t look like that” or you’ll attract the wrong attention.
One of my friends gave me a gun but it was a semi-automatic and so heavy I could hardly cock it, but I would sometimes wake up after a night out to find it lying by my bed where I’d been messing around with it when I came home shit-faced the night before. Not good. The last straw was the cops hammering on my door asking me if those were my underwear in my garbage can. They belonged to the woman who was murdered in the garden of the house opposite and her murderer dumped them in my bin as he left. After that, it was time to go.
Short-Staffed at the Gene-Pool was a great departure in so many ways from Salt Peter. Firstly, if Salt Peter still retained any influences from Silverfish, those influences had completely dissolved with Short-Staffed. It was much warmer, sensual. The ideas and lyrics were still abstract but they still also dealt with the ideas of female sexuality with a knowing, firm grasp of confidence. And just as it conveyed a strong sense of emotional confidence, it also betrayed a clear sense of vulnerability. I thought these two contrasting elements of confidence and vulnerability were perfectly captured in the new dynamic which you explored on the album – jazz. In fact, the album was reviewed by many jazz magazines at the time. Salt Peter was about the arriving; Short-Staffed was about the arrival. What was your headspace like when making the album for Short-Staffed?
Short-Staffed was difficult. I felt like I’d gotten all the elements I’d wanted worked into Salt Peter and here I was with a blank canvas again. I hadn’t built up a bank of other ideas or elements I needed to explore, and, stupidly, felt like I had to forget all the things I wanted in Salt Peter and do something completely different—just for fear of repeating myself. I also wanted Mark Walk and I to work separately more. All of my musical life I’d worked with the band on the music during the day, then gone home and worked on the vocals at night. For once I wanted to step away from the music a bit and just concentrate more on the vocals and also just have a bit of a life!! I’d spent nearly 10 years just working solidly and I really needed some breathing space.
Yes, Short-Staffed had a definite jazz vibe to it. I suppose I was probably listening to a lot of British dance music at the time and the way I sing naturally when I’m noodling around is usually pretty jazzy. I always prefer off-beats, more interesting time signatures and rhythms over straight 4/4 stuff. I wanted the music to have a cleaner, harder, more buzzy electronic sound as opposed to Salt Peter’s crunchy lo-fi feel. I also wanted to have some lyrics that weren’t steeped in subliminal meanings or overly personal. “Beefheart”, for example, is totally surface—it means nothing and it felt quite liberating to do it.
It would seem that in your moment of opening up and expressing these new dimensions on Short-Staffed, a lot of things happening in your life conspired against you and your progress. Firstly, you had finished recording the album and then the album sat around for two years because your record company refused to release it because of all the record-industry red-tape. Next, you had your equipment and gear stolen from you on your tour for the album, which threatened to shut down your shows. And also a professional split from Mark Walk in the proceedings. Can you describe the trials and tribulations of the whole experience?
Yes, Short-Staffed, as I said, was a difficult time all round. Firstly, my working relationship with Mark Walk broke down. There was a hell of a lot of pressure from the industry types on both of us which put too much strain on our working relationship. Then Sony ate up my UK and US labels and it took over a year to get out of that deal and get my album back. Then the airline lost one case of luggage, but it was the one case that contained all the connecting cables, transformers etc that made all our UK gear work in the US.
We spent two days in LA desperately rushing around trying to get anything that would make all our equipment work and in the end it all came down to us just needing a UK to US plug adapter—one of those tiny little adapters. Then I realized that an old mate, Clint Mansell, had just moved to LA so I called him up and he came down to the gig with the adapter, about a half hour before we were due to go onstage. It was a very tense couple of days to say the least!
And then the mysterious 12-year gap between Short-Staffed and the new EP album Revert to Type. How had you been keeping yourself busy these 12 years or so?
By the end of the Short-Staffed tour, I was so sick of all the industry crap that I’d had to deal with that my heart just wasn’t in it any more. But the main thing was that I wanted to have a baby and that became the main focus of my life. For the previous 12 years it had all been about music and I’d been a wanderer, spending my life in airports or on tour buses. Then I had my son and basically chucked my passport away and decided I needed to do something that would keep me home so I refurbished old houses and raised my son.
Revert to Type features a more stripped sound, it cuts closer to the bone. It’s a lot more minimal, but very lush and atmospheric. “Waiting for Light” is your most sparse moment yet; “Lush” further expands upon the jazz you explored on Short-Staffed but strips away a lot of the electronic textures to reveal a much more “naked” sound musically. It’s the next obvious chapter for Ruby and seems to follow a trajectory starting from Salt Peter through Short-Staffed and now Revert—an arc that spans from a place of brash, bold proclamations to a point of questioning and reframing. What is the story of Revert to Type…from what place was it born and how?
Revert to Type and our new album have really all been about trying to find who I am as an artist now. When I started it, I really didn’t know if I’d even have anything to say or if I could write a song after so long. I just knew I wanted to create again. I feel I am moving more and more toward minimalism and emotional honesty and a willingness to expose my vulnerability. When I was making the album I was also going through the end of my marriage and that’s really what “Waiting for Light” is all about. It’s about stripping away all the decoration, getting very personal and showing what’s really going on in your heart, scabs n’ all. I don’t mean being mushy and sentimental—I can’t stand that shit—but being honest. “Waiting for Light” was the first song in my life that I had to write, just to get it all out. I was in a very dark place and I just had to get it out.
Music, for me, is my saviour. Whenever I’m in turmoil it’s the one thing that will make it all better. Especially to write something. If I can just sit in front of my computer with my mic and get something out—to feel the sound of my voice coming out of my mouth and down through the mic just seems to make me feel better and helps to put whatever’s bugging me into perspective.
You’ve lived a pretty wild, twisty and wonderful life – crazy things from allegedly being thrown out of a Terminal Cheesecake show (and then recruited by members of Silverfish who were reportedly watching), to singing with Tom Jones. What are some of your favourite, interesting memories as an artist?
Shit, there are so many. Where to begin? I suppose I’ve met some wonderful people. Interesting people, but mostly lovely people, a lot of whom I’m still friends with after all these years. Like someone I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, Cynthia Plaster Caster, she’s just such a total doll. When I went round to her house one time in Chicago she had all her dicks sitting out, displayed on little pedestals (one of which I recognized as someone I’d been dating!!). We talked about me being her first female cast but we just couldn’t figure out how we were going to do it so it never happened. Maybe it’s time… [laughs]
Are there plans for a new full album following Revert to Type? Where are you headed in terms of the music and new sounds you are currently exploring?
Yes, the new album is called Waiting for Light. We launched a Pledgemusic campaign to fund the release and subsequent tour. I’m also collaborating with a few folks, Chris Connelly (from Ministry/Revolting Cocks) on his forthcoming solo album, a young English DJ/producer called Geek Boy and also Mister P6, from Stretchheads/Dawson who has a new project called Security. Myself, I’m moving away from traditional song structure and getting into more stripped down, linear and repetitive arrangements and an altogether more personal, sensual aesthetic… with a tasty tune!
Imran Khan is a freelance writer who lives in Canada. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Communications at York University before studying Creative Writing at the University of Toronto for Continuing Studies. In addition to PopMatters, he has also written for such publications like Inside Entertainment, aRUDE and The Toronto Quarterly.