Off the back of a prolific 2021 that saw her rack up more than 10 million streams, Bristol-based vocalist, DJ, producer and presenter Ruth Royall talks to us about valuing yourself as a young artist, equality and ‘Keeping It Real’ for Women’s History Month.
Ruth Royall, who has been a vocalist for 15 years, had her most fertile period as a musician during the summer of 2020 and early 2021; characterised by two pivotal moments that illustrate her identity as an artist and an emphatic advocate for female empowerment.
Fuelled by the isolation of lockdown, Ruth found the time and space to write prolifically from her home studio and collaborate remotely with artists embedded within the drum & bass scene. It was this collaborative work that resulted in ‘Remedies’ with Mollie Collins. In a matter of months, the track amassed a million streams and energised Ruth’s recognition in the world of electronic music.
“I think it was timing,” says Ruth, on why the track erupted, “It's a song about mental health and addiction problems. I think when everyone was in lockdown and feeling really strange, it just resonated.”
That resonance translated into a deeper connection with both producers’ respective fanbases. “Our phones were blowing up on the day. It was nuts,” says Ruth, “I still get messages from people about that tune. Things that it's helped them with or times that they've listened to it when they have been struggling with stuff. People really opened up to me and shared their stories with me through social media. It's just the power of music, man. It's amazing.”
Keeping It Real
The other pivotal moment of Ruth’s pandemic-era career was born from the shared asphyxiation of lockdown; a stasis that had a profound impact on the mental health of the nation and ratcheted up online usage in an already digital society. Using her socials “all the time”, Ruth realised how frequently she was using beauty filters on Instagram and the impact that was having on her sense of self.
“It wasn't making me feel very good that I was putting out this fake face,” says Ruth “And then, when I looked in the mirror, I was like, ‘Oh, I don't look like that.’ I was feeling like I was unattractive because I was only ever seeing myself with these filters on.”
That recognition of self-doubt encouraged Ruth to post an unfiltered photo of herself on Instagram, pledging not to use any more in the future. “My inbox just exploded,” she says “People were like, ‘We're gonna stand with you Ruth!’, sharing my post, and ‘We stand with Ruth Royall!’. I was like, ‘What the fuck have I just started?’”
That one post turned into a Facebook group for women to share their stories and insecurities and provided a safe space of encouragement and sisterhood. Largely populated by women within the drum & bass community, Ruth’s message of female empowerment and self-love spread like wildfire when she gave her campaign the name #KeepItReal and launched an Instagram takeover; asking her followers to paint the slogan on themselves and take a photo with no filters.
“On the day, it trended on Instagram, which is insane,” she says, “When you searched ‘keep it real’ it was just flooded with all these photos of women and men with ‘keep it real’ painted on them. The labels were sharing it saying, ‘We stand with Ruth Royall’ and Drum & Bass Arena reshared loads of our photos. It was quite emotional when it happened. It was crazy. Because it was right in the middle of lockdown, I think it was something that people really needed.
“It's amazing how it's changed my perception of myself. I feel so much more confident. I've accepted myself, I guess. I've just been like, ‘No, you're all good, you don't need to look a certain way, you look great how you are.’ That's just what I've told myself… There were stories from other people about how it's affected them and how it's helped to build their confidence. I started it, but the magic of it isn't from me; it's from this amazing community. It built up out of nothing and then, suddenly, everyone was just a part of it. It was probably one of the things I'm most proud of because it was only positive. Only good vibes.”
‘Remedies’ and #KeepItReal provide axes with which we can understand Ruth as an artist; someone who values and is engaged with the community she is in; someone who feeds off positivity and someone whose instinct is to elevate others with her. These impulses extend to wider issues of gender representation within the music industry; an area where she can see progress being made, but slowly and in a way that can feel superficial.
Bringing Women Forward
Although Ruth thinks that more women are being brought to the forefront, “When it comes down to it, it's still very male-led.” Ruth’s manager, a man, deals with a lot of her business because, even when the direction is coming from her, “it gets received better from him.” She notices huge lineups at festivals with only one or two women on them; a symptom of a tendency within the industry to see 'Female' as a genre.
“I don't like to be doom and gloom because I do think that there are some really positive changes happening. As behind the scenes changes; there are more women in label management roles; there are more female promoters; there are more female engineers; that's when it really starts to shift. Because it's a whole, it's not just like ‘We've got our female at the front, performing doing her thing - tick’ because it's good promo.
Photo Credit - SRW Photography
"I do think that is happening. Most of the team that I work with are women now. I love that, I think it is really positive. When you have a more diverse team in any situation, not just an artist team, but in a venue for instance, or festival, when you have a more diverse selection of people, it is better for everyone. It's more inclusive, there's more of a likelihood to get heard and there's not that hierarchy feeling which is still there at the major label industry end.”
Know Your Value
The ingrained inequality within the industry is familiar for Ruth who, when she was less well-known, had to fight just to get her name and image associated with songs that she had performed on - or even written.
This lack of accreditation manifested itself most potently during BBC Radio 1 airtime of a track Ruth was featured on; playtime she had agreed to without pay, but on the understanding that her name and face was "all over it". The track played without any mention of Ruth, who had to reach out to the presenter on Instagram to get him back on air and mention her name.
“No shade to the presenter, because he was actually amazing”, she says, “It was his team. They just hadn't put me forward and they just hadn't given the information. It was like, ‘Why the fuck not?’ The reason that that song has done so well is because the voice is so hooky... I'm not finding that as much now. I think that's because my profile is growing. Whereas starting out as female, you have to have uncomfortable conversations that just shouldn't exist. Why should you have to argue to get your name on a piece of music that you have written and performed?”
Getting that confidence in yourself as an artist and understanding your worth is something Ruth would encourage burgeoning young talent to instil in themselves. She notices the hesitancy young women have about “making a fuss” when negotiating payment for their music when the reality is that they may have “just given this person an amazing song for nothing!”
Allyship & Affecting Change
For those who already do have a platform, being an ally is essential to drive lasting change. “If you're already in the room, then help open the door for someone else,” she says. “That doesn't just apply to women. People of colour and non-binary artists as well. People that have to shout to be heard. If you're in a space, help to get other people in. Make the effort.”
It’s an ethos that Ruth instils in her work. She encourages young female musicians to reach out to her or any artists they admire and has brought through an all-women roster of DJs and producers to perform on her radio show on SWU.
“I think everyone can just have a look at themselves and be like, ‘What can I do that's going to help this’ no matter where or what level you're at. No matter who you are ask yourself ‘What can I do to help the situation?’ I think that's when you start getting the fundamental changes to happen. Then it isn't just like, ‘Oh, shit, it's International Women's Day. Oh, shit, I've got to do my one-woman quota, you know?’ Doing it all the time.”
As well as knowing your value, Ruth understands the importance of seeing yourself in the room at every level - from the lecture hall to the studio. Improving equal representation in educational environments can, eventually, force through change at the very top.
“When you see yourself somewhere, it makes it possible,” Ruth says, “When I see artists that I aspire to, I need to see myself there, otherwise, it doesn't feel tangible, it doesn't feel like I can do it. That's the same in an educational environment… We need to be creating spaces where we're encouraging art from everyone. There are so many voices and stories and pieces of art to be heard that aren't getting heard, because those people are going ‘Oh, no, I mean music is not for me. That's not a space for me.’ And just assuming that that's not something they can do. I definitely think that it would make a difference to try and get more diverse students and people that are in that space.”
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