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Interview: Sam & Ruby – Folk R&B Duo

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If Shakespeare was alive today, the prologue of Sam & Ruby's story would make much ado about two star-cross'd singers who managed to cross paths in Nashville, Tennessee. Since the Bard's time, however, globalization has made the world a much smaller place, and the once-unlikely pairing of Sam—who was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin—and Ruby—who was born in Ghana, West Africa—smacks of divine intervention on behalf of the music universe. Accordingly, the duo's dazzling blend of folk, R&B and pop proves—once and for all—that music has the power to connect and unite people from every walk of life.

Upon the release of The Here and the Now, Sam & Ruby managed to squeeze some time out of their busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on their love of music, Nashville and one another.

Sam and Ruby

 

What intrigues me the most about you two is the fact that both of you had solo careers before you formed this dynamic duo. In what ways did your respective solo careers prepare you for your life together as a duo? 

Ruby: I've pursued a solo career since I was 17. It teaches you to be strong quickly. You realize that having a partner in this business is not a bad thing. I've traveled to many different places and cities and countries by myself and experienced what that was like. Just being able to understand the blessing of having a partner in this – especially where now more than ever even dealing with the record company and the artist is about partnership, so definitely understanding that better and considering it a gift.

Sam: Long story short, I was doing my thing in Nashville, Tennessee, and I met a contact over at DreamWorks. Had a deal offer with DreamWorks LA – it fizzled. Moved to New York City, still trying to pursue this crazy business and just getting more and more lost along the way of trying to figure out, "Why am I waiting around for people to tell me what I already know or what I already do?" Coming back to Nashville after New York City and reconnecting with Ruby, there was kind of like an instance when we did decide that we're going to do this as Sam and Ruby. Knowing what we didn't want from the experiences of dealing with pursuing the record industry, it was really helpful. We really feel like we have each other's back and it's a good feeling.

At what point did you look at each other and said, "Hey, let's do this together?"

Ruby: I had taken a break from my solo career and returned to the States and I started writing songs but the only person that I was singing with was Sam. At that point, we had written one song that was something so far removed, even for us. We'd written "The Here and The Now" to pitch to a film. A publishing company wanted to pitch that song. We just put that one on the back burner. Sam had his solo shows. I wasn't doing live music at the time but I was onstage with Sam to sing backup for him. He'd always say, "Ruby, let's do this song," speaking of the song we wrote together. As songwriters, that's what you do at this time; you play the songs that you wrote even if you're not the one performing it. So we would play the song and we started to feel that song. People started to feel that song. Man, what is going on with this? One of our mutually-respected musicians – his name is Dan Dyer, a friend of ours – he heard us. He said, "I want you guys to come and play a show with me in Austin, Texas, during South by Southwest." By that time, we thought, "Okay, let's start writing some songs." We put four or five songs together, and we ended up doing a bunch of cover songs to cover an hour's worth of music. So it took someone believing in that thing that caused us to say, "You know what? We shouldn't take this for granted. This is rare and we should nurture that."

As I was listening to your EP, I absolutely fell in love with "The Suitcase Song." Tell me a little bit about the songwriting process or the inspiration behind it.

Ruby: What's funny is I was on an airplane and I had a sleeve of a ticket holder. I've been doing a lot of traveling and Sam's been doing a lot of traveling at the time, so I just started jotting down the lyrics. They came really fast and really furious. When I got back to Nashville, I called Sam and I said, "I have to share this with you. I know that you're going to get it." He created the music for it in minutes. At the time, we were doing so much traveling and realizing that there's just one thing that you take with you every time that is an inanimate object. It keeps all those things that if you lost, you would be devastated. It just was kind of a study of the contents of your life. And then after the song was written, I came to find that maybe we're a bit like suitcases, too, you know? We go out there and we carry a lot of people in stories with us and we protect that. Sometimes, we'd write about them. We try to be keepers of that and in the end find that we are suitcases as well.

When you work together, do you tend to find yourselves falling into certain roles? How do you balance each other out?

Sam: As far as the songwriting goes, I tend to gravitate more towards the music. That's not every song, but most of the songs Ruby would do the words to it and I'd do the music. There are cases when I have a lyrical idea and we'll come to the table with an idea already. In some of the songs, we start from scratch. Musically speaking, it's a little mixed. Business speaking, part of what I'd do is dealing with people, watching our backs and making sure we're going to make something out of this. Obviously, there's the artistic side but I really do enjoy the business side of things, too.

Ruby: I tend to be momma bear in a lot of ways. We're protective of each other, you know. I tend to have that maternal side – just wanting to make sure we eat good things when we're on the road. We both deal with the songs; that's not something that's exclusive to me. I tend to be momma bear whether onstage and in our travels. When we're writing together, I'm going to be cooking something [laughing].

Some people consider you to be an odd couple, since Ruby was born in Ghana, many miles from Sam's hometown of Green Bay, Wisconsin. What does your professional relationship say about the universal power of music?

Ruby: It's something we want people to understand. None of us are as different as we are, especially right now in our country. It's really important to draw from our similarities as opposed to defending ourselves against each other based on our differences. If you spend time focusing on all the negative things that separate us, you'll totally miss the things that pull you together. In any relationship, you have to do that – even if you're the same skin color. There are struggles all across the board. When you find things that bind, you'll find that we're not as different as you think. Musically, we do that because we play to different crowds and audiences across the board. 

Sam: I'd like to say, too, the music business puts a lot of acts together for certain purposes, whether it's marketing or whatever. As our story starts to come out, I hope people see that we're not a novelty act. We weren't put together by people trying to make a statement with an interracial duo. There were no intentions like that. It's the real thing. Like you said, we come from totally different backgrounds but music brought us together and that's the message. We're not that different. 

Sam, at what key moment did you fall in love with music as a profession?

Sam: Well, music I fell in love with since my childhood. My dad was always sitting on the couch with a guitar in hand or sitting at the grand piano in the living room playing old Motown songs. I was always dancing around with him, singing along. My first thought was, "How do I get to be like that?" I wasn't looking at TV. I just wanted to play guitar and have as much fun as my dad was having. We'd gather in the backyard of my grandmother's house and we'd play music and sing songs. I just want to have that because I was so happy. 

In your time spent working with Ruby, what have you grown to love more and more about her?

Sam: This career has been such a crazy pursuit and it's nice to have someone have your back and believe in it as much as you do. When we're onstage together, the music is healing to us. I know there were moments in my personal life where we're onstage and those songs resonate with my heart and I feel like I'm being fixed by it.

Ruby, at what key moment did you fall in love with music as a profession?

Ruby: I started to love music when I was eight and I heard a choir for the first time that had come to Nashville from Ghana – strange as that sounds to have my home country come here. This choir came and they sang and I was a little girl in tears over music. That had never happened to me before. That's when I knew I really have a place here.

In your time spent working with Sam, what have you grown to love more and more about him?

Ruby: What I've come to love about Sam is that he nurtures the soft side of me. As a solo musician, you always have to be type A personality, really strong and dominant. He never tries to bring that side of me; he always nurtures the soft side. He never raised his voice to me and it allows me to find that soft side again that I had been not allowed to have out in the open.

Why was Nashville the perfect place for the two of you to come together and work your magic together? Is there a special element that the city brought to your work?

Ruby: What I've always found is the strength of the song. Nashville is the songwriters' haven in the country, I believe. When Sam came here, you just have to work 110% extra hard because everyone else is focusing on the strength of the song.

For more information on Sam & Ruby, visit their official website.

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About Clayton Perry