Ruby Francis Makes Music That Sounds Like the Warmth of First Love
There's more to the 23-year-old Londoner than being labelled the "British answer to The Internet".
If a complete stranger rang me up while I was on holiday, and demanded I tell them my life story and entire career plan, I'd ask just what exactly they thought they were playing at and hang up. Maybe I'd throw in a haughty, back of the throat laugh for good measure. All things considered, Ruby Francis is handling this with a lot more grace. I've called the 23-year-old singer and producer, mostly to bang on about how her new EP Night Time Therapy barreled through that phase in the calendar when the industry starts bashing out big hitter releases, and stuck with me. Her approach to R&B stakes out a particular place in British music at the moment, sounding less like parts of the genre that lean towards slick echoes of electropop and more … well, more "analogue." Pianos and that, anchored by wobble-in-your-belly basslines driven by a four-string guitar rather than a synthesiser. Somewhat predictably, she's already been dubbed "the UK's answer to The Internet."
How do those comparisons feel, as this early stage in her career? "I'm massively flattered by all of the ones I've seen" – and she scoffs a little here, catching herself – "well, I say 'all of them': it's usually Syd The Kyd and Steve Lacey." Speaking over a somewhat grainy video call from Thailand, in what looks like an IRL interpretation of paradise on a leafy patio, she goes on to say she's an Internet fan. "I love their music; Syd is a massive inspiration to me. I love that she's female, and she produces. We need more female producers."
Ruby's doing her best to plug that gap, too. She's been singing since she was a child, as the pop biopic story usually goes, but also producing too since she was a teenager. "We had to use GarageBand to make songs for our GCSEs, so from that I found a passion for it." From there, she 'graduated' to Logic and now, "instead of paying other people to do it, I can do it myself. Not that I don't trust other people" – she does that delightfully polite thing of half-checking herself again here, unprompted – "but there's only a select few I trust to make what I know I want to make. So I wouldn't say I'm an 'increeedible music producer' and know everything about Logic but I like to be able to put my ideas down, and then take them to someone else. Someone who can make it sound prettier," she adds, laughing.
That trusted inner circle has come to encompass names from major label, Tinie Tempah-producing Shift K3Y, Blue Lab Beats and their producer NK-OK to Jessie Ware-drummer-gone-solo Dornik – "he's so sick, I'm so happy that I know him well now because I used to be such a fangirl" – and Chloe Martini, who she sounds almost giddily keen to work with. The more she speaks, the more you get the sense that Ruby settled on what she wanted to do early, stuck with it – with help from Shift K3Y, who seemed to have been part-colleague, part-mentor – and is now in that particularly effervescent stage where all the opportunities are hers for the taking. She excitedly lists of so many names of musicians and producers she's hoping to team up with that she ought to be making commission as a plugger. It's infectious, a sort of palpable, 'let me get my hands on all of this' hunger.
As you peel away the layers on each of her EP's four tracks, you can pinpoint just how Ruby then expresses that passion. There's every chance you might have missed Night Time Therapy, released on 2 June, in the past few weeks of excellent releases alone. Fellow Brits Mabel and Pixx have both put out vastly different records – an EP and album respectively – that have pulled the strands where pop, electronic music and R&B connect. Over in the US, SZA's much-delayed CTRL debut has fallen into arms held wide open by fans, waiting to receive each track. We've had Jessie Reyez's Kiddo, Amber Mark's 3:33 AM EP. The list of hugely accomplished work – from singers and composers sharing their stories writ large over swelling, mellifluous lines referencing everything from the smarting tingle of lust to grief to toxic romantic relationships – has been growing into one comfortingly long train of musical thought to follow throughout this summer.
And with Ruby in particular, her songwriting whips throaty longing into a froth on "On My Knees". It brushes wonky keytar and just-almost-discordant harmonies against each other on "Fall Asleep", a song that encompasses the lurch of early love, the tug in your gut each time you look directly into the eyes of the person you know is going to make you fall for them like an absolute idiot, the warmth that seems to stick to your ribs like molasses as you wake up naked next to someone whose secrets you can't wait to uncover.
What sets Ruby apart is how open she is to infusing her work with particular 00s neo-soul sensibility. Growing up, some of the first music she remembers buying for herself was by Jill Scott, D'Angelo, India Arie. "I was all about that. Then as I got older, NERD, Neptunes were massive inspirations. I had all of their albums, loved all of the tracks." The Spice Girls were in there in the early days too though, she says with a giggle. But the vibrating hum of bass you can hear all over her music also came from, as you'd expect, her mum and dad. "My parents had a massive vinyl collection when I was a kid, and my dad's a bass player as well. So we used to listen to a lot of bass-heavy music. Not bass-heavy as in, like, drum'n'bass," she laughs, "but as in music with funky basslines, big bass guitars. People like George Duke, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Level 42 – that kinda stuff. Lots of fusion funk, 70s, 80s stuff."
To make music that grabs you by the scruff of your neck before whispering sweet nothings in your ear, Ruby blends glimmers of those influences with her particular knack for storytelling. And it's a knack that she honed mostly in her teens. Rather than chuck the lyrics or melodies from that time aside, as it's easy to do when you're in school and being told at every turn that music isn't a 'viable career', she found refuge in them. Specifically, she did so without going down the traditional route of embedding herself in music theory to "prove" she had the right to call herself a musician. Chatting to her now, about seven years into her time writing with the intention of pursuing music in a serious way, she finds herself returning to the theme of school several times. Of course, in her delicately self-aware manner she notices she's been doing so – "I don't know why I'm bringing up school so much!" – giggling all the while.
"Throughout school, music was the only thing – apart from a bit of English – that I was good at," she says, laughing. "I didn't apply to go to uni; I didn't see the point. To be a musician you don't even need that – well, at least for me. You can go if you want to. Reading and writing music just didn't fit in my brain." She remembers discovering this during her piano lessons, where "at the end of the day I learned much quicker by listening to the song and replicating the chords, instead of looking at notes on a piece of paper. I find it fascinating, though, people who can do that. Music theory's like knowing another language."
Before I let her get back to frolicking in the early June heat, our conversation meanders for a bit, touching on the end of her holiday – "we went to a place called Monkey Beach … where there's literally just a load of monkeys on a beach, ha" – before drifting towards the tangled mess of British politics. On the day we speak, the country's waking up to the aftermath of a snap election the day after voting. We're still processing the results of Theresa May's humiliating attempt at scoring a majority mandate for Brexit, leaving her instead with a hung Parliament and the option of linking arms with the DUP, an anti-gay, anti-abortion Northern Irish party founded by a Protestant fundamentalist. "I don't know what the hell's happening with the whole election thing," Ruby says, shaking her head. "I don't really understand all the results, but we'll chill out and party anyway, maybe to drown our sorrows." While she giggles, I remind her that she's still on holiday though. She can return to whatever state the country's in after she's made the most of that, surely. She nods. "And it's our last night, so we may as well."
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