interview by Michael McCarthy
Ruth Koleva might be from Bulgaria, but after doing this interview I feel confident in saying that she speaks English better than I do. That’s the God’s honest truth. She makes better music, too! In other words, she’s quite the talented person, which you can discover by listening to any of her songs below. Songs that have the approval of superstar producer Mark Ronson, who called her music “amazing.”
I think what impresses me most about Ruth’s music is the way she blends elements of pop, jazz, soul and R&B into a sound that is very much her own. Her songs are exquisitely produced, too, courtesy of Ken Wakan, who was clearly at the top of his game here. At times, there are layers and layers of tracks creating a more than generous wall of sound that would blow Phil Spector’s mind. However, there are also plenty of moments when the songs fall quiet and have plenty of breathing room. The other thing I like about the production is how space exists between the instruments – even during the wall of sound times – as opposed to the way most music is produced today, ultra-compressed, which means the instruments are all cranked up and tend to drown each other out. In other words, you can hear all of the instruments on this album, which is Ruth’s second. It’s called Confidence. Truth, and it’s a lively festival of so many sounds that most artists wouldn’t even think about combining, yet she does it and makes it sound not only easy but natural. Of course, her soulful voice, and her ability to sound vulnerable when the songs call for it, is her biggest asset and it’s one you’ll want to hear over and over again, believe me. Listen and learn!
MM: How are you today?
RK: I’m good, thank you. I’ve just been waiting for the spring to come because we got snow here. Again. It’s a little bit more moody than I’m used to. Well, I live in Sofia, which is the capital, and – I don’t know if you know much about Bulgaria but it’s a small country compared to the States but it’s not a small country compared to the European side. We have a coastline. We have a lot of mountains. It makes it a nice place to live on a daily basis because it’s also very convenient and affordable. So, I recommend people visiting it. [Laughs] If they don’t know anything about it and want to travel Europe and see the culture. We have Roman relics from thousands of years ago. Like everything you can see in different parts of Europe are here in one city. Sofia’s one of the oldest capitals in the world. Anyway, that’s the traveling promotion. [Both laugh]
MM: You had some interesting things to say about nostalgia in your latest press release about how we long for the past but if we go back to those places it’s never quite the same. I agree with that, so I’m wondering, do you think nostalgia is a good thing or a bad thing?
RK: It could be a bad thing in terms of people getting chained into their vision and projection of the past. Because we always tend to kind of look back and say, oh, my life was so much better when I was younger or I was so much happier when I was with this person I had a relationship with. And that kind of gives us restrictions to be open more to the world. For me, nostalgia is something where you should look back and say, this was good, but life is much more than that only experience. You should be more open. For the song “Didn’t I,” that’s more of a metaphor, longing for the past and wanting to re-live an experience and the moment you get back to a similar position or a similar place that you’ve been before you realize that time has passed and nothing is the same. Your memory and your projection are only good when you remember it and when you get back to it, in reality, it’s something you’ve already overcome.
MM: One thing I find interesting about nostalgia is that the people I went to high school with tend to only listen to music from when we were in school when we were younger. They don’t get excited about new music. They just want to listen to things that make them feel nostalgic. Is that common there as well?
RK: Actually, yeah, that is exactly what I was going to say. A lot of people I know – most of the musicians I play with, they are older than me in their forties. So, I have a huge circle of friends where they’re in their forties. And I tend to see that they’re much more passionate about the music they were listening to when they were 16 or 20. There are multiple reasons for that and I get that part of it. It’s not only about nostalgia, it’s also about the technology which gives you access to all that music that you can think of in the world. We live in an age where everything is so accessible that we don’t really appreciate it as much as we appreciated music 10, 20 years ago. I remember myself, when I started doing music, we got cable TV around the time that I was 10 and I wouldn’t go out of the house just in order to stay in front of the television and watch VH1 and MTV so I could record the songs that I liked on VHS. I didn’t have any other access to it. That would give the music and the particular artists that I like more of value to me. Now, because of the accessibility, people don’t really value music that much anymore. It’s probably one of the reasons the nostalgia about music back in the days is also connected to the fact that it was valuable to people because you couldn’t just hope on your phone and play every single song you want. You’d have to rewind the cassette or just wait for television until they play your concert or song. Nowadays, that whole accessibility has its pros but it has a con because people don’t really appreciate it that much. You can watch it and listen to it whenever you want. And it changed the way people consumed music. So, I understand why certain people would go and look back in time and get nostalgic about the past because it was different then. We cannot go back in time. Time machines are not invented yet. So, our only option is to adapt and learn to appreciate this time now and the way you live at this present date.
MM: So, do you think that streaming services like Spotify and the similar ones are a good thing to music now or do you think that they’re detrimental?
RK: I want to say they’re bad because I do prefer trying to adapt to the current music situation. I think that most of them are too overwhelming and there is sort of a monopoly of the way things are presented to people. It’s not enough to be good. It’s not enough to have good music. You have to target Spotify playlists in order to reach more people. You have to have marketing and all this stuff that it’s more of that than having good music. Because there’s so much music in there and people cannot reach it simultaneously. They have to be presented with it. That makes it much more complicated as a business case than it as about music content. So, it’s more about business than it is about quality and about good music for me. Even though there’s plenty of amazing music out there. Me personally, I am trying to adapt to the conditions the platforms present, but on the other side I understand why it’s harder and it gets harder every day for everyone.
MM: Your album features Ron Avant of Anderson .Paak on keys, Jameel Bruuner of The Internet on synths, and Gene Coye from Flying Lotus on drums. How did you connect with all of these talented people?
RK: I have been sort of blessed. I played a jazz festival around the time I was 19, 20 and I got to meet N’Dambi and Frank Mccomb I was playing to before one of them and I met N’Dambi’s manager. Her name is Monica Young. She’s from L.A. A very music loving and respectable person. By the time I connected with Kan Wakan, who produced my album, I dropped Monica a line that I’ll be in L.A. and she had always been very supportive. When she heard my music she was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re amazing. What is up in Bulgaria? Having soul artists like you. How did it happen.’ And I couldn’t really explain how it all happened to have that genre of music blossoming in such a distant small country. And when I got to L.A. she really helped out getting all of these people into the studio. I mean, they really liked the music. I didn’t have a crazy budget to record and I was counting more on the fact that they would like my idea so they would like my music. That’s exactly what’s happen. They were really on board, really helping to get stuff done. And I’m so happy that I managed to work with them. Two of them, like Ron and Jameel, they got nominated for Grammys. Jameel was nominated the following year and Ron was nominated a year after. And I kept touch with all of them. They were a huge part of the project. Of the recording process and the ideas and I was so happy that they really felt that what I want to say and what I want to write and what I want to sing is something they resonated with. It’s one of these times when magic happens. I feel really lucky that things turned out the way they did. I cannot explain it in words how hard it is to be from the place I am and travel all the way to the other side of the world and record an album with these people.
MM: Did you write the songs on the album with them or did you write them all alone?
RK: I wrote a lot of songs. Not all of them ended up on the album. I did write by myself some of the songs and I co-wrote most of them. It was a creative process that evolved by collaborating with different people. That’s what I love about doing music. I mean, I have my own personal ideas. I really try to put my emotions into work, that’s very important to me. But, on the other side, in order to be creative with melodies and music it’s better, for me, I’ve always found it better to collaborate. Exchanging, experience changing melodies, exchanging even your own music passion. Because we are, as I said, from the other side of the world and getting to know each other and getting to feel what we want to say in the moment, that’s the magic of making music. Because I always give creative freedom to the people I work with. I’m not like, OK, I want this exactly the way I have it in my mind. I’m not one of these people. I’m really open to exchange and, you know, try different stuff. Because I think people are at their best when you give them freedom to express what they feel. When you get into the studio and you’re very open and you’re like I really hear what you want to say, I want to know how you see this track developing. They feel really comfortable and they really dive into the mood of it. That’s one of the things that happens with time. Overcoming ego and, you know, control like sense of control. When you work with people you have to give them space. That’s one of the most important things I learned in time.
MM: I understand you won the top prize in the Bulgaria Radio Awards in 2014. Which one of your songs won the prize?
RK: In 2014, my previous album won the prize for best album. Two years before that I won the award for best singer. I mean, I was the youngest person to win that and I was the first person in my genre of music to be nominated and win any of these awards. Which was a very special time because while growing up I always had people tell me soul and jazz, that’s not a genre that you would have any success within this place and in this country and in this part of the world. I was always very stubborn about it. Like, this is the way I feel. What I want to do. And I don’t care about what people think is sell-able or it’s good for business. Because I’m not doing music because I want to become rich with it. If my goal in life was to buy a big house I would probably do something else. Because I realized how difficult it was. And, then again, I had a really good support from my family because my Dad is an Olympic champion. A world champion athlete. He said never to listen to what people have to say because most of the time they’re wrong. And I kind of followed his advice. I did follow his advice and it turned out that he was right.
MM: Who are your jazz influences?
RK: Well, my jazz influences? It all started when I was young and my mom when we were growing up used to live in India in Bahrain and I remember that we got in Bahrain because it was a very interesting place to live as a kid. My mom used to play like only Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Natalie Cole, Ray Charles and some French artists. And she taught me how to play some of the songs on the piano and taught me how to sing them. So, basically, that’s how I learned English, through music. I remember at one point when I was around seven I knew every single song by Nat King Cole. It was incredible. I would go to dinner parties with my parents and my mom would be like, oh, so Ruth here is gonna sing a song. Any of Nat King Cole’s. And someone would say, you know, the name of a song and I would just instantly start singing without even knowing what exactly I’m saying. So, that was how I was brought up as a kid. It had a big influence on my life. Especially in the years where I started playing live music. I realized that jazz is something that is a huge part of me. Later on, I discovered other artists that were more influential and to what I personally felt as an artist. It was interesting. Most of the people that I know didn’t have that background so it was the reason I started doing what I do.
MM: Mark Ronson said that your last album was amazing. When did he say that and is he a producer you’d like to work with in the future?
RK: [Laughs] He – for some reason – was in Bulgaria and he went into a record shop and bought my album to listen to it and he tweeted about it and my team got in touch with him and asked for a quote and he was very happy to give one. That was like three years ago. I remember like a year ago receiving a personal e-mail – I’m clueless how he got my e-mail – I thought it was like an Easter joke. It was the second or third of April and I was like somebody is joking with me. [Laughs] Apparently, he really liked my album and he really liked the first single from this album as well. I guess it’s everyone’s dream to work with Mark Ronson. He’s amazing. He’s great in so many genres. If I ever get a chance to work with him, that would be amazing to me. I love his music and I really like him as a person. I’ve seen his interviews. So, I have huge respect for what he did.
MM: Do you have plans to tour in the United States in promotion of the album?
RK: Yeah, yeah. We were planning that for the middle of the year but I got a lot of festivals in Europe and I also have a tour in Europe in May and June and then we have an Asian tour in the fall. So, hopefully, in 2019 around this time I’ll be in the States. I really miss it. I’m a New York person. That’s my favorite city in the world. I really miss being there. I really feel at home. People find it weird, being from so far away, away from home, in a different country, but for some reason I do. I love the music. I love the art scene. I get very, very inspired when I am there. So, I can’t wait to be back.
MM: What did you think of California?
RK: I lived in California for the first time when I was sixteen. I went there all by myself for almost a year, which I’d say dramatically changed my life. I had to grow up in a matter of months and become an adult and take care of myself. It was also very intense with part of it being dangerous and living so far away from home at the age of sixteen. Because I was admitted into this academy and I had to go study there. And I don’t have any relatives [there]. I didn’t even know anyone in L.A. And I went there and I didn’t have a car. It was crazy. It was probably one of the hardest times of my life but there’s something about California that I love. I love the weather. There’s a lot of cool people there. A lot of good musicians. A cool music scene but New York is closer to me, sort of the mentality because it kind of resembles Europe, but it’s the States again. For me, it’s culture, to me as a person. California, of course, music-wise, is amazing, but I don’t see myself living there one day.
MM: Name three artists that people would be surprised to learn that you like.
RK: OK, Eddie Vedder. I also like Alice in Chains. And I like A Tribe Called Quest a lot — they’re a huge influence in my music. And I’ll pick a fourth. David Bowie.
MM: What are your favorite songs right now?
RK: Right now?
RK: That’s a very hard question for me. I’m one of those people where once I love something I can listen to it on repeat until I get bored of it. [Laughs] The last artist that I really got obsessed with was Childish Gambino. I’d say the song “Redbone.” I think my friends stopped calling me because they didn’t want to get in my car because that song was on repeat. I’m not intimidated. If you don’t want to ride with me, fine. [Laughs] I wouldn’t change that song. But now I’ve shifted to more music. Different styles, really. I’ve been listening to a lot of Yann Tiersen lately. The movie music composer.
MM: What was the first jazz album you ever bought with your own money?
RK: Well, the first jazz album, I don’t remember the first jazz album. I think it was Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder but I wouldn’t say that’s jazz. That was one of the first cassettes that I bought. They were very hard to find. You could either have it on vinyl because here in Bulgaria we have a lot of vinyl. But we didn’t have a vinyl player then. We didn’t have a record player. So, I was buying cassettes and that’s one of the first ones I bought.
MM: If someone was giving you a million dollars to give to charity and it all had to go to one charity or cause, which would you give it to?
RK: Well, because I come from a poor country and things are very difficult in numbers of ways concerning human rights. I would give it to a charity that raises awareness and creates safe houses for victims of domestic violence. I think it’s a huge problem. Especially in ex-communist countries because nobody really talks about it. The cause that is really important to me is mental health. Here it’s a huge taboo. Nobody talks about it. And I had a friend who just committed suicide three days ago.
MM: I’m sorry to hear that.
RK: Thank you. So, a lot of young people are suffering and they’re not getting help because nobody is talking about it. Depression and panic disorders and anxiety, that’s the disease of the 21st century. They’ve really fallen behind in controlling the help so many people need. They feel very alone because health organizations aren’t doing anything. So, that would be the two causes I find very important. I have more but those are probably the ones that if I had a million dollars I would give it straight away.
Remember, Ruth’s sophomore album Confidence. Truth is out on 3/30. Order your copy today from Amazon.
Special thanks to Renee Cotsis at Girlie Action for arranging this interview and to Ruth for taking the time to speak with us!