Ruby Amanfu has built a rich and varied career based on an array of exceptional talents and a singular voice. In advance of her American Songbook debut later this month (March 29), she discusses her creative process, the role of the artist in society, and her favorite noodles in New York City.
Eileen Willis: Do you find similarities in terms of the creativity involved in making music and in making a meal?
Ruby Amanfu: I'm notorious for cross-referencing food and music. I wrote a blog last year called Ruby's Corner for an online magazine called Paper Saint and I was in my element mixing analogies where life, food, and music were concerned. I consider creating meals and creating music to both be very visceral forms of art. Songs and food both have ingredients that when brought together can create something delicious or something unappetizing. It's all about understanding the balance of flavors, which I believe comes from a knowledge of what ingredients go together and why. Both cooking and music are also both about knowing your audience. Who are you feeding? Do they want to be surprised by the unexpected, or are they craving comfort?
I do like surprising people, though, with both my music and my food. In both mediums, I often have people say to me, "I've never before experienced this in the way that you have presented it," or, "I don't usually like that, but I really like this." It feels really good knowing that what I create has the power to inspire a different way of seeing things.
EW: The "When They Go Low We Go High" video that came out recently is so timely… and manages to stay positive and inspiring. Can you talk about what went into that song in particular, and also how you're approaching your role as an artist these days?
RA: I believe that art is in direct relation to its environment. It's like a painter painting a landscape. What the painter sees influences what goes onto that painter's canvas. The same applies to the world's social landscape. I am an artist and I express what I observe. I personally consider it innate. I believe that to deny that responsibility is to be disconnected from the universe.
EW:You've recorded some amazing covers of well-known songs. How do you choose songs that you want to cover? In other words, what makes a song a good candidate for you and how do you approach making it your own?
RA: Before releasing Standing Still in 2015, I had never put out an album of songs that I didn't write nor had I ever even thought about doing so. I don't call the songs I recorded on my last album covers; I call them interpretations. I didn't cover them; they covered me. I delved deeply inside of these song's lyrics because that's what I connected to the most when I decided to put them on my record. It's all about lyrics for me. They have to resonate with me personally to such a point that it feels like I'm living the experience of the writer myself. I think about one of my album's interpretations of Bob Dylan's song, "Not Dark Yet". At the time I chose that song from a long list of others presented to me, I was going through a very hard time in my life. I didn't want to sing about light-hearted things. I wanted to be true to the heaviness that I felt in that moment. The first time I performed that song was at The Bowery Ballroom in New York. I cried backstage for 20 minutes after it was over. Of course, that made me feel a lot better after I released those feelings. It was cathartic. If a song can take me on that kind of journey, it's worth it!
EW: Who are the artists or artworks you find yourself coming back to again and again at different points in your life?
RA: There is music that I often come back to in my life like a touchstone. James Taylor is at the top of my list, followed by Bill Withers, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Astrud Gilberto, Cindy Morgan and Bob Dylan. When I hear their songs, I can be transported to being a 16 year old girl and I am pretty sure that's how it will be for me when I'm 60 years old, too.
EW: What are you looking forward to in terms of future projects?
RA: I am currently excited about writing my own songs again. The last time I released original songs as a solo artist was on an EP produced by Charlie Peacock in 2012 called The Simple Sessions. The songs I'm writing these days aren't so simple but I hope that listeners are open to a taste of something different.
EW: You've played New York City before. What's your favorite thing to do while you're in town for a show?
RA: My favorite thing to do in New York is eat! Yellowtail from Blue Ribbon Sushi, Singapore Mai Fun from Great NY Noodletown, and oysters from Black Market in the East Village. Goodness, I'm getting hungry... What am I talking about? I'm always hungry!
Inspired to get in the kitchen? Check out Ruby's playlist for cooking.
Eileen Willis is the Editorial Director at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.