Ruth Theodore‘s impressive ability to excite audiences with her truly original, fascinating and thoroughly entertaining music seems all the more remarkable when you read on her website of the setbacks she suffered from an early age. Having premiered the single You Can’t Help Who You Love back in May, we’re delighted at Folk Radio UK to introduce Ruth’s excellent fourth album, Cactacus.
Ruth was advised at age five that she’d never be physically capable of playing guitar and suffered an accident at age nine that left her unable to speak. Events that, conventionally, don’t lead to a career as a singer-songwriter. Fortunately, though, Ruth Theodore is far from conventional, and natural talent will win – especially when it’s backed up by an overwhelming drive to perform. In her early teenage years, Ruth was driven to create her own music. Teaching herself guitar, writing music by ear, and earning money by busking were her introduction to her calling. If the album’s opening track, Buffalo, is anything to go by, it’s a calling that Ruth revels in.
Buffalo is typically smart, punchy and chock-full of the instant appeal Ruth’s songs contain. There’s no lack of fun or passion as Cactacus gets off to a storming, attention-grabbing start with a loose twang of the guitar, a crash of sticks and a huge, wide smile…
let’s send a message into space
tell them we need sugar and a bit more bass
come and wipe your smile across my face
‘cause Buffalo you know you love this place
A move to London ten years ago saw Ruth eventually begin recording, and self-producing her first album, Worm Food. The astute poetry of her lyrics and innovative approach to guitar quickly gained her a following and two more well-received albums followed. White Holes Of Mole Hills, in 2010, firmly established Ruth as a noteworthy performer and, in 2013, Dear Lamp Love Moth, with its audacious ten-minute opening, saw her reach new creative heights. Scavengers provides a welcome reminder of those self-produced gems, as over a rolling piano Ruth wags a finger at neo-liberal values. Taking typical liberties with pace, Ruth laughs loudly at the subject of her scorn, as if crying out ‘you’ll never understand us and that’s what makes you so damn funny.’
Ruth’s critical eye can cast its gaze even further though, and Man of the Land (a recent song of the day on FRUK), takes a lengthy swipe at mankind’s arrogance – charting its progress from creation stories, to world dominion and through to the obsession with flight.
In the more recent past (for the last ten years), Ruth has lived in a narrow boat on an East London river. Life on the water has suited and inspired her to such an extent that she’s also converted a larger boat into a unique recording studio and performance space. This relentless drive and singular approach is a hallmark of Ruth’s music – something that’s perhaps most clearly in evidence in The Carcass And The Pride. The change of pace offered by the piano introduction hints at an opera in miniature; with a wide chorus of voices, rich strings, and a deep theatrical vein…’if water cleanses us of sin, then it’s a good thing the rain is coming….’
The scope of The Carcass And The Pride harks back to the innovative Strings opening of Dear Lamp Love Moth, and Ruth’s habit of writing up against the boundary. Forever redefining those boundaries; in Cactacus, Ruth wanted to move on from her self-produced, London-based work and find new, fresh ways to develop her songs – enter producer and bass player Todd Sickafoose. Most notably Todd has produced two albums for acclaimed U.S. folk musician Anaïs Mitchell, last year Ruth and Todd came together in California to begin work on Ruth’s most ambitious album yet. With live performances along the way, Ruth travelled to Oregon to work with organist Rob Burger, percussionist Mathias Kunzli and violinist Jenny Scheinman. Cactacus glories in the American influences these adventures have brought to Ruth’s songs, adding a new dimension to her, already eclectic, repertoire. Loop Hole, for instance, presents something that’s more country than anything so far, especially with Todd’s double bass and Mike Gamble’s electric guitar; without actually being country. That is, until Jenny Scheinman’s wonderful old-timey fiddle starts the dance. The clever twist is that this song seems to refer to Ruth’s East London home more clearly than any other….
now they’re raking in a living
watering the arts
pulling up the flowers
potting up the parks
planting out the people
living in a loophole
With its spot-on lyrical timing and sense of resigned abandon, Loop Hole seems to fly by in a short, perfect, dizzying blur. And while we’re on the subject of dizzy – You Can’t Help Who You Love, on the surface, takes you on the giddy spin of a headlong journey into love. It’s a beautiful song that, through its sprightly, choppy guitar and excited vocal, exudes fun. The song charts a whole life of love though, and deals, ultimately, with the love that supports to the very end. Its peaks and troughs are perfectly highlighted in the way the warm intensity of Tony Glausi’s trumpet contrasts the soft quietness of the vocal close. The stand-out voice is, of course, Ruth’s, and in Wishbone the complex arrangements that fascinate throughout the album are played-down, as layers of the softest harmonies over a gentle piano allow that voice to shine through for an unashamed love song. Its partner, then, would have to be the toe-tapping positivity of Kissing In Traffic. Filled with Mathias Künzli’s percussion, joyful brass, and Rob Burger’s organ chords, the song bounces back from heartbreak – ‘Sadness can eat my dust.‘
To close the album, Ruth resigns herself to life’s impermanence with Everything is Temporary. A brace of soft guitars are taken on a gentle waltz by Rob Burger’s accordion. There’s a resigned smile in Ruth’s voice as she takes a final swipe at society, before making the most of things and waltzing off to who knows where, because everything is temporary.
I cook you stolen food on this squatted land
with my borrowed time
most of which is deemed a crime in this nation of mine
Cactacus is Ruth Theodore’s fourth album but the first time her music has come to my attention. It’s so inventive, full of joy, and brings such a sense of wonder; there’s a strong feeling of having missed something for the last ten years that could have been quite remarkably absorbing. In a way, though, it’s ultimately satisfying to discover Ruth’s music at a tangential point in her career, one that sees her unique talent and perspective taken in a new direction. I can approach Cactacus on its own merits, without comparing the album to her earlier successes. And what I find is someone who has taken the strong ties to her East London home on a trans-Atlantic journey that provides a broad musical backdrop to a very individual outlook. It’s been a pleasure to discover that ‘singer-songwriter’ barely scratches the surface of Ruth Theodore’s music, quirky would be an understatement and that beyond the considerable instant appeal that Cactacus wields, there’s a wealth of poetry, satire and pure, natural artistry. Cactacus is a wonderful, captivating album.
Cactacus is out now on Aveline Records
More here: ruththeodore.com