Soul-Full: Ruby Amanfu Lets Her Little Light Shine

Every now and then, an artist comes along who is, at once, transcendent and humble, pursuant of glory but steadily grounded. Ruby Amanfu is such an artist, moving the audience’s emotions alongside her own as she winds her way through a song. It’s an inherent and intangible gift she brings to bear, and one that she discovered — like so many before her — at a very young age.

Born in Accra, Ghana, Amanfu and her family moved to Nashville, Tennessee, when she was three years old. Her family was both musical and religious so, naturally, she got her start singing in church. “That’s definitely where I started — singing in church,” she says, then adds with a laugh. “I always get a chuckle on the inside when I say that quote, ‘I started singing in the church,’ because I grew up in very classically contemporary Christian music. That’s where it was at. I say ‘classically’ and it’s kind of a joke. There’s nothing classic about it.

“Contemporary Christian music is very much ‘Let’s modernize a sound to reach more people’ — which I totally get — so I was singing a lot of vanilla songs. Later, we moved to a church that did start adding true gospel music in there, music with energy. That was definitely more fun when you could clap on the 2 and 4, and move to the beat. Everyone was dancing in the rows, just flailing.”

At home, the classical and Christian influences persisted, with Amanfu’s musical tastes being guided by her father’s listening preferences. Those voices continue to shape who she is as an artist.

When asked, she prattles off the branches of the music family tree that loom large for her: “Mavis [Staples] would be in there because she’s somebody my dad listened to. I think a big one is also Shirley Caesar. She is a powerhouse gospel singer. If we’re going to go back, I would also say Kathleen Battle is a big one. Dianne Reeves, Sarah Vaughn, Bill Withers…” Her voice trails off as she thinks back to her youth. It would seem fitting to find Sweet Honey in the Rock in there, too, no? To that, her voice rises in enthusiastic agreement, “They came to my college once and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’ I cried the whole time.”

For Amanfu, those various branches track back to the same roots: old spirituals. “Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman, even though these are classical singers, you hear them sing a spiritual and it sounds soul-filled and soul-full,” Amanfu notes. “So, yeah, it all does go back to a center source, even if the styles of music are different.”

Songwriter Bonnie Baker — who has penned tunes for Rachel Platten, Zella Day, and Striking Matches, and known Amanfu for more than a decade — hears the same spirit coming through her. “One voice I hear in Ruby is Nina Simone’s,” she says. “It’s not the sound exactly; it is more of the texture of her soul that oozes out of every pore of her being when she sings. That is the way Nina Simone always brought her music to her audience. Ruby is one of those artists that make you experience her music versus just listening to it. Her soul is deep and dark, peaceful and chaotic, beautiful and broken, healing and rich… and pure light.”

Outside of church, a young Amanfu stepped into various talent shows and literary competitions where she began to find her emerging voice as both a singer and a songwriter. Soon enough, she attended Nashville’s highly acclaimed Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School where she participated in the Fine Arts program and recorded original songs in the school’s studio. During her sophomore year, a 15-year-old Amanfu was tapped to join the Nashville Symphony Chorus — its youngest-ever member. As a junior, she wrote, recorded, and co-produced her debut album, So Now the Whole World Knows. The effort showed enough talent to earn her entry to Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. She eventually transferred to Belmont University back home in Nashville, landed a record deal, and worked with Grammy-nominated producer/songwriter Tommy Sims on a song called “Sugah” that went on to anchor her Smoke & Honey album in 2003.

Even as all of that solo work was happening, Amanfu was collaborating with singer-songwriter Sam Brooker on the side. The two had met in 1999 at a writer’s round, finding a personal friendship first and, within a few years, an artistic kinship, as well. As Brooker tells it, “Ruby and I started off as friends. I don’t even think she told me she did music, initially. Then, she had a show and I went. At the time, she was doing this pop-electronica side project, and it was awesome. She was mesmerizing on stage. It was like I was looking at a superstar.

“It took us a long time to even talk about music together. It was three years later, after me wet, that we decided to write a song. That first song we ever wrote, ‘The Here and the Now’ — she’d gotten a lead that T Bone Burnett was looking for songs for the Ya-Ya Sisterhood movie, so she called me up and said, ‘Let’s write a song for it.’”

The song didn’t make the film, but as Sam & Ruby, the pair easily found fans for the undeniable artistic chemistry that poured through their acoustic soul. Their eponymous, independent EP in 2006 created such a stir that the 2009 Rykodisc release of The Here and the Now landed a top spot on the Associated Press’s “Best Albums” list. Brooker readily cites Amanfu’s part in the magic-making. “I think Ruby has a difference in the way she thinks about music, from a melody standpoint,” he says. “Lyrically, she writes more poetically. There’s songwriting and then there’s poetry, and I think Ruby is somewhere in the middle.”

Solo or duo, the common thread in all of Amanfu’s work is the spiritual bent that can be traced back to those early days in church, a persuasion most clearly present in songs like “Heaven’s My Home,” which Amanfu co-wrote with Katie Herzig. Though it appears on The Here and the Now (and in The Secret Life of Bees), the Duhks also included it on their Migrations LP, scoring a Grammy nomination for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 2007. The song’s stirring lyrics make a post-death request and reflect Amanfu’s natural tendency to tackle the not-so-easy topics in her tunes.

When I was born
My daddy said I was broken
Beginning of the end
To a life I hadn’t chosen
He taught me how to give up
He taught me how to work the system
But I never had the time
I never had the luxury

Another long-time friend and frequent co-writer, Herzig has a clear view of what Amanfu brings to the table: “… mad instincts, a sense of humor, vulnerability, honesty, openness. She has a very natural way of working off and balancing out the energy of her collaborators.”

“When I sit down to write a song, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to be brutally honest,” Amanfu says. “I definitely have a heart to lift people up, but a friend of mine told me a really important thing: You can lift people even if the subject matter you’re singing or writing about is heavy because, sometimes, you’re giving voice to someone else’s heaviness. And that makes them feel that it’s lifted off of them.”

In Amanfu’s hands, even the hopeless have a hopefulness. That’s how she’s wired, but it’s also what she learned. All those hours, days, and years spent listening to the gospel of Mavis Staples and the soul of Bill Withers can’t help but pour out in her own songs now. “When I write, I always have a moment in my songs when it’s like, ‘then comes the morning,’ in a symbolic way. I have songs that are heavy, but they always have that moment of lightness in them, as well.”

That equation gets spun around, though, when it comes to the love songs that she and Brooker have composed over the years. “Sam and I laugh about this: I can never write a lyric for a love song that is just all cheery. It’s always, [Sings] ‘I love you… but sometimes you make me mad and then we fight and then I don’t know…’” Amanfu laughs, then adds with another chuckle, “It’s always, ‘I love you, but…’ That’s why nobody ever syncs our love songs for film and TV.”

Happily ever afters aside, both Amanfu and Brooker appeared on NBC’s The Sing Off as part of the a cappella Collective during the show’s third season in 2011.

Earlier that same year, she landed herself a back-up singer spot in Wanda Jackson’s band on the rockabilly legend’s tour supporting The Party Ain’t Over. Because that album was produced by Jack White, the gig brought Amanfu into the Third Man fold and, a year later, White tapped Amanfu to be his vocal counterpoint on his Blunderbuss LP. Taking that particular show on the road, Amanfu spent the better part of 2012 and 2013 on tour with White as part of his all-female Peacocks band, including a performance of “Love Interruption” on the Grammy Awards.

“There’s just no limit to her potential,” Herzig notes. “It’s always been that way. It’s been really exciting to watch people discover her talent and to see her rise to each and every occasion. I’m blown away each time, but never surprised. She’s got some fairy dust in that voice, in her stage presence — you just know you’re witnessing magic.”

Sneaking into studios along the way, whenever and wherever she could, she managed to pull together a solo EP, The Simple Sessions, produced by Charlie Peacock. But White had more in mind for her. He teamed her up with the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard for a sly reworking of Sixto Rodriquez’s “I Wonder” coupled whose b-side was a slinky rendering of Memphis Minnie’s “When My Man Comes Home.”

To recap, that brings Amanfu’s genre count coverage to nine: classical, Christian, choral, gospel, soul, blues, rock, pop, and R&B. Time to sing the hell out of some folk and country, it would seem.

Even as she worked through all of those “day jobs,” Amanfu was quietly toiling away on another album of her own with producers Mark Howard and Austin Scaggs — and a little help from the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney. The mostly covers collection saw daylight last year as the stunning Standing Still and includes cuts by Bob Dylan, Jay Clifford, Richard Hawley, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Brandi Carlile, and others. In their native forms, these compositions would, indeed, be hard-pressed to fit anywhere other than folk or country. Yet, with Amanfu’s interpretations, they become the gospel and soul she is all-too familiar with, as she wiggles her way into the heart of the matters at hand.

These songs all wrestle with matters of faith, in one regard or another. So, were there tangible qualities Amanfu looked for in her choices or was it all just a gut feeling? “I go on my gut, but my gut is seasoned in a way that I know what message I want to get across from the podium. I have this desire to say something with a capital ‘S,’” Amanfu explains. “As I sit here right now, the sun is streaming in the window and I don’t know how to write a full song about just that — about the sun streaming in the window. People do. They do it really, really well. I’m not good at that. I want to say the whys of it. I feel like there’s always something more I want to explore about a subject. So I chose songs that made me think as much as they made me feel.

“This is a life-long thing that hasn’t quite changed yet,” she adds, “where I feel a conviction and a responsibility for the message I put out, whether it’s a song I write or not. If I’m on stage with a certain flag, I feel a responsibility for it.”

It’s exactly that conviction, that intention, which infuses Amanfu’s artistry with an enormously loving and thoroughly compassionate spirit. Listening to her, there’s an overwhelming sense that she’s “been there, done that.” And, because of the depth and breadth of experiences from she draws, it all feels completely genuine. “I’m a spiritual person,” she says, “[I’m] different from how I grew up, but still very spiritual and always seeking to go deeper and pull back the layers to where we all connect, human and community.”

As Bonnie Baker sees it, “Ruby isn’t bound by the social trappings that held other beautiful female artists closer to the ground that came before her. Because they paved the way, she has been able to push herself further, musically. She is exploring the large world of music constantly. There really isn’t a genre that she fits into. She doesn’t follow rules at all, and that is what makes her Ruby.

“She isn’t of this world. Artists like her come from another dimension that can’t always be described with words. You have to experience it for yourself.”

Putting into words the spiritual experience that music can be is difficult, at best. Is it possible, then, to describe the place a singer goes to when they are singing? Amanfu tries.

“Something that comes to mind is what it feels like, for me, to go for a swim… especially me, not swimming very well at all. There’s something about how you’re conscious of having to stay afloat, but there’s also something that is naturally overtaking — that is the water. So I often feel that I can’t deny that the water is going to take me, if it wants to take me. But I’m also aware that it takes a certain skill and strength to continue to plough through it, to continue to move forward in it.”

She also knows that, if you surrender to the water — or the song — it lifts you up, buoys you. And, so, she surrenders herself to the music every time she steps into the spotlight.

“Being on stage has always been a hard thing for me because it’s so exposing in that way, so I have to remember my skill set,” she confides. “I have to remember that I know what to do. I know where the notes go and how they come out. But it’s also a really weighted thing and a lot of the songs I choose to sing very much flow over me in a way that I could be taken under, but I’d rather find a way to be immersed and still be in control.”

Having watched her evolve and grow for 17 years now, Sam Brooker is in awe of where she’s been and what she’s done. But, he saw it coming, even way back when. “She’s done everything, from the pop project in the UK to the noir folk-soul project of Sam & Ruby, and now doing a covers album that’s super-vibey,” he offers. “With Ruby, I feel like she’s well aware of it being a hard road, yet she’s determined. It’s just who she is. She’s tried to step away from being an artist multiple times in her life and people keep pulling her back in because she is unique. She is one of those artists who should be doing what she’s doing.”

Another possibly impossible task is to feel history as it’s unfolding around you. But Amanfu does. She understands and appreciates her place in the tradition. “A couple years ago, I was on the Cayamo Cruise, listening and watching Buddy Miller and Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell,” she recounts. “They were talking about how they were coming up in the ’70s and they all had similar, but not identical, dreams that created a community for them. And they’re very much like a Rat Pack now. They all did something that made an impact in society.

“I immediately thought about my community of friends right now who have a similar desire and heart for what we do and to make an impact. I think about Katie and Butterfly [Boucher]. I think about Sam. I think about Ashley [Monroe]. I think about Jack. There’s a group of us who are similar ages and we’re going to look back and be 60, and I think we’re going to be able to say what Buddy and Emmylou and Rodney have said: ‘I had a vision and I had determination and I wanted to put good out into the world, and that came through music.’ And that will never die.”