Down and Up To You
Down and Up to You
A Q&A with Ruby Velle
By Geoff Gehman
Ruby Velle was in a museum atrium when she hit the jackpot and the sweet spot. Here she was, singing her songs with her band, the Soulphonics; during a celebration of immigrant musicians at the National Portrait Gallery, a Smithsonian institution in Washington, D.C. Among the adoring listeners in the cathedral-esque courtyard were her best friend, fans who wrapped her in a wave of hugs, and her immigrant parents, who no longer doubt that an Indian woman can flourish as a professional American musician. Part love fest, part soul pilgrimage, the concert was, according to Velle, better than winning a Grammy.
The Smithsonian gig is one of the sweetest jackpots of Velle’s career with the Soulphonics, which she launched in 2006 in Gainesville, Fla., with keyboardist Spencer Garn and guitarist Scott Clayton. Now based in Atlanta, site of a studio built by Garn, the octet plays hemi-powered, turn-on-a-dime amalgamations of R&B, rock, pop and the sort of deep-bucket soul minted by Johnnie Taylor, Linda Lyndell and other artists signed to Stax, Velle’s favorite record label. Velle leads the charge with sleek, sultry, soaring singing and passionate, compassionate lyrics. The band’s new album “State of All Things” (Soulphonics LLC) is anchored by “Shackles,” which addresses the wildfire of racism. “I wanted to get some things off my chest,” says Velle. “I like to keep that one in the set for me, for cathartic purposes. I’m trying to wake some people up, song by song.”
On Aug. 31 Velle & the Soulphonics will wake up the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Below, in a conversation from Atlanta, she discusses her crib-launched love of Paul Simon; the Stax 60th anniversary benefit she organized for the label’s music academy; female and minority musicians she likes to empower, and her left-field, exactly right wedding song.
Q: It may seem strange to begin toward the end but I just have to ask why you and your intended walked down the aisle to Joni Mitchell’s “Down to You.” It’s a real brave choice for a wedding song because it’s a real ruthless inventory of love, a dead-eye declaration of honesty and faith, permanence and impermanence.
A: I really believe we come to our notions of love through loss, the experience of knowing what you want and what you don’t want. “Down to You” has so many deep, poetic layers about taking on the union, not losing yourself in the union, solidifying the union. It’s just brilliant how Joni paints what love is–the good, the bad, and everything in between. Her message is: everything comes and goes, nothing is forever, but now, in this moment, I choose to love. In the end it all comes down to you: is your mentality love or fear? It’s a timeless song about a timeless condition, one that’s especially relevant to our nation.
“Down to You” was perfect for our wedding, which was a four-day Indian-Methodist family love fest. The guests included my aunt and uncle, who were the first people to play me Joni Mitchell when we lived in Canada and I was really young. Joni comes from Canada, she comes from a diverse background, and she’s broken down so many barriers as a musician and a woman, so she’s a role model for me, too. Yes, that song means a heckuva lot for me. I don’t think I could have walked down the aisle to anything else.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that absolutely, positively laid you flat?
A: I’d love to say there’s one but there’s really two. Having Paul Simon played literally in my crib prepared me for the first song I couldn’t get out of my head and feet: “The Obvious Child” [the opening track of Simon’s 1991 album “The Rhythm of the Saints”]. That song is so enthralling; I wanted to hear it over and over, and move to it over and over. From a young age my sister and I would put on “Rhythm of the Saints” and “Graceland” [Simon’s 1986 record] and make up little dances and lots of great memories. I love the drums and I really love the bass line on “Obvious Child.” I’m a rhythm fan but I’m a bigger fan of the bass; I can be sitting in a restaurant with people talking at full volume and I can pick out the bass track just like that.
When I was older I learned how Simon drew inspiration from African music and especially pan-African music. What he was doing at that time was bringing a whole generation of music that needed to be heard all over the world. He was going in that direction without fear of being judged as a white musician performing with black musicians. He really set the bar for proving that anything can be possible.
My second unforgettable song, the one that I fell absolutely head over heels for, that stopped me in my tracks, is Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.” It’s obviously very different from “The Obvious Child” but both songs have a lot of soul in their own way. It was enigmatic when I first heard it, knowing Hendrix was of yesterday and the “27 Club” [i.e., he, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all died at 27]. I learned more about Jimi and “Machine Gun” from my aunt and uncle, who are Liverpudlians who grew up with the Beatles. My uncle was a casual bass player around town when the Yardbirds were coming up, so that was really cool. My uncle and aunt inspired me to play vinyl record after vinyl record after vinyl record, to sit down with liner notes, to make me understand what these creative musicians—Jimi, the Beatles, the Yardbirds—were doing that was so different. I have great reverence that my British family influenced my Indian family and got them into Queen with Freddie Mercury and Otis Redding. I’m proud of their very, very impeccable taste in music.
I could probably give you 20 more first unforgettable songs, with Led Zeppelin being the third one. But, then, we’d be talking all day.
Q: Thinking of Otis Redding, one of your musical heroes, what were the first Stax tracks that knocked your socks off?
A: I gotta go with Johnnie Taylor’s “Testify.” It’s such a powerful declaration of love. It came out at a time  when love was really needed, a time of segregation and separation. The next one would be Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man.” That’s just a classic. We just have to play it for the groom at weddings; it makes the room light up.
Q: Last September you celebrated Stax’s 60th anniversary by organizing a benefit for the Stax Music Academy, which helps turn underprivileged kids in Memphis into privileged musicians. What did you accomplish? What satisfied you?
A: Well, we held the show in Atlanta instead of Memphis, just to show how our Atlanta community really shines through when it comes to music and education. We exposed more people to Stax’s great legacy, to the Stax Museum, to some very juicy talent coming out of the Stax Music Academy. There must be something in the water in Memphis when it comes to great soul and blues. After I finished organizing the show, I had to actually go onstage to perform. I sang “Testify” and “What a Man” and [Sam & Dave’s] “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” is one I wanted to sing but didn’t. It’s all literally a blur. It was the hardest I had ever worked, but it was totally worth it.
Q: What surprising things, what secrets, did you learn about Stax while producing the 60th anniversary benefit?
A: What I enjoyed learning the most is how the label championed their women. Most other labels didn’t push their women but Stax gave them opportunities to write and gave them writing credits. Although some of their artists were singing about misogynistic topics the label as a whole was promoting men and women creating music together and having that message come out in the music, too. It’s refreshing to know that women had such an important voice.
Q: Who was your first musical mentor, and what did she or he give you that you’re not only using but paying forward?
A: Ooohhh, that’s a tough one. A lot of people have imparted wisdom on my journey. If I had to pick one, as far as the artistry alone, I would choose Ebony Childs, my former vocal coach. She was a touring singer and musician with Heatwave [the ’70s-’80s disco/funk group], so she was a member of the soul family, too. I met her during an audition for one of these TV shows about singing. I called her and said: “I know you have a huge waiting list but I really need some help.” She just opened her door and helped me out for a week. She became someone I could rely on for great technical knowledge, for great teaching of scales and chord progressions. She also became a type of spiritual friend. We got down into the nitty-gritty of all aspects of what it takes to be an artist. She helped me to not only improve my warmups; she made me step back and look at myself as a person, look at what I was eating, what I was drinking, how I was sleeping, what I did for fun. She introduced me to yoga, to aroma therapy. She had me keep a log of my experiences, to analyze my growth toward being a better person.
What Ebony was teaching me is that it’s not enough to eat something just to give yourself energy to record or perform live. To make good music you have to have a good diet and a good state of mind and a good heart. She added heart, that’s the important thing. And that’s what I like to do when someone needs my help: I like to give them energy; I like to give them heart.
Q: You formed the Soulphonics in 2006 with guitarist Scott Clayton and keyboardist Spencer Garn, who built the band’s studio. How has your relationship changed over 12 years? What do you dig about partnering with them?
A: It makes me cry how blissful their union is. I absolutely love their intense belief that good music still exists. They have great business aptitude but they’re also great musicians who in every way help me express better what I’m singing, who can deepen my lyrics with their instruments and their arrangements. They also help me understand production better, when there needs to be more room for the vocals and more room for the instruments. The first album we made [“It’s About Time,” Redeye Label, 2012] had pretty much cut-and-dry arrangements, On the latest album [“State of All Things”] we pushed toward being more collaborative, more blended, more mixed up together; it was that sophomore push of going beyond. One of the transitions for me is understanding sound design better; what mixing 11 or 12 or even 15 tracks should sound like and what it doesn’t need to sound like, what it means to start over from scratch. This time around we all dug in and co-produced, worked together on the arrangements and gave each other feedback on the mixing. I’m very grateful for that co-producer credit; I earned it.
Q: What was your toughest time in the music trade, when you felt like not answering your calling anymore?
A: The most traumatizing time is when I was taken advantage of by my independent label, through a series of mishaps involving me not paying attention to different trials and tribulations, being young and junior league. It was tough, really tough. There was siphoning of money, lack of commitment, a plan laid out but not completed. At the time I didn’t have the knowledge and the power to deal with the problems; I had a defeated victim mentality. I began to question: Was I a good writer? Was I doing things correctly? Was it the right thing to have such a large band?
What I learned from that painful experience is to shift perspectives and to grow up. What I really believe is that when you’re suffering is when you’re thinking about yourself, and when you enjoy you’re thinking of the collective scale, of universal love. I started thinking, well, it’s a hardship, and every career has hardships and you have to go through them; it’s part of an artist’s journey. The important question is: How can you make it turn around? The important thing is to take it day by day and take every criticism and to know that this too soon will pass. We all learn from our troubles; if we don’t learn from them, that’s when we really turn south. Suffering leads to shining times.
I’m so lucky I’ve had a great support system. My husband has an undying belief in my talent and in me. My manager has stood up for me in a big way. You need that push to go forward out of that darkness. My intentions have never wavered; my belief in the unifying, healing power of music has never wavered.
Q: And what was your most rewarding time in the music trade, when you felt on top of the heap, queen of the hill?
A: Actually, it happened recently. The moment I think back to, pretty much every day, is when we played a wonderful celebration of immigrant musicians in America in the atrium courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. I had never felt so united with a crowd; I had never felt such an outpouring of love. At one point I leaned down to hug a person in the front and she passed me from person to person and I kept moving along. It was like a giant hug crowd.
A huge part of my joy that day is that my family was there, at the front of the stage. I might cry thinking about it now. It was not an easy journey for my immigrant parents to see their daughter grow up to make music for a living. My journey started with them not believing that an Indian girl could have a career in American music. They had this traditional belief that “Music is great, but you can be a lawyer or an engineer” as quickly as possible. I ended up tackling that topic head on and telling them my truth, that the path you chose is not the path I’m choosing. They eventually came to understand that completely.
So here I am, at a Smithsonian museum, performing for the people who didn’t believe in me at first who totally believe in me now—and not only what this means to me but what this means to the band, to the fans, to the whole musical family. There were so many people in the audience that day we touched and who touched us. My best friend even threw a cocktail party for me. It was so blissful to be presented by the Smithsonian and to have our music preserved in their library. It reaffirmed the journey and why we do what we do. It was better than winning a Grammy.
. So now my mom congratulates me on my lyrics, and my parents see how I use music to empower people in their lives. That’s why I like to help women and minorities. That’s why I’m on the board of Girls Rock Camp ATL; that’s why I volunteer 15 to 20 hours a week for the Dream Warriors Foundation. I wasn’t supported early in my journey. I didn’t have early music teachers. I didn’t know how to set up my own amp. I came of age within the Soulphonics; when we began I was 21, such a baby woman. Now I can teach young musicians so they won’t have to ask so many questions, so they can be more confident from the get-go. They’re already committed to the 10th power; all they need is empowerment.
It’s a full circle for me. I belong to the church of Maya Angelou: I know that I know I will do better.
Q: So, Ruby, what tops your Bucket List?
A: I’m pretty multi-faceted; there are a lot of things I want to tuck into. I would say the top of the list would be touring the world, not just for me but for all the people in all the places who haven’t heard us live. My selfish Bucket List item is [playing the] Red Rocks [Amphitheatre in Morrison, Col.]. We’ve been seriously touring with this album [“State of All Things”] and Red Rocks is a must-do, specifically and seriously.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: I’m going to put energy vampires down. We don’t need ‘em. Get out of my way; say goodbye for good.
Q: What’s the most unusual place you’ve heard one of your songs? Have you, for example, listened to “Heartlite” while it rotated in a Starbucks shop or on a Delta flight?
A: I’ve never heard “Heartlite” on a plane but I used to get videos of people sitting on a plane saying “They’re playing your song!” Another friend of mine sent me a video of a happy hour from Brazil, saying they were playing our first album, “It’s About Time,” back to front. There was no mention of the title but my friend is a DJ, so he knew instantly it was us. This was last year and “It’s About Time” came out in 2012, so that shows we’ve been growing on Spotify and other popular music channels. Brazil is a really big market for us that we’ve never played so having our album so well received there gives us a lot of hope to get there.
Another funny thing is that sometimes Amazon will email my dad, saying “It’s About Time” is available. And he’ll tell me, “Oh, Amazon just reminded me to buy your album” and I’ll tell him: “Well, Dad, I think you get a free copy.”
Ruby Velle: The Scoop
Her last name rhymes with Chevelle, the ’69 edition of which is one of her favorite classic cars. It’s a stage moniker, a replacement for her Indian maiden name, which is often misspelled and mispronounced.
“Down to You,” the Joni Mitchell song that accompanied her wedding, won the 1975 Grammy Award for arrangement accompanying a vocalist.
Her husband is Alex “Mistermind” Morgan, a DJ, musician, producer, photographer, creative director and epicurean who grew up in Atlanta, the home of Ruby Velle & the Soulphonics.
In 2012 her Soulphonics song “My Dear” was downloaded a quarter of a million times.
Her Soulphonics repertoire includes a sliding, gliding, Ella Fitzgerald-esque version of Bill Withers’ “Can We Pretend?”
Here are other Stax songs performed during the 60th anniversary Stax Music Academy benefit she organized: “Things Get Better” (Eddie Floyd), a Soulphonics staple; “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” (Otis Redding); “Mr. Big Stuff” (Jean Knight); “As Long As I Got You” (the Charmels); “What You See Is What You Get” (the Dramatics); “Respect Yourself” (the Staple Singers) and “Packed Up and Took My Mind” by Little Milton, “a classic bluesy ballad that every single soul lover needs to hear.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Ruby Velle’s big jones for Stax songs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.