On the cusp of releasing her debut album, RuthAnne reflects on penning hits for others and what success means to her.
“Three days into my first LA trip was when I co-wrote Too Little Too Late. It just blew up everywhere. I was only 19.”
There is little scope for transparency when it comes to pop music. For many popstars, their product is so closely linked to their persona du jour that it’s easiest to imagine that they descended from on high, fully formed. That is to say, in these realms – the kind that you might actually get rich operating in – there is a certain tacit contract between celebrities and their audience. We are expected to understand that heartbreak described in their latest chart-topper is the very same heartbreak we saw detailed in gossip magazines and picked over on social media. It’s no secret in this jaded age that these floor-filling accounts of emotional turmoil aren’t necessarily the product of the artist alone. Yet, it remains somewhat disquieting to consider the power behind the throne. We might know they’re up there, but we don’t like to see the strings, to think about the fact that Run The World was written by Beyoncé and five men.
These realities of show business are what make Donaghmede’s own RuthAnne such a fascinating proposition. Ascendant as her star may be, Ruth-Anne Cunningham is no stranger to the machinations of the industry. Cunningham is, after all, part of the teams that penned hits like JoJo’s Too Little Too Late and Britney Spears’ Work Bitch.
“I was writing songs when I was seven and I’d just sing them for my neighbourhood friends,” begins Cunningham. “Apparently, I was put up on tables in the pub from when I was four to sing. By the time I was 10, 11, 12 I started to figure out that people could pay you to do it! I didn’t know I was good or anything, but I copped that people would give you 50p here and there. So, I’d get up on a table in McDonalds and do a number and get everyone sweets with the money. We’d have a good system going – my friends would be going around with hats and I’d be like, ‘Do you want me to sing Mariah Carey for you? Do you want me to sing Whitney Houston?’”
Despite the plaudits for her tabletop renditions of the hits of the day, performance was always paired with her passion for putting pen to paper. “I was writing songs all the time, it was my way to escape anything. I was quite an emotional kid and I come from a lot of mental health issues in my family – my dad has PTSD, my mom has dealt with depression. I think singing and writing might have been my way of getting all that out from a very young age. Though, honestly, a lot of my songs were about Coronation Street and Eastenders when I was growing up” laughs Cunningham. “I’d sing a song about being lied to and my Mum would ask me, worried ‘who lied to you!?’ and I’d have to be like, ‘It’s about Little Mo.’”
Go-getter from the get go, Ruth-Anne started girl groups throughout her early teens and relentlessly recorded demos. “At 16, I was begging my parents, ‘You have to let me go, you’re ruining me, I have to get to America!’ I wanted to leave school early and they wouldn’t let me go anywhere until I had my Leaving Cert.” Cunningham wouldn’t have to wait long, bagging her first manager following her triumph in the now defunct Jacob’s Song Contest.
“It was off the back of [Jacob’s Song Contest] that my first manager saw me in the paper and decided to bring me to LA. He was already developing Mark and Danny – who went on to be The Script – over there. He’d heard about me from the people I’d already been recording with but this was the point where he approached me with the ‘You’re going to be a Star’ moment. Or, an Irish version of it that was more ‘Sure, we’ll bring you over to LA and see what we can do with you.’ Literally the day after my Leaving Cert was finished, I flew to LA with him and his family. That kind of started it all, three days into my first LA trip was when I co-wrote Too Little Too Late. It took two years for that song to come out and once it did, it just blew up everywhere. I was only 19 and all of a sudden I had a publishing deal and people wanted to fly me everywhere. I was going from Stockholm to Copenhagen to London to Miami to New York to write for other people.”
As Cunningham continued to make her name as a songwriter, she dabbled with operating as an artist in her own right. Principally, appearing as a featured vocalist for a rogues gallery of collaborators: your Professor Greens, your Rob Thomases. Ultimately, there came a time when Cunningham knew she had to make a change. “I lived in LA for seven years and there came a period where I was getting really uninspired there. I left to do a trip to Ireland and decided I was just going to write whatever I want. On that three-week trip I wrote most of this album. Not long after, I left LA to move to London and be that bit closer to home. I signed my record deal, started releasing some music and now we’re here at my album – finally.”
This time carving a life for herself just out of view of the limelight was, for Cunningham, essential to arriving at where she finds herself today. “I knew that in order to be the type of artist that I wanted to be, I needed to have experiences to write about. The thing about the musicians I love is that they all are a certain type of artist; they write the stuff, they are the vision, they are steering the ship. The artists I write for are more of a collaborative effort. Sometimes, without that lyrical perspective, you need songs to be given to you. When I was younger, I hadn’t experienced enough. So, I’m glad that I didn’t do all this then. The songs were inside me and I needed the five years of feckboys in LA and celebrity parties and getting into toxic situations so that I could have the lyrical perspective for my songs.”
RuthAnne’s own record – a decidedly grown up but entirely radio-ready mix of modern pop and the 90s R’n’B and NeoSoul that captured her imagination in her teens – has clearly turned out just how she intended; that much is clear in Cunningham’s eagerness to discuss her process and satisfaction in finishing the project. But I can’t help but wonder, what does success mean when you have already played a part in making other people household names?
“Before I started putting my own music out, I was really scared about the expectations from the industry. I had to know that this, for me, is about passion, connection, about representing Irish females in the soul genre. It’s about having something to say, loving performing and getting to put out a piece of my world that nobody had seen yet. It was also about being totally in control of something. I remember when In the Name of Love (A Cunningham penned euro pop hit for Martin Garrix and Bebe Rexha) went triple platinum and I got this big plaque. I was sitting in my apartment in LA, no boyfriend, depressed. All my friends were working in Hollywood and trying to make something of themselves. Everyone keeps going there, nobody stops. I was sitting there alone and I thought, ‘This is great, but I really would love to have somebody to share it with.’ Success, for me, is what I have with my partner and a personal life where the people around me are real friends, real people, real life. All the career success and all the money in the world can’t really buy you that stuff. I’m just happy to be putting my album out into the universe and I’d sing for anybody, I’d sing for two people or twenty thousand. Every day I get to sing is a success to me – that’s the truth.”
Matters of the Heart is released on October 4. RuthAnne play a headline show in The Academy Green Room on Thursday October 10.
Words: Danny Wilson
Photo: William Henry Thompson