In Conversation—with Ruby Velle

How the Heart Sings Through the Voice

Ruby Velle & the Soulphonics is  an Atlanta-based soul ensemble headed by a Canadian female vocalist.  The band has already made a significant contribution to the soul revival by bringing the full flavour of true soul music, bestowing a new sheen with original tunes and unique delivery.  Their single, “My Dear,” sold over a quarter of a million downloads on iTunes and landed them in Billboard’s Heatseeker top 30.  They’ve just released their second album, The State of All Things, and are now touring it along the East Coast.  The album has garnered positive reviews from numerous media including NPR, MTV, and Paste Magazine.  Velle is on the Board of Directors of Girls Rock Camp, where young people, especially girls, are taught music and performance to personally empower them.  Recently Velle took the time to answer our questions about her background, the new album, and creativity.

What kind of childhood did you have?

I grew up with many joyous moments of clashing cultures, sounds and colors.  I was born just outside of Toronto to two highly intelligent and loving parents whose motherland was India.  Since my parents chose to immigrate to Canada, it afforded my sister and I some very warmhearted years in a cold land that seemed to embrace us right back.  I look to the current situation now to understand how truly blessed we were at that time to start our stories as immigrants alongside the people of Canada.

What role did music play in it?

Music plays most every role in my life, so I remember music as this magic but invisible matter that kept all things filled in.  The space between is a concept many songwriters explore and it’s been inherent to me.  Since as long as I can remember, my aunt and uncle and parents were playing music and dancing all night.  Music was played to wash dishes, after dinner with a live dohl drum …  and even at night; through the closed door I remember hearing warm vinyl recordings of Marvin Gaye, Paul Simon, Queen, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder, and the Beatles with Ravi Shankar.

Were you trained in music or did you teach yourself?

A little of both, but I’ve learned to practice consistently regardless of guidance.  I always enjoyed singing, so my mother guided me to choir classes, and I took off with them.  In high school I was trained in Italian Opera and really dug into the emotion within those pieces and into the Italian culture at large.  When I went to college I sought out a few great vocal coaches to help me expand my range.

Since being in the Soulphonics, I’ve had sporadic training with one of the best teachers in the south—Ms. Ebony Childs (Jan Smith Studios), and her approach really shaped me as an artist and a vocalist.  Her teachings were focused on the primordial voice as the first instrument, and what it takes and gives to an artist who can fully manage all aspects of the voice, which is undoubtedly mind, body, and soul.  Her teachings led me into mantra training and teaching, so I feel my string of teachers landed me in the right place to fully understand how the heart sings through the voice, something I’ve been training for my entire life.

Who—or what—in your life was the best influence on you as an artist? As a human being?

It’s extremely hard for me to pick one human, because my songs and art are 100 percent pulled from the collective.  I’m a big believer in seeing yourself in others, so I can’t say that one person has brought me to myself artistically.  There have been lovers and so called-friends, situations and hard times that have influenced me to write, and it’s not always pulled from my situation.  A few artists I’ve attempt to channel in my work and as a human are Brandon Boyd (Incubus), Ani DiFranco, Fiona Apple, Erykah Badu, Patty Griffin, and Sade.

As a vocalist, I love to cite women in music who really led the way with their talented voices, singers like Aretha Franklin, Janet Jackson, Mahalia Jackson, Whitney Houston, Minnie Ripperton, and Etta James.  Honestly, there are a lot of mostly old influences; I’ve listed a bunch on Spotify!

Why did you choose to do soul and r&b?

Soul music, to me, fits my heartspace the most.  It’s a perfect combination of awareness of joy and awareness of pain.  It’s the way my soul picked to express itself in this lifetime, and I just flow with it.  I also believe all cultures have a soul music, so it becomes even more about accessing the collective good feelings coming from the music at that point.

How did the band meet?

I was studying advertising and marketing at the University of Florida, and the guy I was dating at the time was fronting a small soul project that wanted a fresh start.  He moved onto some other endeavors, and I began writing songs with my partners Scott Clayton and Spencer Garn (we are the Soulphonics today!).  We played around Gainesville and Florida for a while before I got antsy to learn more about the DIY music scene.  I decided to move to Atlanta to study graphic and web design, and the guys came along with me.  Now, we look to our 13th year as a band, so the rest really is history!

How did you come up with your name?

The band’s name (“The Soulphonics & Ruby Velle”) was a collective decision, whereas my stage name of Velle originated from my own musings over the classic American car, the “Chevelle.” Overall, the name of the band originally sounded backwards to many fans, so we switched it about 6 years in to “Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics,” and that seems to flow better.

What do you like best about State of All Things so far?

The ability to understand our music, and any good music, as a unifier.  That’s a powerful and pretty cool thing.  This very notion was recognized by the Smithsonian for their recent event “America Now,” and the air of love in the room was palpable.  People are tuning into music for healing, and since making music has been healing to me, there is this connection we create by just being present with it.  So unification is happening, and we can find common ground despite our differences.  This is what State of all Things is proving.

What’s the story behind the song “Overwhelming?”

“Overwhelming” follows the day-in, day-out semi-monotony of the grind.  The part of many Americans lives where we wake up and go, skip lunch, and don’t even drink water.  We work and we keep anything that we can identify as ourselves as a human out of the equation.  We essentially turn into robots, but since we’re complex humans with real emotions our expectations overwhelm us and we succumb to chaos.  This song is certainly cathartic for me as I’ve created our music in a cycle along with holding down many jobs in the creative arts fields.  As an indie artist I’m no stranger to the litany of tasks to effectively keep shop, so there are parts of the song that details this as well.

And the title track, “State of All Things?”

The title track “State of All Things” is a sonic snapshot of “the now” from a social perspective, and the duality of our times wrapped in song.  The lyrics are telling of the present, where we begin to question our systems and our leaders and where we start to notice that separatism has been fed to us as the norm.  We see it but we choose love.  So within these lyrics there’s also hope, as we feel the world is connected through good, and we’re blessed to have this music, and our band, to help share this story of burning hope for mankind.

Is Atlanta a creatively stimulating city for a music maker?

Absolutely! We were part of a great series called Music Voyager, commissioned by PBS and produced by Farook Singh, that aired in over 22 countries.  This spotlight on my local loves, studios, bars, and fashion houses offered a glimpse of why creativity lives in Atlanta.  Even just this year we were part of the launch for Atlanta’s own video channel, #TheA, that will prove Atlanta knows expression through the arts in a way that is unique and now finally being recognized.  I owe the city for bringing out my true creativity and ability to collaborate with other artists who also support the city’s vibe.  It’s not always an open door, but opportunities are here for the evolution of your craft if you choose to look hard for them.

How do you regenerate after giving yourself heavily to the music?

What an amazing question! Thanks for asking this.  When I was growing up as a budding artist I always wondered about this, but pre-internet it was nowhere to be found.  Anyway, your time as a creator is subject to cycles and we have to be able to honor that.  So after a tour, for example, I take it as easy as possible and forgive myself often!  I try to spend relaxing time with my husband, I strum at the guitar, I sleep 6-8 hours, I drink a ton of warm non-caffeinated teas, I go for walks and I try to write and meditate as much as possible daily.  These things bring me back to working on the behind the scenes of post-tour and get me into planning the next.

Are there any books, albums, or films that have influenced your work?

I’ve been really influenced by the following albums:

  • D’Angelo: Voodoo
  • Fiona Apple : When the Pawn
  • The Beatles: Hard Day’s Night
  • Paul Simon: Graceland
  • Portishead: Dummy
  • Joni Mitchell: Court and Spark
  • Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced?
  • Gal Costa: (1969)
  • J Dilla: Doughnuts
  • Erykah Badu: Mama’s Gun
Do you follow a spiritual discipline that helps you stay balanced?

I try to elevate my spirit a bit everyday, but I wouldn’t call it a discipline.  More a work in flow and progress.  I do meditate and practice an ancient form of breathing technique and yoga daily, but some days longer than others.  Sometimes meditation means weeding the garden.  I love to lean on Goddess Oracle cards and trusted friends for guidance, and I ask for help with dream and life interpretations.  I used to be really bad at that last part, but as my spirituality grows, I understand that we all must ask for the love/guidance/help we’re seeking.  I think this is why our song “Call Out My Name” seems to strike a chord with people; it’s a call for all to be okay with leaning on another emotionally or spiritually.  Looking back, perhaps I heard John Lennon saying “Come together, right now, over me.”

If you had an artistic mission statement, what would it be?

Keep the soul and spread the love!

My personal mission is to spread love and higher vibration through sound and through the first instrument, the voice, and hopefully to have a whole lot of fun doing it.  The band’s mission is to pave the way for independent bands like us to feel freedom of expression versus the grip of an industry less focused on making quality music.

I’ve always been fond of this quote by my hero, the fabulous spirit warrior Maya Angelou, so I’ll cite it here as my sentiments: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”

What’s next for the Soulphonics?

First, we’re excited to be supporting this new album with a tour for the rest of the summer and into the fall.  Also we’ll be releasing our video for “Broken Woman” in July and we’re excited about having partnered with Hales Photography who used a new photo technology called Flixel to help bring our vision to life.  Can’t wait to share that one on 7/13!

Finally, we’ll have two new vinyl releases in late summer/early fall for fans, too.  All our vinyl was pressed on colored wax and we’re really proud of how it’s all come together!  I’m proud to say that in keeping with our indie approach, I designed the “Call Out My Name” “7” which is on cream colored vinyl (releasing 8/31/18).  This track is very special to us as an anthem, so we hope you dig, too!

We’re so thankful that after six years of working on this album, the fans have stayed with us.  It means so much, we couldn’t do this without you, and we’ll be in your town or country soon!