IN CONVERSATION: Georgia Ruth “I didn’t want to dwell in the shadows of the album, for too long”

Georgia Ruth‘s beautiful fourth studio album, Cool Head is her best yet, a tale of keeping your calm when things around you are falling apart. Written in the year after her husband and collaborator was taken seriously ill, Georgia describes the album as a long drive through night into morning: a journey through the darkness into the light. Having won the Welsh music Prize in 2013 for her debut album Week of Pines, Cool Head doesn’t feature the harp she has been known for, but this warm, gorgeously drawn collection of songs, spans elements of wide-open Americana to 60s-influenced folk ballads of Europe, and is centered with a melodic heart and a well worn craft of subtle and reflective songwriting.

Co-produced with long-time collaborator Iwan Morgan (Laura J Martin), and recorded in Sain studios, near Caernarfon, the album features contributions by Iwan Huws (Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog), Stephen Black (Sweet Baboo), Gwion Llewelyn (Aldous Harding), and Rhodri Brooks (Melin Melyn, AhGeebe). With Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci stalwart Euros Childs adding his unmistakable vocals to a couple of songs.

The wonderful and wide-screen lead track ‘Driving Dreams’ , featurings gently lapping guitars, bouncing percussion, sighing horns just off plate and wrapped in elegantly drawn string arrangements. Ruth’s open hearted vocals are gorgeously quivering in a upper register, ripe with a longing for the open road and all the escape, freedom and unknown it represents, and with affectionate echoes of the 60s Americana of Glen Campbell and the sensitive orchestral suites of Serge Gainsbourg or Francoise Hardy records.

“So, I think ‘Driving Dreams’ was the first song to appear and it came with its own set of references. The direction that I wanted to take was really clear, I wanted this Glen Campbell– style, soaring, road song.” Ruth recalls “Then the second I had that image in my head, it stayed when the other songs were starting to materialize and I realized that there was a journey happening and it made sense to me,” she explains.

“When I was putting everything together to think about it as a progression from the start to the end, and the start would be darker, and the end would be lighter. This metaphor of this nighttime car drive just really seemed to fit, and that really helped me to think about how I wanted it to sound because it’s quite a vivid image and it came with all these ideas.”

It also features widescreen string arrangements by Gruff Ab Arwel, whose ear for melody brings a new dimension to the songs. Despite the use of a range of instrumentation, it’s never over done, here’s a spaciousness a warmth that brings a real grace and clarity to these songs. “That was definitely something that I wanted the album to have was that sense of space because sometimes, when you’ve got all these linear things, filling up a mix, it all starts to feel a bit squashed,” explains Ruth “I knew that for this album, it really needs to have quite a bit of breathing space. I knew that the person who’d be able to write string parts that kind of moved in the way that still allowed the songs to breathe was Gruff Ab Arwel, because, you know, I’d heard what he’d done with Gruff Rhys for example.”

“I knew that he would get that cinematic sound almost retro, Morricone sound. But also, you mentioned Serge Gainsbourg and there’s something about what Gruff does that references Jean Claude Varnier, those little moments of drama, happening, but they’re not filling up the entire mix,” she continues. Revealing perhaps a more surprising 90s pop influence to the sound, too.

“No one knows this. But the first chat that we had about how we thought the string arrangements might sound and Gruff was asking me if there were any songs that I had that he could listen to that might give him some sense of where to start and the song that I kept coming back to, believe it or not, was ‘Two become One’ by The Spice Girls, which I bought on cassette when I was in primary school,” she enthuses “I was always fascinated by the strings that come in right at the end of that song because they’re so unexpected and they’re all in unison, and they’re so dramatic and they sound so cool. I thought, well, if if we can get it to sound a little bit like Two become one by the Spice Girls, I think I will be really happy and he was yeah, yeah, I hear it. I hear it. And he told me, he got it. You know, he didn’t laugh at me and say what the hell. So it was brilliant working with him on this.”

Alongside the album, Georgia is releasing her debut novel, Tell Me Who I Am, telling the story of a reclusive musician who is given a second chance (in more ways than one), will be available alongside it. The song ‘Tell Me Who I Am‘ balances elegant string stabs, shuffling percussion against Ruth’s hushed and heartfelt vocal, it sea saws with a graceful heart. “Jude, the novel’s main character, was responsible for writing one of my favourite songs on the album, Tell Me Who I Am. So it makes sense that they should come out together,” Georgia says. “It’s a song that goes on a bit of a journey, he’s had some success in his past, and it’s become a bit of an albatross around his neck as his relationship with music has become a little bit toxic and kind of sad. So he is forced to kind of make amends with the song. The song is picked up by a primetime TV show, when he’s kind of flung back into the limelight in a way that makes him uneasy. He’s not used to it.”

“When I started writing the novel, I hadn’t actually meant to write a real song, I’d written a set of lyrics, or he’d written the set of lyrics, should I say. It sounds ridiculous, but they were definitely his lyrics.” She explains of writing from the character’s perspective “But I had this melody, and it was going round and I thought, ‘oh, yeah, that’s how the song would sound’ and then, as I was having to write about the song, the whole structure of it was coming together and then it lived in my head for the few years that I was writing the novel and when it came to putting this album together.”

“I thought, Oh, God, wouldn’t it be great to finally sing that and see what it sounds like in real life, because it might not work, it might just be something that’s in my head, you know, so it was really nice to kind of put it out into the real world and the version in the novel is a little bit different to our band version. But I think we’ve kind of kept quite faithfully to how it’s written about in the book and so actually.” She explains “I decided to put the song on the album before I decided to publish the book. I was kind of thinking, oh, God, maybe I’ll just keep this in a drawer, no one ever has to know. It’ll be a moment of madness from lockdown, and maybe 40 years, I’ll go back to it. Then I thought, well, if I’m putting the song on the album, it makes sense to put the book out because without the book, there would be no song. So that’s why they’re both coming out on the same day. So they are later on. But you know, you don’t have to read the book to listen to the album. They’re not they’re not that kind of quite dependent on each other.”

Chemistry’ is absoultely wonderously bittersweet dripping with the feeling of travelling home, of how things can be so hard sometimes, and how sometimes you need a bit of chemical help to get you through. Framed in sighing strings, and graceful orchestration, and Ruth’s voice resides with the pregnant bittersweet longing of journeying home through the dark, dealing with issues trying to find self acceptance into the morning light.

“It was one of those strange songs that kind of it happened really quickly and I was coming back from North Wales, we were coming home, I was in the car with my husband. It’s what happens in the lyrics, the children were sleeping the back and I was in the front, and we would come in past Cadair Idris. So we’re coming towards and this massive epic landscape, you know, thinking about things as you do, and the song just started to take shape, really. Then I finished writing it the next day, really quickly, almost before I’d had time to work out what the hell I was sort of singing about, but it’s literally about me deciding whether or not I was going to take antidepressants,” she reveals.

It’s also brimming with humanity, compassion, joined by the gentle hand on the shoulder of Euros Childs, who provides tender supportive backing vocals. “So it was this kind of the realization that probably sometimes, it’s fine to say that you need some chemical help, or that you need you need to maybe address the chemistry of your own brain and just sort of grappling with the reality of that really, and, and my own feelings of shame.” She confesses “I was struck by the fact that if it had been a friend saying to me, and I’m thinking about doing this, what would she have said it, I would have immediately been well, of course, you know, your mind is affected chemically, so addressing it chemically kind of makes sense, go for it, be empowered. But when it comes to yourself, there’s all these other almost like societal considerations that you take in, and so I was quite scared to put it out in a way.”

“I’ve probably been quite oblique about what it’s about when I’ve been talking about it being about ‘standing on threshold between something,’ but it literally is about chemistry. This idea that, the chorus says it better than I can, which is just ”it’s not a losing streak, it’s not a victory it’s just chemistry’ , and, it was sort of simplifying the subject matter for myself really taking the shame and the emotion out of that decision.”

As well as looking at the serious issue of mental health Ruth adds an aside (“I was never very good at chemistry.”) that’s got the deftness and pathos of an old country song. “I knew that I wanted it to have another voice on it. I knew that I wanted it to be this supportive other voice coming in almost to like have that sense of, you know, support. And when I was thinking about the melody, I said, ‘Oh, well, I can’t imagine how great this would sound with Euros singing it!’ and then I asked him he was like, yeah, definitely. So that was just so exciting. I felt quite touched really, that he that he agreed to sing on it and really happy with how it turned out.”

“I was writing it really as a little kind of encouragement to myself to not allow those internalized kind of feelings of shame to dictate what actually was quite a sensible, rational decision.But again, it plays in with this car journey, you know, because there’s the car and it ties in then to the bigger picture of the album, which is working through something coming out to a lighter place,” Ruth continues.

Americana can sometimes feel a little male dominated, a little like a copy of Uncut magazine, where the genre is stuck in its well worn tropes. Cool Head is clearly influenced by the sound but applies it in such a charming, open and personal way, drawing a warmth and heart to the recordings that more in keeping with records from the 60s or 70s, yet brought right in to focus by Ruth’s excellent songwriting. “I think there’s always the danger isn’t it, that when you’re not an American musician, and you’ve got this huge admiration for American musicians, then sometimes it can feel like a hat that you want to put on, ” she explains “That might not always be the hat that’s best suited to your face. Pardon the metaphor, so I knew the kind of artists that I was thinking about when I wrote this record. Actually, female artists, all So Lucinda Williams, who I just adore, Amy Man, Neko Case, you know these like, and to me, they don’t fit comfortably in Do the Americana and brown eyes and that’s why I love them. But they could be considered Americana, I guess. But they’ve all got their own authentic thing and voice that somehow avoid those cliches that you were talking about. And so I think because I had them in my mind, I knew it was okay to bring in all those different influences,band with that French side of things, we’ve we’ve got quite a lot of nylon string guitar being played on the album, which definitely doesn’t sound like your classic, Americana guitar. Again, that was important to me to have those points of difference that would that would take it somewhere a little bit out of that box that you were talking about” She details.

“Oh, my God, you have to listen to the new Willie Nelson album!” she enthuses “He’s 91 and he’s put this album out, and you just have to listen to it. It’s amazing. So what really struck me about it is that instrumentation wise, is that it could have been made in any decade going all the way back to the 60s, there’s there’s nothing to date it. It’s just musicians in a room playing together. There’s something so direct about that and you know, in 50 years time, you’ll listen back and you’d like yeah, that’s that still sounds like musicians in a room,” She continues.

“I listened to a lot of Hank Williams too, that’s been one of the constant soundtracks of my life really and I love listening back to those sessions that he did with with his musicians, because you hear that the recordings sound old now, but in terms of the arrangement, they’d still sound really good. So, yeah, I didn’t want to overcomplicate things with too many production details this time, I wanted to stay faithful to the musicians that we had.”

When asked how her husband is doing now, its better news. “He is doing great. Thanks for asking. It’s been amazing, actually and, you know, we’re so grateful to the NHS in Wales for how quickly they dealt with it. Bronglais Hospital in Aberystwyth were amazing. Morriston, who performed the operation on him were amazing, too. So although it was really scary, hairy time, there was always that sense of support.

“I mean, when we finally did get into the studio, he had healed a lot. So even that in itself was like, actually quite a joyful thing to do. It was like, ok, you’re back playing guitar. So although the songs are obviously honest, and they’re quite heavy at times, the actual act of taking them into the studio to record felt like we were already out on that other side. So I was able to be quite positive in how we were approaching the lyrics and stuff like that.”

Although it’s an album that deals with difficult and dark subject matter it feels redemptive as the last part of the record brings a life affirming hope, that things will be ok in the end “That’s what I that’s what I wanted, because, mostly for my own sanity, I didn’t want to dwell in the dark places or in the shadows of the album, for too long,” she reveals “I’ve always tried in my songs to balance out the dark with the light and particularly on this one, it felt quite important to do that. So, there’s always this sense of moving into the morning into the the light, and right at the end, you know, we’ve got the song ‘Bright Morning Stars’ (feat Euros Childs) that is the morning and I wanted it to feel radiant and kind of okay, right, we’re out on the other side.”

Georgia Ruth’s Cool Head is out now on Bubblewrap Recordings. Her book Tell Me Who I Am, is out now too.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.