Hailing from Fredonia, New York, Country singer-songwriter Ruthie Collins released her debut album Get Drunk and Cry in 2017.
In the time since then, it’s felt a little quiet for Ruthie but in actuality she was busy in the studio writing and recording. The end result is Cold Comfort, her excellent new album that was released earlier this month, and is already a contender for album of the year.
I called Ruthie to dig into the making of the record, discuss the incredibly personal nature of the songs, and talk about the creative freedom that resulted in her best work yet…
Cold Comfort is an album that hits you so deeply, the listener feels like they’ve gone through the things you talk about in your lyrics, even though they might not have. Tell me a little bit about how you brought this album together…
It was a different process for me. I’ve one full-length album before and an EP before that, and those were very much pieced together through the record label machine. Those are records that took years to make, whittling down literally thousands of songs with A&R people and CEOs and marketing guys and managers and so many cooks in the kitchen. Those processes were great but they can really water down your creative process because you’re just trying to make everyone happy. For this record I was in the – it’s funny to look at it this way now – a sort of privileged position that no one was really paying much attention to me at the time because of the unfortunate climate of females at country radio, I knew I really wasn’t getting much attention. It was a bad business decision, let’s just be honest.
When I asked my label what I should be doing while I was “waiting” for them to release a single, they said writing and recording. I had been writing for years. That was all I’d been doing since the last release so I thought, ‘well, you said to record. I’m just going to go record’. I found a way to book the time at the studio and no one really said anything to me. I picked 11 songs that I had written, some of the songs go back to 2014 or 2015. Untold is the oldest song on the record and Joshua Tree is the youngest song on the record, which I wrote a week before we went into the studio. I went in and decided that instead of recording songs that I thought that some program director in 40s would like that I was just gonna sing the songs that really had served me and meant something authentically, that were my truth of what I actually going through in that time, and not just what I thought might work at Country radio.
It’s natural that it’s a very different record because these are just real things that I went through and I didn’t water it down. I got to the point in my life where I was like, ‘I can’t just sing stuff anymore just for fun or to be light hearted or to try to have some success’. I decided that if I wasn’t being aligned with what I was really there to do, it was never going to work anyway, and I should just embrace being the girl who sings really introspective sad songs because we’ve all got to reach down and go, ‘this is who I am and maybe if I just do that, it’ll work’. I really was just doing it to be myself. I can’t even tell you, there’s not even a word in the universe big enough for the way I feel that people are responding to it so kindly.
This is such a deeply personal record and I’ve enjoyed spending time with it to unpack each song and really understand the lyrics. Your voice has this ability to capture such moments of fragility one second then sound strong and powerful in the next. How easy was it to write and sing some of these lyrics?
We’ve always said that if you come to a Ruthie Collins show, you will leave knowing absolutely everything about me because I don’t hold back. Which is why sometimes I give a sparkling interview because I will say anything (laughs). I just embrace that. That’s who I am as a person too. I really don’t like small talk, I’m not good at it. I can talk about the weather, but I really want to know, ‘how’s your relationship with your mother?’ I don’t do the shallow surface. I love to dive deep in so this record was also an experiment in that. I just feel really deeply so it wasn’t hard to get that emotion out in the recordings, that was something I was very concerned with.
My producer, Wes Harley, is very talented at getting emotion out from me. He wanted people to feel, especially in this modern world of music where things are so programmed and can be tuned to perfection. We really wanted that human element to be a front runner on the record. That was important to us that people were feeling something and now that we’re all cooped up in our houses feeling our emotions, what a time for that. You Can’t Remember, when I went in to record that song I sang the vocal for a couple of hours, just like you normally do breaking it up to do the verses and the choruses. I went out to get a cup of coffee in the lobby of the studio and my producer just was looking at me. We’re close friends so he knew how to get to me and also I think he was a little concerned with asking me for too much because he was concerned about me emotionally as well and he didn’t want to put me through anything traumatic.
I said, ‘well, what do you think? Do you think we got it?’ and he was like, ‘no’. I was like, ‘Oh, you know if you ask me to I’ll do it but I just can’t really go back to that night so I’m just sort of trying to ask. If you could just tell me like, how sad am I in this moment? Am I at 7 or am I at 6, and I’ll just try to like, act it out’. He was like, ‘I don’t think that’s going to work this time’ and I was like, ‘oh, no!’ (laughs). He said, ‘I think you need to do it, for real?’ I was like, ‘OK’. We just got back off the road and I think I had three quarters of a bottle of Jack Daniels in my backpack still from the green room from a rider. I was like, ‘all right, let’s put some of this in my coffee and this is about to get really real’. I went outside with him and he said, ‘I want you to tell me about how you were feeling that night. What did it smell like? What did it taste like? What were people talking about? What were the conversations?’
He really just took me back to a really tragic moment in my life. I just sobbed on the microphone then for three hours, and I tried to keep it together. Some of them were really that therapeutic. We were dissecting emotions and relationship trauma that I’d been through. That’s why it sounds so real because it all was really real. Even when I tried to act he was like ‘nope, sorry’. I guess vulnerability is something I’m really leaning into these days.
The production on Cold Comfort is so special. It harks back to classic Country and classic Americana but on Untold, it’s so big and sweeping I could imagine it in a pivotal scene in a Disney movie. How did you work on the production to bring our your unique sound?
See that’s really interesting. The girl who actually arranged the strings on the record, she told me, ‘you’re like a Country & Western Disney Princess’ and I was like, ‘I think that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me’. That comes from my great love for Country music and Americana music but I also grew up listening to pop music, and musical theatre. I am just a dramatic person. I really love the beautiful romantic adventure of life in general. I wanted this record to feel that way too. I wanted you to feel like you were going on this adventure with me and when I was really in my saddest moments, I wanted the strings to feel that way. There’s a moment on Joshua Tree where it says, ‘when it falls down like the rain’ and you hear the strings go ‘do do’ and it sounds like they’re falling like rain. Those moments were really important to me because the big thing we were trying to do is convey emotion. We tried to do that with the instruments as well.
A big part of that is I entrusted someone, Wes Harley my producer, who has known me for a decade. We had been making music on the road and we were best friends so he knows every move I’m gonna make before I make it on stage because he’s been watching me for years. He’s been singing, literally, staring at my lips, trying to match background vocals. He knows my instincts almost better than I do. He was so familiar, probably by spending many hours in a van with me on the road, with my favourite records from my whole life. When you sit in a van, you play DJ while you’re driving in North Dakota or whatever. He was so aware of, and he had done the research of all of my favorite records, that knew exactly who to call, as far as the band to put together the guys and the girls that also at their core loved those records more than anything else.
The musicians that we hired were another big factor in making this record. We didn’t just hire the most technically advanced musicians or the ones that have been having the most success as players. We called in our friends that had the same favourite records as me so that they, with their instincts, would also do the things that they would do if this was a Kathleen Edwards record or a Patty Griffin record. He really chose players specifically that had the same instincts musically as me and just tried to not worry too much. I remember I had this girl from the Grammy Board last year say, ‘what is the kind of music that you want to make?’ I was like, ‘I love Americana, but I also love Country & Western songwriter stories. I’ve always just wanted to make beautiful music so I don’t know’. She said, ‘well, you know what? Don’t worry about it, we’re going to tell you what it is anyway. Just go make the best music you can make and at one point, we’re going to march it into a room and put it in a box in a specific genre. But that’s not really up to you anymore’.
I remember telling my CEO that and at the time that was frustrating to a businessman, but to me it gave me great freedom to just go, ‘yeah, that is what we’re supposed to do. Just make the art that only we can make in a way that’s authentic to ourselves, and let it play out. Release it to the world and let the people decide what they want to do with it’. That was another freedom of making this record that I’m so grateful to have had.
Sequencing on an album is so important and the sequencing on this record is absolutely perfect. Every single song sets up the next one and it feels like a story from start to finish. How important was the sequencing to you?
You’re gonna think this is funny when I tell you this, but I believe so much in art, and creativity being sort of a perfect storm of alignment. I think when we are aligned with, whether you want to call it God or source or energy, we’ve done the work to get ourselves as open and receptive as possible, these things come easily. I was in California last spring and I had completely forgotten that I was supposed to turn in the sequence that I wanted. Once again, my label was letting me really have free rein with this thing. I told you the part where I snuck in the studio, but then about halfway through the week, I got in big trouble and they said, ‘what are you doing? People have been dropped for doing this before’ and I said, ‘well, you know’ and somehow these words came out of my mouth and I convinced them to let me do it. They really let them have free rein.
I was out in California on this trip. I had flown out there to see this boy that I barely knew, but I was just so in love with already. I remember Thursday, I was supposed to send the sequence in and I totally forgot. I was in this state of just pure love and happiness. I was driving around California with this boy in Joshua Tree in the desert, just writing songs and falling in love. I was in this place of real true contentment and appreciation for life. I got an email Monday morning, and it was like, ‘where’s the sequence?’ I was like, ‘oh, shit’. I remember this guy was working on some stuff and I ran down the street in Hollywood to this coffee shop and I sat down, I wrote it out and it just came to me. That was the sequencing. After that, I went back and listened to it once and I was like, ‘I think this is right, it actually makes perfect sense’. I sent it in to the label and my managers and they thought it was perfect. I can’t really tell you that there was any theory behind it at all. I think I was just literally coming to it from this place of joy and like happiness in life. It kind of just came through me in that way.
Like you said earlier, being left your own devices has served you well for this record. Being able to follow your gut instinct without the pressure from outside influences, has worked and Cold Comfort is such a superb record because of it…
Thank you so much. I can’t really take credit for it, except for just sitting down every day and quieting my mind. There’s a feeling as a musician, when it’s so important to you and you live and you breathe and you die for your songs because that’s all I’ve ever been good at. You start and you get into this machine, and it becomes so desperately important to you that you can’t imagine it not working. When you get into a position in your life where because of whatever reason, whether it be females on Country radio or you’re in the wrong place, you have this desperate energy and feel like you’re going to die if it doesn’t work because it’s all you’ve ever wanted. I let that go. That wasn’t working and I just went, ‘I’m just gonna not work so hard for a minute’ and that’s when I learned to trust that it was just going to happen and I was just going to let it flow. I just stopped being so stressed about it. It’s hard not to just get lost in the industry and want it so bad and fight so hard for it. Thank you for saying that, but I don’t really feel like I can take credit, except for just sort of relaxing into it a little bit more.
Well I think you should take full credit…
Oh, thank you.
Once we eventually get through this pandemic, are you going to come over to the UK and play these songs live?
Oh my gosh, I’m dying to (laughs). It’s probably the number one thing I’m excited to do. I feel like you guys over there always know cool music first. I am so delighted that I’ve been getting such a great response in the UK. It’s so funny, almost all of the shows I have booked for this year, the first ones, were all near the UK. Some of them have been rescheduled so I will definitely be there in the Fall at the very latest. It is honestly the number one thing I’m looking forward to my life right now is getting out there and playing these songs for you guys.
This album lends itself to being played from start to finish in a live environment…
That would be a dream I would love to do that!
Lots of artists are starting to do that now. I think it would be interesting to hear this album in that way…
I’ve always had a dream to do that. When I was in college, my best friend Natalie Stovall and I went to college together, and I remember her having a record release show. Of course it was indie, we were still in college, but she sang it top to bottom. I guess that’s kind of always how I thought it was supposed to go. I didn’t get to have an album release party on my first record. My label just wasn’t promoting it so it wasn’t something that I could do because to play in Nashville with a full band you lose about $1,500 bucks right off the bat. I just couldn’t afford to do it. On this record, I was so excited because we were gonna have the release party and I was gonna do it top to bottom, and we still, but I actually did sing it on Instagram Live, top to bottom recently. It was really fun. It was crazy for me. I hadn’t ever done it that way. Even though it was just by myself, it still felt really special. Maybe that’ll be the tour. Wouldn’t that’d be fun?
Ruthie Collins’ album Cold Comfort is available now. Watch the video for Joshua Tree below: