SAN FRANCISCO — Only a couple of years ago, recent high school grad Ruth Berhe was posting six-second snippets of herself covering other people’s song on a keyboard from her parents’ home in Edmonton, Alberta.
These days, the singer, who goes by Ruth B., is still living at her parents’ house, but is a platinum-selling artist. Those originals short videos grew a following. Then she wrote a line of her own song, piano ballad “Lost Boy,” inspired by the story of Peter Pan. She completed the song at fans’ request, and posted the whole thing online, too. Millions more noticed that, as did Columbia Records, which quickly signed her to a label deal.
Berhe took time off from her studies to release an EP, and earlier this year, her full-length debut, Safe Haven. She wrote all 12 songs by herself, unlike so many pop singer-songwriters on major labels who work with co-writers. Joel Little, who also produced Lorde’s debut, produced the album, which ups the ante on her uplifting vocals and cinematic piano playing. It includes flourishes of R&B, up-tempo pop and bluesy balladry.
By this time, “Lost Boy” had already reached double platinum status in the U.S., and triple platinum in Canada and several European countries, and she won her home country’s Juno Award for Breakthrough Artist Of The Year. Not bad for someone with no prior experience in the music industry.
We caught up with Ruth B. last night before her show at Slim’s in San Francisco to chat up shifting the script on her life, songwriting as a form of diary entry, and her life on the road. Even when she arrives in a city a day early, as she did in San Francisco, she doesn’t get that much time to explore each city.
“It looked really pretty through the car window, and the weather was great, so no complaints,” she said.
RIFF: Two years ago you were releasing songs six seconds at a time and now you’re touring the U.S. and beyond. Is this what you had hoped for, or was posting music just a hobby for you back then?
Ruth B.: Yeah. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s definitely been a lot different, and there’s been a lot of surprises, but it’s been so fun. Waking up and getting to play songs for people is kind of a dream, so it’s been great.
Did you sing before you started posting songs on Vine, whether at church, or for your friends or family?
Not really. Singing was kind of always my little secret. Like, everyone knew that I loved it, but I was too shy to get in front of people. I think I did two or three talent shows growing up, and I sang once at church, but it wasn’t like a regular thing at all.
Where did that passion come from?
I think it was something I was born with. It was never something I was really taught. At 3 years old, I just loved to sing and make up little stories.
Pop musicians often end up writing with co-writers, especially when they are on a major label. Did you feel pressure?
I don’t know if I faced pressure. Definitely the conversation came up a few times. But I think for me it was just [that] I wanted to be in charge of my music, and that’s the one place I thought I could keep to myself: the songs and the stories. For me, songwriting is like a diary entry, so I don’t know how I could do that with anyone else at the time.
What are your favorite parts about being out on the road? It must still be pretty new for you.
Yeah, it definitely still feels very new, although I feel like I’ve been doing that for a while. My favorite parts are that one hour that I get on stage every night. It’s like a little escape from reality for a bit, which is sometimes nice.
What would you be doing right now if you weren’t doing this?
I would probably be in my fourth or third year at a university, studying law or something like that. That’s kind of what I was doing before this. I definitely want to go back and get a degree in English. It’s something on my bucket list that I really want to do. Someday, once I find the right time, I will.
“Lost Boy” was inspired by the TV show “Once Upon a Time” and your love for fairy tales. What else inspires you?
Just life, man. Like, really, it’s kind of the little things of every day. There’s not one topic that I shy away from or one topic that I try to focus on. It’s whatever I’m feeling at the moment, I’ll turn it into a song.
Can you give me an example of a song that came about that way?
Yeah. I’m a very visual person, so if I see things, that’s usually how it starts. There’s a song on my EP called “Two Poor Kids.” I was on the bus to school three years ago, and there were these two kids that got on and didn’t look like they had much. The girl wasn’t wearing shoes, but I just remember how in love they looked, and they didn’t really care about any of us on the bus. And so, that was a song that kind came out of that. … I’m always bound to run into a song.
Your first songwriting experience was just you at a piano. What was it like adding all the other instrumentation to your songs for the record?
Yeah, that was a really cool experience. I think it was nice because I got to take all those 12 songs that I had made in my basement and kind of take them into the studio and watch them turn into something, versus just create them right there. It was really nice to take them from what they actually sounded like to what I’d always hoped they sounded like in my head.
“Young” is the track that stands out most on the record because it’s so different from the others in tempo and pace. Was there a conscious effort to add this song or write something fast or danceable like it?
No. I wrote that song about my high school graduation, the night that we all partied and graduated. The storyline behind that … that was the first year where I didn’t know what my life was going to look like. It was kind of scary, but it was also nice. I just remember that night, being, like, OK with not knowing what the future held. There’s a line where I say, “I’m obsessed with being a mess.” It’s one of my favorite lines I’ve ever written because it’s true to me. I’ve always been someone who really liked schedule and was good at routine. It’s been different getting to know this lifestyle where you don’t know what you’re doing the next day, but I kind of love it now.
Do you feel like a part of you changed when success came? I read you were an introvert. It’s hard to be introverted with such success.
I’ve stayed true to myself as much as I can. It’s weird because every now and then, I’ll think about it and be like, “Wow, it’s been almost two-and-a-half years,” but I still feel like the same person. My life has changed a lot, but those core values of who I am are still there. I’m still my introverted self. I love the people I get to spend time with, but I don’t think I’ll ever be that rock star. I’m always going to be Ruth from Edmonton.
I heard you still live with your parents. Still the case?
Yeah. It still is for now. I’m thinking about changing that soon, but I love being at home. I appreciate my family a lot.
I don’t think many in the U.S. understand the significance of the Juno Awards. It’s like the equivalent to the Grammy’s. You won the Breakthrough Artist Award, which is like the Best New Artist Award. What was that like for you?
That was amazing. It was totally unexpected, and I didn’t see it coming at all. It was so incredible, I think, to just be noticed by Canada, and to be told I’m a breakthrough artist, is pretty awesome, so that was definitely a highlight of this year.
After this tour is up, what’s next for you?
I think a lot of writing. So [that’s] kind of what I’m focused on right now. It’s kind of scary to even say, “Album Two,” so I’m not saying it, but just, like, gathering stories and living and writing about them and kind of living life.