A profile on Rubie, South London-based songstress and artist
When I first started playing music in front of people, I got stage fright so badly I couldn’t eat leading up to the gig. Every huge minute that took me closer to playing I’d feel myself shrinking by increments. Once onstage, sometimes I’d re-inflate immediately and feel huge and triumphant, like the moment wedding balloons are released from a net and everyone cheers. The fear would evaporate so quickly I couldn’t remember ever feeling it. Other times, I stayed small - especially if the crowd were rowdy, especially if they were mostly men. I succumbed to the fear by taking up as little space as possible.
Rubie takes up space. On this particular Monday night in Brixton they’re dressed all in red, and their waist-length hair makes them look like they’ve arrived straight from Rivendell, though there’s nothing waifish about their music. It’s jarring, impossible to ignore, and cuts straight to the bone. If Joanna Newsom and Anohni had a child, they would grow up to be Rubie. Like Newsom, their lyrics appear to exist somewhere in the not-so-distant past. Like Anohni, their vocal range is impressive; the timbre of their voice reaching us from somewhere beyond the veil.
Their set is accompanied sporadically by a guitar, which they play so minimally it’s easier to focus on the space between the notes rather than the actual plucking of the strings. The whole performance feels like a meditation on taking up space. Rather than shrinking, Rubie grows exponentially onstage. A loop pedal means that for some songs, it’s not just one Rubie, but four or five Rubies all singing; they don’t rely on instruments to find their note, they rely on other vocal incarnations of Rubie. At one point, they leave the stage and the microphone, their voice(s) still looping, and come into the crowd, where they sing un-amplified (because the megaphone they try at first to sing through isn’t working). Such displays, especially from the opening act of the night, easily feel gimmicky or undeservedly attention-seeking, but with Rubie it feels entirely necessary. We part like the Red Sea to let them through. Their voice carries just fine; they don’t need the microphone to be heard. It is completely arresting to watch them perform, and even unassuming members of the public who have come to the Windmill for a Monday night pint seem caught up.
A few weeks later, I meet Rubie in Dalston to talk about their work. When I ask, Rubie says they wangle their way into old, white male spaces on purpose. “You can still shock people in a gig in a pub. It’s been one of the only times I’ve felt like art can change someone’s mind. You know, when the drunk old guy at the pub is like ‘I was a bit confused when you got on and you were wearing a dress but...it was really good, I really liked it! You have a really nice voice!’ And I’m like thanks, I’m glad some sort of shift happened - you know, even if you just change one person’s response to a family member or something, you can be changing the world a little bit.”
We talk about the limitations of being pigeon-holed as a “queer musician”. “The politics of the music I make is not specifically a trans politics - it’s a politics of vulnerability. I think we can all learn to be a bit more emotionally intelligent, and I think old white men are often the people who most need to learn that lesson.” The word ‘accessibility’ being the oft-hyped buzzword of the day, it’s easy to forget that the concept includes making gender-questioning, binary-rejecting music for old white men to encounter on a normal night at the pub. Like Rubie says, that encounter might change someone’s response to the next non-cis person they meet, for the better. In the past, they experimented with leveraging their trans- ness onstage, but finds themselves confined to all-queer line-ups, and doesn’t get to play to those old white men any more.
The first time I ever see Rubie perform, I am struck by an odd and profound sense of longing to have seen them play before, and by regret that this is only the first time. If more of my early musical exposure had involved watching women and non-binary people taking up space, I’m sure my teenage stage fright would’ve presented itself differently. Perhaps the fear wouldn’t have existed at all - although, in all likelihood, it would still have manifested somehow. In a universe where there’s a Rubie to sing for every genderqueer child, those children grow up with an implicit knowledge that they deserve to be onstage. In other words, they know it is their right to take up space.
Performance art was what initially helped Rubie arrive at performing. At school, music was reserved for the choirboy elite. Rubie found solace in the art department - only four people took Art A-Level and they had a whole room to themselves. Rubie gave up piano lessons about a year after starting, and improved hugely under self-direction. Before they told anyone they made music, Rubie wrote a whole album at nineteen, recorded at night with a recorder atop the piano, singing very quietly so nobody could hear. They’ve grown since then, and art has helped; they’ve just finished a degree in Sculpture at Central Saint Martins. When talking about learning to feel confident: “I recognised the power that leveraging my body could have. Also, I wasn’t writing for the piano any more. There’s something about being wedded this big heavy resonant instrument.”
Rubie builds aural sculptures onstage that enable them to grow bigger than their physical form. Making music is a way of leaving your body, a way of building something invisible. We talk about the materials Rubie uses to do this: “The reason I have a cathedral pedal is because I love the idea of a cathedral being in a box. I love the transformative possibility - you can turn a pub into a cathedral, or you can turn it into a very dead, dense space”. Sometimes their songs rely on reverb to take them all the way up to the heavens, other times; like in the song “They Are A Follower”, the complete lack of reverb makes it sound very hollow and sharp. “I want it to feel really tense, and really close, and a bit menacing and nasty. That song was written about meeting my partner in a Berlin club...when I’m imagining the space it’s not an echo-y space, it’s a really claustrophobic, dead space - you’re surrounded by all these bodies. I want it to sound like you’re surrounded by all the bodies but also silently in your own moment, in your head.” At moments like these, watching Rubie live, they have the ability to make you feel suddenly naked, like their display of vulnerability is exposing your own.
Sometimes I can fake the feeling of entitlement that makes it so much easier to perform in front of others, and sometimes I feel physically gripped by the idea that I don’t deserve to be there; especially as a girl who doesn’t wholly feel at home in her body anyway. By force of will, it has become easier. Watching musicians like Rubie play so confidently with the politics of vulnerability onstage helps a great deal.
Towards the end of the interview, they tell me a story that took place right outside Dalston Curve Garden, where we’re sitting. They were about to cross the road and an absolute stranger on the crossing stopped, looked at them and said, “I’ve been thinking about changing things in my life, and then you appeared”. Rubie has the power to make cis white men question themselves. There is power in being vulnerable onstage. If you’ve ever seen Rubie, you’ll know what I mean.
Find out more about Rubie on their website: http://www.rubierooo.com/ and instagram @rubierooo
Words and art by Freya Ward-Lowery
Freyegg is a London-based artist, writer, musician and skincare retail assistant, who actually can't eat eggs any more because they aggravate her eczema. She plays in the band Halaca. Follow her on instagram @freyegg