Monday 23 April 2018

‘I’ve seen misogynistic things in the music industry - but it’s changing’ - Irish songwriter RuthAnne Cunningham

The Dublin singer/songwriter on writing for stars like Britney, growing up in Hollywood, her #MeToo experience, and finally flying solo

RuthAnne Cunningham
RuthAnne Cunningham
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

After more than a decade lending her songwriting skills to artists from Britney Spears to Niall Horan, Dubliner RuthAnne Cunningham is finally launching a solo career.

She has co-written Niall’s ‘Slow Hands’, Britney’s ‘Work B**ch’, In The Name of Love by Martin Garrix ft Bebe Rexha, and she featured on the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack, but the breadth of her success is striking when you consider the figures - her songs have accumulated more than 1.5 billion Spotify streams.

Back in Dublin from her LA base, it’s no surprise that the 30-year-old talent has just received an IMRO award for her outstanding contribution to songwriting.  It’s about time.

It’s also time, she feels, to flex her solo muscles and she’s poised to release her debut single, The Vow, on March 23.  It’s a powerful, soulful celebration of a romantic relationship, and destined to be the emotional first dance song of many a newly wedded couple.

RuthAnne takes the compliment, but laughs, “I actually struggle to write love songs.  Most of the other songs [on the album] are heartbreak songs.  But finally I just woke up in the middle of the night one night and wrote the lyrics.  I thought, I need a love song on my album or everyone is going to think I’m really depressed!”

She admits she did have someone in mind when she penned it, someone she has been friends with for many years and for whom she has feelings.  They started something romantic, she says, but decided not to ruin the friendship.

RuthAnne Cunningham
RuthAnne Cunningham

“I can’t write unless there’s a muse,” she says, revealing that the object of her affection is also an artist.

“It’s hard doing this career and trying to start a relationship at the same time when you’re far apart.  So we’ve put it at bay for now and we’re just being friends.  We barely see each other.  We both live in different places,” she says.  “To be honest I’m so glad that I met him.  He’s been a really consistent man in my life.  That’s where the lyric ‘you are my constant’ comes from in The Vow – him being a consistent man in my life and not just trying to get into my pants. These days in life a lot of what guys are about is sex.  With this guy that’s not what he wants from me and it means so much.”

She has written songs about him. In fact, she laughs, “if you’re going to date me at all, you’re probably going to get a song written about you.  What is funny is that some guys think that every song is about them for the rest of time. I’m like, no, I’ve moved on from you!  No, this song is not about you!”

RuthAnne started out in songwriting at the tender age of just 17, when she moved to LA and was tasked with co-writing pop princess JoJo’s hit Too Little Too Late.

RuthAnne Cunningham
RuthAnne Cunningham

She shared a manager, Eamonn Maguire, with The Script and lived in the same apartment block as Mark.  “He and Danny were like my big brothers,” she says, adding that she was “really well looked after” living with Eamonn and his family.

However, while she was very well protected at that point in her life, as she grew up through her twenties in the male-dominated industry she says she has “definitely been in a position where I’ve seen things, misogynistic things, women being treated badly.  I’ve definitely been in the position of a #MeToo situation and I’ll talk about that probably more when my music is out.  I don’t want it to be the focus.  But I can relate to that.”

She adds, however, that “as there are bad people who take advantage of their power position, there are a lot of amazing men as well in the industry who supported me and brought me into sessions.  But I’d be absolutely lying if I said [harassment] doesn’t exist.  Exactly what happened in Hollywood is 100 per cent happening in the music industry.  In music it’s almost worse because not a lot of people are coming forward and naming names in music.  Everyone’s too afraid they won’t get sessions anymore.

“The attitude in the music industry is a woman’s role in the room is to bring a good vibe, be polite, not to cause any drama or be overly emotional.  If you are you’re never asked back to a session so that’s the role that you need to play.  If you’re difficult, or over emotional or say, ‘don’t talk to me like that’ or ‘don’t disrespect me like that’ you might not work again.”

Due to her level of success, however, she feels she has escaped the brunt of that attitude.

RuthAnne Cunningham
RuthAnne Cunningham

“I’m very lucky in that I’ve had a lot of success so when I’m in the room there’s a respect there for me and I keep around co-writers I like as people,” she explains.

“I have been in a situation where I’ve said ‘I’m never writing with that person again.  I just don’t need to’.  I’ve been in a position with men, some of the most successful men, who have treated me disrespectfully and I think, 'I don’t need to work with you'.  I don’t want to work with assholes.” 

Lately, however, things do appear to be changing, as men begin to question their attitudes and approach to women with whom they work.  One of her friends and colleague asked her if he had ever been inappropriate.  He hadn't but she appreciated the question.

“It’s actually making a lot of men think before they speak.  It’s the start of men thinking, ‘Oh, wait, maybe I shouldn’t comment on how she looks or be overly sexual in a session’” she says.

“But it’s going to take time.  It’s going to take women being able to feel like they can stand up for themselves too before it can really change.  Women now feel a bit more supported to say, ‘Don’t speak to me like that, thanks.’”

In terms of her career, while she has had phenomenal success, there have been times when surviving in LA has been tough.  Songwriting is tough.  Even when she wrote with JoJo and spawned a huge hit, she says she “didn’t have a clue” what she was doing.

“There were no classes for me, no college for this.  I was just working and living in the songwriting industry.  Nobody can tell you how it’s done.  There are no rules really.  For me I had to learn all that and really take a lot of time on my craft. 

“I’ve come to realise a lot of it is psychological, the frame of mind you are in at the time.  A lot of it is building great relationships with your co-writers. 

“You have to be willing to leave your home and move to London and LA, go where people are who I can write with, so a lot of sacrifices have to be make to make it in this career.  Just as much as talking about the success, there were years where I was singing in wedding bands in LA because I was in debt and spent all the money.  Nobody is on top the whole time.  You have to fight to keep your place.  There are always younger, up and coming songwriters. 

“I’ve just been very fortunate how I’ve survived in the music industry.  I’ve just kept it about the music and trying to write the best songs I can. If you go into a studio thinking you’re going to write a hit today you never do.  The days you relax your mind and go in with an open mind and have a conversation, those are the days special songs will come.”

Now she’s turning those skills inwards with her solo album.  It has been a long time coming.  She thought she was ready for a solo career at 17, but she says she “led a sheltered life” in Dublin and the experience of living and working in Hollywood “messed me up a little bit”.

“Hollywood can really mess with you and your confidence,” she says.  “I started getting a bit down in LA.  It was really hard and I was feeling a bit uninspired so I went back to London and Ireland for a few weeks.  In three weeks I wrote most of the songs [on the album].

“I just realised how important it was for me as a person to just do it.  When you’re writing for other people it’s amazing but you’re kind of like a voice for them and when I’m sitting with Niall [Horan] I’m not going to be writing about my own heartbreak story.  I need to help him tell his stories and so it’s just kind of a way of channelling, to get out what I want to say.”

She has no fear of being vulnerable in her own songs in the same way her favourite female artists -Adele, the late Amy Winehouse, Alicia Keyes – are in theirs.

“I feel like there’s no other female trying to do this type of music at the moment so I might as well just do it,” she says.  “It’s fun and it’s fulfilling and when I’m playing some show and people are really connecting with my music and coming up to me after and saying ‘that’s what I’ve gone through’ I know I’m making people feel something and that’s what I’m trying to do.  I’ve had success as a songwriter, I know what it’s like to have number ones, and this isn’t really about that for me.  Having people feel something, whether that’s 500 people or 50,000 people doesn’t matter.  It’s more just finding my audience whoever and wherever they might be and having this album reach them.”

That’s not to say that she has never felt intimidated by the success her songs have achieved via other artists.

“If I put out a song and it doesn’t get big streaming numbers like Niall’s stuff am I failure?  It really is so different when you’re an artist.  It’s not about that, especially the type of artist I am.  Pop stardom is very different and I’m not really trying to be a pop star. I’m a bit more soul than pop but if that ends up becoming what it becomes that’s amazing.  That just means more people hear it!  But for me it’s more just about getting to make great music and sing a bit.  I can’t compete with One Direction’s millions of followers. 

“I’m just beginning to give myself a break and understand I’m starting out like anyone else.  People think I have a leg up but really I’m starting fresh because it’s the music that ends up being what people gravitate towards.”

If it all fails, she jokes, she’ll always have songwriting for other artists, “I can still do that at 65!”

RuthAnne Cunningham’s single The Vow releases on Friday March 23.

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