RuthAnne Cunningham: Streetwise Irish songstress who has penned songs for Britney Spears and One Direction
Having written hits for stars such as Britney Spears and One Direction, RuthAnne Cunningham has carved out a career as an award-winning composer. But now, the Dubliner is ready to step into the spotlight singing her own songs. She tells John Meagher why beginning a pop career at age 30 means she's already wise to exploitation, misogyny and #MeToo moments…
RuthAnne Cunningham talks about the immense satisfaction her career has given her and she is reminded of the gloriously strange path she has taken in the most random of places. She will be in a spin class in London when the Britney Spears' single, Work B**ch, booms from the speakers and she allows herself a secret smile knowing that she part-wrote the smash hit and not a person sweating along to the music has a clue that one of its writers is in the room.
Or she will be getting an Uber in Los Angeles and a One Direction hit will come on the radio and she'll ask the driver to turn the volume up but not tell him that she wrote the melody. "I won't say a thing, but if a friend is with me she'll go, 'She wrote it!' And they'll go, 'Yeah, right!' People just don't believe me."
The 30-year-old Dubliner can pass by on the street without attracting a single backward glance, but she has had a part in writing several songs released by the planet's biggest pop names. Besides Britney and One Direction, she's written for dance superstar Martin Garrix, the late, but not lamented Westlife, UK exports Pixie Lott, Professor Green and Sugababes and... the list goes on.
She also wrote several songs on Niall Horan's debut album, winning a BMI (Broadcast Music Inc) award for his track Slow Hands in May. And one of her compositions appears on the soundtrack for the latest Fifty Shades movie. That's her soulful vocals you hear soundtracking the tasteful smut being acted out by Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson.
If Cunningham can anonymously stroll through her native city now, that may change in the near future. After more than a decade as a behind-the-scenes player, she has launched her own pop career. The Cunningham and the hyphen in her first name have been dispensed with and 'RuthAnne' is how she fashions herself today. She's released a couple of well received singles this year, including new single Liquid, and she has the lion's share of a debut album ready to go. "It will probably be released early next year," she says. "I want to do it right, rather than rush it out. Maybe a slow build."
She's already had opportunities that any would-be pop singer would covet. There have been dates supporting Alanis Morissette in Dublin, Cork and Galway this summer as will as high profile appearances on prime time US TV, such as when she dueted with rising star Lindsey Sterling on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
And she's got some of the biggest performers, songwriters and producers in the business on speed-dial. She's no ingenue, but someone with a lengthy career belying her youth, that leaves her very well placed to step up to the next level. "You can't take anything for granted in this industry," she says, "and you've got to put the work in. I've been around this world for a long time, so I know what's involved."
Her back-story is remarkable. She won a Jacob's songwriting award when she was just 16 and the day after her Leaving Cert finished, she was brought to the US by her then manager Eamonn Maguire - who went on to look after The Script - to meet with song-writing bigwigs and record company executives. "There wasn't a definite plan," she says. "It was a case of going over there and linking in with people and seeing what happened."
One of those people was Billy Steinberg - one of the most productive pop writers of the 1980s thanks to his work with Madonna and the Bangles. He wrote the former's Like A Virgin and the latter's Eternal Flame. "I was sitting at his piano and he asked me what I had. I played him a song I'd written. He liked it. The next day we wrote Too Little Too Late." Two years passed and Jojo, a pop star with a tween audience, recorded it. It became a hit in 30 countries and won Cunningham a prestigious ASCAP songwriting awarded. ASCAP, for the uninitiated, is an industry organisation boasting a membership of 670,000 songwriters, composers and music publishers and ASCAP winners get noticed fast.
Cunningham got the songwriting bug early. Born in Donaghmede, Co Dublin, in 1988, she says she first started 'composing' at seven. Both her parents, Brian and Berna, play guitar and sing in local churches. She started performing at an early age and attended the famed Billie Barry stage school. "I learned so much there," she enthuses. "You learn about confidence and dealing with rejection as well as developing your talent. Everything I learned there stood to me in LA because that's a city where you can get knocked back time and again."
She was one of the founders of a girl group, La Dolce Vita, when she was just 14 and she would sing anywhere people were gathered. She recalls performing at the local pub, the Donaghmede Inn, and at the Racecourse bar in nearby Donabate.
"My parents were always very supportive and it was my dad that entered me for that Jacob's award - I hadn't even known. But they made sure I had finished the Leaving [Cert] before going to LA and they knew Eamonn very well so they knew I'd be looked after over there."
If she hit the ground running in the US, it wasn't always plain sailing. Numerous offers came to nothing in the early days and she soon found that LA wasn't paved with gold. "There were tough times," she says, "but then there always are in this kind of business. It can be hard, but I don't want to complain too much because it's not like I'm cleaning toilets for a living."
For every song that did well, countless others failed to take off - a ratio that all of the world's best songwriters are familiar with. Rather than mope about her career not going places as fast as she'd like, RuthAnne always had a Plan B - and that sometimes meant having to sing in wedding bands in California. "You do what you have to," she says, simply. "There isn't as much money in songwriting as there used to be. And some songs could have multiple writers so the royalties are split many ways." Britney's Work B**ch, for instance, credits seven writers - Britney herself, will.i.am, Otto Jettman, Sebastian Ingrosso, Derek Winetraub, Anthony Preston... and Cunningham.
She admits to blowing a big pay cheque in the past and then "being completely broke" when the royalties dried up, but she insists she is much more mindful about the business aspect of her career now.
Cunningham seems remarkably down-to-earth for one who has worked in such a high-profile, yet fickle industry for years. On our walk from the photo shoot in the Opium venue on Wexford Street, to the Dean Hotel on Harcourt Street, she gets excited when passing the Wishbone restaurant - "my friends say the wings in there are a-mazing" - and when she spots the sign for the popular Krystle nightclub, she chats about some of the great nights she spent there.
Her accent is a curious hybrid. It's mainly Dublin, but there's a large dollop of LA in there too and she says some words in the manner of one who's spent a lot of time in the UK. She lives in London at the moment in order to spend time with her boyfriend, Ollie Marland. He's a songwriter too and had a brief moment of notoriety in 2015 when he was outed as a professional singer-songwriter after turning up for an X-Factor audition. They have been together a short time, but Cunningham seems properly smitten and she rhapsodizes about the songwriting they have done together. It helps, she says, that they understand each other's craft so well, even if they style of music they make is markedly different.
After spending most of her 20s in LA, she is happy to be living closer to her parents and delights in how easy it is to jump on a Dublin-bound plane from London. She says her parents and sisters keep her grounded. And she insists that it's "the Irish way" not to be sucked into the phoniness of LA. "Don't get me wrong," she says. "There's so much to like about LA, but at the same time there's an obsession with image that can be difficult especially for young women. There's no doubt that there's a superficial aspect to it but when you get older that sort of thing doesn't matter as much."
Cunningham believes 30 is a good age for her to launch her pop career. "There's no doubt that you have the sort of maturity at this age that you wouldn't have had in your early 20s, no matter how streetwise you might have been then." That maturity, she insists, will protect her from the sort of pressures that have long been commonplace for young pop stars. The suicide of the globally popular Swedish DJ Avicci, aged 28, earlier this year demonstrated the sort of pressure young stars can feel under. News of his death hit her hard. Avicci had used one of her songs, All You Need Is Love, early in his career. It's her vocals you hear on the euphoric dance track. "We never met, but he did email me," she says. "He was still so young."
She says she has seen exploitation of young performers time and again in LA. "They're expected to work constantly and to travel and tour without a break. That's not something I will do and my management knows that. What young stars often forget is that management are supposed to work for you, not the other way around."
She signed to John Legend's management company recently and has been impressed by their holistic approach to handling both career and the human being thrust into the spotlight. "I had a good feeling with them from the start," she says. "We're singing off the same page."
She's also literally singing off the same page as Legend himself. She has been working with him on a batch of new songs. They may make her debut album or his next one - she's not saying which, for now.
Cunningham says she loves to work and to stay busy, and as we chat she betrays the restlessness of one who is used to meeting deadlines and packing a lot into her day. She fidgets a little and checks her phone regularly.
Although she appears to have boundless self-confidence she says there are times where she is not taken seriously, especially by male musicians. "There's so much misogyny in the industry," she says. "I've been in studios for years and years and know how to produce, but you still get those looks and comments when you tell some male that such and such might work better. You just know they wouldn't treat a male writer or producer that way."
She's keen to point out that most of the men she has worked for have treated her respectfully and it's clear she has a lot of time for Niall Horan, having identified that he had the chops for a credible career post-One Direction.
The Dubliner says she's also had a #MeToo experience but doesn't appear comfortable going into the details. There was inappropriate behaviour at a songwriting camp she was partaking in some time ago, she says, and the situation made her so uncomfortable that she left immediately and flew out of the city. She feels it's an experience that may well find its way into a future song.
All the songs that will appear on her album, she says, come from the heart. "They're inspired by being an Irish girl living a long way from home, having ups and downs and relationships that are both good and bad."
She believes that there's a void to be filled. "We've had Dolores [O'Riordan] and Sinéad O'Connor and Andrea Corr. All great singers, but who's there now?" And yet, while those three were/are immediately identifiable as Irish artists, Cunningham's singing is more redolent of the US than Ireland.
She says she adored the music of Alicia Keys, "early Mariah Carey" and Lauryn Hill when she was growing up and it's those singers that her own work more closely resembles. "I'm excited about putting this music out in the world and standing over it myself," she says. "It's that bit different than writing something and someone else performing it. This is your song and you want to make it work as best you can."
And, who knows, in the future she may well be partaking in a spin class in London or riding a taxi in Los Angeles and her music plays through the speakers. Only then, it's likely that the gym devotees and Uber driver will know exactly who she is.
RuthAnne's latest single 'Liquid' is out now, see thisisruthanne.com
Photography by Fran Veale