Soulphonics’ Ruby Velle: “Singing soul is like therapy”

MTV Desi, May 26, 2011

A few days ago we introduced you to Soulphonics and Ruby Velle, the vintage soul act in Atlanta that’s fronted by a young Desi woman. We caught up with Ruby to talk music, culture, history—and how 1960s-era soul music captured her heart.

So what’s a nice Indian girl doing fronting an old-school soul band?

I’ve been a fan of soul music for years and it has become a great way for me to express myself as well as to keep the genre itself alive and kicking. My favorite thing is bringing the sound to new listeners who don’t know they like it until they hear it. That to me is priceless.

How Indian an upbringing did you have? Did you run the gauntlet of Indian music, dance lessons and all that?

I was born in Toronto. I’ve been to visit India several times, my family is spread out between North and South India, so I got to glean the best parts of each culture. I grew up with a perfect of blend of east and west. My parents were typical in their strictness, but they allowed me to follow my creativity and passions. I was able to take part in Indian festivals, I learned dances and hymns as much as I could while attending school and singing in chorus. The blend of culture was never a shock to me. It has caused me to be authentic and honest about straddling two cultures.

I was never involved in classical Indian singing, but I admire those who can train in it and learn the scales since they are much different than Western scales. I trained in opera for a short time and was part of state solo competitions for singing, so the western style of music was the first to inspire me. I would love to learn tabla though…

You and the Soulphonics core got together in Gainesville—did you got to the University of Florida? And how did the move to Atlanta come about?

I did go to UF. I’m a proud Gator. I met the others, Scott Clayton and Spencer Garn, there. We worked closely together on music and the band was doing great. I got the itch to study graphic design and I had heard about a school in Atlanta for creative arts. The guys moved up there shortly after I started art school. It was a two-year program and by the end we had established a great scene in Atlanta for our music. I think moving to Atlanta almost four years ago was the perfect step for us. To be thriving in a state known for the best soul music feels pretty good. Atlanta needed a solid soul band and we needed the fans—it’s been a win win.

Yeah, Atlanta has deep soul history—not just the music, but the culture and politics around the music. Was it easy to carve out a space for Soulphonics?

There is always great talent in Atlanta, and a few soul bands have stuck out here and there, but they were mainly funk-oriented. I consider us more of a sweet soul, the more tender and emotionally gripping soul. There was not much of that going on in Atlanta. I think a lot of the older artists have either passed on or moved out of Georgia, so there was definitely an opportunity to emerge on the forefront of the soul scene. However, there are a ton of other bands worth mentioning in Atlanta that may not be soul bands but who are still making great music: The Constellations, Blair Crimmins and the Hookers, Britni Bosco, Abbey Go Go, All the Saints, the Forty-Fives—really I could list them for days!

Is there a kinship between what you’re doing and other “retro-soul” acts like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Tone scene, and British counterparts like Amy Winehouse or Adele? Do you see all this as a movement?

I am so happy with the success of these other bands, it makes me feel like soul is here to stay and that people are taking notice of a genre that should not be denied. I enjoy being part of the revival, but also we are not trying to box ourselves into being a strictly retro-soul outfit. Some of our songs are blues or even classic rock focused. The goal is to create good music, and we are open to exploring where the sound will take us.

For you personally, what was the draw of soul music in the first place?

No other music makes me feel the way soul does. It’s the lyrics and the beat, and the way that all the instruments work together. The parts are sometimes very different but the amalgamation can be intoxicating. Some other genres get close—I personally love acid rock, prog rock and even hip-hop. I’ve sung covers of Led Zepplin and jazz standards from Peggy Lee. But singing soul is like therapy. You can become a heartbroken, downtrodden soul, or you can become a high-speed energetic mover and shaker. You have the ability to leverage the emotional power of the music itself.

So much of soul music is about the lyrics as well. I really try to keep that in mind when I am writing. It’s easy to make a soul song that’s corny and trite, and sometimes people welcome that. But I think of the genre as a rich historic experience to be had, a chance for me to add to that. To display emotions I may not otherwise express. I write from the heart so it seems that soul is a perfect match for me to share the ups and downs with fans.

Share with us some personal favorites, maybe some under-appreciated soul artists or songs that you’d love for people to know better.

I always ask people to listen to Cold Blood. They were a very obscure band out of the San Francisco area in the late sixties. They are killer. Fronted by a woman, same height as me, and she rocks it all day long. They were simply on fire. We’ve taken a few of their covers and adapted them to our sound.

So you’re a brown woman singing with an all-white band and playing a historically, if not exclusively, black music—in the American South no less. I can’t imagine you guys don’t think and talk about these issues from time to time.

Ruby Velle Photo Credit: J.R. Ward Photography

Believe it or not I have never felt like we shouldn’t be playing this music, or that we are not the right people to be bringing out this sound. People tell me all the time they think I am African American until they see me, and I think it’s a huge compliment. I learned to sing mostly by example, mimicking artists I love. I am blessed to sound the way I do, though I am constantly trying to improve. I don’t know where it comes from but I do like that it surprises people. How could I not like that?

We stay true to the genre in a few ways. We pick obscure covers when we do covers, not everyday soul hits. We feel the need to pick songs you may not know from the radio. We also record on analog equipment, tape machines, etc., so we can preserve the sound and resonance of older soul recordings. And I think we write songs that could easily fit into the context of soul history while offering a unique twist. The origins of soul will remain the same but I think the genre has evolved to be accepting of all kinds of people.

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