Ruby Rendrag’s hair is, well, red. A nice red. Not exactly “ruby” red. Hard to describe. Subtle tones, but definitely red. Pretty. Her music is subtle, too. Definitely rock, but there are the pop and folk influences also. Maybe just a hint of Rilo Kiley. Yeah, definitely.
We first caught up with Ruby at Station 8801—a nice little bar and restaurant tucked along a levee in New Orleans’ Garden District on Oak Street. Doing a series on musicians was not originally on the agenda for an investigative reporter fresh from Africa, and Ruby’s gig was supposed to be down time to reconnect with a new acquaintance. Ruby’s band changed all of that, and thus the Rhythms Rising Series was born for progressive media. No matter that the band was playing outdoors and a train added a sub-woofer rumble to the sound. This group was far better than just “good,” and you don’t often hear a cello added to a rock sound, but it sure worked.
Turns out Ruby was everywhere on the club scene in New Orleans for the next six weeks. We knew some of the same people and it was inevitable that we would be meeting at our Louisiana Pizza Kitchen “headquarters” for an interview. She showed up with Suki Kuehn in tow, who was the same cellist we heard back at Station 8801. An interesting man and classically trained to boot, born in Japan and reared in Baton Rouge, Kuehn says he got the classical bug when a “good-looking woman demonstrated cello for his fifth grade class in Ohio.” Kuehn was on the move even as a kid.
Kuehn may be “classical, in musical temperament” but he’s got a devastating sense of humor, listing his musical influences as “mostly dead guys from the 18th century.” But don’t let Kuehn’s humor fool you. He may have just invented the southern rock cello—a perfect counterpoint to Ruby’s accomplished guitar.
Ruby’s musical roots are all New Orleans. She grew up in Kenner and played bluegrass with five brothers. Someone handed her a guitar, “put her in a room to learn chords,” and told her to “figure out how to keep up,” she says.
Well, she certainly learned to do more than just keep up, and has developed a unique sound that musicians in the Big Easy actually term the “Ruby Rendrag sound.” A sound that is difficult to categorize, Ruby calls it “eclectic with a rock edge,” but you really get the idea what she is all about when she explains that she went “straight from bluegrass to Led Zeppelin influences.”
Call it what you want, the Ruby Rendrag sound is sophisticated and plays out as if real musicianship went into the arrangements and lyrics. The compositions are intelligent and go far beyond simple folk/rock three chord progressions and reliance upon a cheatin’ capo. Like Dana Abbott, whom we first profiled in this series, Ruby knows how to use the frets on the guitar and works the instrument for all its worth.
She also knows how she wants to be presented. We showed up with video camera in hand and offered two venues for the shoot. We could do a street musician thing up against the levee at the end of Esplanade, or do something more “fancy” in the courtyard of a nearby hotel. It was no contest. Ruby knows exactly who she is and Kuehn’s cello would work nicely in the courtyard, thank you very much. Ruby Rendrag is a class act.
We set up in an atrium with southern ambience to spare and, unknown to Ruby and Kuehn, an audience of a few tourists hanging over the fifth floor balcony, who rewarded the duo with applause after a few warm up measures. That moment provided our first glimpse of Ruby smiling broadly, rocking back in her chair, and laughing out loud with Kuehn. It was obvious that the spontaneous, accidental applause was heartwarming. Ironically, the tune that merited the appreciation was “Long Way Up”—Ruby’s “Katrina” song.
She wasn’t sure she wanted to play it out for us, since, as she said, it is an “angry” song. The strong, anxious arrangement and hard-hitting chord progressions certainly conveyed fury and more.
When she sings “all night long…waiting for the sound of a gun,” you know exactly what the aftermath of Katrina meant for those who stayed.
Hurricane Katrina and the flood of 2005 may have spared the Garden District or Ruby’s home in Kenner, but it certainly submerged the New Orleans music scene and it will be a long road home for most musicians. Those who have stayed in spite of it all are a tough, dedicated lot. Currently, Ruby is recording and mixing a new album at Studio in the Country, which as Ruby says, is “one of the last really good studios near New Orleans.” Things are going well and engineer Ben Mumphrey is offering “fantastic support,” Ruby said in an email as we were preparing this piece.
It is a story we heard too often in storm-ravaged south Louisiana. The property that houses the recording studio was almost sold and turned into a golf course. This is the fear you hear from well-known and not-so-well-known artists. Development and big money are hovering over a hurting land and culture. Artistic venues and affordable housing for artists, musicians, and just regular people of all stripes stand to be devoured by the vultures of corporate development—circling over New Orleans in search of their carrion prey. Ruby’s concern is palpable and everywhere—will new Orleans still be a refuge for the true artist, or will the glitz and hype of Nashville devour the New Orleans’ music scene as well? Individualism and freedom of expression are on the line, and as another musician told us (tongue in cheek)—she didn’t want to have to move to Nashville and be forced to wear “funny clothes.”
Ruby Rendrag has a bright future, Nashville or no Nashville. If the accompanying audio of “Superman” (www.rabbitsliketrumpets.typepad.com/RUBY_new_2.mp4) is any indication, she might already have a hit if the right person hears the tune. Try not to end up humming the melody after one play. The arrangement snaps and the vocal is right on. Subtle, but strong. Definitely rock, but then there are those pop and folk influences also. Definitely worth your attention.