She left Dublin for LA at just 17 – and wrote music for everyone from Niall Horan to Britney Spears. But as she performs in Cork this weekend, Ruth Anne tells Ed Power she’s finally ready to take centre stage
Ruth Anne Cunningham has written hits for Britney Spears, Niall Horan and Westlife. But several years ago the Dubliner developed a nagging dissatisfaction with her life as in-demand producer and composer in Los Angeles. She wanted to express herself in her own voice rather than put words in the mouths of others. So she packed her bags and came home.
“I grew up singing and performing,” she says. “As a songwriter, you’re in the studio. I missed the shows. I was eager to get on stage.” She has certainly created a splash since returning to Donaghmede in Dublin where she grew up (today she divides her time between Dublin, London and LA). Her soulful new single “Love Again”, which she will perform when she plays Cork and Dublin this month, looks set to be her biggest hit to date.
The track is an open-hearted declaration of devotion to a new love who is trying to overcome the baggage of a previous relationship. As Ruth Anne’s heartfelt singing underscores, the lyrics are deeply personal and completely unflinching.
“I was dating someone who had just got a divorce,” she explains. “It was a song to remind myself to always jump back in when I’ve been broken-hearted. He had said to me, ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to love again’. I wrote the song to say, I’ll make you learn to love again. Then we broke up. But I got a song out of it.”
As a women in the music industry, Ruth Anne has seen a few things. She was a confident 17-year-old when, the day after her final Leaving Cert exam, she left Dublin for Los Angeles and started making her way in one of the most competitive industries on earth.
But, years before #MeToo, the LA music scene wasn’t always an easy place for a woman. Speaking to her, it’s clear the sort of unacceptable behaviour to which Hollywood is slowly coming clean is also an issue in music.
Even setting aside overt creepiness or predatory behaviour there is the issue of women being talked down to by male artists, producers and executives. She has experienced plenty of that as well. “I’ve had a lot of misogyny in [studio] sessions,” she says. “Gender inequality — being made feel less. You watch a man being assertive and direct. And then when you try the same thing … you are being bossy or bitchy.”
As a confident person calling the shots in their career, she has been struck over and over by how some men simply can’t deal with taking orders from a woman. “Even when I’ve hired musicians, simply telling them what to do — some men don’t like a woman in control. Whereas women are meant to fall in line and mind their ps and qs.”
Ruth Anne sang publicly for the first time aged seven, when she entered a karaoke contest. At 12 she joined the Billie Barry Stage School. Four years later, she put together her own girl band.
And then, having sat her Leaving Cert, her then manager helped arrange for her to go to Los Angeles where she co-authored a hit for the American singer JoJo. “Too Little Too Late” was released in July 2006 and climbed steadily on the Billboard charts until it peaked at number three. “My mum and dad came from families where, if you wanted to be a musician, you were told that you’re not doing it. So they always really, really supportive of all their kids.
“My sisters had some crazy faith in me too. I would sing them all my songs. There wasn’t really any stopping me. Once (the family) met with my manager and got comfortable with him, they said, ‘yeah you can do it’. They had a lot of faith in me.”
Ruth Anne co-wrote Britney Spears’ 2013 fan-favourite “Work Bitch”, which the audience went wild for when Spears performed it in Dublin last summer. Today she’s recently returned from LA recording sessions for the follow-up to Niall Horan’s Flicker. She also has credits for “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” by Horan’s One Direction and Westlife’s “Beautiful World”. All of the above were a pleasure to work with. But while too discreet and professional to name names she has, in her years in the business, come across superstars whose commitment to their music was less than stellar. There have been a few who just want to spend all day on Instagram. “Niall is very heavily involved,” she says. “He’s in the room with everything. Britney wasn’t there. But I know she was in the studio with Will.i.am when he came in with some of his parts [Will.i.am also helped write “Work Bitch”]. That was a bit of a factory.
“They would rather read about their amazing bodies than working on the music. Nowadays I make a conscious effort to work with people I truly believe in.” There’s a stereotype that top-level pop songwriting is a bit of a production line. Recently The New York Times published an autopsy of the Travis Scott smash “Sicko Mode”, which is credited to 30 different songwriters. These include veteran hit-makers, superstar Drake and “a Switzerland-based washing-machine salesman”.
“I’ve been involved in every type of process,” says Ruth Anne. “The factory type of sessions … they aren’t for me. As a songwriter you have to chose what way you want to make it in music.
“Some people love the factory mentality. I am very much the opposite. I write my lyrics on my phone. I love being around other musicians. I’m a bit more of a purist when it comes to the art form. I’ve been part of the song factory. But today I chose not to do it.”
In this social media age, it is important that an artist come across as authentic, she feels. So Ruth Anne puts all of herself into her music. It is the very opposite of manufactured. “You have to have a thick skin,” she says. “My parents raised me with the mentality of never using sex or my sexuality to get me anywhere. I’ve always kept it about the music. I’ve let the music speak for itself. People want to hear realness and authenticity.
“It’s not about fame. A lot of what I wrote for other people was pop. My own stuff has soul.”
Ruth Anne’s new single Love Again is released this month. She plays Cyprus Avenue, Cork this weekend and the Olympia, Dublin on March 23 as support to Wild Youth