Ruth Gerson: A State of Independence

Ruth Gerson is the true independent artist.  She has recorded several albums, has lived on both coasts, has a large fan base in Italy out of all places, and has even appeared on the Conan O’Brien show!  Not only are her songs powerful and innovative, but as a vocal teacher, Gerson has created a tool called The Singing Belt that has been a big assistance to many a singer.  We spoke with Ruth Gerson about her new album This Can’t Be My Life (Wrong Records), the apperance on Conan, her writing influneces, a chance meeting with Bob Dylan that changed her life – all this and she even offered vocals tips for metal and screamo singers right here in this very article!   Read on as we expore the life of an absoluely remarkable independent artist…

Where are you based out of and what is your local music scene like there?
You know what, I just moved here in September from New York. I grew up and lived in New York City my whole life. I was sort of in that East Village scene – that anti-folk scene I guess. And then I moved here in September, and I’m just getting familiar with the San Francisco Bay music scene. I played a place called Hotel Utah, but I’m not totally up on the bands and scene here. I know a lot of bands because I’m a vocal coach and vocalists come to see me – so most of what I know is through my students actually.

I see you’re going to have a residency at the Hotel Utah…
I have a show coming there this weekend, but beginning in August, it will be the first Saturday of every month – kind of indefinitely. I always can fill it out and it’s nice to get really familiar with the local scene – to just play one place at the same bat time – same bat station. I think it’s a good way for an artist to have a local following – if you do something that people can count on and know when and where it is.

What was the name of the very first song you wrote, how old were you, and what was that song about?
You know – that’s a funny question – and I have an answer – because I remember this because it was sort of a family joke. This first song I wrote was when I was three – and nobody knows if it was about a Black Little Spider or a Black Widow Spider – because of my speech impediment when I was three. And I remember the song and I remember writing it on all the black keys, because my grandmother had told me that Irving Berlin wrote all his songs on all black keys. So I started writing songs just on all black keys, and that’s what I came up with. I don’t know if it counts – I don’t know if it’s a real song. But that was the first song that I know of that I wrote.

So on to the present. What inspired the concept for the CD title This Can’t Be My Life?
That came from a real moment. I was not in a place that I thought I would be in – and a whole shelf full of dishes kind of fell onto the floor and there were broken dishes everywhere. And I was on my hands and knees on the floor picking up broken dishes – which to me, that moment felt like a metaphor for everything that was kind of going on. I really felt that the spirit of my grandmother threw all those dishes down to wake me up. And I just kept saying, ‘This can’t be my life! This can’t be my life!” And then it became my mantra and a little bit of a joke. So the song, the next morning – I would ride my bike really early in the mornings. To write that album, I had the use of an empty therapist office in Chelsea – but I had to be finish up between 10-11 AM – so I’d get there between 5-6 in the morning every day. I would ride my bike over and I’d start to write songs in my head. It worked out pretty well, because I think my brain got adjusted knowing that “Okay, we’re going to go over and write now, so I better think of something.” So I remember writing that song out of that moment – but it made me laugh a lot. And I think even though the album is kind of sarcastic and dark in places, there’s also a lot of humor in it. And I’d say that kind of laughing about it gave me the motivation to change things – and just get in a much better place.

Tell me about the first song Fresh Air – and was that one really completed on New Years Day?
Yes, it was completed on New Years Day! I was writing that song and I actually did not have the chorus. I had all the verses – they came really easily. I was playing it for my friend Zoey Reid – she’s English – and I was playing it for her over the phone because I really enjoyed playing it. And she was like, “Oh that reminds me…” – and she said there was some tradition where she was from, where New Years Day you open the doors and you open the windows – you open everything up to let all the fresh air through. Sort of out with the bad – in with the new air for the New Year. And I was like, “Oh that’s great!” And then I hung up the phone with her and wrote that chorus – and that completed the song.

Would you consider yourself to be Bulletproof?
(Laughs) Um, no. That song is more about my brother who is alive – but was in the army and got injured in the army. But in my head, it’s about two fighter pilots who are shot down and they are stuck in their parachutes in the trees. And they were already dead or dying and for some reason this was in my imagination when I wrote the song – it was me looking at my brother. We’re already dead but then someone shoots us and I can’t feel anything. And I would say it kind of goes between two worlds – it was around a dream I had – and I probably had the dream for some other reason. There’s definitely stuff in there that I felt personally, but the sort of image I had in my brain was me and my brother being shot down and in trees being shot at more. It was really a song about war altogether. A lot of people think it’s about personal sort of things that were going on at the time – but that wasn’t the image I had at the time when I wrote it.

Black Water is one scary song. Where did you get the idea for the lyrics on that one?
It came through a bunch of things. Many, many years ago, I got to meet and talk to Bob Dylan – he got some tape of mine. So I got to talk to him for a couple of hours, and one of his instructions was really to go and listen more to older music – to the history of music. And my experience before then was to just play and write and not to listen as much. So I really went on this journey listening to music and then one of the things that kept striking me were all of the songs about killing women. And I became very interested in that. I actually have another album completed that’s produced by Rick Chernoff that I haven’t put out yet – I’ll put it out in January I hope. So there were all these songs – a lot of murder ballads and then other instances where bad things happen to women when they sort of step outside the sexual mores of the culture. (The new unreleased album is) called Deceived where the songs are all sort of deceptively happy. But I was really listening to these songs so much – like Knoxville Girl and Butcher’s Boy and Dolly Parton’s Down From Dover and Bobbie Gentry. All these songs – these stories were in my head – they were somewhere in my consciousness. This happened before I did that album. And when I literally wrote (Black Water) – I rode my bike to the office and I had no idea what I was going to write about. It seemed to kind of pop off the walls. It kind of scared me when I wrote it – I was in a therapist’s office and I was like, “Am I picking up something from off the wall? Is this crazy confessional coming off the wall?” It came out of my imagination, but I think all the songs I had been listening to at the time were influential. That song was actually 12 minutes long when I wrote it, and we cut it – but it’s still almost 8 minutes long. I remember the first person I played it for was my mother, and I think she almost threw up. But I think it’s good to play because people are really interested in the story of the song, and that kind of sparks conversation on what it’s based on – which is violence against women. And I guess that, for me, is one of the most important kind of things that I’m dedicated to.

Being a vocal teacher, what advice would you give a younger singer who is currently is a metal or a screamo band?
You have to learn how to do it. Think about going into the gym and trying to lift 200lbs without building up to it – you’ll hurt yourself.

If you are putting all the pressure on your cords, you’ll lose your voice. That doesn’t mean it can’t sound amazing to push and strain. It’s a very emotional, expressive sound, and honestly it can even feel good sometimes to hurt yourself when you’re in that mode.

If you want to tour and play night after night, you have to learn how to do it, which means you have to learn how to support your voice with your diaphragm, and balance the air in your mouth with a dropped, loose jaw, tongue relaxed and down behind your teeth. There is a large difference between the metal sound and the screamo sound. Singing like Dio is very different than Mudvayne.

To sing like Dio, you have to learn how to maintain a lot of air in your lungs, and to use that air to support a steady, resistant breath in your nasopharynx area (think of singing into the back top part of your head). You start by doing exercises straight to the middle of the roof of your mouth, where the hard and soft palette meet (if a nail went through the top of your head it would exit right there in the middle of the roof of your mouth). When you’ve truly learned to balance that air and keep it steady, you can start to bring it back, lift the soft palette and go much higher. If you do nothing else, visit the Learning Center at the Singingbelt website Go to the “Mechanics of the Diaphragm” page and watch the video about the diaphragm, so you can start to get a clear picture of what the diaphragm looks like and how you can control it using your intercostal muscles, your abdominal wall muscles and your lats…

Your voice is a wind instrument. You have to learn to control the air to do all the vocal stunts and acrobatics you want to do for this style of singing.

For screamo – some of those sounds are hard on the cords. What I teach my students is how to do as much as possible without hurting yourself. Certain sounds you’re going for, involve strain. If the rest of everything you do does not involve strain, you’ll make it through the tour. If you scream intensely, pushing on your cords for hours, you’ll lose your voice. There’s also a lot you can do with a distortion pedal. (I’m talking about making it through a tour without permanent damage.)

An exercise to start trying right now – after you’ve checked out the video on the diaphragm.
Pick up a ball (basketball, soccer ball, whatever), Hold it at eye level. With the jaw released (open at least a couple of fingers width), tongue, relaxed, settled down, tip of the tongue behind your teeth; begin to do a siren sound on ah. Start at the bottom of your range, and bring it up to mid-level and sustain the note, then come back down, finish the air, stop the sound. Take the ball from eye level (follow with your eyes, not your head, keep your eye on the ball), take the ball down to belly level, while you sustain the higher note of the siren, then bring it back up to eye level, as you bring the note back down. Don’t blow out your air at the end, but take a catch breath, take the air in, and prepare to do it again, each time going a little higher. Stop if you feel stress or strain on your cords. This should be easy. And your working to sustain the top note without any quivering or shaking or warbling. Keep doing this exercise a few time a day. As the notes are climbing higher, imagine that you are sending your air back into your soft palette, or towards the back of the top of your head. Take it slow. It’s more important to balance the air and keep it steady to build your muscle control. If you blow up a balloon with one breath, you should feel the same kind of pressure in your belly that you will feel doing the ball exercise. You want to come down to the higher notes from above. You want to the land the notes, don’t reach up, and cut yourself off. Pretend you are taking those notes down into your belly. The ball represents the notes, hold it slightly out from your body, but pretend that note is going down through your chest into the belly.

There are many of these kinds of exercises on the Singingbelt instructional DVD, but this should get you started.

So before we end the interview I have to ask you – what was it like being on the Conan O’Brien show? (Ruth was on Conan to promote her album Wish, which came out in 1999)
It was great! Everybody was extremely nice. I was really nervous, but I felt like I think as anyone for their first time on the show would be – but everyone there does there best to make you feel good. Conan himself was incredibly nice. After the show, I played a Gretsch – and his office was full – I don’t know how many guitars he has – he had over 10 Gretsch’s there. But everybody was very nice. I was scared at some point, but I had a great time. I almost forget the words my song, which never happens. But it was a great experience. I want to do it again, but I can’t right now apparently.

How long ago was this – a couple of years ago?
It was more than a couple of years ago, yeah.  I also do a lot of stuff in Italy – I was very lucky in Italy – I’ve got this real cult following. I did a lot of TV in Italy. I was voted second vocalists right after Patty Smith but above Sheryl Crow – it was really funny. It was kind of this cultish, weird thing that happened over there, so I traveled there a lot because I had work. I think as an independent artist, that’s what you do – you go where the work is. And then a lot of things happened in life that made me hold back from touring a bit. But it’s fun to be able to put out albums and play shows. I’m really happy in the Bay Area. It’s a great place. I love it and I’m not going back to the East…

(Interview by Kenneth Morton)


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