Nuha Ruby Ra: A Divine Shape-Shifter

This past year, the always speeding off the rails music industry had to slow down and was forced to go off its normal trajectory. With the lack of festivals, gigs and disrupted release schedules, the excitement surrounding this usual craziness was pushed out of plain sight. It went all the way back to the underground, DIY music scenes and into the hands of warehouse-inhabiting next generation of reality-bending musicians. One of those ready to take over the post-pandemic world is East London’s Nuha Ruby Ra.

Though Nuha has been around for a while as a member of group Arrows of Love, appearing on Warmduscher and Flamingods tracks and scoring support slots for Amyl and The Sniffers or Japanese Television, it’s now that she’s decided to give a solo career a shot. Encompassing the strange charm of Björk, Studio 54 and Grace Jones’ electro-hedonism with dark post-punk rhythms, Nuha’s signature sound is as dazzling as it is disturbing. Her best is seeming also yet to come in a form of debut EP How To Move, due to be out in early 2021 on Brace Yourself Records. Collaborating with the crème de la crème of the recording world, such as Tony Visconti protégé Erin Tonkin and Pete Maher (Patti Smith, Lana Del Rey), she has made sure it’ll sound as superb as her music videos are looking where she’s dancing and floating around at her slickest and most fashionable – especially in visuals for ‘Sparky’ where 80s sensibilities meet her sharp lyricism in surreal surroundings. 

Nuha Ruby Ra is a do-it-all and divine shape-shifter who’s not scared of showing us uncomfortable emotions. She reminds us that healing takes time; that you can be both fierce and fragile while smoothly swaying through the night into the arms of your newest temporary crush. Nuha serves the most punk rock attitude you could have in the times when anarchy is sold pre-packed in the tourist shops. She offers the most valuable things she has – authentic self and sickening beats. It’s really no wonder she’s just won the Green Man Rising 2020 competition and has London’s creatives rooting for her behind the scenes as she’s getting ready to take over 2021. Wanting to dig into her kind of weird, we’ve found Nuha on the other side of the line miles away from London, just after a cigarette break, in a cabin in the middle of Essex while working on new material. Spoiler alert: she’s a really lovely person with infectious laughter.

How did your experiments with music begin?

My experiments with music started when I was at university. I was studying fine art and I gained an interest in sound art. So, I kind of started music in a sound art realm more than in a traditional music realm. It was built from there and sound pieces have started to become songs at some point over time. 

You’ve been unofficially crowned East London’s avant-punk queen but your sound seems to go beyond limitations of that definition. What are your main musical influences?

There’s quite a lot, to be honest with you. There isn’t a specific genre that I would say I’m into or inspired by but it’s bands really. There’s a German band called Einstürzende Neubauten that’s like a German industrial band that I’m a big fan of and I would say have definitely influenced my sound making. The Birthday Party are one of my favourite bands; people like Scott Walker or Björk because she works with some really interesting sound creators. Who else? There’s a lot of people. Oh, Brian Eno is another person, I would say. Those are the ones that come to mind straight away.

Does your Egyptian heritage come into play when you’re working on music and creating aesthetics?

I would say so, yeah. There are like little nods to Egyptian sounds here and there in my music. At the beginning of my EP, there’s an opening intro track: it’s basically me playing drums and sort of doing two sounds with it vocally. One of them is screaming and the other one is kind of like Arabic trill sounds and it’s like a sound of celebration that you do in Egypt. That’s kind of like as an opening ceremony to my EP. I guess it makes for sort of celebration and anguish because those were driving forces behind music that I wrote for that record. In ‘Sparky’, there are violin sounds that give a little bit of a hint to the tonal sound of violins in traditional Egyptian music.  

Everyone is trying to hook the audience on something in their art to convince them to stay and listen. What is it that you’re selling, what’s your message?

To be honest with you with this EP, I wouldn’t say that I have a message behind it. It was kind of a bit of a self-help record. It’s very autobiographical and quite confessional. To be honest, I made it to help myself to come out of a bit of a dark hole that I was in. It’s more of an expressive one or a confessional one I would say, rather than a specific message. But if I had to go with a message then it would be to act now, get up, do the things that you need to do because it’s the best thing that you can do for yourself.

You’ve recently announced that your debut EP How To Move is going to be released in March 2021. Can you tell me what the process recording and writing it was like?

I’m in the studio right now actually. I’m away in a cabin, in a middle of nowhere in Essex to write things for what will be my first album to come after the EP. The process of writing has been quite varied from the last EP to this record that I’m now writing. A lot of the time it just starts with a collection of sounds that I built – that was probably more applicable to the EP – and then stream of consciousness, regarding lyrics. At the time, there were things I needed to get off my chest. With this one, it’s still kind of building but it’s been some quite beat-driven ideas that are coming along. I’m just locking myself away for a bit and seeing what happens. Writing, it comes from, you know, sometimes you’re walking down the street and something comes to your mind. You put it in a voice recording and then listen back to it later and another idea that you did like maybe something I would’ve written on bass or guitar or synth or something, will start to make sense and these can go together. 

Talking about coming up with lyrical ideas, I’d love if you could walk me through tracks of the EP starting with ‘Cruel’. How did it come to life?

‘Cruel’ was actually the first song I wrote and that was kind of my wake-up call song. I wrote a bassline first, and then when the words came that’s when things sort of started. I’ve started to realise what this song is gonna be about. That was the one that was about the awareness of time. I felt like before that point I was coming to almost like the end of my life in some way. I wasn’t in a particularly good place and then a bit of revelation somehow came to me. It was like: ‘there’s more that I need to do, there’s time to do it’. The time to do it is now. That was ‘Cruel’. That was the first song that started me off to do a whole record.  

While all of the tracks on the EP let us see you being at the same time strong and vulnerable, ‘Erase Me’ seems to be the most emotional and raw. Where have you been mentally when writing it and what do you mean by saying ‘I hide my addictions well/I feed my addictions to myself’?

There’s quite a lot of songs on the EP to do with the ending of my last relationship. I was in a relationship with someone for quite a lot of years. Our lives were very entwined because he was like a best friend as well. We shared a collective together and we ended the relationship very amicably but then at some point, he didn’t want to have me in his life anymore, which is changed now. The song is about him wanting to erase me from his life which was quite a painful time.

In your music and especially lyrics you’re openly talking about your sexual experiences. You’ve said that ‘Sparky’ is about ‘the joys of sex and emotional detachment’. Can you elaborate on that and the song’s backstory?

I guess post-break-up time is about sort of deciding to maybe just go and have some fun. Just go and have some no strings attached sex and good times. A lot of time those things end up being more complicated than you initially planned. Something that’s meant to be really fun turns a bit complicated quite fast. That’s what this song’s about.

Which track on How To Move would you say is your favourite one and why?

My personal favourite is called ‘Run Run’ which is one that hasn’t been released yet. It’s a bit of an epic journey. ‘Run Run’ is like a seven-minute track. There’s a section when I say a lot of things that happened to do with a 3000-mile journey and which is the rough distance between London and New York. I went to New York to record my EP. For a bunch of reasons, I felt like the need to go there, expel these demons and make this record, so ‘Run Run’ ends up being really about a journey that spans more than just going to New York. It’s about everything that came before and all the reasons that have built up for me, having to make this pilgrimage to this place to finally bring out all these demons, to face them, share them out in the world and have some kind of catharsis.  

How has the London scene influenced forming your identity as a musician and as an artist?

London for me is the most inspiring place to live as an artist or as a musician. How does it influence me personally? There’s a lot of grit to it and that has had a lot of impact on the music that I make. I live in a very industrial area in a warehouse, it’s like a converted factory but it’s not converted in a fancy way. It’s very much an old factory that has built-in rooms. I live mostly with musicians and artists, they’re all my friends. I guess having the space to be able to have people around me as well means that we end up influencing each other outputs. There’s such a variety of sounds in London in general. There aren’t many places that I know, that I’ve been to, that have more of a variety in the landscape, the field and experiences that you can have there.

As it seems that it is the people that make this city special, what does it mean to you to be able to collaborate and operate in a collective of like-minded spirits?

There’s a rich tapestry of people in London that I was very fortunate to meet and be surrounded by from different places. There’s an amazing place called Total Refreshment Centre in Dalston and some incredible musicians have come out of there. A lot of these people are good friends of mine and I think I would count them as good influences on things that I do. Within all of these different scenes, there are such different sounds and different people that have their amazing genius ideas that I’m blessed to be able to collaborate with and come up with ideas with.

What do you think is in the future of underground music scene, especially when small music venues that play a crucial role in putting forward new talents are in danger of closing down?

It’s a very scary time, to be honest with you. It’s hard to know what will happen at the minute while fundraisers are going on. The Windmill, being sort of one of the best grass-roots venues in London, is massively in danger at the minute. We’re doing a big auction which hopefully will go well. There’s a lot of musicians that are affiliated with the venue that are donating different things to raise money. It’s unthinkable that somewhere like The Windmill or The Shacklewell Arms – lots of places that give space to new and upcoming bands to play – that they could potentially not be there anymore. I think if that will end up happening, which hopefully does never happen, things will probably have to go back to something like underground rave scenes. Just like illegal parties, there will be illegal underground gigs happening in places which I feel like will have a resurgence anyway. We always find a way. Music and art always find a way to survive somehow but I definitely hope that the places that have been for us all these years will manage to survive and be around as well.  

Fingers crossed. Circling back to the cabin, you’ve said that you’ve been working on a debut album, can you reveal anything about it?

It’s still very much in the making so I’m gonna save this one until we speak again in the future. It’s in the sections stage right now so I wouldn’t even know what to tell you if I tried.

In that case, what are your plans for 2021, if you can make any?

There are a few plans. The EP will be coming out in March which I’m very excited about. I was very lucky this year to win the Green Man Rising competition so I’ll be playing that next year. Hopefully, everything is fine by then and that will still go ahead. There are a few other things. There’s a festival in Wales coming up later in the year and I’ll be doing some tour dates that I’m gathering at the moment. Again, hoping that everything does go well. I’ve done an exciting collaboration recently which I don’t think I can talk about yet but it’s for a friend’s record that’s coming out soon. A really great band. It’ll be coming out in April sometime. That’s it.

Words: Alex Brzezicka Photos: Maxime Imbert

Nuha Ruby Ra’s debut EP ‘How To Move’ is released on March 5th. Pre-order the record and listen to newest single ‘Sparky’ via Bandcamp.

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