Kool Kat of the Week: Down By The River: Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics Add Some Soul to a Good Cause

By James Kelly
Contributing Music Editor

The recent splash of international attention for retro soul music in the mainstream with artists such as Adele, Duffy, and Bruno Mars has been a welcome event. However, it should be no surprise that there has been a thriving deep soul underground that features artists who are just as good, if not better, than a lot of the major label acts. For about five years Atlanta has been the home for the amazing Soulphonics and Ruby Velle. This coming Friday they are performing at the 16th annual River Revival, a fundraiser for Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. The event is May 4 at Park Tavern in Piedmont Park starting at 6:30 p.m. and also featuring Burnt Bacon, Julia Haltigan and Ben Sollee.

ATLRetro.com caught up with the lovely Miss Velle this week, and she was kind enough to answer a lot of questions. We officially declare Ruby Velle (and the Soulphonics) the Kool Kats of the Week.

ATLRetro: What inspired you to become a singer, and how did you find your “voice” in such a commercially underappreciated genre?

Ruby Velle: I’ve been singing since I was 8, with early hand-me-down inspiration from my aunt and uncles musical influences. They were constantly providing me with vinyl listening parties, live jams with friends and creating an environment where I could perform at a young age. They were great friends with the late Luther Allison, [an] amazing blues artist.

Growing older, my parents and friends along the way were all very into soul, so I soaked up the greats and some of the lesser known artists through auditory osmosis. However, I don’t see the genre itself as commercially under-appreciated; it just will never gross as much as other genres such as pop or country. But there are some great acts out there making a good living from playing soul. I think the commercial factor is less relevant in the genre than the emotion portrayed in the music itself.

How and when did you and the Soulphonics end up in Atlanta, and why?

I had just graduated from college and wanted to study graphic design in Atlanta because I knew it was a career that could be useful to being a recording artist. The band’s creator, Spencer Garn (also the band’s leader, keyboardist, co-writer, producer and engineer), wanted to expose our music to a new audience, as we had a pretty good hold on the market in Florida. I moved, then Spencer, then Scott Clayton, the original guitarist/co-writer.  Atlanta seemed like a great next step and has proven to be a great place to call home. Our music has been able to evolve here into something Atlantans are proud to call their own, and since we’ve been here we have been voted Atlanta’s Best Soul Band by Creative Loafing, two years in a row! So Atlanta has quickly become home to us.

You have often mentioned Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding as big early influences, who are some of your favorite contemporary artists, and why?

Oooo… there’s such a long list. I always say my music is a collection of inspirations from all types of artists and genres, so it’s hard to just name a few. The biggest influences for songwriting lyrics have been Paul Simon, Fiona Apple and even Ani DiFranco. These artists are storytellers and their writings speak to me in a deeper more intellectual way. That is what I aim to do with the soul music we’ve been creating. Sure, anyone can write a soul ballad, but can it be deep and introspective? Can soul music make you move and make you think? I believe the answer is yes. I think my need to offer a new take on soulful lyrics is a result of the influences from these writers.

As far as musical influences that are contemporary, I’ve really been enjoying Alex Clare’s music lately. He just released his album to the states; he is originally from the UK. I love his soulful voice, and I can tell that he, like me, has been pulling pieces of styles, inflections, and vibe from the greats, but he makes it his own. I recommend his album because it mixes genres well with some soul, electro and dub-step (with credit to Diplo and members of Major Lazer). I think the melding of these genres is intoxicating.

Lastly, as far as contemporary artists go it doesn’t get much better for me than the Black Keys. I really admire Dan Auerbach’s talent and his ability to carry the torch for the blues and blues rock. I’m always impressed by whatever they put out, so soulful and simply genius.

What do you think brought about the re-emergence of deep soul and classic R&B over the last several years? 

Well, I’m glad you said “re-emergence” instead of “resurrection” because I hold the belief that soul never really died; it’s just become an evolving genre because the context has shifted so much from the days it originated.  I think more than anything people were craving that old sound made by new artists, so new interpretations have been born  a la Sharon Jones & The DapKings, Amy Winehouse, Adele and The Dynamites featuring Charles Walker. I’m grateful these artists have fueled the re-emergence because we have been doing soul music for almost 10 years as a underground act. It’s great to know that the genre itself has growing appeal to all ages on a wider scale.

What sort of crowd comes to see Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics? Does the age range surprise you?

ALL TYPES and ALL AGES. I’ve seen gay, straight, black, white, Indian, Chinese – you name it, they have been in the front row dancing till the last song ends. I’m very fortunate that our music resonates with all ages; it really has a way of bringing the community together when we play shows or benefit festivals. I’m not particularly surprised because the music is about emotion and feeling. And everyone of all ages can relate to certain emotions.

How challenging is it to maintain a band and keep things fresh and exciting in the Atlanta music scene?

Well, maintaining an eight-piece band can be hectic and can bring you to your knees if you begin to focus on logistically how hard it is, but I certainly can’t take credit for great management to date. We’ve become a tight knit team of multi-taskers and multi-talented folk. Spencer Garn, for example, manages the band, owns a record label [Element Records], and also records and mixes our music. I’ve had the band as my graphic design client for the past seven years, creating merch and posters to album art and vinyl labels. I also work as a creative director with stylists and designers, such as Bill Hallman, to maintain our dapper image and keep up looking sharp. Our guitar player and co-writer Scott Clayton is also an expert with sound equipment and repeatedly has the band sounding great. I’m very fortunate to work with some amazing people that believe in what we do.

In the Atlanta music scene, if you did not put out a song yesterday, you are pretty much obsolete. You have to really create here on a large scale and frequently to be recognized. I think Atlanta has prepared us well to deliver on a larger scale. Luckily we’ve been playing shows in Atlanta for the last five years at a pretty constant rate so we are seeing some of the fruits of that labor. The fans here, though, are incredibly supportive, more so than I’ve seen anywhere else. Sometimes I wish they would let go, lose it all and dance a bit more, but I came from a hippie town in Florida so it’s been a little adjustment for me to see the more refined fans here.

You and the band have put out a few great singles, which have whetted the appetites of your fans. Was this a strategic plan, or simply a business decision?

This has been a little of both. Just internally, we’ve had some of these songs written and recorded for a while, but we are very particular about what gets heard when. We love to build suspense around our releases, which is why we’ve been putting out a steady stream of singles since 2010. Our fans are losing their minds in anticipation of the album, and I’d like to think the singles have had something to do with that hype.  We are just as excited for the release of our debut album IT’S ABOUT TIME.

When will we finally see a full-length recording of the band?

This Summer we will FINALLY release the full-length debut album. Keep an eye out for our album release party in early August. The street date for the release will be around July 24. And we will party till the sun comes up. It’s been a very long road to put out the album, but we are pleased with it and are looking forward to the reviews and press to help it grow legs.

You are playing a benefit for the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeepers this coming weekend, so how important are the environment and other social causes to you?

Environmental and civil rights issues are a huge cornerstone for the Soulphonics and myself. A lot of the lyrics in our songs are about inspiring change, in ourselves as well as in others. We are just a group of folk that feel a need to use our musical influence to bring about change. In addition to working with the Riverkeepers to promote their benefit, we will be working with a number of nonprofit organizations dealing with sustainability, economic recovery in struggling regions and environmental causes. Although some of these plans are just getting going, we are partnering with CTC International in Kenya on some sustainability efforts for the communities there. We’ve also made an impact here in Atlanta with benefit shows and song donations for the Atlanta Humane Society and the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, and are always looking for more opportunities to promote social and environmental causes.

What does the future hold for Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics?

Positive change on a mass scale. With the release of the album and planning a tour, we will be able to bring our music to more ears than ever before. We are thrilled to be on the road soon touring and spreading the word about this little soul outfit with a big sound from Atlanta. There is a lot going on over the next year, but I look forward to being more involved in social causes as well as continuing to write for the follow-up album. IT’S ABOUT TIME chronicles our struggles and setbacks since we were established in 2007, but now that it’s releasing soon I guarantee there is no stopping this soul machine. The future, for all of us, is as bright as we think it to be.

All photos courtesy of Element Records and Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics and used with permission. For more information and to purchase tickets for the River Revival on May 4 at Park Tavern, go to their website at: https://www.xorbia.com/e/ucr/rr2012

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