Before taking to the stage at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall to open for Canadian pop singing phenomenon – and fellow SOCAN member – Alessia Cara, as the opening act on her 22-city fall tour, Ruth B did what many a 21-year-old would: she took to Twitter. “Opening for Alessia at Radio City tonight,” she wrote to her more-than-a-million followers. “I’m shaking like a baby puppy.” Five hours later, she was back online: “Radio City just happened. I didn’t faint. I’m now waiting for pizza. Life is amazing.”
Amazing is an understatement. A year ago Ruth B (short for Berhe) was a university student worrying about exams, trying to decide on a major (she was leaning towards political science) and working a part-time job at a department store. “I was folding clothes and working cash,” she laughs. “That life feels like forever ago.”
That was all before her rapid and unanticipated leap onto the international pop music charts with her viral hit “Lost Boy,” the mournful piano ballad which has now achieved more than 33 million views on YouTube, and gone platinum in Canada, the U.S., Sweden and The Netherlands.
“Every time I leave my room, I’m bound to run into a song – from the look on someone’s face, to something someone says to me.”
Indeed, for many the Edmonton native is still known as “that Vine girl” because of the role the social media platform – where users share videos no longer than six seconds long – played in her remarkable rise to stardom.
Ruth B, whose parents emigrated to Canada from Ethiopia before she was born, grew up taking piano lessons, and always loved to sing around the house. “There was never a time when I wasn’t obsessed with music,” she explains. “It always came naturally – like breathing.”
After discovering Vine, she played around with posting “silly videos” and clips of herself covering tunes by everyone from The Beatles to Iggy Azalea to Coldplay. But it was a video she posted of herself playing a song by Drake that took her rapidly from 50 followers to nearly 1,000. “And I thought, ‘Oh, maybe this will help me get my voice out there,” she recalls.
In January 2015, inspired after watching an episode of the Canadian-made fairytale TV drama Once Upon a Time, Ruth B sat down at her keyboard and shared two lines from what would ultimately become her first original song: “I am a lost boy from Neverland/Usually hanging out with Peter Pan.”
The six-second clip earned 84,000 ‘likes’ in a single week. Shocked and encouraged, she released more clips in the weeks that followed, eventually posting a video of herself on YouTube playing the finished song. By then the calls from agents and record labels were already rolling in. Putting her academic career on hold, she signed with Columbia Records in July 2015, and a few months later released her four-song EP, The Intro (which includes the song “Lost Boy”) to critical acclaim.
While Ruth B says she’s as surprised as anyone by her sudden success, she admits that she’s always known, at some deeper level, that she was destined to have a life in music. She’s quick to point out, however, that her forays into performing online were never part of any kind of career plan for making it happen because, as she puts it, “that didn’t seem do-able.” Instead, she resolved to let things unfold naturally. “I knew it was going to happen, but in its own time,” she says.
Crediting her family and friends for keeping her grounded as her star rises, Ruth B is now focusing her attention on developing her skill as a songwriter. Describing herself as an avid reader and as a lover of stories, she’s focused on penning tunes that include strong imagery and characters. “I love when that’s incorporated into a song,” she says. “I like when I can picture it, and not just hear it.”
Ruth B points out that she finds her inspiration everywhere. “Every time I leave my room, I’m bound to run into a song – from the look on someone’s face, to something someone says to me. There’s a song in every experience. I don’t limit myself to anything.”
It’s an attitude that has enabled her to write 20 original songs in the past year, some of which will be included on a full-length album, currently in the works (with an anticipated release date of early 2017).
She’s quick to add that she still does all of the writing herself, and considers it a critical piece of who she is as an artist. “Before anything, I feel like I am a songwriter,” she says simply. “When I have grandkids, I want to be able to play my album and say, ‘This is all me.’ That’s important to me.”
While she still has plans to return to university down the road (she’s now leaning towards a degree in English), Ruth B’s enjoying the unexpected ride on which she’s found herself.
“Music brings me joy, whether I’m singing for thousands at Radio City Music Hall, or just singing in the basement for myself. As long as I can do music, I’m happy.”