Singing as one

Award-winning songwriter and Dublin singer-songwriter RuthAnne told David Hennessy it is time for gender equality when it comes to females getting played on the Irish airwaves. The star-studded Dreams cover that she produced in aid of Safe Ireland was a massive hit in Ireland recently but is ‘just the beginning’.

RuthAnne has written songs for such big names as Niall Horan and Britney Spears. The London-based Dublin singer-songwriter/producer brought together from isolation 39 of Ireland’s best female artists for a recent cover of The Cranberries’ Dreams to help victims of domestic abuse and pay homage to the late Dolores O’Riordan. 

Imelda May, Caroline Corr, Lisa Hannigan, Moya Brennan, Una Healy, Emma Langford and Orla Gartland were among those who joined RuthAnne in the initiatve entitled Irish Women in Harmony for the song that went straight to the top of the Irish charts. However, RuthAnne was more concerned about raising funds for a worthy charity and making a point about the unconscious bias towards female artists in Ireland than chart positions.

RuthAnne told The Irish World: “I’m really proud of it and ever more so by the reaction to it. When I was making it with the girls, I wasn’t thinking about charts or numbers, I was thinking about these women coming together and it being like a statement and to also raise money for Safe Ireland. I wasn’t really thinking about how the country would react until it reacted and it really blew me away so that made me even more proud to have produced it and been a part of it.”

A report published just last month highlighted the gender disparity in Irish radio airplay, revealing men received more airplay than women on radio stations all over the country. Hozier, Gavin James and Dermot Kennedy are some of the biggest names to come out of Irish music in recent years but RuthAnne and others are asking where the females are.

“It came from having the time to look at what was going on in the music industry particularly in Ireland and feeling like it was very male-dominated. There’s such incredible male artists and it’s definitely not like men versus women. I definitely feel there’s room for all of us. When is the last time we broke a female artist in Ireland? Years and years ago. I was kinda thinking, ‘What’s a great way to get everyone together?’

“And at the same time I was being approached by a lot of UK charities but I was looking at home and going, ‘I really want to support some Irish charities. I’m Irish. How can we get together, raise our voices and help those in need? 

“It was a two-fold project and it was all about women supporting women in domestic abuse situations and also the women in music.”

Safe Ireland work to end violence against women and children and song has seen the charity being featured in the Irish media. Lockdown has been an especially difficult time for people who live with domestic abuse with all their usual escape routes taken away.

RuthAnne says she has been overwhelmed by how much the song has meant to some of those women in difficult places.

“We are so overwhelmed. Safe Ireland got highlighted and it should be highlighted and I think that as well as donations just does magic for charity, also to shed a light on what’s going on domestic abuse-wise with home meant to be the safest place for us all and for so many it not being. We’ve cried because the reaction’s just been so beautiful to see. We’ve got messages from people suffering from domestic abuse so thankful for us using our voices to get them seen and acknowledged. 

“We’ve got people suffering domestic abuse situations saying how much it has helped them through what they’re going through and made them feel stronger. That’s what it’s all been about. It’s not always about numbers or charting at all. It’s about the effect you have on people and making them feel something and making people aware of something. That’s why we did this song.

“It’s been an amazing reaction. We want to keep it going and keep raising those funds for charity because they really need it.”

Amazingly, if you thought RuthAnne got 39 voices on the record by calling singers she knew, you would be wrong. In fact, she reached out to singers she knew of and was blown away that they wanted to give their time and their voice to the project. She also speaks of it as a project of 40+ women because she doesn’t forget those who were behind the scenes.

“I just started DMing. I don’t know any of the girls personally. I had never worked with any of them or socialised with any of them. I knew them because of their music. I just started DMing them. And that’s how it started, then it took off like wild fire by itself. The girls started DMing other artists they knew. Erica (Cody) suggested Dreams by The Cranberries. Before I knew it, there was over 40 of us on a song together.”

Taking on Dreams by The Cranberries was also an opportunity to pay tribute to the late Cranberries frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan who passed away in 2018.

“We had spoken about wanting to do an Irish female song that was written and sung by a female. The lyrics are basically someone saying, ‘Just don’t break my heart. I’m giving you all of me. I want this. I want to be loved and that’s inevitably what we all want in life and to think that there are people in situations who just want to be loved by their partners but get abused by their partners. They lyrics just felt really apt. I feel like that song was emotively and lyrically the right song for what we were doing and it’s also an iconic song and to pay homage to a female who inspired us all and achieved such great things for Irish music. 

“It’s also about inspiring the next Sinead O’Connor, the next Dolores O’Riordan, the next Corrs, it’s also about inspiring young girls at home with this song written by a female artist with The Cranberries and remember this is possible and that you can achieve these things as Irish musicians and Irish female musicians.

“The other thing that has been amazing is to see the amount of 15, 16 and 17-year-olds reaching out to say, ‘Oh my God, this has inspired me so much. I’m writing my own music. I can’t believe a female produced this. That’s what we need for the future of music.

“There wasn’t always a lot of females when I was growing up so to see that there’s this amount- I mean, there’s even more than that. There’s hundreds but we couldn’t fit everyone on the song- I started listening to all their music and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing . I need to know these women and collaborate with these women. Why am I not seeing these women on my TV screens more? Why have I not heard these women more on the radio?’ 

“Listeners and the viewers reacting to this and pushing it up the charts and pushing it to the forefront speaks for itself. The public want to hear more from these women. I think there’s work to be done. I think the media has a responsibility but I also think the public have a responsibility to help support these women as well and buy the tickets to the shows, when the shows are back on, buy the album, put these girls in the charts. 

“The media needs to get behind them as well because we all know that in Ireland especially radio is still a massive way for artists to make a living and break into. Without Irish radio, I don’t know if Picture This would be selling out the 3 Arena.”

So why are Irish female artists just not getting their music out there? Is it just unconscious bias? “Yeah, I don’t think it’s a conscious, ‘You’re a woman, I’m not gonna play you’. I don’t think any of us want to be played because we’re women. I don’t think any of us want pity plays. I don’t think any of us feel entitled to plays. The facts are the facts and the report is the report and it shows that there is some sort of unconscious bias going on. 

“The support we’ve seen for Dreams from Irish radio has been incredible and we’re so thankful that the radio stations are playing it. I would like to believe it’s on the merit of the standard of the cover and not just because we’re women. I don’t think it is a pity play. I think it’s because they really do like it. It would just be great if this was the beginning of more Irish females getting playlisted. I think the issue has never been support for Irish females, it’s play listing of Irish females. 

“The issue with Irish radio is that a lot of the Irish artists are put on midnight to 5am slots and you have American/UK for the most part all through the day and then they have some of the Irish male acts in there too but no Irish females. We do have an issue there because we’re being played on the graveyard shift. That’s not me giving my opinion. If you read the report, that is the fact. What’s the criteria to get on the Irish playlist? That’s where the conversation needs to start happening. That’s where it needs to be talked about more. 

“Not every genre of music is radio friendly, not every song is a radio hit. We understand that but there’s definitely females in Irish Women in Harmony and females in Ireland who are making radio standard quality produced commercially viable records and sometimes they feel like they’re just being overlooked. Irish Women in Harmony probably got everyone’s attention, I think that this is just the beginning.”

Although it started in lockdown, Irish Women in Harmony could be a ‘movement’ that far outlives the pandemic.

“It’s not just the song. It’s actually started a community, a community of female creatives having really productive conversations about the music industry and how we’re very powerful together. It’s 40/50 women, behind the scenes as well, who are really in harmony excuse the pun: No conflict, no drama, working together and achieving this great thing in Irish music history.

“It’s also started a community where we don’t feel as alone, we feel we have these women together building these friendships and collaborations and just the start of something, of an entire brand of welcoming more female artists into Irish Women in Harmony and hopefully doing an album and doing a show and making it something that isn’t just a moment but is like a movement.

“This hasn’t been done in Ireland since A Woman’s Heart which I think is nearly 30 years ago.”

Although she has been in the business for a long time the artist, whose real name is Ruth-Anne Cunningham, says this was her first time working exclusively with women.

“It’s very rare. As a songwriter, I’ve been in the industry now for 13 years and most of the time I’m the only woman in the room or the artist is female and I’m female and then it’s all men.”

RuthAnne released her debut album Matters of the Heart was released just last year but she does not feel sorry for herself for having to cancel tours as she realises everyone’s plans have been disrupted in some way.

“I was disappointed in the beginning but then when you see the scale of what’s happening in the world, it doesn’t matter. This is a time for everybody to get back to basics and create in whatever way you want to. 2020 has become the year of action, change and people demanding more from humanity.”

RuthAnne has been moved by recent events such as the Black Lives Matter protests.

“I’m actually just so taken aback by how many amazing people there are out there demanding change and taking action for change. We have such a long way to go. 

“I’ve loved that the focus has not been on celebrities, it’s been on the people on the frontline and where it should be. Music of course will always be important because it helps people through. That’s our job, to help you through your day. I’ve had people streaming my album in lockdown and telling me it’s helping them through. That means everything.”

Ruth-Anne lived in LA for seven years and has written songs for One Direction and Westlife among others but is it much more satisfying to now be onstage herself? “I think it’s both. One can’t be without the other. When I’m doing loads of touring, singing and things like that, I’m like, ‘I want to work with some other artists’. But having said that just being a songwriter, I wasn’t 100% fulfilled so for me to be fully fulfilled, it’s actually being both.

“To have the success as an artist I’ve had, the success as a songwriter I’ve had it just means the world to me.”

Is it hard to decide which songs to keep for herself and which to let other artists have? “It’s easy to separate the two. There’s definitely songs that are very obviously for me and I don’t think another artist would sing it because it’s so personal to me. There are times when I write one for me and I wonder, ‘Will I keep that? Will I pitch it?’ 

“Then if a big artist wants it, that’s a big opportunity and I can write another. That’s a tip that I got from a big songwriter back in the day: ‘If you can write one, you can write another. Don’t feel like you have to hold on to everything’. I never look back and go, ‘I wish I had kept that song.

“It’s amazing when I watch Niall performing Nice to Meet Ya at the EMAs. All those songs start in a little room with little ideas, sometimes bad ideas can turn into good ideas.”

On her former One Direction collaborator that she has written numerous songs with, RuthAnne says: “To have been involved in Niall’s solo project from the beginning and to see it grow, it’s unbelievable. 

“We’ve always written really well together and of course I would love that to continue. He’s a great guy and we got on really well. I feel like it’s always the easiest writing sessions with Niall. The songs almost write themselves. I love how it really is his baby, his vision. I feel grateful to be a part of the process and to put my stamp on it as well.  

“I feel fortunate that for me the stars have aligned.”

Dreams by Irish Women in Harmony is out now in aid of Safe Ireland. 

For more information on RuthAnne, click here.

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