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East-London's Nuha Ruby Ra: "Brave, Open, Surreal"

by Charlotte Russell

 
“Feel is the most important thing for me in music and in performance. Feel comes before anything else.”
A photograph of singer Flossing hunched in the middle of some red fabric
Image: Billie Turnbull, 2023

The first time I saw Nuha Ruby Ra perform I was transfixed. Turning the stage into her own vampiric lair, we weren’t just watching her perform but were witnessing her create.


There’s an empathy with Ra which plays out through each set, as she both melts into the crowd and jostles with her own music, constantly building on the previous gig to form an experience that is truly unique. With work like this, punk music is a form of performance art, which is a state of mind that resonates through everything Ra puts out.


Formed off the back of a broken down relationship and the ending of a seven year stint with the band Arrows of Love, her beginnings were tinged with the effect of “being in a really bad place”. “Pain, I ain’t gonna lie” is cited as the catalyst that birthed the artist and continues to exist as a persistent drone that swells beneath each track.


Summarising Nuha Ruby Ra in a few words is no mean feat, but one that is attempted in her current album’s lead single, Self Portraiture, which speaking on she states, “if someone is just finding me for the first time, this is where I’m at right now”. It’s a track that includes the use of layering, distortion and sharp-witted lyricism which typifies the artist. I ask her to sum herself up in three words. She says “brave, surreal and open” - which are three potent adjectives that could not more perfectly describe both her artistic oeuvre and creative outlook.


 
 

Brave. We’ve touched on pain, and we’ve touched on the turmoil that birthed the artist, yet it is from reading the press release and other material promoting her work that I’ve noticed how very few outlets have paid attention to the sensitivity and stoicism that forms the very backbone of everything she creates.


I’ve been (correctly) informed that Ra is “the coolest motherfucker on the planet” (So Young), who performs with “Ian Dury's prowling allure” (The Guardian), but I've come across few references in the wider press to the hyper-sensitivity and melancholic introspection that has cultivated her highly emotive music. We talk about artistic inspirations that range from Radiohead to cinema to Nick Cave and finish with Ra’s intention on conveying essence through her music. “Feel is the most important thing for me in music and in performance. Feel comes before anything else.”


In a world threatened by corporate copywriting and the expansive rise of the algorithm, the ability to conjure that fizzing in the stomach, is a truly special act that reminds us of the intricacies and imperfections that humanise our existence. Artists like Ra are able to capture this nearly indescribable feeling in a way that chatGPT could never.


VLURE, a Glasgow band photographed by Oli Erskine
Image: H Hawkline, 2022

Surreal. An obvious choice of words, considering the output of both her first EP and recent album. With tracks such as Slicer that includes a swarm of bats that flit around Ra playing the role of banshee, to the power-ballad strumming and electronic beat that builds within Rise, there’s clearly a lot of musical surrealism that weaves its way through her debut album, Machine Like Me.


There’s also a surrealism to her songwriting practice, which sees the artist go from being one individual to suddenly splitting into several in an instant. “I set up as if the full band [is] going to be writing or rehearsing together. So there are drums, bass, guitar, synth… And then I kind of like move my way around”. The one-man-bandification of her studio rings out through each track, where her use of translucent layers, and vocal collages are almost too perfectly conversational to not have come from the same person.


Open. Ra tells me that she’s “very anti-scene,” and that she “doesn’t want to pigeonhole herself with anyone in particular.” Recently she toured with pop starlet Self Esteem, showing us that she is not constrained to just one circle, whilst capitalising on the translational power of punk and its ability to appeal to so many different crowds.





If her music hasn’t shown you already, there’s a freedom that isn’t just present through her multi-genre approach, but whispers throughout her exploration of different moods and experiences. Hidden within the cataclysmic yearning of her first EP is Sparky - the initial track that sparked my obsession. Perhaps the final stage of grieving a breakup, this was the marker for her “sassy girl era”, where it was eventually time to “bring out the bad bitch because [she] had been the sad bitch for so long.”


The leather is still sticky from the Prosecco you poured on me when you thought it was sexy is a visceral lyric that draws on not just the manic, nuts, and fabulously senseless phase of a chaotic situationship, but shows Sparky to be a fun, sexy and sassy song that differs greatly to Ra’s more austere and spectral tracks, therefore showcasing her multiplicity as an artist.


Either through her replication of feel, or her use of non-traditional instruments and sounds, there’s an uncanniness to Ra’s music that makes you relive all those forgotten memories. It recreates this emotive state that causes the butterflies in your stomach to rip beyond its lining, before turning itself inside out and exposing your inner core. The music is emotional, forceful, contemplative, funny, unsettling, and more. Nuha Ruby Ra is a force to be reckoned with. Look out for her on a festival bill this summer.


See Nuha Ruby Ra at: Brighten the Corners (10 June) and Wilderness (4 August). Listen to Machine Like Me now on Spotify.




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