There was a soul-crushing blizzard on Valentine’s day this year. Heavy, wet snow clumped and clogged, making travel nearly impossible. Icy wind whipped through the mostly deserted streets. If you peeked out your window on Valentine’s Day, it looked like love was dead or at least frozen solid. But not at the Lizard Lounge. Ruby Rose Fox and her ever-evolving cotillion of musicians and glamorous back-up singers nearly burned the place down on with an enthralling show that spans rock, soul, blues, even gospel. In a red embroidered jumpsuit zipped down to her navel, Fox commanded the tiny room with almost tyrannical charisma. It was the kind of gig you feel lucky to catch, an I-saw-her-when sort of event. Fox ended the show early so that everyone could get home safely, and she asked for hugs from everybody on the way out. If you haven’t figured it out yet, here’s the takeaway: Ruby Rose Fox is a fucking star.
But who, exactly, is she? We know the basics already. She played in a successful ska band, Mass Hysteria, back in high school, and started the Ruby Rose Fox band as a solo acoustic gig four years ago, gradually building it up into the monster it is today. She won Best Female Vocalist in 2014’s New England Music Awards. She has an affection for fitted suits and Roy Orbison and Leonard Cohen. But honestly, where did this dazzling creature with the evocative name come from?
“Ruby Rose Fox was my grandmother’s name,” Fox explains. “She lived in Brooklyn in the ’40s. I don’t know her whole story, but basically she spent her life in a mental institution. I think she was kind of wild, and she was hanging out with sailors. She had a traditional Jewish family, and they just weren’t digging it. But you know, living that time? If it was me, I would totally be locked up, too. Anyway, I just figured if I didn’t do something, no one would even remember her. I’m just trying to rewrite a bad story, I guess.” Not that it matters at this point, but Fox’s given name isn’t quite as glamorous.
“Oh no,” Fox laughs, “ My real name is as Jewish as you can get. In fact, it’s a joke on the Simpsons. That’s how Jewish it is.”
So the tiny Jewish girl with the big voice discovers Leonard Cohen, and the rest is history. Well, there have been a few detours along the way. Jesus, for example, showed up out of nowhere.
“I had a very complicated childhood,” laughs Fox. “I grew up in evangelical household. My dad believes in Jesus now. My parents both converted when I was young, and I mean it was really evangelical, really Bible thumping.” As you can imagine, religion figures prominently in Ruby Rose Fox’s music. It practically throbs with the stuff, with light and darkness, angels and devils, sinners and saints. Every song is a hymn in disguise, which is remarkable given that Fox doesn’t believe in anything divine, except for rock ’n’ roll.
“We lost my sister when I was a kid, and that’s when I stopped believing in God,” she explains. “It was was very traumatic. I had grown up with the idea that God was always sitting next to you, so a lot of the songs I have that seem like love songs are actually songs about my struggle with that, about being left by God or let down by God, feeling abandoned by a higher power. Basically, I’m the most religious atheist you will ever meet.”
After flirtations with higher powers and the teenage kicks of ska, Ruby Rose Fox attended Emerson college and took up acting. She wasn’t bad, probably could have carved a career out of it. Then one day, her true calling hit her.
“I did okay with acting,” Fox says. “I did Shakespeare; I worked for the Central Square Theater; things were going pretty well. Then I started writing my own one-women shows. I wanted to be like Sam Beckett. But I just realized that I wasn’t a playwright. We’re all born with gifts, and I think maybe mine is writing songs.”
Heartbreak was the catalyst for her first foray into songwriting. How could it not be, really?
“I got an acoustic guitar. I had just gone through this really bad break-up, so I wrote a song about it and I performed it at this little event in Jamaica Plain, and people really loved it. They were having this emotional experience, and it was really quick. It was like: “Wow, I can take you on this emotional journey in two seconds with music, and in theater it takes an hour!” It was a revelation.”
Once she had discovered the visceral thrills of live musical performance, there was no stopping her. Acoustic gigs turned electric, the solo act into a band.
“Things just rolled on,” Fox says. “First I had one back up singer, and then I had two. Then I decided I wanted five. That’s because when I demo songs, I always double everything, so I figured, why wouldn’t I do that live? I wanted more women around me. The boys act better with girls around,” she laughs, “So why not?”
In the past four years, the gigs have gradually gotten bigger and better. Her triumphant performance at last year’s Boston Music Awards show was an obvious highlight for Ruby and the band. But it should be noted that less than a year before, things weren’t quite so glamorous.
“Last year around this time, I was doing these really shitty hotel gigs,” Fox remembers. “Just for money, alone. Just me and an electric guitar by myself, playing my songs. So one night my boyfriend at the time came, and I was just really down. I was just really bummed that day. I felt like no one was listening, and at the end of the night, he said: “Listen, this is where you are now, but you still have to play to the back row of the room.” He said” “I don’t care where you are, you always have to play to the back row of the room.’ At the Boston Music Awards, the band was playing on a huge stage, and there was part of me that was really terrified, and there was a part of me that really loved it. I was playing the first song and I could feel my energy kind of going into myself, and I remember I just kinda wanted to roll away. His voice popped into my head, and I just kinda looked towards the back row of the room and I thought: ‘I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna fill this fucking hall with me and this band.” To me, that was better than even winning the award because it made me realize that this was where I was meant to be, and no matter where I am, I’m gonna fill that room. I’m gonna sing to the back row, and they’re gonna feel it.”
It’s impossible not to compare Ruby Rose Fox to icons, especially when you see her perform with a 10-piece band. Elvis is the most obvious, especially in a jumpsuit, and even more especially in a jumpsuit singing pseudo-gospel songs. But when she sinks her teeth into an R&B number – something she’s been gravitating towards more and more lately – you can see the shimmer of doomed soulstress Amy Winehouse in the shadows. Fox agrees, in more ways than one.
“When Amy Winehouse died, that was the moment that I decided I was going to take this seriously,” she says. “I didn’t know whether I was going to do music or theater, but I knew that whatever bug Amy Winehouse had, I had it too. I liked Amy Winehouse, but when she died, it disturbed me to the core. Her death made me commit to not dying. This whole thing, this whole Rose Fox thing, is about me committing to this plan, to not letting those demons take me down, and I know I have it too. I know it’s a disease, and I know I have it. I know I’ll always have it. My plan is to continue making dark music. You can live your whole fucking life; you can live 90 years and sing about your suffering, and you can do that without killing yourself.”
But while Winehouse may be her muse, Leonard Cohen will always be Ruby’s man.
“Leonard Cohen was one of the reasons I started writing music. When I first heard Cohen, it was one of those ‘come to God moments’,” she gushes. “It was like, ‘You can just say that? You can just say it like that?’ I never heard anything like that before. I thought, ‘That’s what I want to say. That’s what I want to do.’ You know, that kind of twisting of the knife. He would reveal the cowardly, ugly parts of himself in his songs. People usually hide that part of themselves, and especially as a woman, we are trained not to expose the ugly parts. Women songwriters are supposed to wear flowery dresses, and sing pretty songs. I don’t want to do that. Plus, Cohen has this melancholy, this Jewish thing that I really related to. It was like, I have found my soul mate.”
Fox and her soul mate and her muse and her band and her back-up singers and all the ghosts and deities that surround her are creating an irresistible rock and soul revue that will surely break through the bonds of this tiny two-horse town soon. As of this writing, she is somehow squeezing all of her players into a van and hitting the road for their first tour. It will not be their last. Fox will be releasing a couple singles this summer – there’s also a 2012 EP available – and then she’ll get cracking on her first album. Catch her while you can. The Fox is on the run.