Sam & Ruby
An anticipatory hush falls over the patio; the clanking of glasses and the friendly chatter die off as a band takes the stage.
The duo, a gentle-looking guy in a baseball cap and a radiant girl sporting a skirt over long johns, shares an endearing gaze that imparts a sense of trust and comfort. The audience is packed shoulder-to-shoulder, listening in awe. The duo’s voices complement each other naturally and harmoniously.
“People say that Sam and Ruby are ‘effortlessly unique,’” says Amanda Shoffner, one member of the audience. Shoffner is a Belmont graduate who has been following Sam & Ruby’s career since she first heard their infectious song, “The Here and The Now,” a few years ago.
“I can’t even begin to think I could describe it better than that,” she says. Shoffner, who considers herself a Nashville music loyal, says she finds Sam & Ruby’s sound smooth and their presence unblemished.
“There’s something immensely beautiful about watching two people with such a compelling chemistry tell stories through melodies without ever straining,” she says. “It’s not necessarily about the show for Sam & Ruby. It’s purely about the music and the message they’re presenting. It is completely magnetic.”
Almost a week later, a pane of glass separates a drizzly Nashville day from the counter where Sam Brooker and Ruby Amanfu sit, enjoying turkey dogs and reflecting after having just returned from a short stint on the road. Sam, a quiet and compassionate Midwestern fisherman, and Ruby, a social, gardening fashionista and native West African, blend together as blissfully in person as they do when performing together onstage.
“It has been such a word-of-mouth project, which we knew from the beginning it would be,” says Sam. “We have such a small record label. We don’t have the million dollar budget to push it into the mainstream, but we’re hoping and finding that it’s sneaking its way through people’s lives.”
Sneaking is an understatement. Just a few months after its August debut, the duo’s first full-length release, The Here and The Now, was named the No. 1 album of 2009 by the Associated Press on its Top 10 Albums of the Year list.
This year, Sam & Ruby won Sirius/XM’s “Coffee House Singer-Songwriter Discovery Of The Year” contest and added a performance at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival to their growing list of achievements.
Before signing with Rykodisc in 2008, Sam and Ruby had been friends for years, supporting each other’s individual musical ventures along the way. Sam left town to try his voice as a solo artist in New York City, while Ruby’s single, “Sugah,” climbed the British pop charts. In 2002, the artists were reunited in Nashville, where a fondness for each other’s talent soon led to a cooperative effort and their first song, “The Here and The Now.”
For Sam and Ruby as solo artists, “The Here and The Now” became a set list staple, and the two would often invite each other on stage to play during their solo shows. Something sparked, and their combined sound was received so well that they found it impossible to ignore the growing flame.
As Sam & Ruby, they performed a blend of cover songs with a handful of originals at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival in 2005. But when they were asked to play New Orleans’ Voodoo Music Experience a year later, they knew they needed something original and tangible—and fast.
They laid down a six-track EP, Sam & Ruby, in 10 days in Sam’s apartment recording studio. “There’s something about those recordings,” Sam says. “They were just raw and real and captured the essence of what we wanted to do.” The EP led to the publishing deal with Rykodisc, and from there, the project began to snowball.
Sam and Ruby were shocked when an early version of the song “Heaven’s My Home” was selected for the 2008 film The Secret Life of Bees over a more polished copy that had followed. “It was like … ‘Really?’ We had this shiny album and they wanted that thing that we did in his apartment when it was as genuine as it could ever be,” Ruby says. The song, written by Ruby and Katie Herzig, as performed by Canada-based band The Duhks, was also nominated for a Grammy Award in 2006.
On this particular rainy day, Ruby, who moved to Nashville from Ghana as a small child, is sunny from a morning session where she sang on a Cindy Morgan track.
“That was probably a dream come true for me. It’s full circle,” she says. Morgan’s music has had a decided influence on her. “She taught me a lot about myself. I listened to her records, and she never fit inside the box with what she did musically. Even now, but especially then, I knew that I didn’t fit inside of the box.”
That realization may have also come as the result of Ruby’s upbringing. Typically, she explains, Ghanaian families expect their children to take education to the limit, but her parents didn’t pressure her or her two siblings with those expectations. “They wanted us to live our best lives, and I think that has made the difference in who we are,” she says. “We’re so blessed by that. We never felt restricted.”
Ruby says her family is full of musical people who always sing together, but she was the only child to pursue it as a career. Ruby is outgoing; she describes herself as her father’s child, a “mova and a shaka,” both maternal and childlike. “I have low expectations, but high admiration for the people in my life, and for myself—high expectation, medium admiration,” she says, laughing.
Wisconsin-born Sam has also been nurtured by musical roots. He remembers singing along to his father’s piano and guitar-playing, falling asleep to his mother’s lullabies at night and the strong influence of James Taylor, his favorite artist whose songs he learned first on guitar.
Sam says his biggest incentive to take music further was the memory of sitting on a hill in his grandparents’ backyard with relatives, singing songs and passing around an acoustic guitar. After 20 years in Green Bay, he left to see what he could bring to Music City. A thinker and a visionary, Sam started the music company-turned-full-fledged publishing company Artist Revolution, with the concept of releasing artists’ music directly to fans.
While slightly reserved, Sam’s personality is warm, and Ruby teases that he’s a bit of a hippie. “I feel like I’m aware of gentle souls, so I consider myself a gentle soul,” Sam says. “I love to love. It’s almost a fault.”
“It’s funny,” Ruby chimes in. “I think we both have enlarged hearts, but they’re different. We’re both emotionally driven, but Sam is able to touch those things that you have to be quiet and observe in order to experience. He’s very intuitive, and not in the cheesy way, but he’ll know what I’m thinking, and I may not have to say it to him,” she says. “Sometimes that’s frustrating, but most of the time it’s great.”
Sam insists that his and Ruby’s strengths and weaknesses push them forward both artistically and personally, especially in the undertow of the music business. “Somehow, when we’re together we balance each other out in a lot of ways,” he says.
Because of Sam and Ruby’s strong connection with and adoration for each other, people often mistake their relationship for a romantic one.
“We’re singing songs about relationships, so it’s kind of an obvious thing,” Sam says. “Our relationship is a lot of different relationships—sometimes there’s the brother-sister thing, the family thing, the friend thing. We know about each other’s lives. You know, you try and put a box around our relationship, but it’s everything; it really is.”
Not surprisingly, it’s the sincerity in Sam & Ruby’s onstage interactions carrying over from their offstage friendship that brings the music alive and makes it relatable to their audiences.
“We’re going back to the definition of things not necessarily based on production,” Ruby says. “We’re called soul music because it connects to your soul. You may call it blues because there’s those moments of that emotion. We call it folk because we’re storytellers, like the folk tradition way back when—they were storytellers—so we’re just going to fall back to the true definitions of that music.”
Sam & Ruby’s gentle, yet powerful sound evokes human emotion because, as Ruby assures, it is emotionally genuine—straight from the heart of the artists. “We couldn’t fake it and sleep at night, so we wouldn’t be doing it if it was in any way, shape or form fake.”
Sam likens their journey (alongside artists like Katie Herzig, Matthew Perryman Jones and Jeremy Lister) to a musical “class” of sorts, a creative group leading the pack in the Nashville music scene. Sam & Ruby have great respect for their talented peers, and not surprisingly, they receive the same support in return.
“I’m pretty sure it’s impossible not to get goosebumps on every inch of your body when you hear Sam & Ruby sing together,” says singer-songwriter Jeremy Lister. “They can silence a room with their beautiful and honest voices.”
The duo is eager to share their sound with new ears and hopeful that the music will speak for itself. “It’d be awesome if people could look at it as not what it looks like, but what it feels like,” Ruby says.
“I want it to be something that is symbolic of what brings us together as opposed to what separates us,” she adds, her eyes focused outside. “I think that because of how diverse together Sam and I are—I mean we get this all the time—people say, ‘Before you started singing, I didn’t know what it was going to be. I didn’t know if I was going to like it or what you guys were doing up there together.’ But then the minute they hear it, they get it.”
“I tell people the songs are healing to me, too,” Sam says. “When we sing ‘The Here and The Now,’ whatever we’ve been dealing with that day, the traveling, the crap of being on the road or whatever, it just reminds me of how lucky we are to be doing what we’re doing right now.”
Ruby nods in agreement. “If you’ve had a hard day and that song comes on the set, that’s just when it all gets released. Sometimes I cry,” she admits. “I always cry though, but especially on that song.”
Sam & Ruby followed The Here and The Now with a new EP, Press On, released in February. While on the road, the duo plans to leave the future to fate in hopes their music will take flight.
“You feel at some point it actually is out of your hands, but you find that it’s better than holding it so tightly,” Ruby says. “I think in so many different parts of life it really is about what you let go, even these as our songs. They feel like our children. We want people to experience them like they want to, and it’s hard. You write a song and you’re like, ‘I really love this song, and I don’t want anybody to say they don’t love it,’ but you’ve got to let it go.”
Sam often finds himself struggling to try and predict the future, while Ruby strives to live in the here and now.
“How long does it take for a tree to grow? A while,” she tells him, knowingly. “Well, good things take time.”