You’re entering into the fever dream, you’re entering into this dark place, and you’ll come out of it okay, but while you’re there, you’re really there.Beautiful Songwriting Canada - Published: 25th May 2016 - - Words & Questions: A Lonely Ghost Burning -
Flower Face, the moniker of the supremely talented Ruby Mckinnon, featured on the third volume in our Beautiful Songwriting series (Dec 2014) - her most recent EP at that time, October 2014's Funeral Kid, having demonstrated conveyance of mood and reverence for quietude entirely belying its creator's mere sixteen years. Roughly eighteen months on, the Ontario songwriter has battled through serious illness to release her full-length debut, Fever Dreams (Apr 2016), an intelligent and serenely delivered collection, which, whilst retaining characteristic emotional depth, also offers a fuller sound than previous efforts, enabling each song to communicate a greater sense of significance and, through pure intensity of feeling rather than any sense of selfishness, obscure the world beyond its confines into something nebulous and insignificant. Ruby took some time out to discuss the record with A Lonely Ghost Burning, touching on a variety of topics, including the reasons why songwriting has become easier for her, how interesting she feels it is to capitalise creatively on the strong emotions her age supplies, and how, even in the face of maiden public criticism, she remains immensely proud of her latest work.
Ruby: First of all, it was relief. It was a lot of excitement, but the main thing was relief, because my first three releases were all in the span of a year – I usually do things really fast; I write, record and then it’s done – and then it was almost two years since the last one. I really took my time with this one; I went back and redid things, re-recorded scratch tracks completely, and it was painful and really hard for me, but I’m so happy with the product. I was really relieved and excited that it was finally out, and I just wanted everyone to hear it because I was so proud of it.
Ruby: I’m really proud of the production quality, because that’s something I’ve always struggled with, and I learned a lot about mixing and all that stuff. I worked with two different producers on just two of the tracks: on Stranger and Jupiter – the rest I did myself. And then, Marty Bak – he’s the guy who I did Jupiter with – he mastered the whole record, so it sounds really polished and clear compared to my old stuff. I’m really happy with that.
Ruby: Oh, yeah! I think I’m light-years away now from where I was then. I mean, I’m still pretty far from where I want to be eventually, but I’ve definitely improved.
Ruby: With Stranger… it’s one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written, so I knew I wanted to get that one right; I wanted it to be exactly how I heard it in my head. I had this demo; I was happy with the idea of it, but I didn’t execute it well enough. I tried some drumming on it, and it just wasn’t working. So, that’s why I decided to go into a friend’s do-it-yourself-type studio, and, after the first session, I just wasn’t sure. I heard what we’d done so far, and I was like, “This isn’t turning out like my demo, and I’m worried about how it’s going to be in the end”, but it ended up being my favourite on the album. That was my main doubt, but it worked itself out pretty well.
Ruby: Well, like I said, it was a really long effort; I think I wrote the first song for it probably around the time I released the Funeral Kid EP, so that was October 2014, and then finished the last bit of writing last summer. So, it spanned over a long period of time. I wasn’t sure what was happening really; I wasn’t sure if all these songs were going to end up on the same record, I wasn’t sure what it was going to look like, and then it kind of turned into a concept record, almost, where each song itself is like a Fever Dream; that’s where I got the title from – each one seemed to tell a story that was kind of scattered and almost eerie, kind of dark.
Ruby: Yeah, I do. Cigarettes and Champagne was the first one I wrote for this record, and I recorded it early on too, but I never went back and redid it; I never made many changes. So that’s probably one that I wish I’d gone back and, maybe, just done a few different guitar tracks or whatever. There’s definitely a difference in the writing style, but also in the quality of the earlier ones compared to the newer ones.
Ruby: I think it came pretty easily to me. Writing songs feels like a really natural thing; I just have to figure out which ones are worth recording. [laughs] I didn’t really have many creative blocks. I was experiencing a lot of different things, and a lot of things in my life changed over the course of writing this record, so that inspired a lot of different styles of writing, a lot of different lyrics – more mature lyrics, probably.
Ruby: Yeah, definitely. And there are some I think are just as good as the ones that did, but they just didn’t fit in the end. So, there are still a lot of songs that I want to keep working with and maybe release as either a B side, or on a future record. But yeah, there are tonnes that didn’t make it on.
Ruby: I think I learned that it doesn’t always pay off to do things quickly – not just with music, but everything in my life. Once I get my mind set on a project, I do nothing but that, and I finish it; I’m also a perfectionist, but I kind of set that aside and usually I just want to get things done. But, with this, I forced myself to take a step back and really look at things, really take my time, and I think that really paid off. That’s definitely the biggest thing I learned, so I’m going to continue to do that with future work.
Ruby: Yeah, I think I did. I had experience figuring out how to mix songs better myself, had the experience with somebody else’s little basement studio and then the experience in a big professional studio working with other people on my music. I had a bunch of new experiences with this record, and I think I gained a lot from that.
Ruby: I was really nervous leading up to it, because I never took vocal lessons; I never thought I would sing, and then I just started teaching myself, so I still feel like I don’t really know how to sing and I’m still really nervous about singing – not really live, but singing in front of people in a smaller, more intimate environment. So, I was nervous, but the guy I worked with, Marty Bak, he’s so professional and so good at what he does that he makes you feel totally comfortable, and I think I was able to do it the same way I would do it at home, just with different equipment and better quality.
Ruby: Well, the music is a lot different from previous stuff; I’ve had some criticism about that, but, I’m really happy with where I’m headed, and I think, especially the last track, Jupiter, which is the one I did in the professional studio, seems like a step towards the new version of me, my new music, a more refined thing, a bigger thing. I got into a lot of big, cinematic sounds, which is something that I’ve always wanted to do, but I’ve always been too nervous or worried to branch out into that. So, I think that not only has it changed my perception of what I am and what I want to be, but it’s made me think that I can do that now, that it’s possible, within reach.
Ruby: Yeah, it is easier to do in the studio, but I was able to achieve it at home. Before, I would just use acoustic guitar and a keyboard and stuff, and with this, I was like: What if I tried recording electric guitar? I have this electric drum kit at home: What if I tried recording drums on that? And then synth stuff, and string sounds on the keyboard. Raphael and Virgin were both done in my bedroom just with a tiny, little interface. I was really happy with both of them: the way they turned out, and how big they managed to sound, even though they were recorded in such a small environment.
Ruby: It was actually the first time that I’ve seen – because I’m sure there’s been plenty of criticism – people publicly criticising me. I wasn’t as upset as I thought I would be. I’m really sensitive – I have a hard time taking stuff like that – but I think, maybe, it was because I was so happy with what I achieved. But people were saying, especially about the drums, “I don’t think it adds anything; I don’t think it needs to be there.” But, when I wrote the songs, that’s what I heard, and, once the drums were put in, especially with, like, Stranger and Jupiter, I thought it added so much, and I stand by that decision wholeheartedly.
Ruby: Yeah, it’s a good feeling. I’m so proud of what I’ve created that people can say that, and I can take it. That’s their opinion. I’m sure that they have an idea of what it could sound like, and I don’t dismiss that, but I created what I wanted to create, and I’m happy with it.
Ruby: I don’t know. I don’t really have a moral of the story or anything… I think the whole point of it is to put people in a certain emotional space, and it kind of spans for the whole record, but when it’s done, it’s over. I think it’s more of an atmosphere that you enter into. You’re entering into the fever dream, you’re entering into this dark place, and you’ll come out of it okay, but while you’re there, you’re really there. That’s what I was hoping to achieve.
Ruby: Probably not the best mood. [laughs] The thing is, a lot of people from all around the world are writing me messages and saying how they like it and all this, but I’m not really a big part of my local music scene – not a lot of people around me actually know my music or listen to it – and I’ve had people from my school, who I wouldn’t really expect, come up to me and say, “You know, I’m not gonna listen to this when I’m partying, but when I’m lying down before bed and crying a bit, it’s really good; it sets the mood and the atmosphere.” [laughs] So I take that as a pretty big compliment. It’s cool that my music can evoke such strong emotion: that it can put people in a place of sensitivity and vulnerability like that.
Ruby: I think that this record starts out pretty dark with the intro track; it actually features some audio from home videos of me on my first birthday where everyone’s singing happy birthday to me and I start screaming and crying. So, that kind of sets the dark beginning. Yeah, it starts pretty dark and then almost lifts at the end with Jupiter. It has a kind of sadness to it, but it is very uplifting, I think. So, I think it’s almost like – the intro track is called Descent – you descend into this dark place and kind of linger there for a while, but at the end, when I listened to it for the first time, I felt refreshed. And I know it’s because it’s my own work and I’m proud of it and relieved that I got it done, but it feels like it’s a happy ending.
Ruby: I was watching home videos, and I’m really a fan of using sound samples that aren’t music, in music, especially in the beginning. Back in my Funeral Kid EP, I used a piece from Dead Poets Society in the intro, and I just think stuff like that is really cool and helps to set the mood. So, I was watching these old home videos, and I came across that one and thought it was really funny – I always thought that one was kind of funny; it’s sad, but it’s funny – and I thought: What if I put that in a song? At the time I was starting to experiment with recording electric guitar, because I’d only ever played acoustic – I just started playing guitar a couple of years ago – so I was just messing around with some guitar effects on GarageBand and recording stuff, and the sounds almost made it feel like it was underwater; it had this cool, dark feeling to it. I was like, “You know, I should try. I should take some of this audio and put it in there.” I did it, and the first time I put it in it lined up perfectly and just sounded so cool. I was like, “I have to use this! There’s no going back now!” [laughs]
Ruby: It’s gotten easier to write both really dark things, and happy things. Back when I did my first release, I’d just started trying to sing and I couldn’t play guitar yet, so I just had these weird sounds of keyboard stuff. Everything was really muffled, and everything was really dark. I was trying to do that. Now, it comes more easily, probably because I’ve experienced more things. When I wrote that first record, and even Homesick, I hadn’t really been through anything big in my life. I hadn’t had a lot of the experiences that I’ve had now; I’d never loved anyone, I’d never experienced anything really difficult personally, like my own illness and dealing with that. So, there are a lot of major life changes I’ve had recently that I think makes it easier to reach both ends of the spectrum.
Ruby: I think a common misconception based on this release, and on past ones, is that I’m just this horribly depressed person and everything is terrible. I’ve had a lot of comments on the reviews of my record; I remember someone said ‘This is the voice of someone who’s given up. That’s so sad. How is she so sad? She’s only a teenager.’ It’s like, that’s my art and it’s not necessarily me. There are those parts of me, and they come out in the writing, and I do have difficult times, but that’s not all that I am. That’s just the part of me that I choose to express in the art, because that’s what I think I’m best at.
Ruby: No, it’s not harmful; it’s not hurting me. I think people can think whatever they want about me, so long as they don’t think I’m a serial killer. [laughs] I’m not going to be affected by it. I’ve had that same thing, where I look up to a certain musician and see them in a specific way that’s not necessarily how they are, but it’s the image that I created from their art. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing necessarily, so I’d be a hypocrite if I got mad at people for doing that.
Ruby: … This is just something that applies to me right now, and I don’t know how I’ll feel about it in the future, but just the depth of emotion that people can feel when they’re around my age. Maybe it goes on for a really long time – I don’t know – but I don’t want to lose this strong empathy and pain and elation that I can feel. The depth of all that. And that’s what I kind of communicated. I’ve had some people, like friends of my parents and stuff, say like, “When I listened to this, I felt like I was a teenager again going through all these things, like heartbreak and love and all of that.” I think that’s really cool, and I know a lot of musicians who are young, they don’t want their age to ever be mentioned – they don’t want to be seen as a young person in music, they just want to be seen as a person in music – and I totally respect that, because I know you get looked at in a different way, but I also think that it’s really cool to have people of this age writing songs that come from such strong, uncontrollable emotion that you really experience when you’re only like, 17, 18, 19. So yeah, I’m really fascinated by that, and I think I was able to express that by writing the songs.
Ruby: I’ve always thought in a very mature way, and I’m always terrified of losing this youthful emotion that I have, so I don’t necessarily think I’m purposefully writing from the viewpoint of a seventeen-year-old – I’m eighteen now, but I was seventeen when I wrote the record – I feel almost like I’m writing about those emotions but from a more mature viewpoint, if that makes sense. But, I’m still able to access that depth of it, because I’m at this age.
Ruby: I think the cover totally encapsulates it; when I look at that image, I think it fits perfectly with the record, and I kind of wrote the whole record with that image in mind. In the actual CDs that I made, I designed everything, and each song has, in the booklet, two photos, and I use all my photography for it. So, each song has its own scene that I set, and visuals are a really important part of the music for me. When I write a song, I always kind of have a visual in my mind, so if people want to see the images that I see when I write the songs, they can get the CD and look in the booklet; it’s all in there.
Ruby: I hope that it revealed the diversity of what I can do, and I know that that’s the main criticism that I’ve gotten – how different it is – but I hope that a lot of people see that as a good thing. I want it to show that I can do more than just play a song with an acoustic guitar; I want it to show that I can do all different things.
Ruby: Yeah, that’s like the main thing, because when I do shows, it’s usually just me, my guitar and the keyboard; I’ll do, like, half the show with the keyboard, and half the show with the guitar, but it’s a very acoustic, quiet kind of setting. I’ve thought a lot about having a back-up band; I’ve even done a few practice sessions with a few of my friends playing with me, and when I do shows now, a lot of the time I have a friend of mine singing with me. She does harmonies and stuff, and it fills it out a bit. But I really want to branch out in the future and have a more full sound, have a big-band kind of thing going on. Right now, I play every now and again, and it’s just small things at bars and cafes, and I’m doing a music festival in the summer. I need to do more, but I’m just focusing on finishing high school right now.
Ruby: I think it’s a really good representation of every different emotion, from every different part of my life, coming together and turning into something beautiful that I’ve created. So, it’s like, I took all these different emotions, good and bad and boring, put them all together, and they transformed into this thing that’s not even necessarily about me. A lot of the songs aren’t autobiographical, a lot of them are stories I created, but they all came from emotions that I had. So, I think it’s a perfect representation of what I can create with things that come just from within me.Flower Face featured onBeautiful Songwriting 3
You can keep up with Flower Face via her Facebook and Twitter pages, and buy or stream her debut album, 'Fever Dreams', along with the rest of her back catalogue, on name-your-price terms over on Bandcamp.
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