Ruby Gill: “I like to go to the end of the feeling. I guess I’m a bit of a masochist”

Quiet sounds and sharp songwriting collide on Ruby Gill’s debut album ‘I’m Gonna Die with This Frown On My Face’. She speaks to NME about the record, being present in life and being more vulnerable in her music

Until recently, Ruby Gill lived with two pianos. One was a traditional upright, in which she had sewn felt against the strings to dampen the noise, and one was a Japanese electric piano found at an op shop. But there wasn’t quite enough room for both, and in the end she parted with the upright.

“Nobody deserves two pianos in an apartment in Melbourne,” she says with a dry laugh.

Gill used that electric piano to write most of her long-gestating debut album, ‘I’m Gonna Die With This Frown on My Face’. An intimate showcase of songs penned over a decade – with two dating all the way back to when she was 19 – the record showcases Gill’s idiosyncratic wit and nakedly personal lyrics. She sings about failing to live up to societal standards (‘I Forgot to be Profound Today’), the “bureaucratic nonsense” required for her to remain in Australia half a decade after relocating from South Africa (‘Borderlines’) and the lingering memory of experiencing seismic stress (‘Public Panic Attacks’).

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Ruby Gill
Credit: Al Parkinson

Capturing her casually expressive vocals in a single take – and set against sparse folk-pop instrumentation recorded live – these dozen songs are peppered with quiet moments unfolding in real time. That’s because Gill wanted to let the songs “play out and be completely honest and raw,” without too much polish or afterthought.

“A lot of this album is about coming to terms with myself,” she explains. “Just really allowing myself, for the first time, to be completely present and me in it. Doing it live felt like the best reflection of that, because that’s how I write and play. And it was quite healing: I didn’t know how important it would be to listen to these very live vocal takes and be OK with what happened in the room.”

“I try to pay attention to what’s going on… It’s being incredibly aware of where I am and where I’m standing and what land I’m on and what birds and trees are there”

Although she got out of her small apartment and into an actual studio for the album, Gill still sounds like she’s trying not to disturb the neighbours. Working with bassist William O’Connell, drummer Winter McQuinn (Sunfruits) and co-producers Tim Harvey and Marcell Borrack, she made the record with a focus on softness and quiet. As someone who has walked into every studio session of her life and immediately asked to take away the cymbals – “I have quite an aversion to loud noises,” she admits – Gill was set on capturing the fragile rawness of every moment.

“I actively try quite hard to be present,” she says. “I try to pay attention to what’s going on. And that extends to everything: it’s not just getting myself into the depths of a feeling. It’s being incredibly aware of where I am and where I’m standing and what land I’m on and what birds and trees are there.”

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Gill describes arriving in Melbourne six years ago and standing on street corners, taking in her surroundings at a 360-degree pan until she had memorised every detail around her. “I can’t tell you what it did for me,” she recalls, “except put me in the space that I was in. I do that all the time, and I try really hard to practise my life that way.”

If that sounds like the recipe for an album steeped in serene mindfulness, Gill’s debut is anything but. Her words are sharp and unsparing, with an equally probing reach into her past and present. Two songs date back to when she left her bucolic childhood home in the smallish city of Pietermaritzburg to attend uni in the much denser Johannesburg. ‘Cinnamon’ is about being confronted with privilege and ignorance in a city where the gaps between wealth and class are so glaring.

Meanwhile, ‘Stockings for Skating’ sees her longing for the security of childhood – sliding in her socks down a hallway – while feeling so far from home. It’s still her favourite song to play live, despite the fact that Gill is now in her early 30s and a world away from that initial sensation. “Something about it takes me to that same feeling every time,” she says.

Many of her songs bring her back to specific feelings that way. Even ‘Public Panic Attacks’ returns her to that titular state of distress, but Gill would much rather revisit something she has been through than repress it. “I like to go to the end of the feeling,” she says. “I guess I’m a bit of a masochist. It’s not always nice to go through, but it’s OK after the fact. I let the panic out in that song and I feel it.”

“I’ve had a bit of fun being vulnerable in a more positive way. Which is terrifying, but really beautiful”

The album has been sitting finished in Dropbox since early 2020, just before the pandemic hit. Gill sees it as an honest portrait of that decade-long chapter of her life, and for that reason she resisted adding her 2021 single ‘You Should Do This For a Living’, despite it being something of a turning point in her career. A stark, three-minute takedown of the male-dominated music industry, its choir includes Angie McMahon, Maple Gilder, Mimi Gilbert, Hannah Cameron and Hannah Blackburn. Gill sees that acclaimed standalone single as just as much its own thing as the album.

“I love making little projects like this,” she reflects. “They don’t feel like they come from a longer body of work. They feel like they happen very singularly. So that’s going to float in the ether on its own, probably, for all of eternity.”

Ruby Gill
Credit: Al Parkinson

That song was released soon after it was written, and Gill busied herself through lockdown with “writing constantly” – on top of working full-time as a copywriter at a creative agency in Melbourne. She describes her newer songs as even softer than those on the album, with nylon-string guitar and vocal harmonies she recorded with herself in the bathtub. Gill has also been going back to old journal entries and singing the contents without reading them first, simply to see what comes out.

“I’ve had a bit of fun being vulnerable in a more positive way,” she says. “Which is terrifying, but really beautiful.”

After sharing what she calls some of her “immigration tension” on ‘Borderlines’, Gill was finally able to visit her family in South Africa earlier this year. That trip wasn’t without its own complications, though. “I was expecting it to be grounding and welcoming,” she reveals. “I had missed that space so much. But it was incredibly confronting. Just the levels of what people have experienced during the pandemic, and what it’s done economically.”

Even more confronting, Gill and her father got caught in a powerful cyclone while driving across the country to visit her grandparents. The extreme weather event killed hundreds of people and brought her face to face with not just mortality, but the escalating reality of the climate crisis. It also brought her closer to her father, who at one point asked her to go into his Spotify account and play all the songs on his funeral playlist.

“It wasn’t a great playlist,” she says, with her typical deadpan delivery. “But he sang along to every one as if it was the last time he was ever going to hear them. He was so present and so grateful. I don’t know how, but there was joy in that car.”

Ruby Gill’s ‘I’m Gonna Die With This Frown on My Face’ is out now

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