Ruth Berhe walks in to the Starlite Room for her sound check with a friend, smoothies and phones in hand, calm and casual as if they were walking into a mall. But the minute our pre-show photo shoot starts, Ruth handles directions like a seasoned pro, not like someone who, until recently, was only used to selfies. Before taking to the stage after the shoot wraps, the two relax in a booth and chat over a box of doughnuts from Tim Hortons. She’s here to rehearse for her first-ever headlining show in her hometown, even though she’s been performing on stages across North America for over a year. Ruth is committed to maintaining a bit of normality while she’s home in Edmonton, and makes sure friends and family are priorities.
“I knew I wanted to do music, but I definitely wasn’t prepared for the lifestyle,” Ruth says. “But it’s cool to see all the other things that come along with being an artist.”
In an attempt to stay grounded, Ruth got “Be Still” tattooed on her left wrist. “I got it right after I signed my record deal. My life started getting crazy and I just found that I was kind of living it but not experiencing it because it was so over-whelming, so I got this as a reminder to chill out and take it as it comes. I just have to relax and realize that everything that I’m doing is really fun. I have to not get too caught up in the fact that there are thousands of people watching, and just enjoy the performances and create real-life connections.”
“After the show [Ruth] re-tweeted and followed me!” 18-year-old Sydney Heigh says to me about the concert. “I was so excited – and then I noticed she re-posted a photo I took of her from the show on her Instagram story.”
It’s a sentence that wouldn’t have made sense 10 years ago, back when Ruth was only 12 years old Twitter was barely a thing, following someone could only be considered creepy, Instagram didn’t exist and Ruth wasn’t serious about pursuing a career in music. But, three years ago, she wrote lyrics for the song that would become “Lost Boy,” and revealed the song in six-second snippets on the once-popular but now-defunct app Vine. Her internet success (450 million combined views) led to several offers for record deals. She signed with Columbia, made a music video for the hit – which has 57 million views on YouTube and counting – charted on Billboard’s Hot 100, was recognized internationally with nominations for Teen Choice, Shorty and BET awards, and won a Juno Award for Breakthrough Artist of the Year – all before releasing her debut album, Safe Haven, in May 2017.
Ruth is part of the group of musical Canadian millennials – along with fellow Vine-er Shawn Mendes and YouTube stars Justin Bieber and Alessia Cara – who transformed online videos into full-fledged music careers with albums, tours and enthusiastic fan bases.
Not long before all this, Ruth lived, worked and studied in Edmonton and, even now, between tours and recordings and meet and greets and travel, she is calling Edmonton home. “I just really enjoy being home in Edmonton and hanging out with family and friends,” Ruth says. “Home is definitely one of those things you appreciate a lot more once you leave. My mom cooks the best Ethiopian food, which I can’t ever find when I’m on the road. Going back for home-cooked meals after eating a lot of Chipotle is nice.”
Ruth’s musical beginnings are definitive of a new wave of musicians. Though Ruth’s first impressionable musical encounter was watching opera performances on TV as a child – “I became obsessed with [opera] and tried to mimic it. I was like, ‘I need to do this,'” – she didn’t start working on her music until she was 19. She wrote and recorded songs in her bedroom while studying history and political science at Grant MacEwan University, then released them online to an audience who tuned in from around the world before she ever set foot on a stage (besides one talent show at Ross Sheppard High School).
“After I first signed my record deal, my manager said ‘You need to get experience.’ So I would just play random venues that would let me come in,” Ruth says. These included “a bar in Calgary where I think there were eight people” and Wild Earth Bakery and Caf in Edmonton. “I invited my close friends and family, probably 15 people, and just sang the songs I had written,” Ruth says. “I had written most of them in a two-week period just a week prior; even ‘Lost Boy’ was still really new. I had to pull out the lyrics for every song because I didn’t know them well yet. Now they’re all on the album.”
Ruth describes the 12 tracks she wrote for her debut album, Safe Haven, as “honest, raw and in the moment.” “I loved the alone process of writing this album,” Ruth says. “It felt like I was writing in a diary.”
Like fellow introspective songwriter Taylor Swift, Ruth draws on personal experiences and isn’t afraid to hint at real-life characters and situations in her music. “Some people definitely make appearances in the songs,” Ruth laughs. “There’s one song on [Safe Haven] called ‘If By Chance’ that I don’t usually perform live because for me it’s super emotional.” (From the song: “But my heart breaks every time that I see you smile/ ‘Cause I know that it’s not me who brings it out of you anymore.”) Ruth did, however, perform it in June for a sold-out audience at the Starlite Room. The day before her first homecoming show, Ruth remarked “I’m really excited to perform songs [in Edmonton] because I wrote them two, three years ago before I started travelling and this is where a lot of them took place, the stories and the people. It’ll be a really full-circle moment.”
One week after her Edmonton show, Safe Haven climbed to the No. 2 album spot on iTunes’ Singer/Songwriter charts in both the U.S. and Canada (No. 1 in Canada was fellow Edmontonian Martin Kerr). The second week of July, Ruth seized the top spot in Canada – and the albumn has since received gold status.
Even though Safe Haven was a “very to-myself project,” Ruth says she’d be open to vocal and song writing collaborations in the future – she hints that she already has something in the works – and would especially like to work with Ed Sheeran. For now, she continues to write. “I’m always writing, every time I step out of my room I’m bound to run into some kind of idea. I carry my Moleskin notebook with me everywhere because I like to be old school and write things down with a pen and paper. I jot down ideas and then come back to it and write a song later.”
She continues to remain active on social media, to the delight of her 1.25 million Twitter followers, 273,000 Instagram followers and 55,630 Facebook fans who eagerly await a follow, like, re-tweet or comment from Ruth. “I think social media is great; it’s a cool tool for me, you never know who’s going to stumble upon your stuff,” she says. “I like being able to check and see what people are thinking about my work. I got my whole start on there, so I have a lot of memories and met a lot of close friends on Vine.”
Of course, the Vine of three years ago isn’t the Twitter of 2017, which is often criticized for not adequately dealing with harassment, and can be a flurry of hateful arguments and trolls. Ruth isn’t oblivious to the negativity, but prefers to keep her head up.
“I think it’s a really weird time in the world and right now I’m really focused on spreading the message of love and portraying that even if it’s through comments on social media,” Ruth says. “I’m just trying to encourage being kind to one another.”