Pamela Ruby Russell Artist Interview
Written by Matt Zin on November 9, 2020
BTD Radio would like to welcome Pamela Ruby Russell!
Wow, after reading your bio and checking out your website, I feel we have a lot in common so I can’t wait to get started with this interview to learn more about you and your music. Before we begin, where are you from?
I was born in NYC and lived with my father and fun-loving mother on army bases all over the country in my first few years: Devil’s Elbow, in the Ozarks, MO; San Antonio, TX; Spokane, WA; etc., for my first 3 years. During the Korean War my dad was recalled to the service as a training officer in the Army Core of Engineers. He taught younger soldiers on bases around the country, how to blow up bridges, clear minefields, cut roads through jungles, etc. Crazy stuff! He served in the Pacific in WW2, doing 12 landings with MacArthur, was seriously wounded and earned all kinds of medals. My mother was a beautiful, brilliant and very creative individual and I attribute much that I have been able to accomplish in this life thus far to her encouragement and creative talents. I grew up on Long Island, a train ride away from New York City, and found my way to Greenwich Village early on, though I took a rather circuitous route to Boston, actually back to Boston. I had spent a year in college there, left and had a whole series of adventures before heading back to New England. Lots of family stuff but I had a deep well of emotional content to draw from as I “grew up” into being an artist. I am proud of being an true New Yorker, even if I call Boston my home now.
I see you are a woman of many things, which I would like to dig more into but before we do that, let’s talk about your fabulous music. When did you first start realizing that music was your life and how did it grab you, was it by picking up an instrument and whaling away on it? Was it singing to your hearts content? Or was it something else?
Wow! This is a good question! My earliest memory of being alive and creative was at 3 years old. I was sitting on my bed in my favorite red corduroy coveralls watching golden sparkles dancing in the morning light. I sang to them, the sparkles. Of course, it was magic to me. I didn’t realize it was my breath that made the sparkling dust “dance” within the shafts of sunlight pouring through the window. I had trouble learning at the onset. They didn’t have a name for A.D.D., dyslexia, etc. …rather I had to find the right way to learn. I had a wonderful fifth-grade teacher named Mr. Hutchinson who taught me how to read and write. I became a voracious reader and wrote poetry. When I was eight my mother bought me a beautiful Ivers & Pond baby grand piano with the last of a family inheritance. I treasured it. An elderly married Russian couple from NYC came to our house every week to teach me how to play. My mom picked them up at the train station. Of course, I had no idea how respected and well loved the couple was in the world of classical piano. Many of their students had performed at Carnegie Hall. They were lifelong friends of a Russian friend of my mother’s and those lessons were a gift. The elderly woman teacher would dance around our living room, weaving and swaying, waving her arms about, scarves and shawls flying through the air, swan-like or raging, encouraging spontaneity in my playing, a musicality and an emotional freedom, while her husband would stand at my side, tapping out the beat on the piano, a human metro-gnome, truly. They were wonderful! I studied with them for two blissful years. I had thought, and I still do, that if I could live life as fully as they did when I grow really old, if I am lucky enough to live that long, I would be quite content!!
As time went on life in my family became more challenging. I was blessed to have a grandmother with a deep appreciation of the arts and the funds to enjoy them. She took me to the ballet and the opera in NYC a few times a year. Nana nurtured my love of the theater, costumes, music, and color!
Things kind of fell apart in my family and my intuited feelings of impending disaster became a reality. Later on I’d hide away in our basement with a classical guitar my mom managed to gift me for my 16th birthday. She scrimped and saved, always encouraging me to be creative. Though my piano was long gone by then and becoming a professional singer, a musician, seemed a total fantasy, I still kept singing under my breath. I got fired from one job because I drove my boss nuts. According to her I was humming all the time though I didn’t realize it. From early on I was too shy to sing out loud in public. There was an exception, strangely enough though. As a child I let my voice soar in a church choir where I sang the highest as descant soprano. Music, that was my almost unattainable dream-story. I’m so grateful that dreams do come true. My Ziegfeld Follies dancer Godmother always said to me, “Pammy, it’s practice, practice, practice if you want to get to Carnegie Hall!”
To back track a bit, since I have lived a long time, my “story” is not a short one. In the early 70’s, which now feels like a lifetime ago, I studied jewelry design and cloisonné enameling at the New School in NYC. Should I continue? Feel free to read my bio at: www.PamelaRubyRussell.com.
I think a turning point for me was when I got a job in NYC as the cassette buyer at a well loved music store called The Record Hunter. Cassettes had just been introduced and A & R reps from record labels were coming in all the time to push their artists. I got free tickets to Fillmore East concerts whenever I wanted them. At least three nights a week, usually more, would find me at the venue listening to the best performers and bands. I got to hear Jimi Hendrix live at the Fillmore on New Year’s Eve! But I had already seen the Beatles at Shea Stadium, Jimi at Woodstock, and Janis Joplin twice as well, so…
I moved to Cape Cod in the early 70’s with a little brown dog named Moppat whom my mom gifted me two weeks prior to my move and her final suicide attempt. Things with my mother had become really stressful and I felt I needed to put some serious distance between us. Her ability to cope appeared to have been steadily improving but the reality was that she had simply made up her mind about leaving this world and was at peace with her decision. After she did take her life I scrambled to make sense of my own and I struggled to recover from the tragedy that had shattered my world. For a short time, I co-owned a very hip small off-season Provincetown restaurant. We served healthy, good food to artists and townspeople alike. Visiting musicians played live music in exchange for dinner every night. My mother’s death continued to weigh heavily on me in spite of all the great people I had met and the fun times. I found myself drinking way too much. Needing a major life change, I ran away to the blue green waters and healing Caribbean sun with my brown dog, Moppat.
Yes, it was a tough time and the islands saved me, St. Barth’s to be exact. I lived there for several years with chickens, my white kid goat Toto, a cat named Grenouille [Froggy] and my buddy Moppat. I cooked for people, bartended at the island’s most luxurious and equally infamous venue Eden Roc, and designed and sold elaborate feather and gold wired jewelry on the beach, all the while writing poetry. My truly “tiny” house on the deserted side of the island had no running water, just a cistern and a “bucket shower.” I took exotic moonbaths and rode my motorbike all over the island in the dead of night. One dusky tropical evening, as I walked arm in arm through a bamboo forest with a lovely Frenchman, we talked about life. He convinced me to return to the States to study music. I had confided in him that I wanted to learn to write music for my poetry, I was so young then! He asked, quite sternly I might add, “What the hell are you doing here then?” A few years ago we reconnected after. He had begun to lose his memories, but he still remembered me fondly! His family used one of my photographs for his mother’s funeral, a circle that came around again after many decades. Isn’t life incredible?
It took a good year for me to return to the States. I crewed on a large trans-Atlantic ready sailboat and was let off in St. Thomas with literally $1.00 in my pocket and my Moppat dog. I ended up staying there for a while, working for a veterinarian running his 24-hour nighttime emergency clinic and then I headed to the island of Vieques, off Puerto Rico. Swimming in a bioluminescent bay, being an artist’s model and learned to meditate, the perfect remedy for my blues. Oh, I loved the islands, still do.
When Moppat and I finally made it back to the good old USA I began voice study in earnest with a brilliant and quite colorful teacher a musician friend had recommended to me when I was 19. I had kept his name in my wallet for years, Dante Pavone. My new vocal coach insisted that I move to Boston instead of hitchhiking from the Cape with my dog each week to see him. Living in a huge and quite infamous musicians’ house with 14 roommates, I was inundated with Grateful Dead music! We used to play wine glass concertos at the dinner table. Have you ever tried that? Of course, I was the house cook most of the time. Eventually I ended up recording with the band that formed in that house, the “One Band.” My very first producer back then was Adrian Barber. He built Paul McCartney’s first bass cabinet and produced a good part of the live Woodstock album! A pretty good start for me, I’d say.
Do you remember the first song you wrote? What was it about?
I wrote some lyrics in an early writing class, a piece called LIKE A RIVER and then another song which will remain nameless right now, because I think I am going to do a rewrite and record it soon, but the first complete song I wrote is on my HIGHWAY OF DREAMS album. Entitled MAKE YOU CRY, the song came from a very real situation, me leaving a lover who had been dishonest. It was truly his loss because for me the experience became a learning experience rather than a heartbreak. As an aside, I auditioned quite a few life partners until I found the One, and we’ve been together for decades now. I highly recommend being sure and knowing someone well before giving your heart away. Know their ethics, what is important to them and if they are someone you actually like as a good friend as well as a lover!
Being a writer is a personal thing; you expose your thoughts for the whole world to see. It can be a bit scary but rewarding all at the same time. When did the world start learning about Pamela Ruby Russell?
I have always written. I guess writing is the way I reach down deep into my heart and Soul. A way for me to allow that which I am not yet conscious of to become tangible, I reveal myself to me by writing. I think that makes sense? I could say my Muses are being kind and generous to me when I am feeling productive, but really it’s just me showing up, being present. It’s not always comfortable or easy to face one’s fears, assumed weaknesses, our self-imposed limitations, the “imperfections.” Practice is challenging for me, the “I’m not good enough and someone may figure out that I am a fraud, a fake, that I suck or something” thing. I felt that way as a child, no, I still feel that way sometimes. But I soldier on.
Martha Graham, the beloved choreographer, said, “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.” I take the liberty of adding to Ms. Graham’s words that the gift you possess will never be given and that is very sad. My vocal coach Mark Baxter said to me once, “Stop being selfish… share your gift and SING!”
When did the world learn about me, you ask? Wow! Hmmm. The first time I performed! I did a bit part in a high school play, nothing to write home about, and then in college I was cast in a one-act play called “Chamber Music,” a very dark and powerful piece that changed my life. I delivered a stage whispered monologue alone on a dark, starkly set stage, to a full house while a single spotlight shone on me through an open window frame hanging from the rafters, eery. I remembered my lines… it was so powerful! I knew I was meant to perform, but I had no idea how that was going to play out! I won an award for that performance. I do still act and am in a full-length movie now, a horror film called “Seeds” by director, Skip Shea. The film is winning all kinds of international awards. Over the years, I have led my own bands, as the principle songwriter and have recorded and performed extensively. It feels good to have a body of work behind me, and I am now digitizing much of it, remastering and releasing some of the gems as I finish half done songs and write new ones. I look forward to feedback.
Musicians and artists seem to have a different soul, a different outlook on life. During these pretty challenging times, with COVID-19, Global Warming and whatever else has come our way, have you been influenced to let any of this bleed into your writing?
Well, “bleed” is a very descriptive and right on word for what I personally have been feeling and beginning to write about lately. Being here in the United States with the most important election of possibly this nation’s history now happily behind us, my emotions have run the gamut… from rage to profound and almost debilitating sorrow and now resolution, determination and love for my country. My beloved 14 year old dogson, diagnosed with a rare cancer, was recently euthanized. I’m still mourning his passing, and then an old friend who has been down on his luck for several months came to live with us for a while. My former piano teacher, he happens to be a brilliant jazz composer and pianist, so there is also much inspiration and angst in the mix. Driving around Boston and seeing all the homeless people in doorways and on the streets, it is difficult for all of this to NOT seep into my creative endeavors. People have been hurting in so many different ways. I planted spring bulbs on my dog’s grave today in hopes that when we come out of the darkness and cold of this coming winter there will be bright daffodils and the sweet scent of hyacinths to cheer me up and remind my household that life goes on! Hope and joy, we must kindle them in our hearts.
I am digging your new website www.PamelaRubyRussell.com, one could sit and view your website for hours and not get bored, you have so much to offer. For someone landing at your site for the first time, what would you recommend they read or look at first? Why?
Well, I think, if someone is checking out my website from a desktop pc for the first time, they can listen to the songs AND scroll down to look at my photographs located directly below. That was my original intention when I created the site, but I realized afterwards that if one is using a cell phone or some device, a visitor must “choose.” So, to answer your question, I do not know. I guess it depends on what one is drawn to. Each month and sometimes, lately a bit more, I have been writing new entries in my Blog. With the state of the world where it is at present, whew! I am about ready to write some more, but I had wanted my website to be a place of respite and peace. I wasn’t feeling particularly peaceful! I think after we finish this interview, I will begin my new Blog entry. Usually I allow my mind to empty and then I just wait to see what comes in. Then I begin to write. Ahhh! I hope folks leave me comments or email me at my website. They can subscribe as well.
Let’s talk about your new song, Space And Time. It has a great beginning. Is that bagpipes I hear? Could you let our listeners know what that song is about and why you wrote it?
About SPACE AND TIME, to be honest with you, considering why I originally wrote it, what it means to me now, years and several arrangements later, I would rather the listener be taken on a voyage, and experience their own feelings, colors and let their emotions define the song for themselves. I was simply a conduit for that song. For me that is perfect, my job, and yes, those are bagpipes and there is an awesomely wild story behind how they got to be on the recording. BUT that may be a story for my next Blog, so hang tight.
I know putting together an album is hard, not only do you need to create the music but you need to create the mood of the album by lining up the playlist, what song comes first, second and third and so on. On your new album Highway of Dreams, why did you choose Boxcar first and Highway Dreams last? Is there a story that you are trying to convey here?
This one I will tell you about. BOXCAR, with its freight train rhythm carrying it through, for me represents sorrow, loss and giving support, mercy, to our selves as well as to those in need. I love good movies. One night I watched an old film with Meryl Street and Jack Nicholson about two homeless people who cross paths. He was a man lost in shame after losing his job and abandoning his family, and she, an aging concert pianist who had taken to drink, mourned the loss of her career, the wasting of her gift.
The film deeply affected me since I had actually been homeless for a short time as a young girl and it was terrifying. In retrospect, probably similar to what many families are facing now across this nation, it was a sad time of transition, a significant series of losses for my broken family. Most of my possessions, my young girl treasures, my beautiful piano which my mother had sacrificed so much for to buy me when I was eight years old, all were taken from me. The piano was my most devastating loss.
The film really hit home. I hadn’t slept much the night before and while walking through the downtown Boston Commons, not far from the State House, threads of a song began to disentangle my troubled thoughts. It was raining, just a gentle shower by then and a Pro-Choice rally was happening at the foot of the State House steps. There were hundreds of women, old and young, black, brown and white, many holding signs and coat hangers, chanting, “My body, my choice.” I remembered too well how important and profound the ultimate passing of Roe v. Wade had been when I was younger and how essential it still is for women’s well being and safety now! I personally feel that the girls, the grown women, the ones who stand outside in the rain, the snow, they are just as much soldiers as the men and women in uniform committing to defend our Constitution and a precious belief we call democracy. The right to decide how to live life in peaceful harmony with others, guided by one’s own moral compass, to me that is sacred. I have always felt that what we as individuals, as women do personally in our private, quiet moments, making hard decisions sometimes, that must be between ourselves and with a Higher Power with whom we have a choice to keep faith with or not. No judgements from me…
As far as my song HIGHWAY OF DREAMS, well… that’s another one that I like to leave be. I invite my audiences to explore their own feelings as they listen. It’s a journey we all get to take, down our very own highway of dreams! Enjoy the ride!!
On this 10 song album, which song is your most favorite of them all, why? Which one took you the longest to write and why?
I do not have one favorite really. They are my children, if you will, born of places in my heart, different signposts, visits along the way, snapshots created on a journey. It depends on my mood. Once in a while I will listen to the album and wonder how I ever wrote those songs. I hear the songs in different contexts, depending on what I am experiencing and their meanings for me change. A few of the songs were written while I was living in Mexico. SOUNDS OF THE SEA is a special one I guess. I had been hanging out with a group of Mexican musicians, learning from them about Andean music, different rhythms and styles. I had befriended a visiting Frenchman, someone I met at an outdoor cantina where I was working for a bit, cleaning the frijoles in exchange for food each day. My friend asked me to travel to LA with him. He was an aspiring actor, a kind and lovely fellow, and I traveled as far as Baja with him, on an eighteen-hour ferry ride. When we reached Cabo San Lucas, we spent a few wonderful weeks while I was riding an elephant in a Mexican one ring circus that we encountered on the ferry, and trying to decide about the future. Do I go or do I stay? I returned on the ferry to Mexico without him, setting sail on a full moon night, crying my eyes out, unsure of a decision that would ultimately change the trajectory of my life. I was in the middle of learning, writing and living a Mexican dream and I did not trust in love back then. SOUNDS OF THE SEA was the result of my love for a country and a road not taken that I will always hold dear in my heart. I used to sometimes wish that particular Frenchman could have heard my song. But Life moves us onward, hopefully for the better.
When you are in the studio, writing, composing, recording… what kind of thoughts go through your head? How long is a typical session?
First of all I love Love LOVE being in the studio. As far as what goes through my head, it is ALL about the songs! I make sure that my musicians are comfortable and have what they need to fly. I try NOT tell them HOW to play. I pick them for their colors, what they can bring to the song. A bassist once told me that he loved recording with me because I “gave him the sky.” Another musician told me before a session that he was unable to play that morning as he had been up all night after his lady had deserted him, left him for his producer and he was broken hearted. I told him, “let my song have that feeling, gift it… then you can let it go.” Well he did and afterwards, he realized that out of his misery, he had created an amazing track for a song that needed exactly what he had been able to give it. We are still friends, after 40 years!
A typical session? No such thing. One Thanksgiving I brought a roasted turkey and all the fixings to a recording session, even a homemade pumpkin pie! It was a session with one of my favorite engineers, Bob St. John and we recorded for 33-hours. No stops, and no drugs… just food, laughter and wonderful music, and of course, coffee! The song ended up being put on rotation on a top recording station, WBCN in Boston and I was chosen Featured Local Artist. Very cool! Maybe I should re-release that song. It’s a good one.
If you were walking down the street and listening to your music and someone says “who is that?” Would you tell them? Do you tell them? When they ask you what kind of music do you compose, what do you say?
I would say, “That’s ME!” I love my songs. As I mentioned before, they are my children and I am proud of them. So far, I’ve gone through a lot in this lifetime and those songs are a testament to me being a thriver, not just a survivor. Early on a wonderful DJ once said my style or genre is “South of the Border and around the corner.” I am an eclectic artist with many different outlets for my creativity. I write and sometimes put music to my writings, calling them songs, and other times I use my writing to describe my photographs. I have performed at Avante Garde Festivals, large and small concerts, opening up for some bands that are now quite well known. For almost 10 years I have been focusing on my improving my photography and then last year I dove back heart first into my music. There are still things I want to say as a songwriter and performer.
So I know there are many sides to Pamela Ruby Russell. You are an artist, activist, photographer, and it looks like you have some lovely artwork in galleries. How do you find time to do all this? Which is your most favorite of all?
Photography and writing, my love for them has gone hand in hand for me. Yes, I do show my photographs in galleries and have received wonderful reviews, praise and awards for my work over the years. I began taking photos when I was a teenager and learned to develop and print photos when I was 19. I was my college yearbook’s candid photographer and have been shooting ever since. Portraits, lots of work for other artists, covers and public relations shots, though fine art photography may be my favorite. I am also an award winning, published writer but as a songwriter, I feel all of my creative work comes together, like a soup, with flavors simmering, harmonizing. I love colors and anyone who has met me knows, every day is a different color ON me as well; that everything I do contributes to my songwriting.
I wrote long before I ever considered myself a songwriter, ever since I could pick up a pencil, and lyrics became second nature. As far as time… Ahh! That is always the challenge. The addition of music just adds to the soup. I have been working on a film project for decades and hopefully it will see the light of day before I leave this lovely Earth! Being creative is essential for me, like eating and breathing. Allowing yourself to create, learning to create something out of nothing, can get you through almost anything in life. Sharing one’s gifts, isn’t that what living’s all about? It is for me! Life’s short. I hope mine counts for something other than just taking up space and time! I hope my experiences and the wisdom I’ve acquired and share through my creative endeavors will inspire others to set out upon their own lives in search of meaning, caring, kindness and joy.
Well we are coming to a close of this wonderful interview but I wanted to see if you had any other projects coming up, shout-outs, something we left out that you would like to add?
I am learning to play guitar so I can accompany myself. Writing songs on the piano has been my MO, my place of comfort and safety, but open mics, small venues and the like, they rarely have tuned pianos available, and besides, there are so many pianists who play far better than I, AND… my guitar is a really cool British Split Sound, red and black Burns electric guitar from 1964. I’ve had it for decades and I’m finally exploring how to rock out on it, well, I’m learning. For the past year I have been writing with a wonderful character, a musical genius, Andy Pratt, who was a huge rock star in the early ’70’s with his song AVENGING ANNIE. Roger Daltry of the Who even covered it! Andy has been putting out songs for decades and is a generous and talented collaborator. I have a new project in the works with my producer in Miami, the same fellow that re-arranged SPACE AND TIME. I’ll be recording vocal tracks for a bunch of new songs around Christmas I hope.
I would like to give a shout out to my publicity angel, Joe Viglione. He has given me so much moral support and has spurred me on, helping me organize my musical Soul. Staying on track is a daily endeavor for me. I now have two songs on the new and quite brilliant “Boston Rock Anthology – Volume # 21,” along with some of the most talented and respected Boston / New England-based artists. The “Boston Anthology #21” was mastered by a respected audio engineer and producer, Rob Fraboni! Joe made it happen! There’s great music on it. For me, it’s thrilling for my music to be included, so do please check it out!
And yes, I’m grateful to all who have shared their gifts and wisdom with me. It has not been in vain! I want to thank Eric Linter, my Starman, an acclaimed astrologer and guide through this life, for his unending encouragement and love, and also a shout out to Peter Calo and Mario Gil, two wonderful producers who have helped me translate my creative soul into songs that I am proud to share and most grateful for. I have kind and loving Muses! And of course, T Dawn, I also want to thank you! This interview was a long while coming, but you gave me the time to seriously consider what I wanted to say and share with your audiences. I was able to go to places I hadn’t thought about in a long time, though I probably said too much, but hey, you live a life long enough, you have lots to say. I would love to hear from your listeners. There’s a healing to be done and for me, many more songs to write. I wish us all goodness, peace and, most importantly, joy! My HIGHWAY OF DREAMS album is available on iTunes and Spotify as well as many other venues, for your listening pleasure. Please, enjoy my website at: www.PamelaRubyRussell.com. Thank you! Rock on!
It has been a pleasure getting to know you Pamela. Please be sure to keep us updated on your adventures!
T Dawn and the BTD Radio Team!