INTERVIEW: Ruth Patterson | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Right now, many of us are attempting to understand the roles we are currently able to play. What does a musician, artist or writer become when they are no longer able to create? And what do we as culture lovers do when we’re unable to participate? Is the place you occupy in the world somehow diminished when your ability to engage has been stifled?

Ruth Patterson knows this feeling better than most. “I try and write about being human, and as someone who has to constantly examine my place in the world, I think I am in a good position to do that.”

The Newcastle musician, a member of folk ‘n’ rollers Holy Moly & The Crackers, has set out on a solo endeavour which was meant to get a major boost this year with headline shows, an album on the horizon and an Artist in Residency position at Sage Gateshead (which is still taking place, albeit remotely). Not one to let her ambition be derailed, Ruth has decided to forge ahead with the release of her new single, Sink Or Swim, and its subject matter is decidedly close to home for many.

Sink Or Swim is written about a particularly gruelling panic attack that I had last year. For anyone who has ever suffered from that kind of severe anxiety, I think they will know what I’m talking about – it really does feel like drowning, like suffocating, it was really scary. I just remember thinking to myself, I’m going to have to try and get back some level of control over my thoughts and my breathing or this is going to go on forever.” She explains.

Certainly when it comes to the current situation, it’s a sentiment we can all identify with. The rise and fall of Sink Or Swim’s emotive piano lines are underpinned by understated percussion, with foreboding strings adding to the drama. Ruth’s mellifluous vocals are utterly captivating, transporting the listener on a gently terrifying journey into the darkest part of their own psyche.

There’s a lot of talk about the impact that the Coronavirus pandemic is having on our collective and individual mental health. The anxiety of illness and death (always a big one), the isolation of lockdown, the massive divisions in our society that Brexit and Trump had already started to open…now it’s being ripped wide apart, plain for all to see. I think the whole world is having a panic attack, and we’re going to have to get through it. So, to start with, we need to talk about it.”

Mental health and disability are subjects close to Ruth’s heart; she suffers with acute arthritis, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (a connective tissue disorder of the joints which results in frequent dislocations, wide-spread pain and chronic fatigue) and uses a wheelchair. Familial struggles with hereditary mental health problems have led her to being open and honest about her experiences. “A lot of my family have struggled with mental health problems, and I’m fortunate it’s something that as a family we’ve always been really open about. It’s never something I’ve ever been ashamed of. Something to be aware of and to work through, yes, but shame, no. My anxieties, neurosis, paranoia and sensitivities are a big part of who I am.”

I think the whole world is having a panic attack, and we’re going to have to get through it. So, to start with, we need to talk about it

As a disabled artist, she’s also a passionate advocate for change in the music industry.It’s not enough to just be tolerant – I think we need to be actively inclusive, looking for new ways to be better allies. I don’t think disabled artists are given the same platform as non-disabled artists and that’s something that really needs to change. But I see the tide turning slowly. The more that we actively encourage diversity the more we sow the seeds for equal opportunity and the arts will be richer for it.”

As an accessibility ambassador and consultant for a handful of regional businesses and venues, Ruth admits she’s faced challenging situations as a performing artist in the past. “I can safely say that I haven’t faced anything like that in the North East and I’m really proud of my home. I’ve felt really comfortable and open to speak out and complain when things aren’t quite right and also to advise about how things can improve.” As she points out, it’s not just about “ramps and building accessible toilets”, it’s about attitude. “We won’t have disabled artists unless we cater for everybody, and until then the only people losing out is the music scene itself and audiences. Disabled people have a lot to say, different perspectives and important voices. There is a lot to learn and we need to showcase those voices in the right way, keenly encouraging new and diverse music in our community.”

While much of her work deals in the various ways she lives as a disabled woman, she is determined that it not become something which defines her. She describes her music as “personal, honest, maybe even uncomfortable at times, but also celebratory”, and cites artists like Kate Bush, Regina Spektor and Nina Simone as inspirations. “My solo work is a tapestry solely of my own inspirations. I’m listening to a lot of music and trying to channel whatever moves me about the way these artists write, the way they perform, the way they convey emotion and kind of distil it into my own potion of songwriting.”

While her work with Holy Moly & The Crackers is a whirlwind of sounds, genre mash-ups and frenetic live performance, her solo material is more understated and nuanced, although no less impassioned. “I try to write about experiences in a truthful and open way and I think the music has to reflect the images and the emotion in the songs, so I’ve been scoring for a string quartet which is a big part of my sound at the moment. I always felt that strings are the perfect abstract embodiment of the human condition. They sound like feelings.”

While the music industry may be in a state of flux, Ruth believes that now more than ever it can help us find a way to cement our identities. “Art has always been our way of exploring emotions, and how we relate and react to cultural and social changes. Music is the great healer, and at a time when divisions are widening music brings people together. Any influential artistic movement, throughout history, is borne from a time of social upheaval and uncertainty. I want to be part of that changing story.”

Ruth Patterson’s single Sink Or Swim is out now. A new release is also due in August

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