Creative pursuits, inclusion & sense of belonging by Ruby Walsh
Ruby and I work together at Melodics. She is an incredible musician 🎶 (plays guitar, pads, keyboard, drums) and only when doing research for this interview I found out that she also has the most wonderful voice. I admire how true and honest to herself she is, always advocating for fairness, inclusivity, equality. I am so grateful to have met her and now to be sharing her story on Kia Ora!
Tell us a bit about your musical background? How did your love for music start and manifest in your life?
Apparently, when I was little I did things like pick up sticks off the beach and drum them on logs, pluck away at my out-of-tune ukulele for hours or do live lounge performances of my favourite Spice Girls songs. I’ve always found music a fascinating & personal experience, it was one of the few things that could hold my entire focus as a child.
When I was 12, I started learning guitar properly and then started writing songs and singing, badly as some of my friends liked to point out.
The high school I went to had just built a brand new music department with a recording studio. I remember going to music classes in Year 9 and making myself anxious every lesson because I was that excited to play music. I remember feeling unnoticed by my teachers and peers up until Year 10 when I somehow got an opportunity to perform some songs at our art festival. That’s when my music teacher realised I had a lot to give. From that point on the support of my teachers, school and community grew as I recorded songs, performed, entered many high school competitions, improved my singing and became known as a “music kid”. It was a wonderfully formative time and I learned so many skills then that I still depend on today.
By the end of school I knew I wanted to keep learning about music so I decided to study it at university, which nobody was surprised about and everyone supported me. I started the Popular Music performance degree at Auckland University. I loved the first year, wrote lots of songs while also indulging in the social side of things and made lots of musician friends. But by the second year I wasn’t loving it anymore and so I decided to drop out, which most people were surprised to hear and I had to justify and explain myself for a while after.
I think partly I was burnt out, due to poor self management skills but also the fact that I found it hard to have my art marked as an assignment. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I originally went there to learn more about music and so when the things I wanted to be learning and doing started to seem like they were on the outside of the institution that’s when I knew I just wanted to be a musician, with or without a degree.
Then I was introduced to Melodics and found myself in a job for the next four years.
What were some of the people, things or events that inspired & supported you on the way?
There are too many people I would like to credit properly. But some of the people who gave me opportunities that changed the course of my path the most were my music teacher and my woodwork teacher from high school. They were both so kind and encouraging of my creativity when I was a teenager and would actually go out of their way to help me create & do the things I wanted to do at that time.
I used to keep in touch with Kimbra when I was at high school. I would send her my songs and she would write me back and tell me what music to check out and also what she was up too in her career. She was a huge inspiration to me at the time and it gave me a lot of confidence having her listen to my music and give feedback and validation. Kimbra is a kind hearted person.
Since uni, my good friend Jeremy Toy has been a main support and inspiration. He was my guitar tutor when I studied but we later started to make music music together. Jeremy opened my musical world and showed me that musicing is a huge space to explore. Whether it is arranging, producing, performing, building and fixing instruments, running a business, contracting in music tech, networking, teaching, releasing music, dealing with legalities. Having an experienced person be transparent and genuinely supportive of you when you’re starting out makes a huge impact on your development. But the best thing about his support is that he has always helped me believe I could do the most daunting things and supplied me with the knowledge or the equipment I would need to achieve those things to do it myself. I also admire how he marches to the beat of his own drum... and his drum beats are always fire.
But the bottom line is always family. The older I get the more I realise the way my mother raised me has a lot to do with my success. She’s always there at the end of the day telling me to get back up and keep going.
It is still quite challenging to make a living or a profession out of a creative pursuit. What are some of the main challenges that you might have experienced and how did you manage to make music more than a hobby?
Yes, it is, compared to other industries. I recently read the research report released by Creative New Zealand and NZ On Air about making a living as a Creative Professional in Aotearoa. It was bleak. The median annual income from creative work surveyed around $15,000.
Reading it made me aware of my privilege to have secure employment that still requires my specialised creative skills and pays median wage. But it also made me aware of the compromises most creative professionals have to make to earn a living in this sector.
My main challenge is having the time and energy after working a job to sit down and create my own music, while still having an active and social life. I still feel like I’m trying to figure out how best to balance everything.
What are you inspired by? What makes you get up in the morning?
To be honest what gets me up in the morning is the need to pee. Otherwise I’ll happily snooze back into another REM session.
But I think I’m inspired by the potential of the moment. I quite enjoy going down the rabbit hole of an idea or a feeling and getting lost and confused in the elusiveness of it all. There are always tangible off-shoots that you can describe with words or sounds or images but they’re all dancing around the centre point of what it is you want to express or describe. It’s happening to me right now as I try and describe what inspires me. I think I just like that it’s a never ending and always evolving chase.
Our in-between work conversations about inclusion, equality and changing the status quo inspire me so much. Why do you think some people are so passionate about these topics and some are quite indifferent? Why do you think you are passionate about it?
Probably because at some point in their life they have been excluded or not treated with equal respect. I think the people who are indifferent are either comfortably ignorant or don’t see how it’s in their best interest to advocate change that seemingly only benefits others and disadvantages themselves… Because it’s comfortable being ignorant.
I think evidence for both sides of the story exist in all of us on some level. I think you can be in the most privileged demographic and still find a way to relate or empathise with someone who is less favoured in society if you really try. At the end of the day we are all humans with the same needs to live, breath, be loved and belong.
That being said, we all need to do some work to understand the problems inequality and exclusion cause to the people around us and to find a way to help them. I think it’s safe to assume you’re always missing information and you should never stop trying to learn or unlearn because our perspectives are narrower than we realise and there are more ways to live a human life than we could ever imagine.
I think I’m passionate about inclusion and equality because I’ve had a lot of feelings of being excluded and treated differently based on the arbitrary assumptions of others throughout my life. But I also value hearing perspectives that are different from mine, because hearing other peoples stories brings the world to me. If you want to hear different perspectives then you also have to be one to welcome them. Which to me means you have to go out there and be someone who is approachable and listens.
I think there is also merit in walking the talk. Being active with your beliefs. We aren’t always able to act out what we say we support and believe, but you have to ask yourself, “Am I being passive, when I could be actively helping?”, “Am I comfortably ignorant to this issue in my periphery?”, “What am I choosing to do with my time instead of helping with this issue?”. With all the political and social justice awareness I've accumulated to date, I ask myself these questions everyday and I definitely answer ‘yes’ more often than ‘no’. Sometimes it’s overwhelming and I feel guilty for not using my privileges and education for a greater cause. But I know now that awareness brings discomfort and the truth of it all can be so overwhelming, it seems easier to not act at all. The uncomfortable truth eventually becomes reality and you can learn how to deal with it and you will grow from dealing with it.
I’m just trying to make sure I always respect the responsibility privilege brings to me, to pull others up, level the ground and share what I have. Because the rewards are hearing new perspectives that help refine your understanding of yourself and the world around you.
How do we make music a more inviting place for marginalised communities? Do you see the landscape changing for the better in recent years?
Well, I don’t think music is a place which one needs to be invited into because it’s something that mostly everyone can participate in some capacity.
But if I’m critiquing the western music industry I would say there are a few things that could improve.
Firstly, safety. Going out to see a gig at a bar or club can be heaps of fun for some of us but for others, the reality is that it’s unsafe. I think if you want to make a more inviting place, you first of all need to make it a safe place for everyone. And I think part of that is looking out for others on an individual level and being aware of how you are affecting the people & the space around you.
Secondly, I think representation is very important. I think there are still heavy aesthetic ideals being followed and upheld by powerful groups in the music industry that are discouraging people with real passion and potential because they don’t see an example of themselves playing the role in music that they one day want to play.
Things are definitely getting better. It’s time for industry groups to stop highlighting the same people, even if that’s what sells their product. You’ve got to take risks, experiment and do the unthinkable to move the culture forward. That is a fundamental part of creating art! The solution is always in the problem. But the problem isn’t checking for who isn’t there, it’s about checking who the space is already inviting for and actively finding a way to make it an inviting place for everyone. And I don’t just mean saying all minorities are welcome. You have to make the space look & feel like their space too and if you don’t know how to achieve that, ask them, bring them on board, step back and give them authority to express their needs and support the change.
Do you ever feel lost or unsure of what you are doing? How do you tackle that feeling?
Yeah, all the time. I like to think about it like a channel of momentum. When you’re in it, life feels like it’s falling into place and you’re doing the things that move you forward and when you’re out of it, it feels like you’ve taken the highway in peak traffic and you’re going in the wrong direction.
I think my strategy has become about checking in and sensing where i am relative to the momentum, when I feel lost. Then figuring out what steps or turns I need to take to head back towards the flow of momentum. The steps could be small like doing the chores I’ve put off or the steps could be big like moving places or quitting university...
Understanding what that momentum feels like is really important so you know what you’re looking for and can trust your navigation. But it’s different to having a set goal. A goal is a fixed destination and momentum is the current that gets you there, and takes you further, if you let it.
Tell us a bit about your cultural background? What do you love about the cultures that you feel you belong to? What can they learn from each other?
Well, I was born and raised in Aotearoa and ethnically I am European and Tongan. I grew up with a pākehā family but just my mother and I lived out in a small beach town. Growing up I socialised with a real mix of people. As a young child I think I spent a lot of time in and around Te Ao Māori (Māori world), attending Te Kōhanga Reo and spent a lot of time on the marae because my Mum often worked alongside the local iwi. My friends were all related to each other and would often ask me when we were all playing together, if I was their cousin too. I kind of knew I wasn’t but I also kind of looked like one of them and their families would treat me like one of their own when I was under their supervision. I guess as a kid you just want to fit in.
Because I didn’t really have any connection to Tongan culture growing up and everyone assumed I was part Māori and I was exposed to the tikanga from a young age, I recently realised how much Te Ao Māori has impacted me culturally. I sometimes wonder if it filled that space in my identity growing up where Tongan culture couldn’t.
Still today people assume I’m Māori all the time, and I can understand why. But I am Pākehā and now that I’m older and wiser I know I was lucky to have grown up next door to the Māori world. And as I choose to learn about Te Reo Māori and Tikanga Māori formally as an adult, I find I have this foundational experience to connect it all too. I understand now that by learning about Te Ao Māori, it helps me strengthen my connection to where I come from, and part of who I am.
I think that’s the benefit of acknowledging your ancestors and the land from which they grew, that has lead to your existence today. It solidifies who you are and it can lay a foundation for your identity and purpose. I’m not saying that I’m all sorted, far from it actually. But at least I have started to acknowledge my foundations. I think that is something that could be missing for a lot of people in Aotearoa and pakeha culture doesn’t teach the importance of this. I think that actively learning to understand the Māori world view as pākehā could help us better connect with and respect the people around us and the land that we all live on.
I think that’s the benefit of welcoming & celebrating other cultures that you live next door to - to learn and grow from them, to understand yourself better, to know how to take care of this place so that the next generation can enjoy it too.
There are people who think that they are not creative, don’t have a talent, an ear or an eye for it. How do you think these people can approach developing their creative side? Do they even need to?
I think if you’re telling yourself you are not creative then you are denying yourself the opportunity of being creative. Yes, having a way to express creativity takes time and practice. But I’m pretty sure nobody was born with a talent, they still had to learn and develop it like everyone else. It could be that they learnt something unknowingly as a baby and so now they are 7 and can do something amazing that you and I can’t do as adults. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have the opportunity to learn and develop a way to express creativity that you also find you have once you’ve stopped telling yourself that you’re not creative.
Are you learning or pondering about anything right now that you would like to share?
When will we stop referring to women identifying people who make music as ‘female producers’. Because how often do you hear people referring to ‘male producers’? Men are not the default gender, they just have the advantage of controlling the majority of the space and exclusively inviting in their own kind.
I am so looking forward to the day when women, gender non-conforming people and people of colour and indigenous cultures have as much autonomy as men in the music industry. I’m most excited about how the sound of music will evolve when there is more diversity of thought & experience influencing on all levels of the music industry and the whole of the creative arts in general.
On a different note, if you want to know about a cool NZ TV show, watch ‘Ahikāroa’ on Māori Television on demand. Guaranteed a good time and it’s bilingual so you might pick up some new kupu and kīwaha (words and phrases)!