I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again—we’re lucky to know so many really awesome, really talented people. The one in question today—Abby Hannan, who we met shortly after moving to New York in 2003 and have been friends with ever since.
Abby’s been involved in music in one way or another ever since we’ve known her and long before, it turns out. Though we’ve been fans of her group efforts, Abby’s solo work is where she really shines.
Written + recorded under the moniker Ruby Rae, Abby’s sound has coalesced over the years into a focused, singular vision, creating a sort of sonic character to back up the musical alter ego and presetting a curated sound that hits you like a fusion of folk, country, pop, rockabilly, and American roots music. All of that’s built around Hannan’s deft skill for writing melodic hooks and her clear, classically beautiful singing style.
On the occasion of the release of her new EP, Voodoo Queen, and record release party tonight New York’s Rockwood Music Hall, we took a few minutes to catch up with Abby to talk about her music, how she’s been so productive over the years, and how discovering she was related to an alleged Salem witch inspired the song below. Listen + read on.
raven + crow studio: First off, thanks for talking with us, Abby. Now, am I correct in remembering that you started doing your solo work while still doing the The Ex-Debutantes?
Abby Hannan: I’ve been working on solo material since about 2002. I tend to write songs in pairs, but half of them didn’t fit with the pop punk sound of The Ex-Debutantes. In 2010 I decided to devote more time to the solo work; there seemed to be something there that I couldn’t ignore any more.
Obviously the scene changes for us all as we get older, but how do you see the NYC independent music scene having changed over the past ten or so years?
The early 2000s (aughts?) in the East Village/LES were really exciting! It seemed like you could get your music out there. We’d play a show at the Luna Lounge on Ludlow and guys from Interpol would be hanging out in the bar. We shared some epic bills with up and coming bands. Since then I think the scene is more focused in Brooklyn, and it’s more collaborative, in a good way. Bands help each other out because you can’t just rely on some buzz.
That’s a really good point. I guess the Internet has created this white noise blanket of buzz that’s just harder to punch through for bands these days. How would you say your personal musical style’s changed over the years though?
Well, I started taking violin lessons when I was five—that was sort of my main musical focus through high school. I always thought I would be a session violin player on other people’s songs or in an orchestra, but then I became more interested in guitars, rockabilly, punk, and pop. I fell in love with Britpop, twee, garage rock, electro-pop, glam, alt-country. My current musical style is an evolution. I tend to listen to bands that fuse several genres together.
Yeah, it really seems like it—in a great way. Do you have any sort of musical/writing routine that you follow? Unless it’s all you do, I feel like it’s really hard to make time for music in your life as you start balancing it with whatever day job keeps the bills paid. It’s so easy just to let creative endeavors fall by the wayside, especially in town like New York.
Absolutely, it’s a struggle just to keep up the momentum. I try to play a little every day, then record demos and check-in with the band a couple nights a month. Recording is squeezed into well organized weekends and vacation days.
I’ve heard you describe Ruby Rae’s sound as ‘swamp rock’ to people before—I think that totally works, but how do you think that’s a fitting description of your music?
Around 2010 I wrote a song called “It Came From The Swamp” and it was a creative turning point for the project. Swamp pop or rock seemed to fit, but I still haven’t found the right words to describe the sound. I’ve heard people call it alt-country or rockabilly noir too. I’m open to suggestions. Any ideas?
I like swamp rock. You know, I’ve never personally been a huge fan of rockabilly or even just most blues-fuled music—I think it’s something about the prevalence of minor chord structures or something. But I like how you’ve pulled that sound into your work, which, at its roots, seems very singer/songwriter. Like, most of your songs seem like they can be presented with just you and an acoustic guitar and sound totally fleshed out. Is that how your song-writing process starts—you and a guitar?
Rockabilly is so vibrant, but remains a pretty small slice of American music. It’s not for everyone. My Dad loved that blues-y sound, so growing up it was always an influence.
In terms of writing, it’s a really nice, simple place to start. I like to write a quick and dirty chord progression on a guitar, and think about the lyrics later. If it’s good, it will stick in my head and I can gradually work it out while I do other things like wash the dishes or ride the subway. If I need help, I’ll play it on a piano, or play it in a different room to see if I can approach the song from another angle.
Only the strong songs survive! My favorite song of yours is still the acoustic version of “Cry Crocodile” you played sitting by a pool in Palm Springs. Let’s make that happen again.
YES. Everything is better poolside. Maybe we can have a tiny poolside festival. Like Coachella, but 5 bands and 50 people. The entire audience has to fit in the pool.
Like Splash House for rock. Excellent. I’m wondering though—what is it about the dark side of creole culture or voodoo or the sort of supernatural macabre that fascinates you in terms of providing fodder for writing material?
I don’t know you guys, I’ve always been into spooky stuff. I think it came from my grandmother, who was interested in all kinds of different cultures.
That’s cool, that’s cool. I’m down with some spooky source material. You’re talking to an ex-D&D-playing sci-fi fan, man. Who’d you say are some musical influences?
My first thought is always Patsy Cline meets the Mistfits. In addition to that are: The Cramps, Loretta Lynn, Townes Van Zandt, David Bowie, Cat Power, Cocteau Twins, Flat Duo Jets, The Ronettes, Darlene Love, The Black Keys, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Beach House, The Detroit Cobras, The Amazing Royal Crowns, The Raging Teens, X, T Rex, Wanda Jackson, Lucinda Williams, Jolie Holland, Betty McQuade, Susy Rose, Mazzy Star, Portishead, The Peach Kings, Widowspeak.
All excellent influences. How about the lyrics? Those are anything but about your personal life…I hope. They’re all like “I loved you but you killed me and chopped me up and took me down to the river where you fed me to the crocodiles but, hey, at least we had that last kiss, that was swell.” Where do you get your lyrical inspiration? Or…what kind of stories are you trying to tell with you music? If isn’t too pretentious a question.
No, they are not autobiographical. It’s more that there are uncomfortable situations I want to untangle. I want to tell ghost stories with my music. I want to tell complicated love stories, and express grief and joy. If there’s one person at a show who gets it, that’s cool with me.
And can you talk specifically about the song “Mary Eastey” from the new EP, Voodoo Queen? Are you really related to a witch‽
“Alleged” witch, yes. Last year while I was writing songs for the EP, I found out that I was related to Mary Eastey, who was hanged for witchcraft in 1692 in Salem. It inspired me to think about both sides of that story. She was a pious woman, and everyone in the community was surprised by the accusation. At one point they let her go, and then arrested her again. I wondered what that might have been like for her family, my family.
Man. That’s so crazy. I’m related to a buncha farmers, I think. Who did the art for the Voodoo Queen EP?
Katherine Hardy is an incredibly talented illustrator based in London. We’ve collaborated quite a bit, and—at least for me—it’s a very inspiring process. I usually give her some vague stupid direction like “I want a boat,” and send her the music, and she comes back with something that just blows me away.
Allison Sall did the first EP cover and came up with the knives logo. She is brilliant!
And you’re celebrating the release of that with a show tonight, yeah?
Yes siree, Tuesday August 12th at Rockwood, Stage 1. We play at 9pm.
Nice! And you’ve been coming out west a good bit in the past year or so—playing the ever-awesome Pappy + Harriet’s last fall (photo, above + right) and then the House of Blues here in LA. Any plans to come back to promote the new work?
No concrete plans right now, but I definitely want to come back soon this winter to play. Pappy + Harriet’s is my new favorite venue.
It’s so awesome. You know all of New York’s moving to California, right? That’s the new plan.
Can we just transplant the whole Brooklyn thing? Last winter was brutal.
Well, we hope to see you soon, one way or another! Thanks for talking and have fun at the release party!
Thank you! xoxo
Lead photo by Rose Callahan; Pappy + Harriet’s photo, us.