Ruth has been immersed in sound since she was a tot, first plinking her way around a great aunt’s ivories before getting her mitts on a fiddle, aged just five.
Since then she’s regaled school assemblies, digested the tricks of guitar masters Nick Drake and Patti Smith, and toured with inspiring musicians such as Eliza Carthy and Skinny Lister.
But it is in Holy Moly & The Crackers, the band she co-founded with her now-fiancé Conrad Bird aged 16, that she’s found her calling.
Its unhinged mix of folk, rock and gypsy sounds has given Ruth the space to expand and grow from her classical beginnings and develop something all of her own.
Since growing from a trio into a raucous five-piece around 2015, the bombastic folk-rockers have played over 300 shows and 60 festivals including Glastonbury, Secret Garden Party, Wilderness, Boomtown and Bestival.
Their fiddle-shredding, brass-howling hoedowns have also raised temperatures around Europe too, with shows in Italy, the Netherlands, France, Portugal and Germany winning them love from all quarters.
Ruth’s acute arthritis, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and wheelchair have never dampened the drive, despite some enormous challenges she’s faced within the music industry – which is ‘playing catch-up’ in terms of both attitudes and access she says.
Regardless, Holy Moly & The Crackers have a huge 15-date tour booked in for later this year which is selling fast, alongside a jam-packed summer of festival bills and more.
Here, Ruth chats to us about what underpins her band’s wild sounds, her involvement with the Attitude Is Everything charity and how she survives tour life when most of the live industry is still so heavily pitted against her…
How did you first get into making music?
My family had an old piano in our house and when I was tiny, my great aunt, a very talented pianist, would play me tunes and encourage me to join in. I just loved music. Then I started playing the fiddle when I was five years old. I’ve always wanted to play with other people: duets, orchestras, folk groups, sessions etc. It’s what brings music alive, for me. I’ve been writing songs since I was 11, sometimes performing them in school assemblies - ugh I cringe just thinking about that now! I met Conrad, my co-front man and now fiancé, when I was 16, found that I could kinda sing and our band, Holy Moly & The Crackers, grew out of that. I guess you could say music has shaped my whole life from day one.
I’ve got all the clichéd artists in the bag like everyone else: Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Nick Drake, The Doors, Velvet Underground etc! But really, I think it’s the musicians that we’ve met on the road, and since become friends with, that have influenced me the most: musically but also in the way that they cope with this crazy life we’ve all chosen. Life lessons on how to keep sane I guess! To mention a few, these wonders include: Skinny Lister, The Buffalo Skinners, Pip Fluteman, Rob Heron and the Teapad Orchestra, Tankus The Henge, Frank Turner, Eliza Carthy.
What’s the thinking behind Holy Moly and the Crackers?
We want people to enjoy themselves. We’ve all seen that article on how getting to experience live music can make you live longer!? Well we’re in the right game then and I do feel that music has a massively therapeutic effect on humans. That’s why we do what we do. There’s no greater feeling than creating something that brings people together! I love to see people dancing, singing along and just enjoying themselves. It’s good for the soul.
What draws you to the folk tradition?
The storytelling, the sharing. There’s so much to learn, from history but also from the contemporary folk scene - and it’s ever evolving.
What’s been your biggest career highlight so far?
Playing with Holy Moly and the Crackers on the Avalon stage at Glastonbury back in 2016 has got to be a big highlight! But the most exciting thing we’ve done is meeting our producer, Matt Terry. Everything changed after that moment. I had the best time writing and recording the album, working closely with him on the record. I can’t wait to get back into the studio later this year.
What’s your worst musical habit?
Being classically trained and growing up playing acoustic instruments, I sometimes find it hard to account for happy accidents in the kind of music that we play. I would definitely say that I am too much of a perfectionist! We’ve introduced much more of a rock element into our sound and I can’t be so precious with the kind of big sounds that we have flying around. It’s fun and chaotic and clashy, and there’s a lot of beauty in that.
How does being in a wheelchair affect your musical career?
I can only describe it as beautiful nightmare – not just for me, but also the rest of the band. Most of the venues we play are inaccessible or only accessible for the audience. We’ve had to cancel shows due to the fact that I can’t get to the stage! We have a very different time compared to other bands. I get exhausted very quickly and have to conserve as much energy as I possibly can to save it up for the gig, which means more work for everyone else: my band mates are heroes.
A typical show-day consists of staying in bed as late as possible, cramming myself full of pain medication for the journey covered in pillows and supports, staying in the van right up until sound-check (whilst everyone else sets up!).
Then after sound-check we get some food (more meds), do some physio backstage (maybe fit in a brief nap), regroup and get ready for the show (with some help). Then full of adrenaline, by far the best drug, I get on stage and smash it hoping that I don’t smash my body in the process!
I suffer with arthritis and EDS which means painful everything and frequent dislocations topped off with a non-existent immune system. Just what you need when you’re a touring musician! I have played gigs with a dislocated hip, shoulders, rib, kneecap, finger etc. and twice managed to get pneumonia. It is tough and probably crazy, but I love what I do and I am lucky enough to have the best support around me to be able to continue.
I have rarely seen ANY support for disabled musicians. I only know of a handful of venues that have wheelchair access onto the stage - venues and promoters just don’t think that disabled performers exist. Well we do and there’d be a lot more of us if we had better opportunities to succeed in the industry.
At every show without fail, I am carried around by my bandmates: I am forced to put up with the way it is as we don’t have the luxury of being picky about the shows we play, but it is humiliating and it hurts!
I can make a joke out of being carried on and off the stage or down the stairs out of the venue or having to use the goods lift like a piece of machinery, but I should never be in that position and neither should our fans.
First of all, the industry needs to appreciate that disabled musicians do exist for anything to change. I am constantly having to correct staff at venues that no I am not ‘one of the girlfriends’ and yes I am aware ‘that the venue is closed for sound check’ and that they’re probably going to need me in there because I’m the lead singer of that band, rather than an overzealous fan! If things are going to change, there needs to be better education of venue staff and promoters for the needs of disabled musicians and disabled fans.
How did you get involved with Attitude is Everything?
I first met Suzanne, chief executive of Attitude is Everything, at Liberty festival in the Olympic Park, London. I contacted them on social media several times as I am a big supporter of what they do. I really got on with Suzanne and the team and I believe that they do hold the power to really make some changes to the music industry.
Their research and their campaigns are ever-growing and it is very exciting to be a part of it. They are the ones asking questions about what disabled people need, leading brilliant campaigns based on the data collected and helping to provide us with a collective voice. They’ve recently launched their fourth state of access report and they asked me to be a panellist for the event. It was really well attended and I spoke to many different people of all abilities from all sections of the industries. They are really beginning to make some noise. It fills me with hope and confidence for the future.
What’s the last great record you heard?
Goat Girl - contemporary lo-fi pink/indie with echoes of Patti Smith. Just brilliant!
What can we expect from your upcoming live shows?
A high-octane show filled with punch and bounce. We try to bring the audience with us into our world and get everybody feeling vibey. We’re writing new material at the moment and slowly introducing a new direction into our live set which we’re super excited about. We’ve also got a couple of tunes in the pipeline to get the feelings going. We’ve always been a mixed bag but that’s what we love. Onwards and upwards!
And finally, what does the rest of the year have in store for Holy Moly and the Crackers?
Well, we’ve recently released our new single Gravel Rag! We’re promoting the new song across 20+ festivals over the summer (including a debut in the Czech Republic). We’ll release another single come October before heading out on our biggest ever headline tour of the UK in November. Aaagghhh, its pretty terrifying but tickets are selling really well so fingers crossed! We’ll also be recording a new album for release next year. Yep, it’s busy and it’s mad and I should probably listen to my body and slow down: but actually, the pace and the sense of purpose keeps me going. I just need the industry to catch up with me.