Navigating Performance, Entertainment, and Activism with Ruth Koleva

You may have caught Ruth Koleva's latest single, "On My Way" or the single and video for "Candy Coated" but if you haven't caught up with the activism at work behind much of what the singer/songwriter releases, this interview is for you. You'd also do well to check out her appearance on our Tower Live show, which we've archived here.

Koleva joined us to chat after her return from an unforeseen quarantine period in Mexico, where she'd gone to work on a song, and before she was able to resume some live performances in her home country of Bulgaria. For the last year she's been living in New York and calls the Big Apple home while navigating a changing world for us all, but particularly for performers whose lives and schedules are usually tied to live events.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I heard that you had some travel issues.

Ruth Koleva: Yes, I got stuck in Mexico during the pandemic. It was very difficult. There weren’t any flights to leave, but finally, I got back here at the beginning of June. It’s good to be back.

HMS: I know you were in the middle of doing some work on your album, so I know that must have been pretty disruptive since it was several months for you.

RK: Oh, yes. I was going for two weeks, so I really didn’t have enough clothes. All my belongings were here in New York. It wasn’t something I anticipated, but in the end, it was a nice adventure. It was beautiful, and I was able to reflect more on myself, and write more. It was one of those things that makes you wonder, “What am I going to do now?”, but when you look back, it was an amazing experience.

HMS: I’m glad to hear that! Do you think that experience influenced your musical direction at all?

RK: Oh, definitely. I went to Mexico without speaking Spanish, without knowing enough about Mexican culture, and I ended up learning so much. I was able to do some collaboration. Even though I was in a very remote place, I was able to meet some musicians, and we ended up doing a collaboration, which I decided to dedicate to this small community. It left its mark because we created this song. Any kind of experience contributes to your music, whether you’re somewhere for a week or three months. Traveling and meeting new people is one of the biggest influences on my music.

HMS: Does it feel strange to be back in New York, having missed some of the recent events?

RK: Yes. When I came back, it was just when the protests started, which I wasn’t expecting. I thought the main issue would be the pandemic, with the city closed. Instead, I found the protests for Black Lives Matter. It’s really good to be here. I’m going to the protests regularly, and trying to contribute to the movement, but it’s definitely a different place than when I left.

HMS: Has New York become a home-base for you as a musician?

RK: Yes. I made the decision last year to relocate from Europe to work on music. I was very much looking forward to it. I had a few shows scheduled, a tour, festivals. Then everything got cancelled, changing one’s perspective on being a touring musician. In terms of having everything cancelled and not knowing when things are going to come back, or how they are going to come back. It will take a lot of restructuring, but that’s also a challenge for us artists to think about creating music in a way that works.

Nothing can take the place of the experience of live music, to me. That’s something that no virtual experience can be a substitute for. But being creative and challenging yourself to find different ways to interact is very interesting to me. It’s probably how the future will look anyway, so we’re just stepping ahead and looking at how the digital world is going to be 20 or 30 years from now.

HMS: That’s an interesting idea. When you’re setting up your digital presence to reach people who are in quarantine, you’re actually setting up something that could reach a vast amount more people than ever before, probably. Because that reaches all over the world.

RK: Yes, though my only concern is that peoples’ attention spans have gotten shorter. Because there’s such an overflow of information and content. People keep scrolling and having so many options of what to see, hear, and watch. It creates a weird environment where you have a short amount of time to really impress and satisfy the audience.

Now is the time to find more creative ways to engage with people and be personal about it. I’m not a digital expert, but some people are being creative about this. We are now at a point of time where we could step up a little to develop these things. At any given moment, when I go on Instagram, there are 20 to 30 people of the people who I follow doing livestreams. Just at that moment. And I don’t know which one to choose, right?

Even in that world, there should be some sort of structure from an audience’s perspective.

HMS: I hadn’t even really thought about that idea of structure, though I have noticed that people are competing with each other for timeslots. Or even because a lot of people still have to work from home or look after their families, they can’t necessarily watch a livestream at a particular moment, the timeslots are problematic.

I understand the ephemeral nature and excitement of a livestream happening in real time, but I wish it had more of an archival nature so that people could spend time with it when it worked best for them.

RK: Of course. To me, the digital experience that we have now is still not a substitute for live. But there are people working on creating a closer to live virtual experience. That’s more what I meant by the idea that now is the time to look at the future. Because probably in 20 to 30 years, you will put on your virtual reality glasses for your personal concert. Even though very few people are doing this right now, there are some innovative artists and platforms, even merging social media with livestream.

HMS: Wow, that’s fascinating. For you as a songwriter and performer, what do you need or get from live performance that you’re missing?

RK: I really miss the audience. It’s their interaction. Finding that one person in the audience who has closed their eyes and they are dreaming of the person they want to say the same words to that I’m singing. For me, it’s really about sharing the emotion and seeing how people absorb and transform it. I’m more of a live performer than I am a songwriter or recording arist. For me, it’s always been about the actual interaction with the audience in person, being able to communicate with them.

Different musicians like different things about being musicians better, and for me, it’s that moment interacting with the audience. Even if I’m just improvising, it’s a better emotion for me than anything else. I really miss it. So I’m challenging myself to find ways to do that in the virtual world. But I still haven’t found any that are as strong.

HMS: Well, we didn’t expect any of this to happen in this way, so we’re still playing catch up.

RK: And I think there are different priorities in the world. The highest priority right now is saving lives and keeping people healthy. Taking a step back while the experts find a solution for this. I understand this is very inconvenient for everyone, including me, but sometimes you have to think beyond your personal needs. The music can wait.

HMS: One thing you’ve done that’s a great way to reach fans is to release singles and videos. The video for “Candy Coated” is really cool. Did it get filmed before COVID?

RK: Yes, it got filmed a few months before COVID in Bulgaria with a team from different places. One of the lead actors is from LA, one from Madrid, I met the director in Barcelona. We all got together and created this. It was a very interesting process and I became fascinated by this amazing, beautiful, queer culture that is on the rise currently. It has different variations in different places. I’ve been able to explore it in Spain, Thailand, the Netherlands, France, the States, and it’s an art form.

I wanted to show what the music means and tell a story with music along with the art form of this queer movement. I also wanted to send a message. Where I’m from, originally, the majority of people are homophobic. It doesn’t allow same-sex marriage. It doesn’t allow gender change operations. It’s a backwards-thinking society, to be honest.

I wanted to dedicate this project to an LGBTQ+ organization that is fighting for change. Since music is the most universal language, I thought that creating this beautiful project could reach a lot of people, and I wanted to break some stereotypes. We shot this months ago, but I waited until Pride month and dedicated it to the LGBTQ+ community. It was the perfect time to show something beautiful. It’s a special one.

HMS: It’s wonderful that it worked out that way for release. It’s an absolutely gorgeous video, from the costumes, to the colors, to the acting. I think that what excited me the most was how striking it is, like a film, and that people might come across it, find it riveting, and then encounter the deeper messages there as well.

RK: Exactly. I didn’t want to say, “This is what it is.” I wanted to leave it open to interpretation, but as the one who wrote the music and performed it, I wanted to say that in a world where everything is so superficial, one’s connection to another person is sacred.

When you see the people in the first part of the video, at the dinner table, and everyone is over-acting and being very fake, I wanted to show that it doesn’t matter what the environment is, it’s about your connection to this special person that really matters. Everything else is just the scene.

HMS: I got the feeling, just my own interpretation, that there was a surface reality and an underlying reality waiting to break through, the emotional reality for these people. This seems to be about breaking free and expressing internal reality more directly.

RK: Exactly.

HMS: I saw another video of yours that was more traditional in some ways, called “Tokyo”. You filmed it, obviously, in Tokyo. Was that filmed recently?

RK: I’ve been touring in Japan for the last four years. To me it’s a very special place, and it has magic to it when it comes to art and music. The first time I had my headline show at The Cotton Club, that’s when we shot the video. We were wrapping up that previous album and I had already named that song “Tokyo” because it’s about two worlds colliding.

That’s what Tokyo is to me—it’s the most advanced city that I know of and it has this deep, ancient culture in this perfect symbiosis. I’ve been touring in Asia quite often in recent years, in Japan and China. I was really looking forward to doing it this year, too, but it’s probably not going to happen.

HMS: Has traveling so much in Asia changed your perspectives on Western civilization?

RK: Well, I actually grew up in Asia. My dad, who was an Olympic champion weight-lifter, after the fall of the communist regime in Bulgaria, was able to find a job as head coach of the national teams, first of Bahrain, then India, then Thailand, then Indonesia.

I was very fortunate that from an early age I was able to be in different cultures. In the early 90s, I had this perception, especially while living in India, of not seeing myself as any different from my friends. Every time I go back to Asia, I have a feeling like I’m going to my grandma’s house. I have a very strong connection to Asian culture. I do understand, now, that I’m coming from a different place. But my honest opinion is that many countries in Asia are much more advanced than the Western world.

HMS: That’s amazing. Do you think being part of these different cultures made you a more open-minded person?

RK: Definitely.

HMS: You mentioned the close-minded views in your home country.

RK: Yes, I think my upbringing put me in the position to be very irritated when I would see any kind of discrimination based on race, background, or any kind of sexuality. That was something that, from an early age, made me very angry. That’s how I started with actual activism in my home country. To some extent, I’ve faced negativity for it, but when you know that you’re doing the right thing, nothing can bring you down, no matter what people say.

HMS: Thank you for doing that.

Which album, numerically, is the one that you’re working on at the moment?

RK: I would say this is the third one. I did a demo back in Bulgaria when I was 17 to 18. Then I did a remix album, which I don’t really count as a wholly original production. This is the third serious one.

HMS: Thanks for explaining that. What made you decide to have several songs on this new album relate to different causes, like LGBTQ+, mental health, and domestic violence?

RK: These three causes are the ones I’ve been working towards the most in recent years, and I think they are really important, particularly in the times we are in right now. The mental health one is something that I really relate to. At times I have suffered from depression and panic attacks in the past. I was back in Bulgaria when that happened to me and it felt like the loneliest time for me. People don’t talk about it.

I don’t know if it’s a hold-over from communist times, but there was not one single person saying, “This is normal. This happens. You need a supportive community to get through it.” But fortunately, I did meet some people who had been through the same thing and were able to give me support.

My personal mission in this is that I want to open up about topics that sometimes people don’t openly talk about, even in the States. Stuff like that, I can personally say, can save lives. I remember going online and searching for famous people who had suffered from depression. I think people who have been through this stuff are all kind of connected and I’ve started my own NGO support organization that is called “My Soul”.

The idea behind it is that our souls are kind of connected in all this. I found during that time that it’s hard to speak with people who haven’t been through this because they don’t understand it. And finding people who have had mental health issues who can relate is so important. It’s something that I really want to talk openly about. Dedicating music to it is part of my personal language, since music is how I relate to the world.

And the dedication is related partly to COVID because I know that during the pandemic a lot of people are suffering, and people are having more symptoms of depression and anxiety. I wanted to be encouraging and also raise awareness.

I’ve also had a history of being part of different organizations and dedicating music to fight domestic violence. I have one song, “What You Say To A Girl”, which was the theme for One Billion Rising. That one was about the fact that it doesn’t matter what social circle you’re in, whether poor or rich, domestic violence can happen anywhere. People assume that it only happens in middle or lower class society, but that’s actually not true.

I’ve spoken to psychologists and psychiatrists and they say that it’s even harder if it’s in an upper-class family because people are scared that they will ruin their image. They are scared that they will lose status. In most cases, there’s financial dependency. With that video, in particular, we wanted to tell that story. It was about a family who look well-off on the surface, but behind closed doors, that’s not the case.

Yet again, during the pandemic, there has been a rise in domestic violence all over the world, particularly in Europe, and I wanted to focus on that issue. I want to turn entertainment into something that is more valuable to society in this way.

HMS: I think you’re right about the fact that all of these issues are even bigger issues right now than they would have been otherwise, though they are always with us. Mental health of course is connected to people being isolated and many people not being able to get their normal medical support, even. And then, with domestic violence, there’s a lot of pressure on families due to job loss and many other factors.

RK: Or those issues might have been there before.

HMS: Yes, and it just becomes a worse situation.

RK: Regarding why social issues are so important to me, there’s a video I think about a lot. It’s “This is America” by Childish Gambino.

I love his work. Not just as an artist and musician, but as a storyteller. I think he is a storyteller. But in that video, one of the meanings that I find is that people are just using entertainment as a distraction from the real problems. There’s a moment when he’s dancing with kids around him, and things are fun, but in reality, people are dying and suffering. I cannot express my own art and feelings as well as he can, but I do find that in creating entertainment, and in creating music, you should find a way, a path, to address issues that are important for society in general.

Entertainment shouldn’t just be a distraction, but it should pinpoint issues.

HMS: I think that’s even more in the spotlight right now than it has been in recent years.

I meant to ask you if, in your travels, you ever visited Tower Records stores.

RK: Yes, in Japan, actually. I had my own banner hanging there in Tokyo.

HMS: What do you think about out Tower Records motto, “No Music, No Life” or “Know Music, Know Life”? How might that apply to your life?

RK: That’s very straightforward for me. If not for music, I don’t know where I’d be. I don’t know if I would be alive. It’s been my biggest salvation and has saved me in my darkest times. It’s quite literal for me.

HMS: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers? Any advice for getting through these times?

RK: I think people have to try to stay active, because it’s very important, physically and mentally. Try to stay away from your phone and computer as much as possible. Watch a movie, read a book, which can be much more valuable than scrolling through social media. It’s a good time for learning or reflection. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, now is a good time to start.

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