By Greg Cahill | From the November-December 2020 issue of Strings magazine
“Hello Weakness, You Make Me Strong is, for us, about finding empowerment in the things that have previously held you back,” violinist and arranger Rachel Ruggles says of her new album, a collaboration with songwriter and keyboardist Gracie Coates, “but really it’s whatever you need it to be.”
Ruggles, a classically trained violinist, is one half of the orchestral-pop duo Gracie and Rachel. She studied at the San Domenico School, a prestigious boarding school in the San Francisco Bay Area with a world-class string program. But it was as a transfer student that she met Coates in a modern-dance class at Berkeley High School. As a teen, Ruggles studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Eventually, the duo parted for college: Ruggles to the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University; Coates to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. But they continued to collaborate, rehearsing through Skype. In 2017, the duo released their critically acclaimed, minimalist, self-titled debut, recorded in their Brooklyn loft.
The new album, released on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label, has more of an electronic vibe, with Ruggles taking inspiration from chamber-pop cellist Zoë Keating. “I remember the day I found all these videos of her performing and feeling like my life was changing before my eyes,” Ruggles recalls. “I had never seen anyone doing what she was doing, sampling her cello like she was. She creates these lush, layered, evocative landscapes without notably interfacing with the software technology—I thought what she was doing was so revolutionary as a string player. It was a speedy spiral from there.”
Ruggles,who still performs with classical ensembles, says she has always felt her strength as a violinist lies in musicality, rather than technical virtuosity. “I think I’ve naturally sided with the emotional effects of music making over the years,” she says. “I like to think of my string motions as gestures of the heart. I try not to overthink an idea, letting something that is simple be simple.”
Strings: You are classically trained. Tell me more about your journey from classical to pop.
Rachel Ruggles: I loved running on the wheel of classical education and all the benefits that sort of training had on my playing and on my life. I remember, though, during the first two years of high school, where I attended San Domenico as a boarding student in their classical conservatory, feeling a bit like a misfit, that my inclinations as a performing artist could perhaps be better served in another way. I was attracted to the idea of taking the traditions of classical music and using them in an unconventional way. It was right around this time that I met Gracie, who came from a completely converse musical environment where she explored her own style, and this was really the beginning of my journey as an artist, not just a player.
It was strange to sit down with her in the beginning to work on a song, because I was totally blank. I was so used to music being right in front of me on a stand, relying on what was written to send signals to my hands. Gracie was really encouraging of me trusting my own ideas and would sing melodies that I could run with, but ultimately I had to just learn to give less power to those learned prompts and more power to the heart’s reaction. I feel I can reach people a lot more authentically writing and performing my own music than someone else’s. And, honestly, I just feel more confident and liberated now that I’ve found my own voice.
Tell me more about your collaborations with Gracie.
Gracie and I have had varying patterns in our collaboration paradigm. In the early iterations of our partnership, I thought of myself as solely a violinist, sometimes a vocal harmonizer, maybe more of an accompaniment to Gracie’s piano and vocal songwriting. I think this narrow vision of my role in our collaboration had a lot to do with my dedication to violin performance, feeling fixed to the violin as my only medium for musical expression. It took some years to unlock other musical modes of translation, finding confidence in multi-instrumental arrangements that include percussion, beats, cello, viola, bass, synths, and more.
Specifically, when it came to our newest record, early on in the writing process, we were linking up with producers to collaborate on building out tracks—Gracie and I would have musical ideas in their infant stages that we’d written at the piano and we would bring them as demos to outside collaborators in hopes of expanding our song worlds. But when we would get in the studio with certain producers, ready to be involved in the production evolution, we’d often be met with condescending remarks, as if we didn’t know what we were talking about or shouldn’t question their method. While this was super irritating, it was also just the perfect dose of ridicule to put us into action. It became so clear that we had to take control of our art making and be the first ones to lay down the blueprint for a song.
So you were involved in the technical aspects of production as well?
I had already been versed in Ableton Live, as it plays a prominent role during our live show in how I manipulate my violin [through effects], but I had never explored it as a tool for engineering, for creating a song. The learning curve was a patient one, oftentimes thinking I was recording when I wasn’t, learning media management (RIP lost files), discovering automation (I think my jaw literally dropped), all these production fundamentals that I was unaware of. I’d say after about four months of online tutorials, chat forums, and late-night wine sessions, I was crafting these tracks with all kinds of new sounds that I would give to Gracie to score lyrically and melodically. It was completely flipped from how we started out with Gracie at the piano giving me songs to write violin parts to. Sometimes we’d give each other prompts like, “Let’s start a song with a vocal loop,” or “Let’s write something that conjures visualizations of the color green,” or “Let’s see if we can write a song with only major chords.” We were rarely ever able to satisfy this last cue!
Gracie and I are forever loyal to our minor-key centers. And many times Gracie would come to me with a song poem she’d written at the piano from pages of her journal that she’s constantly scribbling on, and I would paint around her world or build out a track based on her musings. Sometimes, we’ll go back to the more rudimentary iteration of our collaboration, and sometimes we’ll deconstruct the process altogether and start anew. Regardless of how a song gets birthed, it’s always a joint effort, updating one another on our progress as things evolve, asking questions about what it all means and why, and listening to the other’s reaction.
How did you meet and start collaborating?
Gracie and I met as energetic high schoolers in a dance class—I love this about our story because, at our core, we love performing and we love collaborating on our musical productions. We like thinking about how we can dramatically enter the stage, what sonic drone is playing before we get there, what we are wearing and why, what is the show sequence and how it retains an intentional arc, when do we have “set” changes, and so on.
Also, I think what continues to fuel us are the ways in which we round one another out. What we’ve been discovering over the years is that all the ways in which we oppose or differ from one another are actually the guiding forces behind our partnership. Gracie is the poetic prophet among us, and I so gratefully lean on her words and observations to score sonic narratives. I am the sound poet, perhaps. There’s this telepathy we have where she will bring me a song and I’ll start playing violin and she’ll be surprised by my parts, saying I’m playing exactly what she was intending emotionally. And vice versa—I’ll be feeling something and create an instrumental piece with obscured vocal mumbles and she’ll come in with these lyrics and I’ll be totally astonished as to how she knew exactly what I was trying to say. It’s a really intuitive process between us that often requires little to no verbal communication.
In other more mundane ways, our opposing interests can lead to a productive day, too. I cook the dinners, Gracie makes the breakfasts; Gracie does magic tricks and makes napkins into turkeys, while I try to pretend I’ve never seen these party tricks before and laugh anyway to humor her.
When did you start working on this record?
We had just gotten off tour in 2018 and knew it was time to write another record. We, of course, love writing songs, but had been so wrapped up in performing that we hadn’t had much space to revive that creative muscle. So we took our time, and at the end of this practically yearlong writing residency we had written upward of 50 songs. Of course, not all were magnificent songs, but we built some endurance along the way and I think it was a critical moment for us both to incubate our ideas insularly and find a thesis in both our art and art making.
How does the new album differ from past recordings?
Sonically, my goal with this record was quite clear to me: I wanted to make songs that bridged my love of classical music and my love of pop grooves and melodies. There are so many forms of popular music, especially today, but I guess what I mean by pop is simply music that is inviting, like you’d want to sing along. I wanted some songs that would empower you to move your body, that were uplifting and bright, and some that were melancholic and earnest, exploring a range of moods that would take you on a visceral ride.
Our first record was overall much starker, fastened by piano, violin, vocals, and minimal drums. There was a bit of beautiful chaos that would emerge in some of the older songs where there would be a lot of cyclical piano activity intertwined with arpeggiated violin lines, and I think we did this because we felt we should be playing our instruments all the time. So something I focused on tremendously in this record was asking myself, “Do we need this part? Maybe you don’t have to play during the entire phrase. Let’s see how much we can say in how little we do.” It was a lot of giving myself permission to not overstate myself so that when those layers of strings or driving plucks had their moment, they were felt perhaps with more intention and impact.
What would you like the listener to come away with?
I hope there is a place you can go while listening to the record that is both forgiving and empowering. This music really was a huge labor of love and perseverance, and I hope you can feel some sort of heart connection along the way and feel a gentleness there. To any curious classical players out there looking to explore their own ideas, I hope you do. Both with and beyond your instrument, there are so many ways of expressing yourself and there’s truly no right or wrong way to go about it.