"Offbeat, sophisticated chamber pop and anti-folk commanded by soulful vocals and raw lyricism"
Newcastle folk/chamber-pop artist Ruth Lyon found herself feeling like crap every time Vogue magazine dropped onto her front door mat, yet still she didn’t cancel her subscription. Even as the pages prodded at insecurities, and touted physical flawlessness and assimilation as the model to strive towards, there was something strangely addictive about mindlessly flipping through it every month.
“The music industry’s the same — it’s so built upon perfection, and you have to strive to fit into these tiny boxes where people will accept you,” says Lyon. “You have to be this age, this gender, this weight, this colour. But still we wanna do it, which is crazy.”
The situation inspired the title of her second EP, Direct Debit To Vogue. It encapsulated a lot of the themes she was drawing upon in the songs; self-doubt, insecurity, emotional masochism, the weight of arbitrary expectations. All of this is un-ravelled through offbeat, sophisticated chamber pop and anti-folk, commanded by Lyon’s soulful vocals and witty yet raw lyricism. Following her 2021 debut EP Nothing’s Perfect, it’s a blooming of her musical personality.
Lyon grew up in North Yorkshire, before moving to Newcastle to study Fashion Design at Northumbria University. Meanwhile, she began fronting the folk rock outfit Holy Moly & The Crackers, with which she has toured the UK and Europe extensively, plus soundtracked the end credits of Ocean’s 8 with the track “Cold Comfort Lane”.
Over the years, she’s established herself as a key and active member of the Newcastle music scene, including in her role on the board of directors at Sage Gateshead. “Because there isn’t a lot of industry up here, it can feel like you have to move to London to be successful,” she says. “But I’m really proud of the musicians that are trying to make it so we can be established, we can be successful and we can make good art in the North.” She has also advocated for the Disabled community in her work as an ambassador for Attitude Is Everything, a charity that aims to improve accessibility for Deaf and Disabled people in live music; Lyon herself has been a wheelchair user since the age of 21.
She began developing her solo music in 2020, when she was invited to be artist in residence at Sage. Soon after came lockdown, and while she was shielding, she slowly built a new musical identity from the confines of her bedroom. “I wanted to go back to the source,” she says. “I started writing songs again for piano and strings, the kind of instruments that really move me. I love being in a party folk rock band where everyone’s dancing around, but the music that really speaks to me is more piano-based, melancholic, and dramatic.” For Direct Debit To Vogue, Lyon worked with Bristol producer John Parish, who has notably worked with PJ Harvey, Aldous Harding and This Is The Kit. “I’ve always loved John, he’s one of my heroes,” she continues. “This feels like the most successful music I’ve ever made, because I had the best tools and the best steerer of the ship.”
Another key inspiration came when Lyon made her SXSW debut in March 2022. She spoke on a panel and performed at a showcase with fellow Disabled artists Eliza Hull and Lachi, from Australia and the US respectively. Here, she heard brand new perspectives on community and accessibility, and was deeply moved to witness the performances from her fellow artists which spoke to their own experiences. “It was almost like a spiritual thing for me,” she says. “I came back and realised this career is so much bigger than myself. I think I have a duty to push this as far as I can and to be as honest as I can.” She harnessed this in a burst of writing upon her return, completing Direct Debit To Vogue with a new commitment to her authentic voice.
The EP begins with “Wool”, a reflection on birth, life, reinvention, and disillusionment. “Wish I could’ve heard the noise when they cut the cord / Maybe I’d understand my own voice,” sings Lyon. Musically, the track introduces the rich and nuanced sound of the record, plus its penchant for twists and turns. “Pauses and holes and space are intrinsic to what I do. It trickles in a little bit — it’s got a few more layers and textures to it, so you have to concentrate,” says Lyon. Elsewhere, the sleek “Stone” looks at the messy yet ultimately redemptive nature of a long-term relationship, while the swaggering “Clown” explores the temptation of reckless decisions.
“Trouble” opens with the line “I woke up wondering when I’m going to die.” It’s a track that captures the essence of anxiety, of the expectations heaped upon us at every turn; yet at the same time, it celebrates unknowingness and wildness, through some of the album's catchiest moments. “This is a reaction against this idea of perfection that society has us believe is the goal, when actually it’s a short cut to death,” says Lyon. “I’ve never been able to tread the path of least resistance, but nor would I want to. I am hard work, I am difficult, I don’t want to be boxed up with a neat little bow with my labels printed on it. I am trouble and I love it.”
The EP’s standout is its closing track, “Flood”. Here, above a suave soul backing, Lyon takes aim at those who fetishise and alienate the Disabled community. She channelled the outspoken, irreverent performance style of Self Esteem in delivering lyrics like, “I don’t want to be your inspiration porn that makes you feel warm like a nice cup of tea / In fact, I’d rather you found a kink that didn’t involve me.” She sums up the triviality of forcing others into boxes amid the absurdity of human life: “We are all just skin and bone, recycled carbon in time.” “I had the most fun writing that,” she smiles. “It’s nice to write something and think, I might piss some people off with this, but it’s true.”
The key themes that Lyon found were at the core of all these songs were power in fragility, and beauty in imperfection. This turns on its head all of the societal assumptions represented by those Vogue magazines, and opens up doors to a new kind of self-acceptance and power.
Speaking to the EP as a whole, she explains, “I think it's very, very personal, but it doesn’t sound preachy, which I really liked. I wanted to tread a line of saying something powerful and interesting and speaking honestly about stuff that is sometimes hard to talk about, but without it sounding, like, ugh.” Equally as important as what it means to her, Lyon adds, is the impact it will have on listeners. “I want it to be very inclusive, like anybody could listen to any of the songs and come up with their own story, or it would mirror their individual circumstances,” she says. “I wanted to evoke the feeling of the kinda music that just punches you in the gut. Rather than ‘oh, this is pretty, this is nice’ — I want to emotionally drag some stuff out of people.” She concludes Direct Debit to Vogue’s journey with four simple words: “I’ve found my voice.”