20 Questions With...Ruby Turner
Date: 12 August 2002
Ruby Turner, the chart-topping soul sister with attitude who is this week's Diva at the Donmar, explains her aversion to grand titles & why she's ready for a crack at The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Born in Jamaica, Ruby Turner moved to the UK when she was nine. Over the past two decades, she has built up a reputation as one of the country's leading "soul sisters", with a voice likened to that of Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin.
Since the 1980s, when she toured with Boy George and Culture Club at the peak of their popularity, Turner has released some ten albums as well as appearing on numerous tracks with the likes of Bryan Ferry, UB40, Steve Winwood and Jules Holland. Her hit singles have included "If You're Ready (Come Go with Me)", "I'd Rather Go Blind", "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" and "It's Gonna Be Alright".
Turner has also worked regularly as an actress over the years. On television, she has appeared in EastEnders and Doctors, while her many stage credits include the musicals Hold On, Fame and Carmen Jones as well as plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire and One Love.
This week, she will perform her new solo show as part of the Donmar Warehouse's fifth annual Divas at the Donmar cabaret season.
Date & place of birth
I was born in Jamaica, in an era when it was gorgeous.
Now lives in...
Birmingham College of Speech and Drama and I've taken singing lessons privately.
First big break
Meeting Alexis Korner, the grandfather of Blues in this country. I was playing a gig at Dingwall's in Camden and he came in. He was absolutely wonderful. He put my first record out, he played it on Radio One, he took me on tour in Europe. He really encouraged me and, very early on, gave me the confidence I needed to pursue a career in the music business.
I've had so many over the years, but a few spring to mind immediately. Going out with Culture Club when they were the country's biggest pop export, playing with UB40 at Wembley Stadium, having Bryan Ferry watch me in the audience at the Bloomsbury Theatre, having a No. 1 single in America, receiving a Maori greeting when I visited New Zealand (I later found out that's usually reserved for royalty!). Music took me away from theatre for a long time, but one of my big theatre highlights was meeting Simon Callow for the first time. I am in awe of him - he is a wonderful effervescent man whose face just lights up when he talks to you.
What brought you back to theatre?
In a way, I haven't come back to theatre, it's come back to me. When I started out, there was very little work around for a black woman and no one encouraging me in theatre like in music. Now it's come full circle. I don't like to turn my back on either, though. And I'm rather lucky really as I've kept working and that's kept the roof over my head, the food on the table.
Favourite stage productions you've ever worked on
A Streetcar Named Desire at the Bristol Old Vic. That was the first straight piece I'd done - no singing - and there I was sharing the stage with Tara Fitzgerald, who is renowned for her excellence. I was learning and growing so much on that production and it helped me move in new directions. One Love at the Lyric Hammersmith was also a very strong, very powerful, straight play and I was doing it in my native Jamaican dialect, which was great. It was an emotional rollercoaster ride - I had to cry a lot and murder someone on stage. In Blues Brothers, Soul Sisters (which became Hold On) I had to sing my butt off and act my socks off. That was fun and a good combination of both skills.
Tara Fitzgerald. Also from Streetcar, Eddie Lester, who played my husband. And June Brown from EastEnders. They're all absolutely superb, wonderfully generous actors. People like that are very important.
All the directors I've worked with have helped me build up my skills and confidence: Andy Hay, who I spent three years with at the Bristol Old Vic, is marvellous to work with; Simon Callow who, as an actor himself, had so much to teach me; Yvonne Brewster, she's great at letting you develop your role; and Paul Jessop, who I did Fame with in the West End. I've been very fortunate to work with them all. Whoever I'm working with, I just go in listening - that's the most important thing in this business.
Stevie Wonder, he's in a class of his own. Bob Dylan. Van Morrison. Joni Mitchell. Joan Armatrading. They write about reality and they write in the style that I, being a songwriter myself, aspire to. They're so poetic with their words.
What roles would you most like to play?
I like to go for new and different productions all the time. I'd love to do Shakespeare - I'm up for the challenge. I want to keep broadening my horizons and see where I crack. But, you know, I'm no fool. When I'm crap at something, I know it. I don't need anyone else to tell me because I'm my own harshest critic. I think I'd be good at one of the comedies, like The Merry Wives of Windsor.
What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
I just went to see Chicago, which was fabulous. The storyline may not be politically correct, but I love the strong, sassy women and that old film style. I just love nostalgia. The Full Monty was quite hilarious. It appeals to that wild, animalistic thing in women. I was saying "come on, come on, boys", but I was blinded by the lights at the end like everybody. I guess it leaves something to the imagination and I came out laughing. In terms of plays, I enjoyed Proof and thought Gwyneth Paltrow was superb, very moving.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
That's a tough one. The government right now is having a hard time with everything. If it's not this, it's that. Sure, it's important that we keep our industry going, but everything has to be taken care of in this world. The government should support the arts, and it can't be discussed in the wee hours. Theatre is a great export and we should be proud of it.
If you could swap places with one person, who would it be?
I don't know if I'd swap, but I would like to have met my grandfather. He died before I even knew he existed. We came to this country when I was a child and my parents didn't talk about him. I only found out about him after he died. It seems we had a lot in common - he was the lead singer in a band. Now I have all these questions and I'm trying to piece his story together.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
Favourite holiday destinations
I love New Zealand. It wasn't a holiday, but the time I spent there was gorgeous. And, of course, the Carribean. I always like to go back to Jamaica to see the folks and take in the vibe.
How did your season at the Donmar come about?
I was asked a few years ago, but I chickened out. That word 'diva' scares me. The title is off-putting. But I did my research and thought it would be okay. I just have to bring me to the show. It's going to be blood, sweat and tears when I go out there.
How do you like being considered a diva?
I was never one for titles, and I certainly don't go around wearing them. I know it sounds like a contradiction - people think you're a show-off if you're in this career but I'm not like that at all. I'm the kind of person who doesn't succumb to the hype of anything, and I'm not very good at self-praise, though you have to believe in yourself. I just like the natural rawness of life. I go for the real deal all the time. But to be honest, they can call people whatever they like. I humbly accept the title, it's nice that they think 'hey, she's good enough to come down to the Donmar and sing'. I say, 'thank you very much' to that. It is their title though, not mine. I don't wear a crown that says diva. I'm from humble beginnings and that's my nature. I'm not important.
How have you selected the songs for your show?
With ten albums and a new one out, there's enough material to choose from. I've sat up many a night, putting in and taking out and trying to decide what goes where. I'll definitely include the songs that have made my mark in this country - "I'd Rather Go Blind" and "Stay with Me Baby", which was the theme song for Lynda La Plante's film Comics, as well as some of the tracks from my tribute to Motown album. The list keeps growing, but I might change my mind on the night if I feel the need. If it doesn't work, I'm changing it. You'll just have to go every night to see. Being predictable is not me.
What are your plans for the future?
I've been very fortunate to land two film roles. One of them is called Actual Love and I think it'll be quite a big release. My part is miniscule, thought, so I'll just shut up and be grateful. I'll also be touring with Jools Holland. He's a treasure, such a huge star. There aren't many like him around. Jools is now almost like Alexis Korner was to me at the beginning of my career. He really encourages me and my music, and he shows by example that you have to be work hard and be persistent to succeed.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Do come along but don't expect feathers and glitz, not with Ruby.
- Ruby Turner was speaking to Terri Paddock
Ruby Turner is live at the Donmar Warehouse from 12 to 17 August 2002 only. The Divas at the Donmar season then continues with Philip Quast and Kristin Chenoweth.
To take advantage of our special DIVAS Ticket Offer, please click here. Offer ends 15 August 2002.