Ruby Friedman and That Voice

Come for the amazing vocal pipes, stay for even more amazing vocal pipes.

It’s fitting that singer-songwriter-musician Ruby Friedman lives in a glorious old brick building in the Alphabet District that just as easily could be in New Orleans, Paris or old Hollywood. You would not want to see her in a humdrum living environment.

With her long red hair a hue somewhere between Atomic Fireball and Fisher-Price and her vintage-fab fashion sense—lace-up platform boots on a summer Monday afternoon—Friedman is a showbiz soul who may as well have landed here from yesteryear. An antique phone on her wall doesn’t look out of place at all. Even her deadpan French bulldog, Clovis, is sepia tone.

Everything about Friedman, who majored in history at UCLA, feels out of time, and it’s always been that way for her. “All my idols are so long dead. I’m very much into deep context,” she tells WW, citing Patsy Cline, Bessie Smith, and especially gospel singer LaShun Pace, of whom she adds, “I’d like to sound like her all day every day. Gospel is my favorite. Real gospel.”

Friedman was that child who would sing for everybody in the room. “I would get up on tables at my mom’s birthday parties and just start singing,” she says. “We’d go out to dinner and if there was somebody at the piano, I’d go sing with the piano player and freak people out because I had this huge voice. I was invisible unless I was singing.”

Her mom briefly performed musicals in New York City before having five children, and Friedman began vocal training when she was five. “I was unnaturally powerful,” she says. “My mom was afraid my belting would ruin my vocal cords.”

By junior high in SoCal’s Orange County, she met a singer with a popular local roots band who asked her to get up with his group. That connection led to performing with other OC luminaries, such as Mike Ness of Social Distortion—Friedman would give him vocal lessons—Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake of X, and psychobilly legends Lux Interior and Poison Ivy (of The Cramps). “I was able to morph into whatever they wanted me to sing,” she says.

It was Friedman’s MySpace page (look it up, kiddies) that caught the attention of then-Interscope vice president Tony Ferguson in 2009 while Friedman was at UCLA. “I was going to be an attorney,” she says. A record deal never transpired, but her career has included opening for Brian Wilson and Jeff Bridges, the acclaimed album Gem in 2016, and her music on Justified and the overseas version of Peaky Blinders, among numerous other accomplishments.

You really can’t categorize Friedman’s voice, but let’s just say that she truly can do it all. On her frightening “I’m Not Your Friend,” there’s a commanding swagger that rises into a near-yodel. Her orchestrated “Shooting Stars” starts off passionate and slow and builds to a wondrous life-loving anthem.

Friedman particularly relates to her moving and rootsy “The Ballad of Lee Morse,” a song about the tragic life of deep-voiced vocalist Morse, a jazz and blues singer who also performed for Ziegfeld Theater on Broadway, but whose career was plagued by addiction. It’s a song that should have been a chart-topper on the Americana charts.

Says Portland musician Kyleen King, who plays with Brandi Carlile’s band, “I would say that Ruby has one of the most unique and intensely powerful voices I’ve ever heard. I crave the timbre of her voice and the energy of her vibrato. She is also an entirely captivating presence onstage.”

If you drive by the Laurelthirst Public House and notice the roof raised a bit, that’s because Friedman’s played her first of four September Tuesdays. She insisted that it was “a rehearsal.” It was hellaciously great. Her “House of the Rising Sun” will kill you.

The “less glamorous” part of Friedman’s life is her part-time job at a Fred Meyer Home and Garden Department, which is providing plenty of inspiration for a TV musical she’s working on. She shares a story about a homeless guy who brought in two off-leash pitbulls and let them tear into a bag of dog food one day. “You can’t make this shit up,” she says. “So I am really blessed. The balls of people here.”

To Friedman, the music business is an addiction. “You can’t expect to make money. The music business is like the Pet Rock—remember that?” she asks (Pet Rocks, a fad in the 1970s, were actual rocks sold as collectible toys). “If you got the money, then you can be the famous rock.”

SEE IT: Ruby Friedman Orchestra plays the Laurelthirst Public House, 2958 NE Glisan St., 503-232-1504, laurelthirst.com. 9 pm Tuesday, Sept. 13, Tuesday, Sept. 20 and Tuesday, Sept. 27. Free.