Think music and Bulgaria is probably not the first place that springs to mind. But it’s definitely got soul and Ruth Koleva is leading the pack. Born into a volatile world of corruption and hardship in post-Communist Eastern Europe, she endured a difficult childhood largely spent without her mother, found salvation in the classics (Marvin Gaye, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole) and became 'tour-hardened' by jaunts to far-flung destinations such as India and Thailand with her Olympian father.
From there, Koleva quickly developed into a rounded musician, spending an eye-opening year at the Hollywood Pop Academy and embarking on free-spirited excursions into several local scenes including soul, hip hop and bass. All this before the age of 18.
Koleva has already become a national treasure and musical ambassador of sorts, sharing the stage with legends including imperious jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin, wooing kindred spirits such as N’Dambi, mentoring on popular talent show Music Academy and performing 2 sold-out concerts to more than 1,300 guests at Bulgaria Hall with the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. Her professional “peak”, thus far.
Her sound is undeniably soulful and intricate, an effort to bring each listener closer to their own emotions. "To give you that feeling of first love, the butterflies in your stomach, a hunger for more,” as she puts it. The power of her music is subtle, slowly turning your attention and rewarding those who spend time with it. But Koleva also has a real writer's instinct. Like her contemporary Jessie Ware, Koleva's ability to straddle multiple genres and tempos has made her into a highly versatile artist. She knows what she wants to say, how and when.
As a vocalist, her tone is imbued with warmth, sincerity and sensuality. Era-defining artists such as Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Lauryn Hill (who Koleva supported in Sofia) have cast such a huge shadow that it's almost impossible to not be influenced by them. Of course, Koleva is a huge fan but she is determined to find her own unique expression of this thing called soul, often finding the right vibe for a song in the moment, a phrase, a chord. It's the performer in her. "In the studio I get more time to craft the sound, to think about my message,” she explains, "but it's on stage where I really come alive. I thrive in that environment and try to develop something new based on the crowd's response."
Her debut album, RUTH, featured a diverse array of talent including keyboardist Vincent Helbers (Seravince, Flowriders) and drummer Richard Spaven (Jose James, Guru, Flying Lotus). It scooped the top prize at the BG Radio Awards in 2014, with hit-making producer Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen) called it “amazing”. She was also named Best Female Vocalist at the Jazz Ain’t Jazz Awards in Japan, beating the likes of Coco from Quadron. A remix project followed, featuring Mark De Clive-Lowe, Kaidi Tatham, Opolopo and Maddslinky (aka Zed Bias).
Now a few years wiser, and with a difficult relationship behind her, Koleva is keen to use her second album to further channel her emotions. “I was in a very dark place for some time, with an abusive guy that managed to destroy my self-esteem,” she explains. “I have only just managed to get it back.” This resurgence, together with a whirl of great experiences she’s had on the road, have resulted in an even more affecting and absorbing set of songs under the guidance of producer Crooked Waters (Kan Wakan).
New album Confidence.Truth will also feature some of the best players in contemporary soul and RnB. There’s keys maestro Ron Avant (Anderson Paak), Jameel Bruner (formerly of the Internet) on synths, drummer Gene Coye (Flying Lotus) and bassist Cooper Appelt. Not forgetting the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra…
Ruth Koleva will also be touring Asia and Europe in 2018.
"Ruth Koleva's voice is amazing! I loved her first album, and love the song "Run" even more! " Mark Ronson
"Koleva is the best thing we've had from Eastern Europe lately" Robert Elms - BBC
"Ruth's voice is so emotional, you want to hear more" Andreya Triana