On this year’s Grammy Awards live broadcast, a young woman — her glamorous appearance as striking as her enormous, rafter-reaching voice — crowded the mic with Jack White during a rendition of his isolationism anthem “Love Interruption.” That was Nashvillian Ruby Amanfu. And while hers may not be a household name, this wasn’t her first appearance before a national audience, or even her first brush with the Grammys.
Amanfu makes up half of the duo Sam and Ruby, was featured in the all-Nashvillian group The Collective in Season 3 of the a cappella competition program The Sing-Off, and she’s had her music featured in films, TV shows and the occasional Italian soda commercial. In 2007, The Duhks’ version of “Heaven’s My Home” — which Amanfu co-wrote with her pal and frequent collaborator Katie Herzig — was nominated for a Grammy (for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal).
Amanfu moved from Accra, Ghana, with her family just before her third birthday, her computer-programmer father having received a job offer in Nashville. Even then, there was no question as to what little Ruby was going to do. “I knew I was gonna do music,” she says. “I was 3 years old singing on the coffee table.”
From entertaining parents’ friends at dinner parties to participating in the music program at Nashville’s Hume-Fogg Magnet High School, Amanfu always pursued music confidently. She enrolled at Berklee College of Music — Boston turned out to be “a complete shock to my Southern system in every way,” she says — and released her debut album So Now the Whole World Knows before returning to Nashville and studying briefly at Belmont.
The U.K.’s Polydor Records wound up backing her 2003 release Smoke and Honey. Soon after, she found a collaborator in Sam Brooker and continued to have success in Europe. Lene Nystrøm (of Danish-Norwegian dance-pop outfit Aqua) cut Amanfu’s tune “Surprise” for a solo release. But back home, Amanfu wasn’t having the same sort of success.
“In Nashville, I didn’t really break ground those first several years,” she says. “For me — as with a lot of people — I think it was a 10-year town. … With The Duhks, that was a random surprise and blessing, but other than that, I was just beating my head up against a wall trying to get cuts.”
Now Amanfu’s career seems a never-ending flurry of collaborations. Amanfu recorded her 2012 EP, The Simple Sessions, with Charlie Peacock, and sang on several tracks from his latest, No Man’s Land. She’s working on her first solo album in a decade at Nashville’s Sputnik Sound with Mitch Dane, and in L.A. with Dan Wilson (best known as the frontman of Semisonic). She’s cut forthcoming tunes with Thom Donovan and local rapper Chancellor Warhol. In addition to touring with White and recording on his album Blunderbuss, she contributed to White-produced Third Man Records releases from Seasick Steve and Chris Thile and Michael Daves. A cover of the Rodriguez tune “I Wonder,” recorded with the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, was released as a Third Man Blue Series single on March 12.
No matter who she’s working with, Amanfu says she lives for the moments when she feels she’s outside her own body, outsoaring her own expectations. Of performing and collaborating, she says: “I want it to feel electric.”
The Model Citizen: Karen Elson
The Advocate: Paul Kuhn
The Cook: Tallu Schuyler Quinn
The Busker: Mike Slusser
The Cleaner: Sharon Reynolds
The Mobilizer: Remziya Suleyman
The Believer: Theron Denson
The Maker: Zoe Schlacter
The Animators: Magnetic Dreams
The Buyer: Kelly Anne Ross
The Arthouse Ambassador: Sarah Finklea
The Picker: Rory Hoffman
The Educator: Ellen Gilbert
The Air Drummer: Steve Gorman
The Artist: Martin Cadieux
The Chef: Yayo Jiménez
The Futurist: Ken Gay
The Commissioner: Many-Bears Grinder