Written by: Mandy Stefanakis / Ruth Mundy
Climate Songs Project: musicians in support of climate action.
Ruth Mundy is a New Zealand based singer songwriter who writes about social and political issues which impact the world, including climate change. I asked her about her song writing process.
You have an obvious passion for political and social issues and music. What was the pathway to combining the two?
Well, I definitely have to acknowledge the musicians who have been a huge influence on me – artists like Woody Guthrie, The Cranberries, Sinead O’Connor – the music I love most is political music. And before I was a musician I worked in campaigning. So when I started making my own music, even songs about love, growing up, family, those influences came through. And I can only write songs about things I really care about, so if you listen to my music you’ll get a pretty accurate (and pretty earnest!) insight into what’s on my mind, whether it’s personal or political or, most likely, both. I think it’s true that everything is political.
You write about issues impacting the globe, not just New Zealand, for example the refugee crisis, the recent UK election, Adani’s proposed mine in Australia and the devastation caused by climate change. Should we all be thinking globally now, and if so, why?
I am from the UK originally, so I find it easiest to write songs about issues affecting the UK. I have been living in NZ for a while now but I still worry about writing about NZ politics, like, do I understand it enough? Will I sound like I’m coming over from the UK and telling people how their country should be? I really don’t want to be part of that tradition! But then there are some issues where you just know, really, it’s always going to be ok to protest. In fact, you kind of have to. Like arms fairs, locking up refugees, building enormous coal mines right by the Great Barrier Reef! And those aren’t local issues, they’re global, they affect everyone, so we all need to get together to sort them out.
One of the greatest impacts of your song writing is that you are able to describe the impact of political decisions on individuals. You bring it to the front door. Is this your intent?
Thanks! Yeah, it is, really. I think about my little niece and nephews a lot, and what kind of world they are going to inherit from me, from my generation. That’s often the motivation behind my songs. I imagine trying to explain things to them when they’re older, like, “Yeah, it was the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, yeah, millions of people were displaced, yeah, over half of them were children. What did I do? Oh, well, I mean, I was quite busy with other things…” or “Yes, the Great Barrier Reef was alive and well when I was your age. Um, sorry about what has happened since…”
I usually cast myself as complicit in whatever I’m singing about, so that I can then sing an honest song asking, “What are we doing? Can this carry on? Can I hold my head up anymore if it does?” Hopefully I can get people on side that way, more than if I artificially distanced myself, if I wrote smug songs asking, “How can YOU cause or allow these things to happen?” But my listeners will have to be the judge of whether I’m successful in that, whether I preach or not!
Can you talk about the song, Adani, from whence it sprang and the process of developing it?
I have a lovely friend working on the Stop Adani campaign, and I just wanted to show some solidarity, really. With him and everyone else who is fighting so hard to stop this terrible thing from happening. I wrote Adani pretty quickly. Some songs take a really long time, but with this one I just sat down for an afternoon and immersed myself in articles and facts about the proposed mine, by the end of which I was utterly furious and definitely ready to spit out a song!
Have you had much feedback on this song and where has it come from?
I’ve had quite a lot of feedback, mostly really supportive. Some people, in Europe, saying they hadn’t heard about the Adani mine before (which is really cool for me to get to feel like I’m raising awareness of something!) but mostly people in Australia who already know and care, just really sweetly taking the time to get in touch and tell me they like the song or feel encouraged by it. And I am so grateful for every message like that, seriously, it makes all the difference. I can get pretty despondent about things, and every time someone says one of my songs means something to them, I feel reassured, motivated, and like my music is worth something.
Equally your song, Love in the Time of Coral Reefs is perhaps a play on Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera with its inherent foreboding and compassion. Can you describe the genesis and development of this song?
Yeah, it’s a song about love, the desperate fear of not having enough time, the agony of loss. Unbearable regrets about things we did and didn’t do. When I wrote it I really wasn’t sure if anyone would like it – what if it’s too personal? What if it’s too general? What if nobody wants to hear about the Gulf Stream and the permafrost when they’re listening to a love song? But actually it’s by far my most successful song to date, I was completely blown away by the number of people who listened to it, shared it, sent me lovely messages. Yeah, a bunch of people hated it too, but if you’re winding up the climate change deniers you’re probably on the right side of history, so that’s ok!
You convey in your work the importance of people speaking out about issues that will impact future generations. Do you feel song is one of the best mediums to achieve this and if so, how?
I don’t know if it’s one of the best, I just know it’s the one which I feel best able to make use of! I suppose change comes about when everyone does their bit to make it happen: politicians, voters, campaigners, activists, artists, musicians, scientists, journalists, teachers… it takes everyone doing their thing. Songs alone aren’t going to change the world, but they can add to the conversation, help shift the discourse in the right direction, reach different audiences, and contribute to laying the groundwork for change.
You also write really beautiful love songs, well in many ways, they’re all love songs. Would a focus on love get us out of some of the mischief we’re in, or is it complicated?
Ha, yeah, it’s complicated! Thanks though. And yep, you got me: they’re all love songs, in one way or another! Um, am I not subtle about that!? I think a focus on love is a good start. Love can lead to all kinds of good things, you know, like empathy, and compassion, and a desire for justice.
What has been the best experience as a musician that you have had and why was it the best? And the worst?
There are so many highs and lows! The answer to this question is constantly changing: when I’m struggling to reach people I’ll probably say that the biggest gigs I’ve played were my favourite moments, when I’m struggling to earn money I’ll tell you my best paid gigs were when I felt most valued. When I want to go travelling, I’ll say touring is the most fun.
Sometimes after gigs people talk to me and say the loveliest things, and I always think, ‘nah, you’re just being kind’, but actually their words do stick with me, and give me the motivation I need to keep writing and performing. So maybe those are my best experiences as a musician.
Are there ways in which the musician is an endangered species?
Well, it is pretty hard to make a living this way, to be honest. I definitely find it a struggle and can’t really foresee a time when it stops being a struggle. And I meet a lot of brilliant musicians, who work hard and write great songs, but who can’t make their music sustainable. So what happens next? Do you have to be rich already to be a musician? And have the right connections? Win a TV show? I don’t want to sound bitter, I’m well aware of how lucky I’ve been so far. But I do get sad about how little value is placed on music, it’s hard not to get disheartened. I don’t know what the future looks like.
I’m working on a new album, called Love and Protest (oh and you can buy my EP Don’t Be a Monster from ruthmundymusic.bandcamp.com). And in the meantime I’ll just keep doing what I do: writing, gigging, sharing my music, trying to figure it all out as I go along!
VIEW AND LISTEN
Ruth Mundy. http://ruthmundymusic.com/
Love in the Time of Coral Reefs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTFFOr_G6ZM