Why you should care

Because there is a world beyond Taylor Swift (even though we’re not entirely opposed to her dominating it).

The first time I saw Ruby Rose Fox play music, it was at a private salon in Somerville, Massachusetts, the summer of 2012. She sat alone on a plush couch in the candlelit living room of the host’s apartment and played a wistful ballad she wrote in reply to Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Only the year before, Fox had picked up a guitar for the first time, and she was so intimidated by the fretboard, she color-coded it to help her better remember the chords. She had also just started writing her own music.

A lot has changed since then.

Fox just won the 2015 Boston Music Award for best female vocalist for the second consecutive year, and also took home the trophy for best pop artist. Last year the Boston Globe included her on its list of “10 Bands and Solo Artists to Watch in 2015.” And in summer 2015, her face graced the cover of Improper Bostonian magazine, which crowned her “Best Musician” of Beantown.

When I meet Fox at the Middle East, a popular live music venue in Cambridge where she often plays, her demeanor is friendly but focused as we talk about the road that led her to become Boston’s rock ’n’ roll darling. “Going from playing on couches to playing on stages was a painstaking, step-by-step process for me,” says 32-year-old Fox.

Fox’s music tends to have a retro feel that blends influences of rockabilly, soul and hard rock.

Born Rachel Cohen and initially raised in upstate New York, Fox had voice lessons and was active in choirs starting at age 6, including in her parents’ evangelical Baptist congregation. They later left the church when Fox’s younger sister Dalia died of leukemia at age 5 (the basis of her song “Raggedy Ann”). Her family moved to Massachusetts when she was a teenager, settling in Brookline. She left home her senior year of high school due to her parents’ rocky divorce; shortly thereafter, Fox legally changed her name to Ruby Rose Fox, which belonged to her paternal grandmother, a former stage actress.

Fox attended Emerson College in Boston, where she majored in theater. After she graduated, she worked a series of acting stints with different local theater groups and productions, even writing a couple of her own shows. She enjoyed theater, but something was missing. “It wasn’t my gift,” she says. She got a flash of what was to come in 2011, with a callback to an audition for a role in the Broadway musical Spring Awakening. Sure, she was a total noob on guitar, but she decided to write an original song for the audition using guitar anyway. And it clicked. Next came solo gigs and, after that, her own band. Fox kept meticulous lists and spreadsheets tracking her progress.

Currently, Fox has nine people in her band, including a group of backup singers she has dubbed the Steinems (named after who else?). Fox’s music tends to have a retro feel that blends influences of rockabilly, soul and hard rock. Her music videos also have a nostalgic vibe, in part due to her fascination with American history and pop culture. For instance, in her video for “Die Pretty,” Fox poses as Edie Sedgwick from Andy Warhol’s screen-test stills, while her most recent video, “Dance of Frankenstein,” tackles Oppenheimer and the atom bomb. “I have always been interested in documentary and like incorporating it into my art,” says Fox.

Then there’s her voice. She’s on the lowest register of contralto, a rarity among most mainstream female vocalists (think Annie Lennox, or Amy Winehouse at her deepest). “When I was younger, I always tried to sing higher,” says Fox. “I definitely swallowed the princess pill.” But embracing her natural pitch seems to be working for Fox. “Her songs have both the craft of Motown and the raw emotion of Patti Smith, yet her voice is completely her own,” says Jed Gottlieb, music critic at the Boston Herald. “She makes smart, tough, mad art that the mainstream can dig.”

This past spring, she was invited to open for Joan Osborne in the Boston area before leaving on a regional tour with Martha Davis and the Motels. And she recently wrapped up a fundraising campaign for her next album. But while Gottlieb thinks Fox is well on her way to achieving national success, Nancy Dunham, a music critic who writes for Rolling Stone, is not so sure. “When I listen to [Fox], I hear the unusual vocal styling and attitude that puts one in mind of Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga and other incredible talents,” says Dunham. “But … it’s also nearly impossible to break through on a national level if you don’t follow the note-by-note path of previous hit makers.”

Yet, even if Fox does not reach megastar success in the vein of multimillion-dollar record deals, Dunham thinks she will eventually achieve a different, and often more enduring, kind of fame. “My hope is that she’ll stay true to her extraordinary style and develop a loyal, ever-increasing fan base,” she says, pointing to cult faves like Patty Griffin and Tori Amos as artists who’ve gone a similar route.

Fox is forging ahead. “The only way for me to be of use to the world is to follow my dream,” she says. “There’s no Plan B. This is it.”

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