By Christopher Treacy & Ella Ruby
We at CQ were struck by the haunting qualities of Ella Ruby’s single “last year” when we discovered it a few months back and included in in the CQ Roundup, so when she wrote in to let us know a new EP was coming, we were excited to hear it. The EP, ‘Baby Blue,’ arrived last week, and it contains five quietly powerful tunes including “last year,” which kicks the set off.
The new track “in my car” begins with a finger-picked pattern that vaguely recalls Paul Simon and seems very literal on the surface—a little ditty about a beloved investment that’s paying off. It almost seems like something The Roches could’ve sung about. But as the song progresses, it becomes clear that there’s significantly more at play. It initially hits right after she mentions having a bottle of her favorite lotion on board: “In my car, my body is my own.” By the close of the second verse, as the arrangement bursts open a bit, she adds the addendum, “…but, as it turns out, not all of the time.”
What comes into focus is a reclamation. Something happened in Ella Ruby’s sacred space, a space that she spent all of her savings acquiring. And as a vehicle, it’s also a space associated with freedom and autonomy. This notion of perceived safety in her car is somehow violated, but you get the impression that she’s not relinquishing what the car means to her so easily. It will remain a safe space; she can lock the doors.
Ella Ruby (aka Ella Scudder-Davis) was kind enough to take time to answer a few questions for us about the song, which, like “last year,” will stick with you as you debate the details she’s chosen to share and are left to imagine the rest. Sometimes the most powerful songs are the ones that imply rather than explicitly tell.
Do you spend an inordinate amount of time in your car? Cars have become so insanely expensive, it makes sense to utilize them as more than just basic transportation.
Ha! Excellent question. I definitely spend a lot of time in my car… perhaps more than most, on a normal day. I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington and, since it’s so rainy there for such a large part of the year, going out and about and hanging out in my car is one of the ways I manage to get out of the house during the winter. When it’s extra rainy, I’ll pack a thermos of tea, a good big book, and a blanket, and snuggle up in my car in a parking lot facing the Puget Sound. Cozy cozy.
At a baseline level, though, my love for my car probably outstrips the everyday utility it has. I’m a person who develops really strong attachments to things—it brings me so much comfort to have things with me that don’t change, and that always feel like home.
Obviously there’s some metaphor at play, here, but can you talk about how the car feels like such an insular space for you? Is there something about it that feels more protected, somehow, than you’re more stationary home?
I definitely think so, especially in these past couple of years of so much movement – both in my own life with all the different places I’ve lived, and in the drastic changes in everyday life most of us have been encountering since COVID. In my car, everything has its place, including me.
When I was younger, and in high school, the family car (and later, my car) also served as a really important escape from whatever was happening at home: a really purposeful and important separation from tension, pressure, conflict, etc. I think my car is different from a brick-and-mortar home in that way: it’s kind of an independent unit, an escape route, a space where I get to exist just for me.
I think for many of us, the pandemic made us hyper aware of space, delineations, safety, and solitude. While some missed the camaraderie of having other people around, many realized the security in being alone… not letting anything in. I feel as if ‘in my car’ exemplifies this, though maybe not intentionally.
I think that’s a really great observation, and one I haven’t thought about too much. I’m a pretty big introvert, but the pandemic definitely delved a little too deeply into that for me—a lot of my solitude, though very productive in my more existential songwriting (eek!), was pretty intense emotionally in a way that really wasn’t fun. That being said… I definitely think that the pandemic (and this whacky time of life as a twenty-something) really pushed me to identify and communicate my boundaries a lot more clearly, both with myself and with others, and I think that journey can be seen and felt in “in my car.” The biggest thing isn’t being alone, necessarily, but instead having the power to choose when to be alone.
Is the song a reaction to a specific event or series of events? It starts off very simply, but the arrangement builds and it feels as if there’s a reveal going on.
Yeah, definitely. I wrote “in my car” the day after an event that made me feel like I had absolutely no control over my body, like all of my boundaries had been overstepped. I was sitting in the backyard of the house where I was staying at the time, playing this simple chord progression over and over on the guitar, trying to make sense of what had happened and absolutely failing.
In my search for safety amidst this horrible feeling of being drastically compromised in my own body and brain, the environment that kept coming back to me was my car. Failsafe, purposeful, completely my own—until it wasn’t. For me, that line “in my car, my body is mine/but, as it turns out, not all of the time” is completely about this experience and my search for somehow returning to the safety I’d created for myself there previously.
How does this track fit within the context and overall mood of the new EP?
I think “in my car” is kind of a shifting point in the EP, a lens through which the other songs can be interpreted. It has so much to do with creating home, navigating change, growing up and seeing things a little more clearly, even within the context of the EP. I also think, in an almost literal way, it serves to sonically and lyrically transport a listener from the insistent, relentless tumble of “last year” and “baths” into the more meditative, peaceful, reflective songs, “l.a. lover” and “arbors.” Finding a way to exist peacefully in brain and body again… drastically different but sweetly similar.
Christopher Treacy has been writing about music and the music industry for 20 years. He’s contributed to The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, and Berklee College of Music’s quarterly journal, as well as myriad LGBTQ+ outlets including the Edge Media Network, Between the Lines/Pride Source, Bay Windows and In Newsweekly. He’s the Managing Editor for CQ and lives in Waitsfield, VT.