Ruby Frost: Pop gem

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Ruby Frost, aka Jane de Jong. Photo / Natalie Slade
Ruby Frost, aka Jane de Jong. Photo / Natalie Slade

Ruby Frost was travelling the United States with her parents' gospel choir when a man with a gun burst into the church foyer. It was 2001 and the Columbine tragedy was fresh on Americans' minds. Frost's parents were inside, singing, oblivious to the fact their 13-year-old daughter, who was working on the merchandise stand, was locked out.

"I was freaking out," says the singer-songwriter, now 22, eyes popping beneath her black fringe. "All the security guards were running around saying 'there's a gunman in the carpark!' This freaky guy ran past in a trenchcoat, playing with this black, shiny thing. I was so scared."

The man was apprehended, the gun turned out to be a hockey stick and, rather than succumbing to post-traumatic stress, Frost channelled the experience into art.

Ruby Frost was then Jane de Jong, a student keen on music and creative writing.

Choosing the icy moniker as her pen name, she relived the terror with an entry in the Katherine Mansfield short story competition (she came fourth).

It wasn't the first time Jane had changed her name - as a kid she was always dressing up and pretending to be exotic characters - but it might be the last. Until recently Ruby Frost was best known as the bubbly music reporter on TV2's hyper teen show The Erin Simpson Show, a job she's now quit to focus on her music. She also won fans at the annual Parachute Music Festival, the family-friendly Christian music fest that attracts around 25,000 fans each year.

Then, in December, she won the inaugral MTV 42 Unheard competition, a live talent quest that attracted 357 entries; the six finalists were chosen via 15,000 public votes. The judges, including Gin Wigmore, Shelton Woolright (Blindspott) and Ash Hughes (Kidz in Space), and reps from the music industry, were unanimous: Frost stole the show.

Wearing a handmade batcape with sequins, the young singer-songwriter and guitarist performed two original songs, calling to mind a cute, kooky mix of Kate Bush and Florence and the Machine. The prize was a recording contract with Universal Music, an opportunity to play at CMJ in New York in October and funding from New Zealand On Air to make a music video. Although the label was under no obligation to release anything if it wasn't up to par, Universal Music's A&R director and marketing manager Scott MacLachlan says he would have signed Frost regardless of her win.

"She realises she has a unique point of difference," he says. "Vocally, her look, her approach to music. She wants to be a global star. If you don't have that ambition you won't make it."

MacLachlan, who worked at both Mercury Records and Jive Records in Britain, and was instrumental in launching the career of chart-topping singer Gin Wigmore, says he's seen plenty of New Zealand acts fail to set their sights outside their home country, a fatal mistake given they'll inevitably compete for fans with acts from abroad. The label has invested heavily in Frost because she has a bold vision of where she wants to be.

"I've always gravitated towards the more oddball experimental things," says the wannabe star, whose smile barely wanes as she chats over a salad, in a cafe across the road from her part-time gig as a copywriter at Parachute Music. "For years I've tried to reconcile that with being a successful musician. How do I make music I love? The music I like doesn't sell that well. Folk music like Joanna Newsom, crazy bands like Lightning Bolt. I'm not going to survive if I just make crazy stuff."

Frost was always destined for a life in music. Her parents, Mark and Chris de Jong, are the founders of the Christian label behind the Parachute Music Festival. They were on the road with the Parachute Band when the psychotic hockey-stick man burst in. Frost and her brother Sam often accompanied their parents when they toured overseas.

"We'd go to these massive evangelical churches where the pastors had these mansions and all these motorbikes," says Frost. "It was a whirlwind. We got to go to Africa, Zambia, Rwanda. It was a weird upbringing - but awesome."

It was enough to drive home that she too wanted to tour the world performing. When she was 16 she got a guitar for Christmas and taught herself to play. But she soon realised her music didn't fit within the Christian sphere, a potentially lucrative but creatively limited genre. Frost was drawn to stylish contemporary artists with an alternative bent: Bjork, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. When she was old enough she started playing the odd gig around town; her favourite spot is the Wine Cellar on Auckland's Karangahape Rd. In 2007 she recorded an acoustic folk EP called How Long, which sold out of its first run.

Then she started dabbling in electronic music, mucking around with beats on her laptop. A song like Goodnight, which she sang at the live competition, is that rare pop tune with indie sensibilities. Today she's uncharacteristically sans-sparkles, unless you count the shiny faux-leather pants she's teamed with brogues and a long grey T-shirt.

"I'm always taken with things that are otherworldly - outer space and fairytales, quirky movies, crazy fashion. I love things that fit outside the box. I've always loved being a bit random."

For years Frost wondered how she'd reconcile her experimental side with a successful music career. After school she went to AUT and earned a Bachelor of Communication Studies, majoring in journalism, hoping eventually, to write about music. During what she calls her "quarter-life crisis", a friend recommended she audition for The Erin Simpson Show as its music reporter. She spent the next year getting an education on the ins and outs of the record industry. The first musician she interviewed was Evermore's Dan Hulme who, as serendipity would have it, would become instrumental in helping to develop her music.

The Universal deal was signed under the watchful eye of her dad and, for her parents' expertise, she is grateful. But she's glad she has bucked the temptation to sign with them. Green-eyed musicians accused her family of nepotism when Frost first performed at the Parachute Festival, even though she had to audition like the others.

"I'm really glad I didn't go down the route of signing with Parachute because people don't think you're good enough if you do that. I wanted to do my own thing."

She did, however, sign a management deal with Parachute, effectively employing her cousin, Tim Youngson, the guitarist from Steriogram. They signed one of the biggest international record deals in history for a local band.

"It's quite hard not to call her Jane," says Youngson. "I've watched her grow up. I think she does [have what it takes]. She's created this Ruby Frost world around her, it's quirky and different to anything else out there. She has a huge writing ability, she's very creative, and she pays attention to the imagery."

Well before the 42 Unheard competition, MacLachlan was looking to start a "pop project" in New Zealand. Armed with a handful of tracks, he went on the hunt for a talented singer. It was Youngson who first introduced him to Frost. She came into the studio to record a song. "It was really bubblegum," says Frost, bluntly. "I said, I'm just not into this. It made me think, do I really want to sing other people's songs?"

Impressed by Frost's determination to stay true to herself, MacLachlan earmarked the young singer for future projects; Frost just got on and wrote her own music, praying she'd get funding to make a music video. "That's what I really wanted," she says. "And then Tim told me about this competition."

Immediately after signing, Universal set about developing their new talent. The first move was to send her to Australia on a co-writing expedition to develop and broaden her writing. It was the first taste of freedom for the 22-year-old. Frost flew to Australia on her own and spent a few days bouncing musical ideas with a range of musicians and producers.

"I was really apprehensive about a writing trip, working with all these strangrs, going by myself and trying to find taxis," says Frost. "I remember talking to Brooke Fraser when she first signed with Sony. She'd said it was horrible, that she'd been partnered with people who just wanted to write hits. I'm quite stubborn creatively but then I saw the names. They were really talented people."

Among them were Phil Buckle, who has written for John Farnham, Paul Mac, Silverchair's producer, and indie rock band Dappled Cities. But the best collaboration was with Dan Hulme from Evermore, the Feilding brothers who have gone on to huge success in Australia.

"We had crazy discussions about philosophy and art and weird-as social phobias," she laughs. "It was a very cool two days."

Within 48 hours they'd written three songs. Young, which sounds as fresh as its title, is likely to be the first single released in May. Talks are now underway with music video directors and the plan is to release two more singles throughout the year, and an album next year. Universal hopes to send Frost back to Australia for another writing session with Hulme. And Youngson's goal is to get her on the road, perhaps to do a school tour, much like Steriogram did, "to push Ruby out of her comfort zone. Touring puts you under the pressure of being on the road and dealing with people all day, every day."

Frost is well aware she could do with a bit of a shake-up. The girl is so nice she could hold a conversation with a dead slug. Although she's quick to admit she likes the sponsor's product. While there's no alcohol served at the Parachute festival, part of her prize was "the biggest bottle of vodka ever".

"It's so funny," she laughs. "I'm already getting grief from people. 'What will your young fans think if they see you holding this giant bottle of vodka?"

Ruby Frost releases her first single next month.

- NZ Herald

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