Ruby Mills is a household name in Bundaberg. The jazz, blues and soul singer shot to fame in 2016 after making it to the top 13 on X-Factor. Several years before that she also made it into the top 50 on Australian Idol, but she’s much more than a reality television star.
The Crush Magazine cover model has never strayed far from her roots and is proud to call Bundy home. Crush Magazine interviewed Ruby for the Autumn 2022 Bright Issue.
Larine Statham-Blair from Crush Magazine (CM): Obviously, there’s a perception of you being a reality, television star, but obviously, there’s far more to what you do. That was like one little section of your life and you’ve been singing a long time before that and continue to sing now. So first of all,1000 people in bundy auditioned for X Factor. What made you decide to audition?
Ruby Mills (RM): Ok, so first of all I have to be honest with you, I wasn’t going to audition. It was never on my radar but I had a whole heap of friends say to me, you’ve got to do it, “give it a go, turn up and see what happens”. And they were right, when was this opportunity going to arise again. I was actually living back in Bundaberg at that time so it all made sense, but I kept saying no, you know it’s not my thing. I felt there was a bit of a stigma around reality television shows, but I could also see the platform it was giving regional musicians like myself to get out there and be seen. Turns out, by chance I had the day off work the day X Factor were in town and I thought, you know what, I’m just going to give it a go. And so that’s what I did. I turned up to the auditions with no intentions. I was the second last audition for the day, so it was a huge process and a lot of waiting for my turn!
Larine Statham-Blair from Crush Magazine (CM): And any point in that day, did you think ‘I’m just gonna leave this’?
Ruby Mills (RM): Yeah, definitely. There were certainly a couple of times during the day where I thought ‘what am I even doing here’. Often I tend of stick to myself a little bit and I find auditions can bring out a diverse range of people. Many of whom are not only trying to prove themselves to the judges, but also to everybody else in the room. And I have never felt comfortable doing that, music for me has always been an extremely unifying source, not so much a reason for proving yourself. I guess going back to my roots and staying true to who I was, I knew I was there to challege myself, first and foremost. And, the time had come where I felt ready to get my voice out there. I just wanted to see how far I could get. And to see if people were actually interested in hearing my voice?
CM: So tell me about when you were eliminated off the back of an Adele song? Where did you end up in the competition?
RM: I remember when I got given the Adele song. I rang mum and dad, and I said ‘I’m going home’. I hadn’t even sung yet. But I said ‘I’m telling you, I’m going home’. I knew singing Adele was going to come with expectations and even the possibility of elimination. Something didn’t sit right as it wasn’t a song I would have choosen to sing to my strengths at that stage of the competition. So when the time came to sing it for the judges, knowing it was given to me by them was hard to then have them say ‘I don’t know if that was the right choice of song for you and that it was a bit safe’. That’s the thing about reality television, it can become a game and I think, for me, I realized that very quickly, early on in the piece. And I was really grateful that I did because I learnt to take it all with a grain of salt. I was proud of who I was and I was just going to keep doing me. Whereas for a lot of other contestants I met it was a diehard situation for them. At the end of the day while I valued their feedback you can’t then let them determine how good you are and how you feel within yourself, or what you should or shouldn’t be singing. There is guidance and then there is judgement, they are two very different things.
CM: I thought Guy Sebastian picked you for that one seat, though?
RM: Yes, he did but then I got swapped out. Following singing that song I copped a lot of slack online and from a lot of viewers of the show. It’s a tricky one because as I said earlier I knew it wasn’t the right choice for me but I couldn’t say anything. But at the end of the day I made it to the top 13 of Australia and looking back now I think that’s crazy, I was only 24, it was a wild ride and I met some other incredible musicians during that time. I am so proud that I put myself out there and gave it a go.
CM: Do you like singing Adele, or has the experience tainted her music for you? How do you feel about that life experience now?
RM: It’s funny you ask, I don’t think I’ve ever sung one of her songs again. Maybe I should? But growing up my sister Bonnie and I used to always sing Adele songs, and we admire her talent. I’m not sure if it has tainted me a little bit, perhaps so, but I know staying true to who I was at the time certainly helped to turn a negative into a really positive experience. I just took every opportunity that I could and I learnt so much along the way.
CM: As you said you seemed to always remain true to yourself. I noticed little things about your style. Like wearing the signature red flower, and your black ring.
RM: Absolutely, I love staying true to my style. Standing on stage in front of thousands of people is really putting yourself out there so being comfortable as well was important to me. I watch my audition sometimes and I find it quite motivating. It’s like watching another person, oozing with confidence. The ring I wore was my grandmother’s, she gifted it to me before she passed away in 2008. I have worn it close to every single time I have sung since then, it is a true strength for me! If I have a gig coming up, the ring is the first thing to be packed.
CM: Do you watch those auditions and critique how far your voice has come?
RM: Absolutely. I do. My voice has changed a lot, my confidence has also grown and so has my maturity with age. I am much more aware of my vocal range now and I have new found ways to express myself vocally. It has really allowed me to really distinguish my sound.
CM: You’ve had a great upbringing here in Bundy with the love of your parents and your sister Bonnie. How did that influence your career? When did you start singing?
RM: Ironically, just recently mum and I found a diary of her’s from when I was a baby, up until I was about three. It was such a nostaligic moment for us, we sat down and read every single page. It mentioned many times that I was constantly singing, dancing and making up my own lyrics every chance I could get. So even from a young age I have always been singing. I was born in Brisbane but mum and dad moved us to Bundaberg and built a house on 40 acres when I was 5. Growing up with the space and freedom to run free and sing as loud as I could without any neighbours to disturb was always so much fun. It has certainly been very grounding for me and I am forever appreciative for that. It was also nice having Bonnie to sing with, we would enter talent quests at high school and we aways supported each other. My first big audition was for the local Bundy Search 4 A Star competition at the Moncrieff, in 2008. Paulini from Australian Idol was the guest judge and I was lucky enough to make it all the way through and win it, and get a touchdown! She was really inspiring after the show, but it was the first time I sang in front of a big audience.
My family were all in the front row cheering me on, even family from Melbourne had come to surprise me, which was a big thing for them. I remember looking down and my dad was crying, my parents still say now that was the moment that they knew something was really there. While I was only 16 at the time, it was really empowering and comforting to know I had such great support backing me; and that continues to influence my career as well as the choices I have made.
CM: So from there, then did you start looking at things more professionally or start thinking okay, maybe this is something I can earn a living from?
RM; Yeah. I definitely did. All these small stepping stones helped enhance my confidence and so I started singing a little bit more. I joined a local band with some guys who were local fishermen and we called ourselves Ruby and the Strolling Bones, they were all a lot older than I was, hence the band name, so we played homage to their era as well. With dad being in the seafood industry, some of these boys had known me since I was about 10, and I still play with them now. All of them are incredible musicians and we all learnt a lot from each other during that time. It was around that stage the Australian Idol auditions were in Brisbane. Dad was so proud, he organized a surprise trip to the city, but hadn’t told me what we were actually going for. It wasn’t until we just so happened to be walking along Southbank and dad was like ‘oh, what are these people doing here’? I had no idea. We soon found out it was the Australian Idol auditions. He said ‘you have to go try’. Again, I was feeling really apprehensive about it, but I did it anyway (maybe Paulini’s advice had spurred me on). Can you believe I was there for nine and a half hours waiting to go into the audition all while mum, dad and Bonnie spent the day eating out and shopping! But I never second guessed it, finally after the wait I got my turn. I chose to sing I’m A Good Woman, written and released by Barbara Lynn in 1966, that was the song I had won with at Bundy Search 4 A Star. Barbara’s voice had such an impact on me from the moment I first listened to her, and has been very infleuncial in helping me distinguish my own sound. Being able to sing acapella is one of my strengths and one I found very helpful when it came to auditions because most often than not you are required to sing without any backing music and often people who don’t have the range to sing acapella find that very difficult. I was successful with my audition and I was lucky enough to be flown to Sydney, with mum as I was still only 17. It was a time of growth for me, I learnt so much from the judges. It was pretty extraordinary at 17-years-old to have Ian ‘Dicko’ Dickson, Marcia Hines and Kyle Sandilands mentoring you.
CM: So I’m a big believer that there’s some sort of destiny intertwined with what you are named. And I feel like that with the name Ruby, there would just be no other name that would better suit you?
RM: Really, thankyou! I’ve had people say things like this to me, especially when I was younger people would say ‘there’s something about your name that you’re going to be something’. Which is bizarre. I totally agree with you, names can be really defining.
CM: Have you received any formal training?
RM: Following Australian Idol I remember coming home and signing up to vocal lessons with Jo Carr (who still remains to be my first and only vocal coach, thankyou Jo!) But I was young and still trying to work out what I wanted to do, I wanted to get lessons because everyone else on Idol was getting them. I thought I better do that too! I moved to Brisbane not long after that and ended up settling there for close to the last 10 years. During that time I have accomplished so many cool things and studied at the Jazz Music Institute with both vocals and saxophone. But when I first moved I graduated from a Diploma of Music and Diploma of Music Business on the Sunshine Coast. I then took some time off to visit my sister in the UK who was living in France at the time. It was while I was over there that I received a phone call inviting me to sing at the Brisbane Jazz Club. I had been in Europe for six weeks and then flew back into Australia the morning I was due to sing. I had enjoyed the Parisian lifestyle a little too much and eaten like 100 croissants and I couldn’t fit in my dress. I’m not kidding! Looking back though, it was quite the experience. I had to take in my own sheet music for the band and I remember dad and I were running around old cobblestone streets looking for music shops in Paris. Trying to find original sheet music for this performance. It was like a movie, the old wooden ladder that goes like all the way up to the ceiling and the salesman was pulling out all this sheet music looking for the songs I was going to sing. All while trying to communicate in French, but we got it. And now ive been singing at the club for close to 10 years!
CM: Was it the floods that bought you back to Bundaberg?
RM: It was at the time of the 2011 floods, my parents wholesale seafood business had flooded. I remember walking through the water, it came as high as my hips. They’d been in that factory for close to 7 years at the time. And then in the 2013 floods, it hit us again and the water was well over the roof. It was heartbreaking! We lost a lot that year; the inside of our factory had literally just crumbled into itself, so much machinery was damaged and we lost more product than you can imagine. Mum and Dad were put in this position, where some hard decisions had to be made, it was like ‘do we shut down or push through and rebuild’. The 2013 floods hit them hard off the back of the 2011 floods, so it really was a challenging time. It’s a testament to them for pushing through and it was in that time when Red Shed Seafood was developed, an expansion of their wholesale business into retail. That’s when I made a decision to leave my job in the city and come back to Bundaberg and help rebuild. They have remained in the same factory for close to 18 years now, continuing to operate their Wholesale business and now retail. My parents hold such a strength as individuals, my sister and I are so aware how fortunate we are to have them and the resilience they have instilled in us. Their encouragement and support for me is unwavering, they always find the time and I will never take that for granted.
CM: Were you proud that X Factor painted you as a fish monger at the time, or did it bother you?
RM: Oh my gosh, they love a good ‘rags to riches’ story. The producers came to Bundaberg to film so they could show snippets of who I was and where I had come from. They thought it was great to see me working behind the counter, handling fish and getting all nitty gritty with some of the not so glamourous parts of fish mongering. I was apprieciative they showed me in that light, it’s my family business and I was proud of it. Reality shows can often pin you to a post for something that they think will benefit them and not the individual. Something mentioned as a part of your history that is relatively innocent can potentially pigeon hole your whole image and can leave you a victim of bullies. I didn’t mind, but I do definitely think at times the show concentrated more on my ‘Fishmonger’ title than the reason I was there, my voice. But hey ‘that’s showbiz baby’!
CM: Is that a part of the reality TV machine that you were aware of early on?
RM: Absolutely. There’s a lot of questions to find out who you are. It’s challenging trying to sum yourself up on paper to strangers. We all face challenging times, often we don’t talk about them and are sensitive about who we share this information with but they can prod you to get everything out of you. I had lost quite a few friends in my life at the point, to accidents and to suicide. I wrote this down in one of my audition papers because these were times in my life that have had an impact on shaping who I am. Having said this they did tend to narrow straight in on that. And that opens up a whole can of worms, they wanted to know more details and probe me in interviews and dedicate songs everytime I sang. And I just remember, I was like, ‘this is not how I want to be seen’. While I had faced challenges they wanted them to define who I was and how they shaped me as a musician. I called the producers and I was straight forward with them about not being comfortable with it. I made a point of saying ‘let’s remember why we’re here’, you know what I mean? So I kept it personal. While the show has its perks, it is an emotional rollercoaster and I’m a very emotional person. There were a lot of times when I was really feeling the pressure and I just remember thinking: ‘don’t do it. Don’t do it, don’t cry on stage’ because I knew it would fuel the media and unrealistic perceptions of me. And when it was over, I had finished the Adele song, I completely lost it, all the emotion came flooding out.
CM: Was it all the built up emotion, or something more?
RM: I honeslty felt like I’d let a lot of people down, all of the local support I had received and knowing everyone was cheering me on from back home was hard to let go of. Knowing I had poured my heart and soul into it was comforting in the end and I came home to such wonderful support. I just felt like I could have done more.
CM: You said you struggled with your mental health after X Factor, losing some friends to suicide and an accident in the family, but do you think your singing helped with that? Is it cathardic for you?
RM: My love of being on stage and the feeling I get really fills my cup, but it isn’t possibe to do that every day. I just feel so confident when I’m singing in front of people. And the more people the better. You know, the bigger the audience, the better I am. I wish I could bottle up that feeling. Music has been so healing for me, at so many different stages of my life. There is a definitive euphoria that is felt when on stage and one I wish I could hold onto every moment of the day and I guess that’s where I have struggled at times, this is the highs and lows of the music industry.
CM: So after floods, travels, study, reality tv, what are you doing with your music now?
RM: I am actually really excited about 2022. I have had a little break from my music and I will be turning 30 in a few weeks, I feel like there are some really rewarding things on the horizon. I am about to start work on two separate EP’s, one acoustic and the other with my loved sound of blues soul and funk. I am also looking at having my own set at the Brisbane Jazz Club playing Etta James which will be such an honour to do. I have some Melbourne Ska Orchestra gigs coming up this year and some big Title Fights with Australian Boxing where I sing the National Anthem. I also work closely with local Inititaive Marcus Mission raising awareness for male suicide prevention. I organize an annual music day, and with a few of my friends we are looking at a project in Wallaville this year celebrating our dear friend Marcus; so that’s very humbling, and exciting. Lets just see how much I can fit in hey?
CM: Anything interstate or overseas?
RM: As I mentioned the Melbourne Ska Orchestra, a bit of a back story to my connection with them is the first time I saw them was at Byron Bay Bluesfest, 12 years ago. I honestly hadn’t heard much of them before. I remember saying to mum at the time ‘I want to be with them’. They were so inspiring. Then it was around five years ago, Nicky Bomba, who founded the MSO, was doing an intrumental gig here. I was living in Brisbane at the time, and I called mum and some friends to say I would be planning a trip back and we should go check out this gig. Nicky is known for his acoustic rhythm, he is very talented with his use of instruments, he even uses steel pans from Trinidad and things like that. Anyway, half way through the gig, he said ‘there is an extra microphone here if anyone wants to come up and join me’. It wasn’t long after X Factor and suddenly this chant started: ‘Ruby, Ruby, Ruby’. He was like ‘who are you’? I introduced myself and before I knew it I was on stage jamming with him. Forty-five minutes later the show finished and we got chatting, it was a really cool vibe and we connected well. He asked if I knew of The Melbourne Ska Orchestra, and I was like, Nicky, ‘I know who you are’!
He said ‘your voice would be perfect in the orchestra and I’d love to have you on board, if that’s something you’re interested in’? He got my number and we made contact following the gig. Fast forward through many zoom rehearsals and Melbourne flights and I joined Melbourne Ska Orchestra, and have played with them for the last two-and-a-half years. It was such a thrill. I was lucky enough to be a part of their two remarkable Aria wins over that time and we’ve played shows all over Australia. I was managing a really busy cafe in Brisbane and I would work Monday to Friday, fly out most Saturday mornings to play a show on Saturday night, fly back on Sunday. It was a phenomenal time, a real highlight was being their guest vocalist back at the Byron Bay Bluefest, where I had seen them 12 years prior! In front of 15,000 people! That was the biggest, biggest thing that I’ve ever done. Then in late 2019 we started our Australian tour, unfortunately early in 2020, COVID19 hit and everything got shut down. It was February 2020 we played our last show, the Arts and Music industry really got hit hard. There has been a few things keeping me going here during the pandemic. I preformed on TEDx, which is pretty cool being an international platform and I have been lucky enough to have been involved in some local festivals like the Childers Festival and private functions and weddings. I was actually lined up to support Kate Ceberano however Covid fixed that too, so fingers crossed for this year. But in one way it’s been really nice for me to have a break as well. I really needed it. I really love what I do but its allowed me to step back and focus on myself.
CM: And you are studying again?
RM: Yes, I am almost finished my studies to be a Teacher Aide and now looking at shifting into Music Therapy. As I have said the music industry can have its highs and lows and I think the COVID19 pandemic has really showed me those lows. And the fact is if your not doing gigs, how do you survive with no income. Music therapy is something that was of interest and I know music can bring so much joy to other people. It is proven that it can elevate moods in an instant, stimulate memories, ease anxiety and it can help a diverse range of people with their social and emotional wellbeing. The list is endless really. And I think we can all feel that and recongise how much music effects your mood, its very powerful.
CM: What did you love most about growing up in Bundaberg?
RM: It just feels like home. My parents still live on our family property where I grew up and it is truly so beautiful. I have a real emotional connection with the land, it holds the key to all of my childhood memories. The older I get the more I apprieciate growing up in a smaller community, it gives you a real sense of belonging. Honestly the support I’ve received from Bundaberg is something I will never ever be able to repay. It has kept me grounded and I am forever thankful for that.