Pennies, pints and poetry

When Rukhsana Merrise’s dad passed away from lung cancer, it gave her the push to resign from her day job as a cashier at a bank and pursue music. Although she loved singing and had crafted her own songs from an early age, she never had the confidence to drop everything and wander into the misty unknown of her childhood dream.

“Watching my dad come to his own end, you start thinking that you should take the chance and do things, because life’s too short,” she says, her cat-like eyes fixed on mine. “Of course my dad dying wasn’t a good thing, but...” “Something good came out of it?” “That’s it,” she nods.

The singer-songwriter swallows a sip of beer and smiles. She smiles a lot, actually. With an EP, single and support tours with Oh Wonder and James Bay behind her, her bubbly enthusiasm is infectious. During the photo session, when most up-and-coming artists awkwardly resort to a mirror stare, Rukhsana cracks joke after joke, often on her own behalf, seemingly unaffected by the clicking camera and room full of people. “I love to love,” she says later when we’ve settled down at the back of a Dalston bar. “Not in the sense of romantic love, but in terms of people. I love it too much because it gets me into trouble sometimes.”

Photo: Mafalda Silva

It’s easy to imagine her pouring pints and chatting to the people in her local pub in West London, which is where she ended up working part-time for a while after leaving the nine-to-five at the bank. “The Dove is a place where people come in, not to drown their sorrows, but to comfort their mind and heart and take some time away,” she explains. “Meeting people from different walks of life, telling you their stories... I’m fuelled by conversation. It triggers something in me that makes sense of things, like missing pieces in a puzzle.”

Her soulful debut EP September Songs, released last year, was written during that time and can be likened to an internal conversation that, similarly, tries to make sense of life. “Hold on to what you’ve chosen / the shadows will break by day,” she sings on the opener ‘So They Say’. The single that followed is called ‘Money’, inspired by the years at the bank. 

“When you’re in an environment where you see how money changes people and their perception of life, it makes you think a little bit more,” she explains. “The song is about the way people treat money. You chase having a great car or house or a fantastic job. You chase Stella McCartney’s latest bag – which is fucking lovely I might add. Then, once you get it, you don’t care anymore because you want the next thing. There’s no value in that.”

On ‘Money’, Rukhsana’s raspy and deeply emotive vocals are given full scope to fly. It’s a much more upbeat song, a departure from the contemplative hesitance of the EP. “When we were recording it, they were like ‘shall we strip it back?’ and I said no. I wanted it to sound like a hip hop beat meeting Joni Mitchell on guitar.”

But this trust in herself and her musical talent is something she’s had to work for. For years, Rukhsana didn’t believe in her voice. “When I was at school, people were into Ashanti or J-Lo. I didn’t sound like that and there was no one else out at the time, in the charts or on pirate radio stations, that sounded like me.” That changed when Amy Winehouse’s debut album Frank was released in 2003. Her vocals, deep and vulnerable and unequivocally different, stirred something in the teenage Rukhsana. A couple of years later, a friend dragged her to the studio. After commanding the producer to switch off the lights, facing the wall, she breathed her heartfelt songs into the mic for the first time.

Now, she’s busy working on her debut LP. Rukhsana shows me her battered note-
book, an A4-sized Muji pad full of lyrics, outfit ideas and tweets too honest to tweet. Like most twenty-somethings, her mind is sprawling and she has difficulty making sense of all the loose ends. “When I started recording, I thought I was halfway there. Then – about a year in – I thought I had half of it again. Now, I’d say... I have half of it!” she laughs.

“The album needs to speak about me,” she reflects. “I want to look back and say ‘I know why I felt and said that then.” This is the only time during our meeting when I sense frustration and an unresolved uncertainty in Rukhsana’s voice. Perhaps the unknown, however far you’ve come away from those initial self-doubts and struggles, is a pretty bewildering place to be? “My sister says that nobody tells you what happens between 25 and 30 because that’s the confusing part when you find all these mad things out,” she shakes her head, smiling. “I’m there, I’m right there.”

This interview was originally published in issue 32 of Oh Comely.