Masterfully combining creative songwriting with hypnotic performance visuals is a skill few can so effortly achieve as Paper Dragon. Born from Bristol’s electronic current, the project, fronted by vocalist and composer Ruth Royall, seeks to put a progressive stamp on the concept of band artistry, whilst writing songs that reminisce drum and bass, house, soul and electronica.
Ruth is anything but a stranger to the record industry. Having worked as a professional performance and session singer from a young age, she’s since established a well revered identity from both her broad repertoire of toplining work and creative composing for adverts and film. After moving to London in her early twenties, Ruth crafted her characteristically versatile voice within the capital’s neo soul and jazz scenes, and soon came to find her particular vocal fit in electronic genres.
My voice works well in electronic production, because I’ve got that soul tone that can be really heavy and fitting – but it also opens up all the avenues of vocal arrangement that I love. I’ve definitely found my home in music
Passionately following this new pursuit back to Bristol, the singer began collaborating and touring with some of the scene’s biggest names, going on to release singles with the likes of Grafix, and Pola & Bryson.
With a 2019 taken by storm, Ruth had announced herself as one of the genre’s forefront vocalists, yet was craving something more. ‘I do a lot of top lining and collaborations with drum and bass acts. It’s great, really fun, and I like it a lot’, explains Ruth. ‘But I really wanted to make something that’s just a creative project that I can really get my teeth into’. After a conversation with friend Jon Savage, the tour manager of Fred V & Grafix, the two went on to form Paper Dragon with Bruce Turner and Kris Burton of electronic duo Playhead. ‘The four of us make the core Dragons, if you like. We started creating music in the studio – I’d bring in a song, Kris is an amazing engineer, Bruce does the sound design and Jon manages the project.’
The newly founded Paper Dragon set-up spent the majority of the first year of their creative evolution following this routine, experimenting with different instruments, genre influences and songwriting techniques to really establish their sound. ‘We’re quite eclectic in terms of the music we make. We started off with a drum and bass tune. But I also have a real love for that kind of funky house and soulful stuff, so I started bringing songs that were a bit more poppy’, comments Ruth. ‘Now we’re experimenting with all sorts of different stuff! The music we’ve got coming out this year involves a bit of breaks, a bit of drum and bass, and some tunes that are just acoustic and really soulful’.
Though the band pride themselves on their musical eclecticism, the core element uniting the different paths of experimentation is an electronic sound that’s characteristically old school sound in terms of its production and style. ‘All of the stuff we’ve done has been sampling real instruments, so it’s all very sound design based’. Reflecting the project’s forward-thinking ethos, Ruth identifies Paper Dragon as a ‘musical entity’ – always developing, progressing, adapting – and even opening up their foundations to share with newer artists.
‘It feels like a machine – there’s quite a few people involved. I’m the face of it, but there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. We’re keen to take that a bit further and look at developing artists as well, but bring them in like it’s a songwriting or production house’.
It takes us down a cinematic route, creating a whole visual experience; a tangible thing
As such a versatile unit, Paper Dragon opened themselves up to an array of creative collaborations that have helped propel them onto great opportunities, predominantly with Bristolian artists and projects. ‘This year we’ve been working with L’appel Du Vide, which is going all over the world doing shows’, says Ruth. If you’ve not seen L’appel Du Vide projects in all their glory, they’re certainly a sight to behold. The Bristol-based touring company unite circus acts, live music and technical visual performances with a fully programmable piano covered in 10,000 LED lights to create a sensory wonder.
‘It’s very performance based. We’ve written the music for it, and it’s very soundscapey. If we go out with L’appel Du Vide, it’s a whole show – there’s acrobats and fire stuff going on, and we’re part of the sound and music design, and I think that’s a real direction for us to go down. It takes us down a cinematic route, creating a whole visual experience; a tangible thing.’
This focus on multi-sensory performances was well received by fans at Paper Dragon’s debut gig at The Crofters Rights back in December. After spending months in the studio and writing nearly two albums’ worth of material, the band thought it was about time to transfer the operation to the live arena. ‘The show was a bit of an experiment – we filmed it, and we also tried out the whole concept with dancers – and it was just rammed! We just thought, “Oh my god, who are all these people?”. It just felt really great, and it just felt like the Bristol community were behind it’.
Addressing Paper Dragon’s location and grounding, Ruth notes that ‘Bristol is becoming a really viable city for artists to live and work in’, its interconnectivity of artistry providing the perfectly hustling hub for the band and their collaborators, ‘It feels like the perfect place to be, especially for that drum and bass sound. There are people that are really motivated and ambitious that come here and get on it, get working’.
Music is opinion. You can’t say art is bad – it’s art
Ambition, in fact, is something that Ruth palpably radiates. As a vocal coach, she’s able to share her experiences of progression in the music industry with individuals hoping to embark on the same journey – and she certainly holds more than just a few pearls of wisdom. ‘Music is opinion. You can’t say art is bad – it’s art. Everyone will have an opinion about your music, even people who don’t make music will have an opinion about it. They’ll think they know better than you and will tell you about it, and it’s quite a strange position to be in because it’s your profession… but it’s also your art. Being clear with yourself and saying, “No, this is my music, I’m going to follow my gut and do what I think it right”, will get you the best results every time, and you’ll develop really quickly as well’.
The band’s most recent single, Be Free was released on 14 February, and if it’s anything to go by, it looks clear that Paper Dragon will quickly become an essential thread to Bristol’s musical tapestry. Announcing the importance of ‘letting go and being free, and falling in love with yourself’, Be Free is one of the only songs in Paper Dragon’s set in which the lyrics were not written by Ruth. ‘The lyrics were written by John. It’s a really interesting thing to sing something that’s written by someone else – it’s a privilege, and also quite a responsibility. This is a very important song to him and his world, and I just feel that every time I sing it – it’s like I’m channeling him. It’s almost therapeutic, and it feels like a bit of a gift’.
To celebrate the single’s launch, Paper Dragon are throwing a mixer party at The Cloak and Dagger tomorrow night (27 February). With open decks, special guest appearances from some of the band’s favourite DJs and a performance from Ruth herself, the night is sure to be a special event. Doors are from 8pm and entry is totally free, giving you the perfect opportunity to catch Paper Dragon in all their colourful, hypnotic glory.
Photos by Sam Woollcott
27 February – Paper Dragon single launch, Cloak and Dagger