If Maddy Ruff did nothing other than simply sing, chances are it would be enough to earn your attention. With two albums to her credit, including her recently released sophomore effort, Over It, the University of Miami Frost School of Music graduate has earned enough kudos to ensure she will be one to watch in the coming months and years. Now based in the Big Apple, she’s established herself as a spirited frontwoman who heads up her own band, The Ruff Riders, and imparts a diverse repertoire that encompasses blues, standards, show tunes, R&B and, of course, modern rock ‘n’ roll. Despite comparisons to Fiona Apple and Amy Winehouse, Ruff’s clearly in a league of her own.
With platitudes like that being hurled her way, it ought to be more than enough to ensure some notice, but as a two-time cancer survivor who performs on a prosthetic leg (which she jokingly refers to as her “Barbie foot”), she’s earned additional attention. It’s not that she’s keen to play off people’s sympathies, but given her courage and determination, Ruff’s perseverance is certainly admirable. “I had pretty much made up my mind about being a performer by the age of two,” she insists. “My mother, Nina Hennessey, was pregnant with me while she was in Les Miserables on Broadway. We like to joke that I was performing before I was born.
Ruff has lived with challenges her entire life. She was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma at age 16 when doctors found a tumor in her left ankle. She ultimately won her battle with cancer, but not before enduring the amputation of her left leg. “I look back on it now, and I can’t believe the resolve I had,” Ruff reflects. “My treatment lasted almost a year with almost every day spent at the hospital." Ruff stayed positive by seeing her treatment as a race, one with a starting point and an end point, which she had to remind herself over and over again, would eventually come.
"I wasn’t able to attend school, but I stayed on track with a home/hospital teacher in order to graduate on time," she says. "I remember taking the SAT’s in the hospital with a fever, which was ridiculous. I applied to colleges and even had a few interviews." Ruff was able to return to school and graduate on time, though her road to recovery was bumpy. There were a few set backs: a revision surgery after her amputation, some brutal symptoms of chemo, and a scare in one of her scans that led to a lung surgery.
"Christmas of 2006 was frightening. I was so weak and scared. I couldn’t eat any of the amazing food, and I remember being so angry. I am so lucky to have the family I have and the support system that I have. I am so lucky to have had the most amazing brilliant doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and I am so lucky that all things considered, we caught it early enough for me to have a shot.”
When the dust settled, Ruff was accepted into the University of Miami's Frost School of Music. Her stint there provided the springboard she needed to get serious about a music career. It was there she started writing, even penning one song, “Tell Me Not to Worry,” while being rushed to the hospital with a high fever.
“UM has an amazing music program,” she asserts. “I was in chemo treatment while applying to conservatory programs, and most of the program heads were terrified I wouldn’t make it. So, rather than take a chance on me, they decided not to deal with me. The University of Miami was not deterred by my bald Maddy audition video."
Ruff visited UM and almost immediately fell in love with the campus. Her freshman year she changed her major from classical voice to jazz voice. "Miami exposed me to a realm of music I hadn’t previously considered, and helped put me on the path to making the music I’m making today. I have to thank Chuck Bergeron for teaching me the blues and Nicole Yarling for saying I was capable of covering Etta James.”
Ruff’s determination clearly helped her conquer the obstacles she faced, but then again, she had set her sights on a singing career at very young age.
Having a mother who had a career on Broadway may have offered encouragement, but as she grew up, there was no shortage of music that helped affirm her ambitions “Over the years I have listened to and studied so many different kinds of music,” she recalls, citing Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Clash, Stevie Wonder, Pink, B.B. King, and the Black Keys as early inspiration. “It wasn’t until college that I really started to notice the influence the music I was listening to had on me. I listened to a crap load of Ella Fitzgerald and June Christy."
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Her wide net of musical tastes have created a sound that can't easily fit into one category. It's a gumbo of different genres, all filtered through Ruff's own voice. “I’ve never thought of myself as a crossover artist, although many different styles inform my writing,” she says. “I actually don’t like categorizing my music at all. I understand from a marketing standpoint an artist’s sound needs to be put into a genre, but I have a hard time labeling myself. I write R&B songs with rock, pop, jazz, and blues influences. I have half jokingly/half seriously considered calling it Ruff n’ Roll.”
Ruff hasn’t allowed the loss of her leg to impact her positive attitude, although she admits it was difficult to deal with initially. “I don’t think anyone has ever lost a limb and been like, ‘Okay, no big deal,'” she concedes. “I think I deal with it pretty well. When you go through something so terrifying, you have to have a sense of humor about it. If you can’t learn to laugh it off and laugh at yourself, life will be way too difficult. I don’t have many physical limitations and if I’m wearing pants no one would ever know. I’ve gotten really good at telling truncated versions of my story on dates.”