"Lost Boy" doesn't sound like it belongs on Top 40 radio. Among the frantic house beats and soaring hooks blaring from every car window in America, it sits quietly. There is its twinkling piano, a few solemn and serious chords before her voice comes in. Ruth Berhe sings gently. She is only 21 years old, after all, and her song is careful, cautious, and like nothing else in the Billboard Top 100.
Despite being the only piano ballad on the charts right now, "Lost Boy" is a bonafide hit with a hook so catchy it rose from a simple six-second Vine to no. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100. In a world where the Top 40 chart is dominated most often by songs created by teams and marketed by major companies through pop star brands, it's no wonder that a little song written, produced, and performed by a 21-year-old black woman sounds a lot different.
"I think I had always been interested in music. I loved and played music from a very young age, and can’t really recall a time when I wasn't working on something," Ruth B told me on the phone last week. When I was eight, I started playing piano. But I didn’t start writing until last year, until this song really."
The first song Ruth ever wrote was "Lost Boy." It started with just a hook that she says "came to her" one day while she was watching the television show Once Upon a Time. She uploaded the hook, six seconds of chorus, to Vine, and watched it take off. In the first week, it had 84,000 likes. Over a period of three months, Ruth penned the rest of the song, writing it out line by line in-between shifts at her job at Marshalls.
In January 2015, she uploaded the song to YouTube, and watched it take off.
"I realized it was going to be a big deal when I posted the first YouTube video, well the only video of "Lost Boy." The very first comment was like, 'I’ve been waiting for this. I needed this,'" Ruth B told me. "That’s when I realized that making music was something important. That’s when the ambition was really instilled in me. It stopped being about me."
The song, until then, had only been for her. She wrote it alone in her room. She played it on the piano. She did the production levels. She uploaded it to YouTube. A one woman team.
And so far this year, "Lost Boy" is the only song that has hit the Billboard Hot 100 written, produced, and performed only by a woman. When I told Ruth this on the phone, she beamed. "Prior to me becoming an artist, I was really under the impression that everyone wrote their own stuff. I really knew nothing about how the business worked."
"That makes me really proud. I’m glad that in 30, 40, 50 years, I'll be able to tell my kids that I had some of the most authentic work at this point in time," she said. Our time on the phone is riddled with words like "authenticity" and "care," "support" and "admiration." She cares about her listeners, and she wants her work to be real. But alone, her song could only go so far. To get a song on the radio, much less in the Top 100, even the best artists need the support of a label or publicist or something. Ruth B signed to Columbia records where she created an EP (still all by herself) and re-promoted "Lost Boy."
At Columbia, her song was pushed out to some smaller Top 40 stations around the country to see if one of them would take a risk on a small song. One of those stations was WIXX in Wisconsin.
"My daughter who I guess back then would have been 13, was sitting in the living room watching Vines and that's when I first heard it," Otis Day, the music director at WIXX told me. "Nothing else happened for a long time, for a month or two. But when [Columbia] sent me the song, I recognized it. I already knew the hook."
Immediately, the listeners in Green Bay responded to it. Day says that listeners don't really call radio stations anymore about songs they love, but they text. And they Shazam. Through those methods WIXX had already been one of the first stations to play Rachel Platten's "Fight Song" and Hozier's "Take Me to Church," both songs that fit outside the normal Top 40 hit specifications that rocketed up the charts. "Lost Boy was no different," Day told me.
“I’ve never seen a score that high for any of our records,” Lee Leipsner, EVP and head of promotion at Columbia Records, told Billboard last month. “Within one week, the record was No. 1 on Shazam in Green Bay.”
If "Lost Boy" proves anything it's that there's no one right way to make a hit. Hits can follow a method, or they can do what Ruth B did and break every method. "I think the best way to relate to people and make them feel heard is to write about things that are real," Ruth told me. "I think that’s what helps people— real stories that come from a real person. So I want to write all my work myself."
Ruth is currently working on her debut album, which she expects to be out the fall. She's still writing, producing, and performing everything herself.
You can listen to Ruth B's EP on Spotify
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.