Ruthie Foster’s Let It Burn uniformly injects deep soul into classic rock [CSN's "Long Time Gone"] and modern hits [Adele's "Set Fire to the Rain"]. High watermarks such as Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” entirely transform.
“There aren’t as many originals on this because I just didn’t write as much when it was time to go in the studio,” the Austin-based singer-songwriter says. “I had a great producer, John Chelew, and he brought some really interesting tunes in for me to listen to early on.”
The combination paid high dividends: Foster’s new collection earned her second Grammy nomination in the blues category. “It’s huge to be invited to the big party,” she says, laughing. “It’s extremely validating as a musician to have it happen twice. The first time, it’s like, ‘Oh, really?’ The second time, you’re kind of going, ‘Well, maybe I still have a little game here.’”
CMT Edge: So, what are your chances for a Grammy win this time?
Foster: You know, I have a couple friends in this category that I admire and dearly love. Shemekia’s [Copeland] definitely one. She’s a good friend of mine and we’re just rooting for each other and obviously ourselves (laughs). You know, we’re gonna go out to L.A. and try to meet up and have a good time either way.
I know Bill Sims [Heritage Blues Orchestra] from when I used to live in New York. I used to open for him years ago. I’ve sung with Joan Osborne and am a huge fan of her music. Dr. John? Come on. He’s been in the business so long, so even to get the chance to be anywhere near this guy is just huge for me. I’m just gonna be excited to be there. It’s a great trip to make and it’s fun and it gives me a chance to circulate as a musician and say hi to friends I know and hopefully make some new friends.
Let’s talk about the new album. Did any covers immediately jump out?
The Los Lobos song ["This Time"] was one I loved immediately. There were several John Martyn songs I wasn’t even familiar with. I picked out two or three of his tunes to do, but we had to narrow it down to one ["Don't Want to Know"].
John brought in the classic sound element with the Crosby, Stills and Nash tune that we do, “Long Time Gone.” I was hesitant because I didn’t know how well it was going to go over, but I just stepped into the line of being more of an interpreter of songs and a singer. I didn’t play an instrument on this album at all. I went in as a vocalist and that really gave me a chance to channel people I really love and the songs shifted. I had a chance to channel Mavis Staples in that Los Lobos tune. You hear me singing really low in my range, which I don’t really do a lot.
Describe your approach to covering “Ring of Fire.”
I had that chord progression. I came up with that late, late one night and I was trying not to wake anybody in the house. That chord progression came first and as I started singing to it, “Ring of Fire” just came out of my head. I thought, maybe this will work with this progression. I actually sat on that arrangement for a while. We were thinking of putting it on the Truth album, but I wasn’t really sure it fit. So, it’s nice to see it get a little light on this and it’s getting a lot of attention.
Was it intimidating to cover such a well-known song?
Yes. (laughs) You know, you can get a lot of flack for that. I’ve seen it and I’ve actually done it. Yeah, it was like my hesitance on calling The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster CD that. That was Papa Mali’s idea and I’ve always leaned heavily on a producer, someone who’s kind of edgy and pushes me in a direction that says it’s OK to do that.
I will say this, though. The Adele song I think was the most ballsy we got with this record. I wasn’t really sure that that should happen at all, but it’s been accepted quite a bit. I think that was a kind of cool, smooth move to make.
Tell the story behind writing the opening track, “Welcome Home.”
I read a lot. That’s paraphrased from a quote by Immanuel: “Your mind doesn’t know how to get there, your heart has already been there and your soul never left. Welcome home.” That’s it. I just love that saying. I have it in my studio hanging on the wall. I think I was just looking at that and, again, messing around with a few chords on the guitar.
A lot of these songs came out of dreams when I’m half asleep and I get up and I go to the piano or pick up the guitar. That’s really how a lot of this happens. All the good stuff happens when your subconscious has a chance to relax a little.
Yeah, many great songs come from that place.
Yeah, I’m a firm believer that your true self really gets a chance to surface. You’re not in your own way. You know, that’s if you go to bed not mad or all kinds of other negative stuff. I read a lot of material about stuff like that, staying in the now, in the flow. It’s a huge deal with how I live and how I write my music and how I put that out there.
What did you take away from working with the Blind Boys of Alabama?
I’ve toured with those guys on several occasions and we’re under the same management and booking. That made it easier to get them to come do this with me. They were in the middle of doing other things and we got a couple of them to come down and I had a chance to sit and talk with Jimmy [Carter], the original member, which was so sweet.
These guys come ready to work. You don’t sit around and hang out like a lot of folks who want to get a feel for the studio. These guys are real professionals who’ve been doing it a long time. They did these tunes with me in about a day. That was it. It was a real hoot!
What drew you to “If I Had a Hammer”?
That was something John brought to me. I picked that one out because I’m a huge Pete Seeger fan. I do love him. I have met with him and have had a chance to sing with him while doing the folk circuit singing only folk music. I thought this would be a great way to get this song out with this arrangement, just to introduce people who wouldn’t even listen to folk music to this incredible song. This arrangement might grab them. I wanted to keep Pete Seeger’s name flowing and circulating. I love that.
What could young songwriters take away from Pete’s social activism?
I think they can take a lot from it right now. We have to keep singing these songs, songs like “We Shall Overcome” that were huge in the civil rights era. I’ve met a lot of people who were there, musicians and activists and all, and I’ve been a part of those projects. I think it’s something that young people need to hear, this generation and generations to come, just to know, to hear his name.
Just hearing this one song can [inspire] someone to Google who wrote it and what they were about and then keep going until they find out where this song really came from. I think that’s the beauty of music. It opens people up to so many things. That’s what Pete Seeger’s all about. I think that’s the message, to wake people up. Music grabs you and pulls you in.
Can music change the world?
Absolutely. I think music is a healer. It’s been that for me. I grew up really shy, and I had this stutter and used to stammer all over myself when I was a little girl, 10 or 11 years old. Music and poetry were ways for me to communicate. It was how I spoke. I’d write a poem for someone and say what I wanted to say, or I’d write a song for someone to say what I meant. I think music’s a healer and it’ll always be that.
So many here in Austin obviously agree.
That was the reason I wanted to move here to Austin. Being a part of this community was huge for me because it is so nurturing. There’s no competition with music at all. I talk to people like Marcia Ball and Ray Benson. I just talked to Marcia the other day, just for advice. I think that nurturing environment is what keeps this place so special.
I’m involved with Marcia in a project to get decent housing for people like Miss Lavelle [White], who’s been in music so long but hasn’t been rewarded financially and doesn’t even have a stable place to live. I think that’s huge. That’s what Austin’s all about!