Ruthie Foster Begins a New Day by Singing the Blues

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Since she’s conducting this phone interview on the porch in her adopted hometown of Austin, Ruthie Foster pauses midsentence to clarify that the sound in the background is the buzzing of cicadas.

For her, an observation like that’s not off-topic. She’s repeatedly conjured rustic settings in her songs. A few albums back, she even kicked off a country-blues tune with croaking bullfrogs.

Earlier in life, Foster overcame her stage fright by taking on solos in church. She studied light opera in college and sang Top 40 covers in a Navy recruiting band. She was groomed by a major label to be a jazz-pop singer a la Anita Baker, and she tested the waters of the coffeehouse scene in New York and elsewhere.

But until Promise of a Brand New Day, her eighth album overall, the singer and songwriter had never brought in a producer with as urban, or as provocative, sensibilities as alt-R&B bassist Meshell Ndegeocello. And the project — arriving Tuesday (Aug. 19) — brought out a slightly bolder, but still very rooted, Foster.

CMT Edge: I’ve kept up with Meshell Ndegeocello’s music for a while, and I thought she was an unexpected but pretty great choice of a producer for you. Each of her albums have sounded different, leaning toward jazz or hip-hop or neo-soul or singer-songwriter fare. Was there a particular one that got your attention?

Foster: I guess it’s really just her early stuff. I kinda lost track of what she was doing afterwards, but I did connect with her early music. And really, I had heard that she was producing other artists, and that she was coming out with this more acoustic sound. … I was really curious about what she’d be about, just working with her one-on-one — how she would hear me, based on some of the more acoustic sounds she’d been working on with other artists.

I read that “The Ghetto” was an older song she proposed that you revisit. Was that the case with “Outlaw” too?

Oh, that was all her. “Outlaw” is a Eugene McDaniels song [from the ‘70s]. He uses the “N” word in his version of it. She brought that to me, and I didn’t know what to say. I was thinking, “Somebody’s pushing me here.” I do like a producer that expands my horizons a little bit. I said “Yes” to the song because I thought it was an awesome tune to try to interpret my own way.

We didn’t really talk about it until after I was in the studio with her and we were ready to work. We had just finished another song and were getting ready to track the vocals for that one. She said, “So, whaddya think?” I said, “Can we just change that one word to ‘sister’?” She said, “I was gonna suggest that, too, but I wanted to leave it open to however you wanted to interpret it.”

Up until now, politics haven’t been as explicit in your work, but you’ve often summoned the spirit of the Civil Rights movement by singing gospel spirituals. The lyrics of “Outlaw” and “The Ghetto” spell things out a little more. Was that something you thought about?

Yeah. Meshell wanted to get into my head about where I wanted to go with this new project. I did tell her that I wanted to be more free to do songs that have more to do with things that should be brought up and even things about my life, more about myself. Because I tend to, not necessarily hide, but I tend to put the song in front of me and not necessarily have it be a part of my own life and my own experience. You know, really make it personal.

“It Might Not Be Right” is a song on here that you co-wrote with ‘60s Stax Records songwriter William Bell. There was a time when blues and soul music was a lot more politicized, but that hasn’t been the case for a while. So what did you like about the idea of a soul song gesturing toward same-sex marriage?

Well, it was actually a title that William had waiting for me when we sat down to write. He’s great at coming up with titles and catchphrases that make you stop. And I just loved that title.

It didn’t take us long to do that one because I obviously had a bunch to say, and he had a whole lot of wranglin’ to do with what I had to say. He said, “Let’s rephrase that and move this here and put that over there.” He’s just so masterful when it comes to putting a song that may have a lot in it, but he breaks it down so it’s simple. And it’s rhythmic and it’s catchy.

I wasn’t really looking to make a statement or anything. I just thought it was an awesome song. But it does make a statement, I guess. The song did come from my experience and my life, and William gave me room to write about that.

Blues serves an uplifting and empowering role in your music. That’s not the way most people look at the function of blues. Why do you think it works that way for you?

I don’t look at it necessarily as blues. It’s all about spirit — and maybe that’s what blues is. A lot of people do look at blues as down and out: “My heart is on the floor and I’m gonna sing about it for a while.” And it can be that. I went through some stuff with my relationship last summer that was really, really hard. I remember coming to that point, and blues was the one thing I could listen to. I felt like, “I need to know that I’m not alone in feeling like this.” Blues did that for me.

Your early albums were the work of a coffeehouse folksinger who dabbled in country-blues and down-home gospel. You eventually worked in a lot of Southern soul, and you’ve won blues awards. At this point, do you feel like you’re straddling music scenes?

Yeah, I guess I do feel like I’m still in both those worlds — or all of those worlds, if you want to say it that way: folk and blues and gospel. … I was one of the few black women in these folk festivals doing what I was doing. I guess my vehicle for that was the acoustic guitar, just to be able to get out and be heard. So it came across as folk because of that. I was doing blues and gospel and the same stuff I’m doing now even then — I just had an acoustic guitar.

But now I’m traveling more with an electric and a bigger band. … I did focus my career a little more around the blues after I made some changes with my team and all. I made a conscious decision to want to reach more people. I wanted to play the blues and jazz festivals because I have a background in jazz and blues and even big band. And a lot of people don’t know that.

I think it’s evident in your singing. Even when you’re belting, you still deliver with such clarity that I can hear the polish of your vocal training in there. Is that how it feels to you?

That’s exactly how it feels because that’s all me. I do have training, and I do have a church background and singing with a big band and being able to read charts. I have all of that. So that’s what you’re hearing bumpin’ around all at once.

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