Ruthie Foster: It’s About Setting the Table for Joy

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To say that Ruthie Foster has left her mark on American music would be an understatement. The three-time GRAMMY nominee has moved fluidly from genre to genre throughout her career, ranging from gospel to blues to folk to jazz, and the list goes on. She has shared the stage with the likes of the Allman Brothers and Bonnie Raitt, as well as earned countless awards. Her resume is undoubtedly impressive, but her musical skills are even more so.

Ruthie’s warm, smooth voice melts on the soul like butter while her guitar echoes sweet chords and harmonies. Her journey began in a musical family and eventually led her to performing in the Navy and pursuing a career as a professional musician. Despite tempting offers from major labels, Ruthie stayed true to her roots and has proven that her music sounds best in its most authentic form. In her newest album, Live From The Paramount, Ruthie takes a whole new approach to dynamics and phrasing with the help of her big band. Though she is clearly not afraid to try new things, the heartbeat of her music is always consistent: love, loss, and finding joy in the darkest of times. With all of the uncertainty in the world right now, we need Ruthie Foster’s music more than ever.

First of all, how are you holding up during this pandemic? Are you using this downtime to rest, or stay creative?
You know, it’s a little bit of both. A little bit of rest, but I’ve been creative. I try to write every day. These days, I try to pump out a song a week. I did a Livestream a couple of days ago too. But I have a nine-year-old as well, so she keeps me busy. Because, you know, all the kids are going through online schooling right now. So that keeps me learning as well. It’s really interesting to watch what she’s learning too.

When did you first realize that music would be a lifelong passion?
You know, I’m still wondering if that’s going to work out. [laughs] Joking aside, I guess I knew pretty much as early on as my daughter’s age—she’s nine. I knew then that the music was going to be a part of something I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure where my place in it would be, mostly because I grew up with a lot of great singers in my family and in the Baptist Church. I had cousins that were just really great singers. They would sing everywhere, on the bus on the way to and from school. It really had a way of moving the energy in the room when it came to singing, and I loved that. I wanted to be a part of that in some way. I actually saw myself more as a backup piano player or a guitar player than anything. I never really wanted to sing because I had so many great singers in my family. To me, that was like, “Oh, okay, well, you guys have that. I’ll just play.” So who knew that I would end up out front? But here I am. It’s all part of the journey, I guess.

Do you feel like your sound has evolved over time?
I feel like it’s still evolving, really. I guess my last CD kind of says that. It gave me a chance to go into a totally different realm, and that’s big band music. That [CD] was important for me to put out for my fans. A lot of them heard me talk about being a big fan, but never really grabbed the concept of what I did, and that was something that was really fun for me to do—apart from the blues and the albums I’ve put out before. I’m hoping that this will be well received, and I can keep putting out more concept albums because I’ve got a background in a lot of different things. I went to school and studied voice. I was singing Italian and French arias before I was even allowed to sing pop music. A lot of folks don’t know that, so there are a lot of surprises coming down the pike. I think my sound really evolved from singing gospel music as a kid to blues and folk music. The Beatles and James Taylor, those were the songs I started out learning on the guitar. I had a good book that had guitar chords. Most of the songs were Beatles songs that got me into playing folk music, then playing a lot of folk festivals, which I still do. So I think I do okay hopping around different genres in that way. My own music, the music that I write, is evolving all the time.

Ruthie Foster Live At The Paramount

Your newest album, Live at the Paramount, consists of a full big band, with horn arrangements and everything. Do you feel like this enhances the original tone of your songs?
Oh, definitely. It’s more interesting to be on stage when you’ve got horns behind you, especially brass, and they’re blowing right at the back of your head. It’s not about trying to outsing them; it’s about changing your style. You’re trying to sing in the “holes” or open spaces. I’ll try to find a hole and sing into that. It’s kind of like acrobatics onstage when it comes to singing with a big band. It’s just so fun. The musicians were awesome readers, but they also have a great feel. They’re not just looking at the page in front of them. They are really fantastic individuals. It was just a blast.

How did the song “Joy Comes Back” come to fruition for you?
My producer brought that song to me, and I just fell in love with that tune and what it says. I think it really applies to what’s going on right now. We’ve got a lot of folks who don’t spend a lot of time alone, and now they have to! I think the song is perfect for the atmosphere right now and giving people a little bit of hope. That’s what the song did for me because I was in a place where I needed to hear it. And that’s why I try to put out music that moves me, and says something to me, because I know I’m not by myself when I feel something. That’s what I try to relay in the music that I pick for my albums. I try to pick out songs that I know are going to hit the heart, that folks can relate to. Nothing against the blues, you know, but I like songs that talk about real-life issues too. That’s what “Joy Comes Back” does for me. Also, it spoke to me in a way that my grandmother—I called her Big Mama—would speak to me. I would go to her and just sit at her feet when I was having a rough time, and she would always remind me, “Baby, it’s just about setting the table. You got to set yourself up for what’s coming. Just know it’s on the way. Know that good things are on the way.” So it’s about setting the table for joy, and joy will just walk right on in. Just set yourself up for it. That’s what that song says to me. It’s like my Big Mama talking to me. So I wanted to spread that around.

What is the inspiration behind the powerful track “Phenomenal Woman”?
I wish I’d written it, but it’s written by Dr. Maya Angelou. It’s based off of one of her poems—this is just my interpretation. I just love what it says because I’ve been a huge Maya Angelou fan since I was a little girl. I had to record it because we need to hear it. We, as women, need to know that we are enough. That song just can’t be sung enough for me. It’s just a reminder that we’re here, we’re okay, and we’re enough. It says, “I don’t care what you think. I don’t care what he or she thinks. I know I am plenty. You think you can handle this? Come on!”

What does the songwriting process look like for you?
It changes these days. I’ve got little bits and pieces of songs scattered all over from things I’ve sung into my phone to song titles. You should see my office right now! It’s a mess because that’s what I’m doing now—just finding bits and pieces of things that I’ve started and didn’t finish. I found that’s a good place to start. When you don’t know where to start, just start with a little bit of something and see where it goes. With this quarantine going on, that’s been my homework. I get in my studio, and I’ll find a title and go from there. I’ll spend about three or four days working on the verse. I might even start with the chorus, something that just moves me enough to sing it over and over again. I’ll think, “Okay, that’s a chorus. All right, so I can work from the middle and go out.” Sometimes it’s just picking up the guitar and finding a riff I like and then putting words to that. Sometimes I use music software, and I’ll pull up a drum track and just write to that. It changes, really.

Tell us about your version of the classic Johnny Cash tune, “Ring of Fire.” What inspired you to take this song in a new direction?
I was living in a place where I had my studio in my bedroom, and I had just come back from a two-month tour. I was just beaten up. I remember getting up in the middle of the night, dragging myself over to the piano, and just playing chords that just felt good to play. Those were the words that came out when I decided to sing to it—“Ring of Fire.” The chords just really work well together. I love major sevenths, and so you hear a few of those in there. It was just one of those quiet nights, and I think I was sick, too, full of Nyquil. [laughs] It turns out I had a chance to do this for Rosanne Cash, and she loves it! She said, “You know, it really captures that love affair that they had between each other. It’s kind of giving you the other side of their story.” I think it’s really, really cool that she really enjoyed that version of it. She told me, “That was the second-best version of that song I’ve ever heard!”

Do you have a favorite guitar?
No, not really. I tend to give my guitars away after a while. Once I’ve gotten what I can out of them, I try to auction them off or just enter them into a contest so someone else can put their magic in it. There’s a Gibson that I play right now, and she’s just waiting to be played. There are about four or five guitars hanging on my wall. I do like to have a guitar out just so that I keep playing it. I tell people all the time who have guitars, “Get them out of the cases. Get them out of the closet. Just get a stand. If anything, just have it out so that it’s waiting to be played.” What’s the use of having a guitar if you don’t have it out? One of my favorite ones that I have out is my dobro. That one is sitting out in my living room. I call her Jessie Mae. She just makes the whole living room shine. I love it. I love showing her off. She’s like part of the conversation when I do have people over.

What advice do you have for other likeminded artists?
I would say know your worth. Walk and talk that. Because as women, we get underestimated all the time. It’s important to know that you are worthy of being in this industry or any walk of life, really. Just walk and talk it, and you’ll be all right. Because when no one else is validating you, you got your own back. Know that there are people out there that will lift you up too. It’s okay to ask for help because there are people who will not only lift you but carry you when you need that. Just for a little while, at least. So know your worth, know that you are enough.