If you’re not smiling as you listen to Ruthie Foster’s new album, Joy Comes Back, then you might want to check the condition of your heart. On this album, her eighth release on Blue Corn Music, Foster joyfully delivers a set of ten infectious songs that carry powerful images of hope and love, especially as they arise out of the ashes of desolation and gloom.
Foster has won six Female Artist of the Year/Koko Taylor Blues Music Awards, and has been nominated three times in a row for a Grammy for Best Blues Album. She recently sat down with DownBeat to discuss her life in music and the making of Joy Comes Back.
What’s the story behind your new album?
It’s been three years between this album and the last one, and I’ve been going through some transitions in my life: the end of a long-term relationship, splitting a household and custody of my daughter, who’s 5 years old. These three years have just been about getting on my feet. Music just became my therapy. On this record I wanted to focus on joy—letting my spirit rejoice on a daily basis. Having a five-year-old makes you appreciate the simple things in life. (Laughs) Music just became my therapy.
How did you select the songs for the album?
Because I’d been going through so much these past few years, I hadn’t written very much. So, [producer/multi-instrumentalist] Daniel [Barrett] and I would go into the studio and listen to a lot of songs and talk about life. It was refreshing to be a listener and to hear these great songs. Chris Stapleton’s “What Are You Listening To?” took me to that place of being with a person and listening to music together … I loved Grace Pettis’ “Good Sailor,” which she co-wrote with Haley Cole, as soon as I heard it and was mad I hadn’t written it. (laughs) I had played songs by her father, Pierce Pettis, so I loved this connection.
Shawnee Kilgore’s “Abraham” spoke to me. Lincoln fought depression. I felt like I could relate to that; it’s where my head was. The simple truth is doing the right thing. It’s about being a compassionate person. I could see the song being sung at concerts. Dan and I played Deb Talan’s “Forgiven,” and it just ripped me wide open. I stopped resisting, and at that moment I knew I wanted to make this album.
You do an acoustic version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” on the album. How did you decide to do that one?
Well, I just strapped on the resonator for “Richland Woman Blues,” and then I thought I’d have some fun and started playing this song. It was our way of having Son House and Ozzy in the room having a little jam session. (laughs)
You wrote one song for the album.
Yes, “Open Sky.” it is a throwback to that r&b feel. I was afraid of going into a new relationship, of going to this new place with a new person. My friends advised me to stay single for a while. Even now I find that having a partner is really just about having somebody who has your back.
What’s your process of songwriting like? When did you start writing songs?
It’s different every time I sit down to write. Sometimes it’s just a title; other times it’s a riff. It’s about where my hands take me when I sit down. I do schedule time to write, though when I’m on the road I can’t always schedule the time. I started writing songs in my early and mid-teens. I was the neighborhood babysitter. Writing songs was my way of getting the kids to settle down. Writing was my refuge, my place to go; that’s when I discovered Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Your songs feature this incredible call and response between your voice and your guitar. How do you achieve that?
That’s an awesome question, and I really do feel like that’s what I’m doing with my music. The way I play rhythm guitar come from the rhythms of sermons. I used to listen to this Holiness preacher, and he’s the one who taught me to use my voice in call and response to my guitar. So, that’s the way I play rhythm guitar and it’s probably why I’m not a lead player. Slide guitar has some of that same character; it’s a gumbo of everything, so I’ve made it my quest to learn how to play it.
Did you start out on guitar?
I asked for a guitar, and my dad got me one, but my mom insisted I learn to play piano first. But I started on piano. I taught myself guitar while I was playing piano. The piano teacher’s husband played guitar, and he gave me a few lessons on the side, too. I still take lessons, too, because I want to keep getting better and there’s always more to learn.
In many ways, this is a gospel album.
Well, I started singing in gospel, and I still sing in other groups when I can. I always start with gospel. I think I’d use the phrase gospel-infused; it’s part of everything I do. On “Joy Comes Back,” we went so far as to get on our knees, and put our hands in a pair of high-heeled shoes and tap—well, bang—them on the oak floor of the studio so we could capture the sound of the sisters’ tapping their high heels in the choirs in the churches I grew up in. I had blues tapes my dad made for me, so I also grew up listening to Lightin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. I play gospel-infused blues, folk and roots.
If you could sit down for lunch with any three writers, living or dead, who would they be?
I would love to sit down with Hemingway and pick his brain. I got a chance to hang out at Hemingway’s house when I was in Cuba. I’d also invite Sam Cooke, because I’d love to sit across the table from him. I’d like to see how he and Hemingway would get along. (laughs) I’d also invite Maya Angelou; I grew up reading her, and I started writing poetry because of reading her work. It would be quite a lunch.
How do you think you’ve grown as an artist?
I’ve learned a lot about how to use my voice. I’ve had vocal training so I know when I can sing and when I shouldn’t sing. I can have laryngitis and I know now how I can sing over that. As a guitar player, I’ve learned a great deal about being a better guitar player by standing next to some great guitar players. As an artist, I’ll never lose this hunger for music.
What’s next for you?
What I’m really looking forward to is seeing where this album goes once we play it live. I’m learning to just say “yes.” Every day, life is an adventure. DB