The ‘Promise’ Keeper
by Gregg Shapiro
Photo by Mary Keating-Bruton
Out blues diva and Grammy Award-nominee Ruthie Foster isn’t in the habit of letting much time pass between studio recordings. Her newest album, Promise of a Brand New Day (Blue Corn Music) puts all of the essentials we’ve come to expect from her in one place, while subtly adding fresh new elements. She belts the blues like nobody’s business, states her case in heartfelt message tunes, and even performs two of her most perfect pop compositions to date. In fact, it would be safe to say that Foster’s “Learning to Fly” and “Complicated Love” are among her best creations, potentially positioning her for crossover acclaim. I spoke with Foster about Promise of a Brand New Day in July 2014.
Gregg Shapiro: Ruthie, as a Texan, how would you say that Texas comes through in your music?
Ruthie Foster: Wow, you started with a big question. Texas is in this place where we have so many different genres of music, especially here in Austin. Growing up, [I heard] blues radio and country radio and gospel and my family and everything in between. A lot of it came together for me as an early songwriter and learning to play piano and guitar. Blues was guitar-based, and gospel was piano-based. That’s how I incorporate the whole Texas sound, instrumentally. I’ll go and pick up a different instrument, and it brings something different to what I do.
On the original tune “Singing the Blues,” the opening track on your new album Promise of a Brand New Day, you manage to make the blues not sound so blue. What’s the secret to that?
I do get accused of that quite a bit. [Laughs] Some people don’t look at the blues as happy and soulful and spiritual and all of that. That is what blues is. It’s about the connection. That’s what it’s done for me. I like me some lowdown dirty blues when I’m in a bad place, and I love it when I’m in a good place, too. It’s more a connection and a plugging-in thing for me.
Promise of a Brand New Day features a number of message songs, including the same-sex marriage tune “It Might Not Be Right,” co-written with William Bell. What can you tell me about that song?
I had a session with William awhile back. He had these titles waiting for me when I got to the studio. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, and he had this grin. He knew where I came from, and he knew where I was in my life. I really connected with that title. He’s a genius when it comes to titles and hooks and grooves, even. We started out with “It might not be right for the world/But it’s all right for this girl.” I thought that was beautiful and that we could go any direction with that. He let me work with it in my way, in more of a global way, instead of a boy/girl relationship, and I thought that was pretty cool of him to let me do that.
The flipside can be heard on the original song “Complicated Love,” one of my favorites on the disc.
I must have been in one of those places where I was connecting in a Lucinda Williams kind of way when I wrote that. I was digging a lot of her stuff. That song came about while I was listening to her and Patty Griffin a lot. It’s not even about my own life. I put myself in this place where this person didn’t know what to do. I need to sit and write it out and ride it out.
Speaking of message songs, you do a cover of “The Ghetto,” co-written by Bettye Crutcher, Homer Banks, and Bonnie Bramlett. I understand that you corresponded with Mavis Staples, who recorded the song with The Staple Singers in the 1960s.
Meshell [Ndegeocello], my producer, sent me a group of songs [including “The Ghetto”] that she thought would be good recommendations, or at least tunes to listen to, to see if I had something in my own library that was close to these sounds. I wrote her back quickly and said, “I just want to do that one.” That one really stuck with us. We wanted to use Mavis’s take on the song. At one point the lyrics were changed, and we wanted to know what it was she was saying. So that’s how we got in contact with Mavis.
I’m glad you mentioned [out singer/songwriter] Meshell, because she produced and plays bass on Promise of a Brand New Day. How did that come about?
I have to give Mike Kappus of Rosebud Booking credit for that. He mentioned Meshell to me. I had been a fan of hers for years. I knew she was also signed with Rosebud at the time, and I dreamed of working with her at some point. At one of my concerts, Mike said that he would love to see that collaboration happen, if he could have anything to do with it. I told him to give her my information. We kept running into each other for about
a year. I basically sent her an e-mail saying I would love to work with her. It finally happened!
You credit Meshell with helping you find a home for “Learning to Fly,” another of my favorite tracks on Promise of a Brand New Day. What did she bring to the song?
She gave it wings! It was just one of those tunes for me. I took a summer off and went and stayed at the home of friends. They moved out and I moved in. They had this old piano, and I would sit and write. This is one of those tunes I just pounded out late one night. It never made any real sense to me. [Laughs] I never knew what to do with it. I sent the demo to Meshell not really expecting much response back. She said, “Oh, my gosh, we have to do this!” I went to L.A. to record. She had the basic tracks done. I was the only musician in the studio with her and an engineer. I did the vocal track to it, and she told me to go get a drink of water and rest my pipes. I came back and listened to what she did with that track. She had put background vocals on it. She totally surprised me. She lifted it from this place of nowhere, and gave it a home.
Another fabulous musical guest on the disc is [out musician] Toshi Reagon. How did you come to work together?
That’s one of my true she-roes. I’ve loved Toshi for years. She and I did festivals together, including Michigan Womyn’s Music Fest. I’ve been a fan and friend for many years. I remember telling her after our second meeting—we were at one of those conferences—that I wanted to be her when I grow up. She had a song that Meshell had been sitting on, something I thought would add to this material, and Meshell thought so, too. I don’t even think it was finished. [Toshi] added the verse to it that she sings after I recorded it. It was totally just trusting what she wanted to do with the song.
Beginning this month, you will be on tour pretty much through the rest of the year. What do you like best about performing live?
I love performing live. It’s more spontaneous. I get a chance to connect with the audience. I can tell more of my stories about my family between songs and really connect the songs so that you’re not just listening to a record. You’re seeing a concert where every song goes into another one. It’s about my life and my learning about music and my journey. It’s more a journey when you come to my live shows.
See Ruthie Foster at the Dosey Doe in The Woodlands on September 4. For more information, visit ruthiefoster.com.
Gregg Shapiro also writes the GrooveOut column in this issue of OutSmart.