Ruthie Foster Stretches Toward a New Day
On the opening cut of her superb recent release, "Promise of a Brand New Day," Ruthie Foster sings of her love for the blues, music she grew up with in a small Texas town.
Yeah, I've been in and out of soul
Even rock and roll
But a little Bobby Blue Bland
Never, never gets old and I realized
Boy, I gotta have me some blues.
What's clear over the album's 12 tracks and the eight discs that preceded it is that Foster can claim her place along the continuum of great blues singers, including Bland. Her last two efforts, The Truth According to Ruthie Foster, and Let It Burn, were nominated for Grammy Awards as best blues albums.
Brand New Day seems destined to follow with a nomination. This time, Foster, encouraged by producer Meshell Ndegeocello, contributed seven originals after covering 11 tunes on her last effort.
"I’m really proud of Promise of a Brand New Day. I got to write more than my last couple of albums, and we worked with some amazing musicians," Foster says. "Some of these I’ve had in my recording bank for a long time, I just never had a project to put them on. A couple I wrote specifically for this project. "
Ndegeocello played bass and gathered some of Foster's favorite musicians to play, inlcuding guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, guitarist Chris Bruce (Cheryl Crow), keyboardist Jebin Bruni (Aimee Mann), and backup singer Toshi Reagon.
Foster notes that most of her contributions are songs with strong messages, but then she grew up listening to artists like Mavis Staples, who made messages an important part of who they were as performers. Even the covers are striking. They include the Staple Singers' "The Ghetto" and Eugene McDaniels' "Outlaw," a song of female empowerment pulled from 40 years ago. "She's a sister in jeans / she's an outlaw / she don't wear a bra," Foster sings. "She bows down to no man / although she's in love with three / She's her very own person / she's exciting, loving, and raw."
Foster returns to The Attucks Theatre on Nov. 1. It will be her third area appearance in recent years including a show with Paul Thorn and Joe Ely at The Sandler Center for Performing Arts and a previous Attucks show as part of the defunct Discovery Series.
She doesn't shy from today's issues on some of the songs she penned For Brand New Day, while on others she pays homage to blues greats like Sam Cooke and O.V. Wright. For the second consecutive album, she didn't play on the recording, concentrating instead on her vocals.
On "Complicated Love," she debates a long-term relationship, wondering if she should stay. "The song talks about how challenging a love relationship can be when you're in it for a while," she says. "Many of us have been there. I just wanted to address that in song."
On "Learning to Fly" she goes for more of a soaring power piano ballad that would be at home on a Tanita Tikaram or Sheryl Crow disc. "I wrote this years ago when I had met a lady, now a dear friend, who was about to leave her husband," she expalins."This song is her story, her spirit inspired me. "
On "My Kinda Lover," she makes a stylistic nod to the legendary Sam Cooke. She pays homage to the sound of O.V. Wright on “It Might Not Be Right, penned with soul legend William Bell. The tune is about marriage equality, something close to Foster’s heart, and as topical today as interracial marriage was in Bell’s heyday. Her voice soars on the acapella "Brand New Day," an empowerment ballad set only to the accompaniment of a tambourine. “I’m free, are you?” she asks.
On some songs, Foster says Ndegeocello prodded her to dig deeper than she has in the past. Every producer I’ve worked with has been a different experience," she says. "Meshell is an artist herself, and I think that really resonates throughout this album. 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."
Ndegeocello pushed for "The Ghetto," a soaring Staples Singers classic. MeShell brought this one to the table, and I’m so glad she did," Foster explains. " It’s a gorgeous song and an incredibly powerful statement that is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago when the Staples Singers recorded it. It’s definitely one of my favorites to do live too."
Foster grew up in tiny Gause, Texas, 90 minutes northeast of Austin in a home filled with gospel singers. She played the piano and did recitals at local churches -- the white Baptist Church, the white Methodist church, and the black Baptist church. By the time she got to McClennan Community College in Waco, she was playing the bar blues band circuit. She joined the Navy and ended up being recruited into the Navy Pride Band, specializing in funk and Top 40. For a time, she was stationed in Norfolk.
"The Navy taught me many things, mostly about discipline and how to travel with nine guys in a van," she cracks.
Out of the Navy, she was signed to a writing deal by Atlantic Records and moved to New York in the 1990s. She returned to Texas to help care for her ailing mother, who passed away, and stayed there to become a part of the music scene. Her first album, "Full Circle," dropped in 1997 and others followed. She started as a folkie duo with her then-partner, but has evolved back into a blues and soul singer.
The first product of that transformation was 2007's The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster, a sexy soul-stirrer that lives up to its title. That set the stage for the success of The Truth According to Ruthie Foster and Let It Burn.
Things have changed personally for Foster in recent years. She has a toddler who gives her another way to look at the world.
"I still try to live in the now and stay present as much as I did when I was younger," she says. "It's pretty cool, though, to see life now through my three-year-old's eyes. Watching her grow and learn has been an amazing blessing, and every day I'm grateful for it, which I think completely comes through in the music."