Blues and Gospel Singer Ruthie Foster Talks to CultureMob
Tom Mohrman: Regarding Let it Burn, why did you decide to record in New Orleans with New Orleans musicians for this record?
Ruthie Foster: Well New Orleans is just a hotbed for soul and funk, and just about anything goes. We decided New Orleans would be a good place to start from. We kind of set the atmosphere to see what happens. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world. I always love vacationing there – the music there, and the food.
TM: I love your cover of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’. My first introduction to that song was as a cover by Social Distortion. Your interpretation of it is as different from the original as theirs was, but in a very different way. How do you go about choosing covers?
RF: I love Johnny Cash. I was a country fan first, and then gospel and soul and all of that. That was an arrangement that I’d been sitting on for a while. It came about some time ago. I had just moved into a new apartment, and I was trying to play that tune, but not be too loud because the walls were really thin. I slowed the song down, and it kind of morphed into that. I sent that to my producer. He wanted to use it on a the last record, but it didn’t really fit. But it really works on this record, along with the other covers we picked.
TM: Being on the road as much as you are, does it feel more normal to be home, or touring?
RF: You know, I don’t know what normal is anymore. I’m always riding the fence when it comes to that. When I’m home, I like to be home. I spend a lot of time in my garage playing with sounds and arrangements of songs. And when I’m on the road I love that too. It gives me a chance to get out, because I’m very much a homebody. I don’t go out much. Â I see a lot of people when I’m on the road. I ride the line in-between. I try to be where I’m at. When I’m at home I try to be home with my family. (You’re always wanting to be somewhere else.) But I love traveling. It gives me the chance to sample different cultures. Like the last couple of years we went to Italy, Amsterdam, Norway – that’s always really cool.
TM: What’s your favorite place that you’ve visited on tour?
RF: On tourâ€¦ I like Canada. They treat the artists well there. It’s beautiful, especially in the western side. The winters can be cold and wet, but even that is cool. I like Canada. Overseas, I love Australia, when comes to really getting out there. They are really into good music. They listen to everything. I love that.
TM: I’m curious about your time playing in the Navy Band. Can you tell me a bit about that?
RF: I joined the Navy to get out of music believe it or not. I spent about a year working on helicopters before I realized it was too much like work. [She laughs.] No, it was a lot of fun, and I was with the band in Charleston for the rest of my time, about three years. We traveled all over, and I was a vocalist for what was basically a top 40 pop band. We were a recruiting band. We wore uniforms, we went out to schools, we played. It taught me a lot about how to tour.
TM: I can imagine. Did it make you grow as a musician, or was it more about learning to tour?
RF: It’s a little bit of both. â€˜Course I went to school for music here in Texas, so I had a lot of book sense when it came to Â that – to business. But that means nothing when you get out – when you have people slamming the phone down. You learn a lot about people, how to interact, when you’re out in the middle of it.
The Navy taught me a lot about how to be a great leader more than anything. I had a wonderful unit leader. Petty Officer Michael Richardson was very strict, very stern with us, but he stayed out of our way when were were doing what we were there to do. I learned how to travel with a bunch of guys in a van, an 18 passenger van, without losing my mind (or anything else for that matter).
You know what I learned that was really useful later? I learned how to back up a trailer. That was really useful later!
TM: That’s a good skill.
RF: That’s truly a good skill to have! Yeah, I learned a lot about touring, and how to pace yourself. And that’s what I’m doing now. It set me up for what was to come. I had no idea I would still be doing this. No idea at all.
Ruthie’s voice has taken her places she didn’t expect, but now that she’s there, she’s filling audiences with soulful music all over the world. You don’t want to miss the show at the Triple Door. It’ll be a hallelujah time.