Ruthie Foster: singer-songwriter on her 'Healing Time'

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Friday December 9, 2022
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Ruthie Foster (photo: Jody Domingue)
Ruthie Foster (photo: Jody Domingue)

You know that feeling when you hear a singer's voice and it enters your soul, becomes a part of your very being. That's what happens when out singer/songwriter Ruthie Foster sings.

Whether she's belting out a big soulful number or approaching a song from a more intimate perspective, you know that she's giving it her all and she's warmly inviting you into her musical world.

A Gause, Texas native who still calls the Lone Star State her home, Foster has just released her latest studio album, the marvelous "Healing Time" (Blue Corn Music), on which she serenades us with songs influenced by folk, vintage soul, and gospel. Ruthie was gracious enough to answer a few questions shortly after the release of "Healing Time," and ahead of her local concert Dec. 16 at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage.

Ruthie Foster (photo: Daniel Nguyen)  

Gregg Shapiro: In preparing for this interview, I realized that I have been writing about you and your music for 20 years, beginning with your 2002 album "Runaway Soul." In that time, what would you say are the most significant changes in your songwriting?
Ruthie Foster: More of it [laughs]. More learning how to budget my time for it. That's been the biggest change for me. Making it more of a priority down through the years. I guess, as you get older or wiser, I want my own voice. That's what this album is about. Coming from my own voice, speaking from my own story, telling my own story. I recorded a lot of songs that I like, and songs that I wished I'd written. This was different.

When you say you've been budgeting your time for songwriting, are you setting aside writing time in the morning or afternoon, or whenever it is you're most creative?
Yes. I start out by at least scheduling what I guess you'd call practice time. Going over scales, picking up the guitar or even playing the piano a little bit. That usually extends into maybe 30 minutes to an hour. I do that a few times a week.

I don't want to regiment myself too much to where it's unpleasant. I am still touring. I am still a mom, still have to pick my kid up once in a while. I still want to have time to cook, take a walk, do things that make me feel grounded when I am home. I do make time in the afternoon to play, maybe at the end of my workday, do some recording at home to go through a few rudiments and practices. That usually results in at least jotting down an idea or something.

We've been told not to judge a book by its cover, and the same holds true of an album. However, the cover of "Healing Time," to my eyes, suggests a '70s soul vibe. Was that your intention?
That was exactly the intention. Part of what I was doing during COVID '20 and '21 was just going through my album collection. It reminded me, again, how wonderful these covers were. Back in the day when you could read information about the artist that you're listening to. I wanted that kind of nostalgia. I wanted that feel for this album.

Who were some of the people, the '70s artists, you were listening to during that time?
I pulled out some Stevie Wonder. I've got lots of Marvin Gaye. I even have a stack of some Memphis artists, Ann Peebles.

Yes, from Hi Records.
Yes! That's what I was listening to. And re-ordering albums that I used to have, some jazz albums by Sarah Vaughan, Ella, Mahalia Jackson. A little bit of everybody.

One of the things that I love about "Healing Time" is that there are these big sonic numbers including the title cut and "Don't Want to Give Up on You," and then you have these more personal tunes, such as "4AM" and "For You." As the writer, and performer, what do you get out of this kind of variety?
I just wanted to keep my songwriter aspect with this album in check. "4AM" was one way to do that and, of course, "Don't Want To Give Up On You." Songs that I know speak from my own voice. I wanted to go more soul/blues, but I didn't want to lose the folk side of my playing, the way I play. The fact that I do play guitar and sing and write. I do a lot of solo shows and those are the songs that I bring out when I'm by myself.

In addition to writing and performing your own songs, you regularly include cover songs on your albums, and "Healing Time" is no exception. How do you know when a cover song is right for you?
When I hear a song that I wish I had written first [laughs]. A song that just speaks to me. It's almost like someone climbed into my thoughts. That's what "Feels Like Freedom" is about. I heard that one through Adrienne Gonzales, AG. I knew about her reputation, not just as a writer, but a producer. She writes soundtracks. I heard this tune and immediately wanted it. I let her know that I would really like to record this song, and she gave me permission to do that.

The album is called "Healing Time," and features the song of the same name, as well as the uplifting "Love Is the Answer," which leads me to ask if you think healing is possible after all we've been through in recent years, especially those of us in the LGBTQ+ community?
Absolutely. We are in such need of not just healing, but attention to more people speaking out, getting up and getting out. We need more support, not just from our community, as the LGBTQ community, but from everyone. We really need to be lifted up. It's so important to me. I'm hoping that in a lot of ways I can help in that aspect of my music, too.

You live in Texas; I live in South Florida. We're both living in states where it feels like things have turned against us in a lot of ways.
It could almost be called dangerous in some areas.

I hope that music, your music, can work its wonders.
Let's hope! I'm doing my part. I'm trying.

You are embarking on a concert tour that will continue into 2023. How did you deal with performing during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021? Did you do live stream performances, or did you find a way to do outdoor shows?
I did several live streams right here from my studio at home. I have a room dedicated to my music. Along with a lot of musicians, I upgraded my equipment [laughs] so that we can communicate and keep music going wherever. Keep the lights and the camera set up. I ordered a really nice camera and some really nice microphones. I did a few outdoor shows. I think they call them drive-ins. Where everybody comes and sits in their car, or they sit out in front of their cars on their lawn chairs and listen to music from the back of a flatbed pickup or a loading dock at a business. We did whatever we could.

What are you most looking forward to about performing live on this current tour?
I look forward to seeing faces. There's something about being in the same room. The energy there; there's a vibration. That is what gets me up in the morning. Feeling that, and taking a song set list, and changing it because I can feel where the energy's going. Or even taking the energy somewhere. That's what I'm looking forward to.

Ruthie Foster performs Dec. 16, 8pm at Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley ($32-$36)

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