Anyone who remembers the propitious discovery of Tracy Chapman (she was a busker on the streets of Cambridge, Mass., circa mid-1980s) can probably relate to the more recent buzz around folk-soul artist Ruthie Foster. Yes, Foster shares more than a passing comparison to the “Fast Car” singer. There’s the long dreads, the luminous smile and the infectious, earnest quality that comes through her music. Such an artist—one of pure, diamond-in-the-rough talent—breaks only just often enough to place her arrival on the tour rosters up there with the Rapture.
But, even though Foster’s professional career is underscored by folk roots and hard work, she doesn’t share Chapman’s street-corners-to-riches trajectory. Or, when push comes to shove, her emotively raw delivery. Instead, Foster’s current sound is a rich, soul-driven departure from singer/songwriter fare.
“I think that’s what’s happening with a lot of artists: realizing that the song is important,” the musician tells Xpress. She sees this trend extend to instruments as well, evidenced on her latest recording, last year’s confidently named The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster (Blue Corn Music). That album includes a few surprises, such as the Wurlitzer organ and upright bass.
“Going back to the analog sound, I think there’s something [about it] that sonically opens a song,” Foster says. “The ears hear more. There’s more warmth to the sound.”
Foster began strumming chords and crafting songs at the unlikely age of 10. She put in a stint as a member of the U.S. Navy band Pride before embarking on her professional solo career a dozen years ago. The native Texan released her debut, Full Circle, in 1997, and broke through to a wider fan base with her 2002 release, Runaway Soul—which foretold the path her music was to take.
“I come from a deep background of old soul and blues and even R&B,” she explains in promotion for Phenomenal. “Early on, long before I ever got into the folk thing, I was doing more soul on acoustic guitar than anything else. And that’s always been a part of the sound that I have.”
But soul, especially as defined in today’s musical climate, requires more than a vintage Wurlitzer and a Janis Joplin comparison or two. It actually takes, well, soul—which Foster finds in the songs she chose for Phenomenal.
“A lot of the songs on this particular CD come from songwriters I consider lyrically brilliant,” she says. She covers the likes of Lucinda Williams (“Fruits of My Labor”), Son House (“Grinnin’ in Your Face”), and gospel vocalist Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air).”
“I do feel in the company of incredible writers,” Foster notes. (Case in point: While performing an Odetta cover at one show, the legendary spiritual singer joined Foster on stage). “And I get a lot of energy from the songs.” Speaking of noteworthy writers, the album’s ninth track, “Phenomenal Woman,” is actually a poem by Maya Angelou, set to music by Canadian artists Amy Sky and David Pickell.
“I’ve always been a fan of Dr. Angelou’s work and to hear it in song was just perfect,” Foster says. “I heard Amy sing it quite a few years ago at a folk festival in Canada, and I thought, ‘I’d like to record that someday.’ And the opportunity came.” But more than its just being a good fit for her album, Foster likes the idea of exposing listeners to poetry.
“Put to music, it opens up a whole other world,” she insists. “Someone should do a whole album on that.”
So, is the musician charting her next course? Maybe. But Foster is a formidable songwriter in her own right (her original tunes, “Harder Than the Fall” and “I Don’t Know What to Do With My Heart,” top the already star-studded offerings on Phenomenal)—and her natural ability to connect with an audience points to longevity in an often fickle line of work.
“It’s all about energy when you’re performing live. I get up in front of a lot of audiences who’ve never heard of me. Especially as an opener for larger acts—they have no idea who I am,” she laughs. “But they’re willing to listen.”
Her secret? “Just remain confident in what you do. I’ve been doing this long enough to know even when to put the guitar down and just stand and sing. Just break it down to something simple.”
who: Ruthie Foster opens for acclaimed singer/songwriter Darrell Scott
what: Soul musician who lives up to her “phenomenal” designation
where: Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, July 19 (8 p.m. $17 advance, $20 day of show. www.thegreyeagle.com or 232-5800)