Singer Ruthie Foster made a big impression at her first Jazz Fest appearance in 2008. Her big voice and positive spirit levitated the Blues Tent, and no matter how animated Lady Tambourine was when she made a guest appearance, she couldn’t upstage Foster.
The Austin-based Foster has since released a follow-up to The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster—her 2008 album—with The Truth According to Ruthie Foster in 2009, both firmly rooted in the classic southern soul mode. She has made a second appearance at Jazz Fest, and she’ll close this year’s Crescent City Blues and BBQ Festival October 17 in Lafayette Square.
OffBeat spoke to Foster by phone at her home in Austin, Texas, where she has lived for the last nine years. She had just finished a workout and was about to have breakfast.
How much working out do you do?
I work out just about every day when I get a chance. Even on the road I do about a 40-minute aerobics and a little bit of free weights, keep myself nice and toned. There are a lot of allergies floating around, and keeping up with my aerobics really helps with that. Training really keeps up my voice control.
Are there any other things you have to do in order to take care of your voice?
I do try to be quiet when I’m done with being onstage or talking with folks. After playing, I like to sign CDs and hear people’s stories when they come up to me and want CDs signed, and then I try to sit somewhere quiet. My girls will tell you that when I’m in the van, I try to keep it down, keep it low and just be still.
Do you have a limit for how many days in a row you can sing?
Not really. I’ve learned a lot about how to sing. I did have formal lessons, so I’ve learned how to keep my breath controlled and how to sing even when I’m not feeling well. It’s about how you use your diaphragm. It’s an instrument; you just have to learn how to work it. The vocal chords are a muscle. You do have to work it. I do warm up and when I’m onstage, I’m careful about those notes I’m hitting. I hit a lot of high and all notes; I’m really careful how I go about that.
When did you take the class? When did you start paying attention to how you sing?
I grew up singing in church like a lot of great singers, when you’re singing from your throat, and when you’re singing as long and loud as possible. But I went to school in Waco at a community college that actually teaches commercial music. I had a voice teacher there who was a woman named Lorna MacDonald. She works with the Montreal Choir. I did three years with her, and I worked again with her when I lived up in New York and Jersey. And over the years, I’ve met with different people who could give me different pointers on how to keep my voice going. I have to credit my grandmother as my very first voice teacher. She was this woman who taught me how to speak in front of the church. I used to give little speeches, and she taught me how to pronounce and how to project my voice when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I had a little bit of a stutter, and that was something she really wanted to work with me on.
I suspect that by the time many singers look for coaches, they’re looking to get around the damage they’ve already done to their voices.
The first person that comes to mind is Shemekia Copeland. Here’s a singer who lets it all out every night, every time. She and I had a conversation about how to keep your voice. When I ran into her, she was a little bit tired, and she had been playing and singing a lot, and she wanted to know what to do. My first advice for anybody with that kind of problem is you need to just relax. Take it easy. You don’t necessarily have to stop working, but a lot of it is just outside stress and worrying. Shemekia is a beautiful, giving person. She loves to see the people and make sure you’re comfortable. She likes to be out late, and sometimes you’ve got to know when to stop. That was just something I wanted to share with her. The other thing was taking care of yourself. It’s okay to call in a masseuse. It’s okay to have a little acupuncture, anything that relaxes you.
The voice is meant to last a lifetime; there’s no reason you can’t have a voice at 80, 90 years old. Beverly Sills once said that your voice doesn’t even fully mature until your forties.
Can you tell me about your first experience at the New Orleans Jazz Fest?
Oh that was just surreal. I have little recollection of exactly what happened in sequence, but I just remember how I felt. And I was elated. I just remember feeling like I was walking three or four feet off the stage. And the stage was pretty high. So we were having such a great time. And I had my wonderful friend Papa Mali (Malcolm Welbourne) onstage with me that day, too. [He was] my producer for the Phenomenal Ruthie Foster CD. And Lady Tambourine came up, and she was really, really gracious about waiting for me to let her know when I wanted her to come onstage. She took it to another level. I had all my girls with me on that tour. I had Stephanie, who was the wife of a Baptist preacher in Houston on B3. And my good friend Samantha Banks from Houston on drums. And Tanya Richardson, my cousin, on bass. It was like a tent revival.
Out of curiosity, why an all-woman band?
It just kind of happened that way. Samantha and Tanya and I, we’ve known each other for years. These are my sisters in a lot of ways. It’s nice to be able to travel with people you’ve known for such a long time. And you know, you get a bunch of women together, and we can howl at the moon!
You’ve recorded with different bands, though, right?
Yes, I have. The Phenomenal CD was pretty much a corral of great musicians that Papa Mali came up with. For the The Truth According to Ruthie Foster album, Chris Goldsmith, my producer, just asked me to come up with a list of people that I would really like to play with.
Why not record with your road band?
When I pick a producer, it’s usually with a certain sound in mind. And we really want that CD to hone in on that particular sound. The coolest thing about doing that is that you can put out a CD that has a certain sound, and when it’s time to go on the road, I go on the road with a different set of musicians—the musicians I’m really comfortable with, that I know—they can put in their own sound. So the song kind of grows.
Why did you join the Navy? That’s not a traditional career path for a musician.
(laughs) No, it’s not. I have to say that’s why I did it. It was an opportunity for me to get out of music for a while. I had just graduated college, I was a little over-saturated with the music scene, and I wanted to do something else. I wanted to really just see if I could just hold a conversation that had nothing to do with music. I did have in mind to look into the Navy band, but the auditions weren’t available at the time, so I sad “Okay, I’ll sign up for anything you got.” That’s how I ended up in San Diego working with helicopters for the year.
After the Navy, you signed with Atlantic Records?
I did four years, and I stayed in Charleston. I was singing at a little folk club there. That was really great for me because I had a chance to open for so many different great folk acts, and learn about folk music because I really didn’t know anything about that genre. I made a tape of a few songs I had written while I was in school while I was in Waco. That tape ended up in the hands of Craig Kallman, who’s a VP over at Atlantic now. He found that tape, and he apparently took it with him to the Hamptons on vacation. And he wore it out. He called to see if he could get another copy of the songs. (laughs) Preferably on CD. And that he would also like to meet me personally.
So that’s what led you to New York?
Yeah. I figured well, why not? So I packed up my stuff and moved to New Jersey, because that was a little less expensive than living in the city. And there I was, with Atlantic Records behind me, and I got a chance to play in all these incredible places—the Bitter End, I think the Speakeasy was still open the first year I got there, so I had a chance to play in this place where Bob Dylan was discovered and used to play all the time.
What was the Greenwich Village scene like at this point?
I was in that songwriter world again, and loved it. I kind of went to school in how to write a song, how to put together words that meant something, and melody, and placement of melody. I would set up meetings with the cats at BMI and with my contact at Atlantic, Craig, or whoever he would suggest I need to meet or write with. I think Whitney Houston’s movie The Bodyguard had just come out; I got a chance to meet the guy who wrote “Run to You,” and we sat up all night talking songs, just pulling that song apart. I felt like I was in this world where I belonged, finally.
Why didn’t it work out?
We were really looking for a single, and we couldn’t agree on what song to put out. And my time just ran out. We parted amicably; we were both in agreement. I had a great lawyer, and he suggested that I not get into debt with a major record label, so I didn’t owe them anything when I left.
But you realized that what they wanted from you and what you had weren’t going to match up?
Yeah, I think they were looking for a Tracy Chapman-meets-Anita Baker. I wasn’t ready to meld into something they wanted me to be.
I know you’re reluctant to be pinned to a genre, but The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster and The Truth According to Ruthie Foster are firmly rooted in classic R&B. Was that intentional or where did that come from?
It was a decision I made that I wanted to do a record in Memphis and go back to that old school soul that I grew up with. It was intentional. With Phenomenal, I wanted to get away from the Americana genre because I had been placed in Americana for a long time. I didn’t want to lose my folk/Americana audience but bring them with me. With Phenomenal, I wanted to introduce myself into this other genre. I wanted to be able to do more festivals and venues that opened to the soul R&B sound. I definitely wanted to do more of that because that’s my background, too.
I admire your last two album titles, both of which make bold statements. What was the thought behind them?
A producer and a record company coming together and deciding to do that (laughs). They used to introduce the artist to this genre, you put “The Amazing Sam Cooke” or “The Electrifying Aretha Franklin.” We really just wanted to pay homage to that old school way of introducing an artist to listeners. Using the word “Phenomenal” after recording the “Phenomenal Woman” song, I thought that played into it well.