Interview: Ruthie Foster
By Iain Patience / photo’s: Janet Patience
Ruthie Foster is way more than just another blueslady. She’s a true gospel diva with an astonishingly powerful voice that sounds like it must have literally raised more than a few rooves and rafters over the years. Her stage-presence is always dynamic; clutching her trusty Gibson guitar, she launches herself into each number with immediacy and clear intent. Audiences look on in awe as she storms from one song to the next, pulling tracks from her beeded, braided head and an impressive award-winning back catalogue of sultry, soulful music with confident ease and purpose.
And surprisingly, perhaps, guitar is not her first instrument. Ruthie’s a piano-player but, as she quips: ‘The guitar’s a lot more portable.’ And unlike most musicians of the blues world and stage, she can read music, having graduated in that subject before signing up with Uncle Sam and joining the Navy to see the world as an engineer. It was while with the navy she turned her attention to fretwork developing a hard-hitting percussive style that has certainly served her well over the years since her demob.
‘My voice is my first instrument, though,’ she says. A positively barn-storming quality developed and honed as a kid growing up in rural Central Texas where her grandmother ensured she attended the local Baptist church and weekly song sessions. The same grandmother who introduced Foster to piano and a love of music in a more general way as she grew-up.
Foster is quick to thank both her mother and grandmother for introducing her to music and performance, initially as a purely family thing, followed by church outings and a college course where she majored, as might be expected given her tremendous voice, in vocal-work, and that eventually led her to the world stage.
‘I started out singing in our local Baptist church. It was really a sort of family situation. It was important to my mother and grandmother. Not singing at church was never an option,’ she says with a rueful but clearly grateful smile.
As for inspiration, she simply plucks themes from everyday life and love. Songs that mirror her own interests and observations as she hits the road on tour, spending substantial chunks of time away from home, missing her young daughter.
It’s difficult to avoid comparisons with Mavis Staples. Both are award-winning singers with huge voices and a grasp of gospel music few, if any, can equal. Foster is quick to pay her respect to the veteran singer, citing the near-legendary Staples as an obvious gospel-influence and a true survivor. “I love Mavis Staples. She still has such an amazing voice and energy. Despite her age, she gives it her all every time.’
In the studio she tries to capture the spirit of live performance as much as possible, eschewing over- much technology and overdubs. ‘I’ve always preferred acoustic sound and instruments wherever possible,’ she confirms. ‘I have to plug my guitar in, of course, with a pick-up, but that’s because I need to be heard when I play in front of a crowd, on a stage where that whole sound projection thing is real important.’
It’s a formula that clearly works. Foster has picked-up awards galore. Best Female Vocalist; Best Contemporary Blues Female Vocalist; Living Blues Writers’ Poll Winner; Koko Taylor Award for Best Traditional Blues Female Vocalist – 2012, 2013, and again this year, 2015. In addition, Grammy nominations and plaudits rain down on her from all quarters. Foster seems to take it all in her stride without appearing complacent or smug in any way: ‘Yea, I’ve sure been real lucky with the awards,’ she smiles. ‘It’s all been great.’
With almost a dozen albums now behind her – mostly since she turned professional in ‘…..around 1995-96’ – she nods, as she thinks back over the years – she still loves doing what she does, despite the travelling and the hassle that invariably goes with it.
‘I love singing, it’s what I do best. And I have freedom to change my set whenever I want. I might start-off a set with one number then just turn it around with another, with something different, like ‘Ring Of Fire‘, for example. It all depends on the gig and the audience. Picking up the mood out front and going for it.’
With her latest release, ‘Promise Of A Brand New Day’, already gathering critical acclaim, Foster says she enjoys and looks forward to gigging in Europe where she has played Italy, France and Spain in the recent past. ‘Audiences are real cool over here. They know the music. They love it. They always make me feel welcome.’
Website Ruthie Foster