By SCOTT CUNNINGHAM // Ruthie Foster's new album is a magnificent package of blues, soul, and gospel
Life transitions are difficult, no two ways about it. And during trying times, many of us turn to music to find comfort and solace.
But, what happens when you're the musician?
If you're Ruthie Foster, not only do you listen, you go a couple steps further and make the songs your own.
Which is precisely what she does on her latest release, "Joy Comes Back". And does she ever own these 10 tracks.
"Joy Comes Back" touches on the cornerstones of what Foster does best: Blues, gospel, and soul music seamlessly interwoven in a magnificent package that Grammy voters will be hard pressed to overlook.
At 53, on the heels of a breakup, and taking custody of her 5-year-old daughter, Foster found herself in the midst of some major life changes.
Making music wasn't exactly high on her list of priorities and three years had gone by without releasing an album, quite a long time for a working musician.
"I knew I hadn't put out a record in a while and I just decided to take my time in going back to the studio to record," Foster explains. "My head just wasn't wrapped around the business side. I was trying to get my life together."
Foster found comfort in the studio of Dan Barrett, a neighbor of hers in San Marcos, Texas.
"He lived around the corner from me at the time. I ran across him, he was walking his kid and we met in my front yard and he talked about having a studio around the corner and if I ever wanted to just stop by and have some coffee, let's do that, and I did. We got to be really good friends and ended up doing a lot of listening."
Instead of immediately putting pen to paper, the two spent countless hours drinking coffee, talking, and checking out music that Barrett dialed up just for the sake of listening. Eventually, these sessions morhped into screening songs for "Joy Comes Back", which was recorded and produced by Barrett.
One of the very first songs Barrett played was Forgiven by the Weepies. At the time, Barrett didn't know that Foster is a huge Weepies fan.
"I love the Weepies and try to catch them whenever they come through the Austin area."
Forgiven was one Foster hadn't heard, however, and it reprsents the perfect closing track on the album.
"Discovering this song was huge for me and it was a catalyst for this record. Dan just happened to put it on and I just lit up. It was moving, it was exactly where I was in my life.
"The forgiving part was where I needed to start, forgiving myself and not going through the shame attack and guilt attack and learning how to just let go."
As the two went through the process of musical discovery, their relationship deepened.
"He was there on those days when I would come back from a tour and we had a date set to go into the studio and he could see from my first cup of coffee that I just wasn't ready. We'd spend the day just talking about music," Foster recalls.
"I owe him a lot. He sent me a bill for being my engineer, but he should have sent me another one for being my therapist, too."
Of the 10 tracks on the album, only one is fully penned by Foster.
"Making this record really took me back to basics. It wasn't about writing songs, because to me at the time that felt more like a job. I really needed to just sit back and listen to great music, great songs. That meant more to me than sitting down and trying to come up with a body of work to express were I was."
Foster's music has always been infectious and penetrating, her vocals cutting deep into the depths of the emotional side of human experience. The 10 cuts on "Joy Comes Back" are perfect material for Foster, with each representing distinct parts of her emotional experience during a difficult time.
Chris Stapleton's What Are You Listening To kicks off the album, a touching, reflective song that could have presaged a worn-out breakup album. To her credit, Foster goes a different route and claims hold to a diverse collection of material, making each song intimate and powerful, profound passion permeating each track.
Black Sabbath's War Pigs can also be found on the album, a song Foster had been considering recording for quite some time. "I love me some Sabbath and a lot of folks don't know that."
In what she describes as an "experiment that kind of went wild", she grabs a resonator guitar and gives the song the Son House treatment. Simon Wallace lays down some great harmonica for the track, providing the punctuation to Foster's edgy vocals and guitar.
On the opposite end of the rock spectrum is Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever, written by Ivy Jo Hunter and Stevie Wonder. Warm and inviting, the track provides some sweetener to the album, with bright piano and keys.
In sum, "Joy Comes Back" is exactly what the title describes: A reflection on one woman's emotional journey through the ups and downs of life and the challenges and rewards it has to offer.
Good Sailor (written by Grace Pettis and Haley Cole) captures the essence of Foster's journey, a song picked for the album that works on several levels, as Foster is a Navy veteran. She has also toured with Pettis' father Pierce.
"I crawled my way onto the shore and came out clean / Is this just how it feels being redeemed?"