The voice on the other end of the phone is quiet, as you'd expect from one of Canada's most thoughtful and talented singer-songwriters. "When you make a record, all of a sudden you have to figure out how to talk about it" is one of the first things Justin Rutledge says. That's why we're on the phone: to talk about Rutledge's new record Valleyheart, along with his upcoming tour, his recent theatre work and anything else that happens to come up. For a career that's only 10 years old, there's a lot of ground to cover with the young singer-songwriter.
Rutledge has been a well-known voice in the Toronto music scene for a while—his first album No Never Alone was released in 2004, and earned plenty of critical praise. That album was a spare and quiet self-produced affair and the lyrical songwriting it showcased made an immediate impression on a wide audience--including no shortage of his fellow musicians. Toss in a now-legendary once a week residency by Rutledge and his band at Toronto's Cameron House bar and the rest is, as they say, history: four studio albums and who knows how many live shows of it.
It's been a long wait for the release of Valleyheart,
Rutledge's fifth solo album. The solo
distinction is important these days because the intervening years have seen the musician stretch his boundaries a bit: he's acted in stage productions and started a Los Angeles based side project called The Early Winters
. The band's debut album was released in 2012 and sees Rutledge alternating lead singing duties with Carina Round. On the phone from Toronto Rutledge's enthusiasm for his other band is clear. "The great thing about having a side project is it gives you another outlet,"
he explains, "the songs there aren't necessarily the songs I'd do myself."
"Valleyheart has a California vibe. It's very calm," Rutledge explains. The album's downtempo opening track Amen America feels like a love letter to the country he's been spending more time in but also a lament for its flaws. It's a song that probably wouldn't have been written without that time spent in Los Angeles with The Early Winters. There's a long tradition of Canadian artists spending time away from Canada to find their voices--think of Leonard Cohen's time in Greece or Neil Young and Joni Mitchell in the United States--but Toronto's Junction community is still home for Rutledge.
The calmness of Valleyheart
comes across as a sign of an artist who's comfortable with his place in the world--a man who, after ten years in a business that can be merciless to its most talented voices--knows who he is and isn't trying to be anything else. When I asked if the quiet vibe was intentional Rutledge paused before answering: "I didn't want to look at tempo. I was pretty unapologetic about how slow I was. This is what I do. This is what feels right."
So if the pacing of the album wasn't exactly intentional, there was
a conscious decision not to pick up the pace just for the sake of it. The end result is an album that feels whole. From beginning to end, nothing feels too out of place.
Don't confuse that calmness with complacency, though: Rutledge has spent the last few years branching out in new creative directions. One of the reasons the new album took a little more time to get out than it might have is the time the artist spent on a different type of stage. Rutledge took a lead role both acting and performing music in the Toronto-based stage production of Michael Ondaatje's award-winning novel Divisidero (which also served as the inspiration for much of his last studio album, The Early Widows.) He also wrote an original score of Morris Panych's production of The Arsonists, accompanying the play live with his band for its entire run. Sadly, there are no plans to release the music from The Arsonists nor any to tour either of the theatrical productions.
It's clear that the time spent in the theatre has had an impact on the approach Rutledge takes to storytelling in his songs. "Watching them tell a story…essentially all artists try to tell a story in a different way," Rutledge says. The songs Rutledge writes tend to tell shorter stories and be less linear than the ones told on stage. Rutledge describes himself as being the kind of writer who's "...after smaller moments. I'd rather start at W and go back to F." Valleyheart contains plenty of these smaller moments; Through With You and Out of the Woods seem inspired by the uncertainty that enters our relationships over time; Kaspuskasing Coffee is a more upbeat take on the same theme; the album's closing track Heather in the Pines feels like a series of perfect memories captured in song—like looking through box of old slowly-fading pictures, each one a moment long-gone but still intimately present in the memory of the listener. It's the kind of music that makes you smile warmly or cry: it all depends on what you bring to it.
Valleyheart is a self-produced album, something it has in common with the almost ten-year-old No Never Alone
album that first brought Rutledge to attention.
A high-quality vinyl version of that album was released by Outside Music
in late 2012, something that required Rutledge to revisit the older work for technical reasons and had him "…thinking about the guy that wrote [No Never Alone] and recorded it."
Rutledge describes Valleyheart as a "response to that young kid who just wrote what he felt."
It was the combination of the deeply personal nature of the material and a sense that he knew what he wanted that lead Rutledge to work without a producer on Valleyheart. The album is also Rutledge's first for Outside Music
--his previous albums were all released by Toronto-based Six Shooter Records
. Rutledge has nothing but praise for both his new label and his old, saying that they granted him "total artistic freedom…There was no one breathing over my shoulder, no one to tell me how to do my job."
Rutledge will be heading across Canada on a solo tour--letting the songs "speak for themsleves"--to promote the release of Valleyheart and is hoping to tour with a full band to play some louder shows in the fall. In between he'll be returning to California to resume recording with The Early Winters, who expect to be releasing a new album in 2013 as well.
For many people this busy, fitting together all of these disparate parts would be a challenge. It seems to come naturally to Rutledge. "We all bring unfinished ideas to the table," he says when describing how recent albums have been created. Those ideas are shaped and moulded before being recorded, and he admits that "Sometimes I'm torn…what songs do I keep for myself?" He pauses for a moment before finishing the thought: "…but it's not like it's the last song you're going to write."
That's a good thing, because Valleyheart feels like a new beginning of sorts: it looks both backwards and forwards at the same time, and I suspect that some of Rutledge's best writing is ahead of him still. It's nice to know that he thinks so too.
Valleyheart is being released on February 12th and will be available in both the iTunes Store and directly from Outside Music. Complete tour details are available on Justin Rutledge's web site.