From houses of worship to houses of blues, Ruthie Foster has always been a rafter-rattler. And with a soul-filled voice honed in Texas churches, she can move audiences to tears or ecstasy-- sometimes in a single song.
For this 2014 release, Foster put Meshell Ndegeocello in charge as her producer and then got out of the way, letting the lauded singer and bassist call the shots regarding players, takes and mixing. "I wanted this album to highlight Ruthie's voice and also communicate her vibe, give a fuller picture of her artistry and ability," explains Ndegeocello. "She really trusted me with the music and I think we've made something that complements and holds its own alongside the power of her voice."
Ndegeocello played bass and enlisted her regular guitarist, Chris Bruce (Sheryl Crow), and keyboardist Jebin Bruni (Aimee Mann), plus drummer Ivan Edwards and backing vocalist Nayanna Holley. Foster did request two special guests: guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and singer Toshi Reagon. Daughter of Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon and godchild of Pete Seeger, Foster has known Toshi for years. "It was so sweet and such a relief to finally put our names together on a project," Foster says.
This album includes seven songs written or co-written by Foster, most of them "songs with message -- because that's important to what I do," she explains. "Maybe that's from growing up with people like Mavis [Staples] and a lot of strong women who have come before me, who are great singers but also have a message. They give you something; they say something."
Foster descends from a line of strong women; while sitting in the courtyard of an Austin coffee shop, she notices grapevines climbing a fence and recalls picking Mustang grapes for her grandmother in tiny Gause, Texas, a church-filled town about 90 minutes northeast of Austin. Her family was full of gospel singers; to this day, when she gets nervous onstage (yes, she still does), she'll reference her early influences, from "the sisters in the amen corner" to the music she fell in love with.
Those influences are clear on Staple Singers' The Ghetto, a centerpiece track full of gentle electric guitar and a slow-build fire that gains intensity with each verse. "We sent an email to Mavis to check the words," Foster says, "and she sent an email back that said, 'Tell Miss Ruthie she picked a good one!'"
Classic influences can be felt elsewhere, including Second Coming, a civil-rights protest song in the folk-gospel tradition, with handclaps and a strummed acoustic guitar.
"When you see me talk about my country life and picking Mustang grapes, and referencing people like Mississippi John Hurt and Jessie Mae Hemphill, that's a way of grounding myself," she says. "People connect to that, and that's when the energy starts building, and then I can get to the big stuff and have some fun and wave my dreadlocks around."
She references those roots again for New, a gorgeous song written by and featuring Toshi Reagon. But unlike Foster's last release, Promise of a Brand New Day is not covers-oriented, nor is it a gospel album.
"If anything, I stayed with that old-school soul feel Meshell wanted to make it a point for me to write more songs for this one, and I did too. I wasn't sure I had that in me, but I did some diggin'."
Of course, she had it in her. From the opener, Singing the Blues, in which she observes, "a bit of Bobby 'Blue' Bland never, never gets old," to the acappella Brand New Day, originally sung into her phone just before going onstage one night in an effort to fend off tour-induced loneliness, Foster delivers one powerful track after another. She's even got a co-write with Stax great William Bell It Might Not Be Right. A musical nod to the late soul-stirrer O.V. Wright, it addresses gay marriage. Not so long ago, it might have been about interracial couples.
"William had titles and grooves, and I had verses and ideas," she says. "He's great at coming up with these hooks, and it's just a great title. 'It might not be right for the world, but it's all right with this girl.'"