Interview: Canadian Justin Rutledge on revisiting and simplifying his greatest songs

Despite a literary background songwriter Justin Rutledge now believes simple songs work best.

Justin Rutledge owes the UK a lot in that it was the UK success of his debut album ‘No Never Alone’ that really launched his career and led to sustained success back home in Canada. At the time, the music press were comparing his songs to those of Ryan Adams and Justin Rutledge used his success to record a further 8 albums up to 2019’s ‘Passages’. For various reasons, Rutledge based himself in Canada and built a fan base there that resulted in various JUNO Award nominations and a win in 2014 for ‘Valleyheart’. Americana-UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Justin Rutledge at home in Toronto over Zoom to discuss his new album ‘Islands’ which comprises re-recordings of his and his fans’ favourite tracks in very stripped back acoustic arrangements . The challenges of being a singer-songwriter with family responsibilities and the perspective age and experience bring to an artist’s catalogue are also explored together with a hint of nostalgia for the London americana scene of the 2000s. Finally, Rutledge confirmed his number one inspiration is fellow Canadian, Leonard Cohen.

How is Toronto?

Well, we are making our way out of the winter and with any luck, we will be out of it by June, haha. It is still pretty cold here.

How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?

Everyone is OK. Canada has weathered it rather well compared to the rest of the world, particularly the UK and the US. We don’t have very many cases proportionately here, but our government has been doing an alright job of keeping us safe and quarantined. Unfortunately, Toronto is in a lockdown zone at the moment with a Stay At Home Order that ends in a few days, I think. We have got our numbers down so we will have to see.

How much of a shock was the impact of COVID to you as a working musician? What have you done with your time and how did you adapt?

Well, I adapted by going back to school, actually. When COVID hit and my industry shut down, in March I guess, I had been nominated for a JUNO Award (Canadian version of The Grammy Awards in America and The Brits in the UK). On March 11 I caught a plane to Saskatoon, which is where the JUNOs were being held, and when I landed I got a call from my wife saying  “I’m so sorry” and I go what do you mean. While I was in mid-flight they had cancelled the JUNOs and that was the week the western world stopped. I landed in Saskatoon ready for an awards show, and I stayed there for 24 hours and caught a plane home the next day. My wife and I have a place outside the city, in the country, so we spent some time there. We have a young son, who is one and a half now, and that kept us busy for a while but over the summer I really needed to fill up my time. I have been a musician, being doing this for about 15 years now and I am 42. I just thought this a good opportunity to learn something new, to get a degree or certificate in something, so I went back and studied Arts Administration and I’m currently still in it right now, I find I may as well put this time to good use, because otherwise, it would just be idle time, waiting for a gig to roll in. It has been quite a busy year, actually, and a bit of a juggling act but I thought if I didn’t do something I would go stir crazy or I would fall into a full depression, you know, because my income was just cut short.

It has been a shock for a lot of working musicians, like a switch really, now you have it, now you don’t.

In the interim, we have been working on my next record, which has been nice because I have been working from home in my studio which I hadn’t really done a lot of. Over the last year, I have incorporated a lot of new gear, and it has been a really great learning year on all parts, so I took it and turned it on its head. This year is dedicated to learning.

Where does your new album ‘Islands’ fit in with the last year?

It was actually on the books before COVID hit. It was my manager’s idea, and this point in my career eight albums in, a catalogue of eighty-plus songs, and I am at heart a folk and roots musician and I thought it would be a good time to step back and take a look at the songs in my catalogue and just do an acoustic album. I had a lot of fans asking for one over the years, just a very stripped-down record. It was a very economical album to make, it took us three days to make it and I think it is an interesting look back on some songs I admire from my career and also some songs that are fan favourites. I think it is probably the first of a two-volume compilation. There were a few that didn’t make the cut that I would like to redo.

What was it like listening to your other selves from up to fifteen years ago ? Had the songs changed from your perspective?

You know, I am entering that phase of my life where nostalgia is creeping in, and I have been discussing it with my wife, I have just turned 42 and there is a sense of OK, are the good years behind me? I’m not sure, were those the best years of my life. I sweated it out in lots of clubs and beat the pavement touring the country and the UK, went across Europe. It was a pretty special thing to do in your twenties, just to be able to play music for a living is an achievement just on its own. That’s not to say I won’t do that again, I definitely will, but I think just having children really puts things in to perspective. A little security might be nice, the word pension, I don’t know, I am starting to think about the bigger picture in relation to a songwriter or artist. Digging back into ‘Islands’ really brought a lot of memories up to the surface. I can vividly remember where I was when I wrote specific songs like ‘Federal Mail’, I wrote that when I was 21 or 22 and I remember the little café there used to be around the corner from my house where I would go out on the patio and write there. Songs like ‘Come Summertime,’ I was thinking about the apartment I was living in at the time. It was very much a welcome meditation about things that have passed, certain people I have met and they presented themselves in the songs. It was an experience that was not filled with any regret, that’s for sure.

When did you record the album, was it pre-COVID?

Yeah, it was February 2020, just three weeks before COVID hit.

Who did you have in the studio for the 3 days of recording?

It was just myself and my guitar player and piano player. That is it. It was a really great experience because we had a lot of room and plenty of cables. The thing is with this record is what you hear is the way we played it, there are no overdubs, those are my vocal takes, that is my guitar, everything was recorded at once. That is another thing I think I lost over the years because in the studio you can record the track before the song and I would then go into my booth and record 3 or 4 vocal passes, and you then cherry-pick which lines are the best, oh and I’m a little out of tune there so let’s grab the other take, it is all very unnatural. This album is a performance-based album and in a digital age, where technology dictates you never have to be out of tune unless you want to be, I decided to make a record that is a more traditional songwriter record. It is just acoustic guitar, vocals, one take, that’s it.

What did you think about your old songs?

I thought they were good. I have a strange relationship with performing these days. I am not the guy at the party who grabs the guitar and says right, you have to listen to my song. I regard them more in a critical light these days. I guess doing this for as long as I have my lens has changed on how I listen to music and how I perceive songwriting, but I do think they are good songs and they definitely don’t sound dated.

A guy with a guitar is just a classic image.

It was just great to revisit them and great to dig up some of those memories with those melodies, yeah.

Has it changed your view of the future? Is it a form of a review or simply an interesting side-step and like you said, a gift for your fans?

I think the release of ‘Islands’ comes at a good point in my career, I think that after 8 albums it is good to take stock, it is good to introduce people who maybe haven’t be familiar with my catalogue. I mean, I haven’t played the UK since 2010, I think.

That’s a long time.

That is a long time.

And you got your big break in the UK, didn’t you?

I did, I did.

So you used and abused the UK, haha.

Yeah. I was over there a lot, 2004 and 2005, and quite a bit in 2006, I was over 2 or 3 times a year during that time. I think some of my releases received the proper attention over there and I don’t know what went wrong. I lost my agent at the time and so I didn’t really have any representation and I think that had a lot to do with it, but I have always loved playing the UK and I have always wanted to go back.

How did you decide which songs to put on the record, without going mad?

Yeah, that was tricky, very tricky. I had a list of about 18 songs, I think, and ultimately I just decided to pick the songs that would translate best to an acoustic arrangement. I recorded a couple of other ones but the feeling just wasn’t there. Initially, it was going to be a 10 song album but I cut one because I just wasn’t sure. It does include a song of mine, ‘Jellybean’ which I perform at every live show but it has never made it on to an album even though I have been performing it since 2004. That is the debut studio recording of that song, the official recording.

While ‘Islands’ is a retrospective album as far as the songs if not the performances go, but it is not chronological. How did you decide to sequence the tracks?

Sequences for me are quite important and they all depend on the feel of the record. I have a general sequence in mind when I go into record a record, I have a very big overview of songs in terms of tempo, in terms of feel and time signature. I do a rough overview of how the album will work together because if you have 10 waltzes it gets a bit boring. I try to go into a record with the songs I have, OK I have two songs in 6/8, one shuffle, five songs in 4/4 but they are at different beats per minute. I do try and map it out roughly ahead of time to try and see how the songs feel. With ‘Islands’ I did something similar, but ultimately I have to do something like that to make sure I have enough varying factors so that it doesn’t sound boring.

How important to your songwriting is your literary background?

It is a good question. Just to be completely honest, I placed a lot more importance on that earlier in my career, probably until my fifth album. I then had the sense that I was losing people in the mystery of what I was writing, and I thought I might find a better way to combine the conversational element in my songwriting and I thought getting too literary or too obscure might alienate the listener. Over the last few albums, I have tried to tone down my verboseness and just be a lot clearer. It is in fact a lot more difficult than I thought because there are songs of mine where I really do hide behind the words and saying what is on your mind in plain speak, in a creative way, is actually a very difficult thing to do.

What sort of songwriter are you? Are you disciplined and treat it as a job where you have set hours, or is it simply a matter of when the muse comes to you?

I usually start with the melody, which is normally the first thing to come, and then if I am lucky the melody is accompanied by ingenious words, haha. For the most part, though, I don’t sit down to write as I should, but I never have. I have had a few co-writing experiences and where I have done that it has worked out well, but I just find I am my own worst enemy when it comes to that, too many distractions. I find lately that working in the studio, as long as I have a map of the song, even a rough map, I can record the acoustic guitar for the song and I can then work with my hardware and keyboards or whatever, and that can really bring out the lyrics of a song.  When I hear the song getting fleshed out, that can really inspire me to work on the lyrics and the melody.

You mentioned the Juno awards earlier, what is the current Canadian music scene like?

Toronto, the city I live in is an incredible world-class music city. There are some bars and hangouts around here that on certain nights of the week, that’s where the musicians go. Everyone is really laid back and relaxed but also really good at what they do. It is pretty amazing, particularly the area in Toronto where I live with lots of musicians but they are getting priced out due to housing costs, which is a shame, but there is still an amazing community here with a lot of great people and a lot of great support.

It is funny how right you are that housing is key to establishing a musical community. It needs to be cheap and plentiful.

I don’t know many musicians who can afford to buy a house in Toronto and rent is getting crazy. A lot of my friends have moved just outside the city to the neighbouring larger metropolis which is much cheaper. We are losing quite a few people but I guess that is just the way real estate goes.

The album cover for ‘Islands’ is very simple, who designed that and how much were you involved with the design process?

That was actually my idea. I had a friend of mine design it and I wanted to make it very linear and very specific. I wanted a lot of space because there is a lot of space on the record, I just wanted to keep things very simple because it is a very simple record at the core. I don’t like putting my face on my records, I have only done it once and that was enough for me, haha.

I was surprised at how effective the album cover is because it is so simple. I found it very intriguing.

Great, great. There is meant to be an element of mystery to it as well, simplicity and mystery and I wanted to evoke a quietness.

It worked for me. There is a big debate around streaming and music royalties. What is your view on streaming from an artist’s perspective? How are dealing with it?

Well, I’m back in school, aren’t I? I just think there is so much going against the average songwriter who is just trying to make a living. We are not asking a lot, we are just asking for a very basic living wage. After I released my first album, I was 24 I think, my royalty cheques were bigger than they are now and that is after 8 albums. I saw it go up for me and there was a time about 8 years ago when royalties made a significant contribution to my annual salary whereas now it is laughable, it is almost like grocery money when you divide it up on a 12-month basis. I really find there is not much hope there, so what am I doing to combat it? I’m thinking about pivoting and going back to school and getting a certificate and trying to stake my claim to a job in the arts/music sector. I don’t want to bitch and moan about this, currently, it is the way it is going but bigger bands will be fine but it really does impact the small and medium-sized artists who are really just trying to make fifty grand a year, 40 grand a year even. We are not asking a lot, but a royalty cheque for a quarter that is 600 bucks, that is no way to make a living. Spotify is 0.001 % per play per stream, I have a streaming service but I am on title because it is the best, I am not going to ignore it because it is the way we listen to music and I listen to music on it all the time. I can’t pretend I am not part of it, it is just there has to be some action taken because the trickle-down effect of that is it really impacts any new music to be made if there is no future in recorded music in any monetary way.

It will cease to exist.

Yeah. People will always write music but as a hobby, not as a living. I don’t know, it is destructive and I just think that the CEO of Spotify is making, I don’t know what he makes a year, but it is worth a lot of freaking money and a lot of that money is made off songwriters’ backs. It is a shame, we are being robbed.

What are your plans for 2021after COVID is hopefully over?

I’d like for the shows to pour in, haha, that would be nice. I would just like to get out there and re-connect with fans again. There are some shows I had that were cancelled due to COVID, and they keep touching in with us saying we are pushing the date back, so they have been working with us. I will be ready to play shows when it opens, I will release new music when we are ready to open as well. To be honest, I’m just looking forward to getting on stage again and playing for people again. People just want to go out again and go to the pub or the club and listen to music again. It doesn’t matter where it is, it could be a 15,000 seater arena or a little 25 seater club at the end of the road. They just want to be with people and hear music.

Where is your current audience, is it primarily Canada now?

I guess so. I think I have been away from the UK for long enough to have lost everyone. We will have to see.

You never know, this interview might pique some interest, haha.

Haha. That would be great, it really would.

You will have to come over to get the benefit though.

I think the original plan was that I would be over around this time this year. So maybe this time next year would be good.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

Right now my top picks are ‘The Wheels On the Bus’, ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’.

If you had written those songs you would have been alright.

Haha, I know it is true. I was listening to The Waterboys lately and I’ve found recently I have been trying to reconnect with some older music I used to listen to. I’ve been listening to Daniel Lanois, Marianne Faithful, Sam Outlaw is really good and he is amazing. I’ve also been listening to Daniel Romano, a lot of Bill Frisell as well. He played on this one album I have been listening to and it is actually called ‘Americana’, and it is by a French harmonica player Gregoire Maret, and it is just a beautiful, beautiful album. I’ve also been listening to Daniel Norgren ‘Wooh Dang’, an awful album title but such an amazing album, Raffi and Nils Frahm as well. I don’t really listen to the kind of music that I write.

That’s not a bad thing, is it?

Not at all. I listen to a lot of classical as well. I find if I put on a songwriter album I’m critiquing it or  I’m cataloguing it at the back of my mind. It is almost as if my mind is too active when I listen to music that is from my own genre, whereas if I put on something like Nils Frahm’s ‘SCREWS’ it is still extremely musical but it is instrumental and it is less attached to what I do so I can enjoy it without analysing it.

Who are your go-to influences?

Leonard Cohen is my number one figure, I wouldn’t be writing songs without him. I got into him when I was 14 or so and I still hail him as the best, the person who has influenced me the most. Other ones like Gram Parsons and Don Williams are up there with what I do.

Finally, do you want to say anything to your UK fans, assuming you have any left, haha?

I really miss you all, haha. I had some great times there starting out. I used to love playing The Borderline, The 12 Bar Club with the balcony. I will get back there this time next year.

Justin Rutledge’s ‘Islands’ is released on 26th March on Outside Music

About Martin Johnson 378 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Alan Peatfield

Great interview! I was fortunate enough to catch Justin perform at Norwich Arts Centre back in 2004 (I think!). He was the support act who eclipsed the headliners (whoever they were.) Had a lovely chat with him afterwards. Would love to resume that chat as/when/if he does make it back to the UK next year!!

[…] the tradition started by fellow Canadian songwriters Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot. In his interview with Americana UK, Rutledge explains the drive for simplicity that lies behind ‘Islands’ and […]