Ruthie Foster has been cutting her own unique path across the musical landscape for some time now, having released her debut album all the way back in 1997. For Foster, however, her unique mixture of blues, folk, and a rollicking rock swagger has made her one of the most enduring artists on the blues landscape today, her notoriety increasing with each passing release, culminating in her 2009 Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album for her acclaimed disc, The Truth According to Ruthie Foster.
Earlier this year, Foster put out the powerful, potent new effort Let It Burn, which features some of her most confident performances to date: direct, personal, and emotionally on-point. Here, she does an a capella rendition of the folk standard “The Titanic” while also finding time to collaborate with the Blind Boys of Alabama. It’s a staggeringly powerful work, and one that Foster is more than excited to take out on the road.
As such, Foster found some time to answer PopMatters’ 20 Questions, here discussing how a borrowed drum set from Texas changed her life, why she’d love an audience with Stephen Hawking, and why exactly she sees herself in Jerry the mouse of Tom & Jerry fame . . .
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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
The Art of Racing in the Rain. The book was a real surprise to me. I’d seen it in airport bookstores and wondered why it was so popular for so long. Now I know. Truly inspiring and touching, being a dog lover myself.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Jerry the mouse of Tom and Jerry; he’s always got something going on and seems to always have to be ahead the game to keep Tom on his toes. Plus, my drummer says I remind her of him when I’m standing in front of the microphone singing with my foot tapping to the side . . . out of time.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. It has everything on it. Love, lost, happiness, joy—there’s even a little black history on it. He’s a genius.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek all the way. It’s the reason there even is a Star Wars.
5. Your ideal brain food?
I’m a traveler, obviously, with my music so going to different places, countries, and experiencing the food, the people, their languages, and art is a real kick for me. Also, when I’m home and love to watch documentaries on anything: history, food, animals, the human body etc. Learning is a constant practice.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I’m proud of my ability to play more than one instrument and my curiosity to learn to play many more. Because I want to know and understand every instrument in my band and more.
7. You want to be remembered for . . . ?
I’d like to be remembered for my music helping to heal. Because it’s done that for me. I was a very shy young person with a lot on my mind and much to say about it, and through music I was able to tell my story and at the same time feel better. Music gave me a voice. It remains the medicine for whatever is going on in my life, and I’d like to think that does the same for others.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Odetta, Curtis Mayfield, MLK, Ghandi, and that guy that use to paint those “happy little trees” on PBS.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
The theme to Last of the Mohicans.
10. Your hidden talents . . . ?
Feed a seven-month-old, feed myself, and answer emails. I’m not a huge multitasker, but this I do well.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
“You don’t have to do ‘Stormy Monday’ again, it’s been over done, girl, just sing what you feel.”—Clifford Antone (founder of blues venue Antone’s in Austin, TX). This advice came at a time when I was looking for a way into the music scene in Austin after being out of music for awhile to help take care of my mother. Clifford informed me that it was OK by him if I wanted to sing gospel, reggae, or whatever I wanted to in his place, and I’ve been singing what I feel everywhere since then.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
I borrowed a drum set from a friend when I was a kid in Gause, TX. It was huge for me because I thought I was destined to be a guitar and piano player, but teaching myself how to play the drums totally opened me up to new horizons in music. I was introduced to reggae thru the drums, funk, bossa nova, polka, and countless other genres that are a part of my musical library today.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . . ?
I wear Old Gringo boots a lot and they work well with Levis.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Living, I’d love to sit with Stephen Hawking—what a mind he has, and he’s put out so much literature on astrophysics while being in his condition. Maya Angelou, of course I’d probably cry while she speaks as usual. Jack LaLanne so we can talk about how to stay forever young. Deceased: MLK, yeah I’d ball if he asked me to pass the bread, Sam Cooke, because he was not only good looking but had a great mind for the music business, and Cajun cook Justin Wilson, to talk about food and tell great jokes.
15. Time travel: where, when,, and why?
I would go back into the late ‘30s and early ‘50s as a big band singer. Because that’s when music was still so young. There was a certain naivete about what people sang about. Except Cole Porter; I would have loved to have been around while he was still writing.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation, or Prozac?
Spa vacation—in Vegas, baby!
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . . ?
Vodka, Grey Goose.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Country. Somewhere near the Brazos river in Texas.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Keep on keepin’ on.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
Learning all the new tunes for my new CD. It’s been a real hoot and I’m looking forward to playing and singing it to all.