Justin Rutledge: acoustic guitar just got boring to me
Justin Rutledge has gone electric, and he’s not apologising for it.
“A guy with an acoustic guitar, it just got boring to me,” says the 31-year-old Toronto singer-songwriter, who’s just released his fourth album, The Early Widows. “It’s the reason that people move house every couple of years, the reason you switch to a different brand of soda water.
“You do something for 10 years and you get tired of it, and I found when I got tired of it I got complacent, when I got complacent I got lazy and it affected my songwriting.
“It made some people unhappy, but I wouldn’t tell them which cereal to eat.”
The album is the result of a collaboration with Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje, best known for his novel “The English Patient”. He approached Rutledge and asked him to write the music for a play Ondaatje was working on based on his novel “Divisadero”, the story of two girls raised as a sisters by a farmer in northern California and an orphaned boy who grows up with them. Ondaatje asked Rutledge to concentrate on that character, Cooper, and his experiences as a boy and later a man.
“It’s definitely not a concept album, but it’s nice because it’s not personal,” Rutledge says. “It doesn’t reflect how I feel, it’s not about any person or people in my life, it’s totally detached. It’s about this one character and his environment, his relationship toward the people around him.”
He adds: “It was definitely a different task I had writing this record, and maybe the recording reflects that. It was kind of a different journey.”
Ondaatje gets writing credits on one of the songs on the album, and he also helped Rutledge to arrange the words and thoughts on some of the others.
“It was very cool to bring them to someone totally detached from the musical environment who could kind of regard them in an independent way,” Rutledge says. “He wasn’t worried about chords or structure or key, he was just working on the lyrics themselves, and I think that’s a pretty good way to go.”
As the project progressed, Ondaatje asked Rutledge if he would act in the play, tentatively entitled “When My Name Was Anna” and due to premiere in a theatre in Toronto in February. It was Rutledge’s first experience of acting.
It’s been very difficult, but it came a little naturally, I guess. I wasn’t totally averse to the idea. We’re working with a very talented director and he thinks I take direction very well. It was a totally new universe to me, and it was very difficult, but it’s all right.”
The Early Widows was released in the spring in Canada but only came out in the UK at the end of September. Recorded live and featuring two drummers, Blue Rodeo’s Bazil Donovan on bass and a gospel choir, among others, it was nominated for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize.
Rutledge has been tickled to find that the involvement of Ondaatje on the record has led to what he calls “weighty” reviews.
“Maybe critics felt they had to elevate their prose in the reviews of the record. It’s pretty funny actually. Elevated music journalism all of a sudden!”
Despite the move to electric and the particular circumstances of the new album, Rutledge doesn’t see it as all that different from his earlier work, and isn’t worried whether it is immediately accessible.
“I think it depends what one expects. I never thought that art was easy to understand, or to create, for that matter. I always want to create works that people enjoy, but whether or not it’s easy to enjoy at first – or ever – is a different matter.”
He’s happy, he says, “as long as I think I’ve done my job properly and to the best of my ability.”
Rutledge isn’t resting on his laurels, either. He’s just completed another album with his Los Angeles-based band, The Early Winters, which is due out in February. “I essentially did two records last year, which felt very good.”
Though Rutledge possesses a British passport, and he got his start from the success he found in the UK with his first album, No Never Alone, he doesn’t get across the Atlantic as often as he would like. But he’s always glad to come.
“I love playing to listening audiences. It’s very tough to find those back home and in the States. So playing here kind of makes it all worthwhile.”