Justin Rutledge revisits his musical past on Valleyheart
Ten a.m. is a very un-rock & roll time of day to be at work. But Justin Rutledge is not exactly a rock & roller so his showing up early to our mid-morning interview at Toronto’s Holy Oak Cafe is actually less blasphemous than it seems.
“I love it, man,” he says, before taking a pull from his coffee. “I don’t know why I’ve been missing it all these years.”
Rutledge needs the extra time that early morning starts provide. The busy Toronto-based folk artist is about to embark on a solo tour of Canada to support his fifth album, Valleyheart, out Tuesday via Outside Records. He also has a record coming out this May with his LA-based group Early Winters. And then there is his burgeoning acting career, which took off in the wake of a few plays Rutledge starred in and/or provided music for since the release of his last record, 2010’s TheEarly Widows.
That album was inspired by English Patient author Michael Ondaatje’s 2007 novel Divisadero, a 2011 stage production of which starred Rutledge. He then played Orpheus in Pulitzer Prize finalist Sarah Ruhl’s play Eurydice, and last year composed music and was the musical director for a production of Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s famous post-World War II political farce The Arsonists. Rutledge has also been picked up by the Toronto-based Gary Goddard Agency to explore future acting opportunities.
“Well, it is another form of creativity,” he says of his thespian forays. “But it’s also an area that I’m very, very unfamiliar with. And I admire great actors, and I admire people that invest, because it does take so much investment. And writing a song is writing a song; you can go many ways with it. But when it comes to a script, when it comes to investigating a text, I think it requires a lot of personal investigation as well, and a lot of commitment. Music provides a different form of commitment, but acting involves your whole self, from your body to your brain; your emotional commitment.”
Written mostly last year in between his commitments to The Arsonists, Valleyheart also saw Rutledge, 34, revive a couple of songs he began writing in his early twenties, namely “Kapuskasing Coffee” and “Heather in the Pines.” He describes the completion of those songs as “sort of co-writing” with his younger self.
“It was interesting taking those ideas, which were pretty unadulterated, and I mean they weren’t bogged down by any commitment to release an album or anything; it was just me writing an album, writing songs for the sake of my own enjoyment. So it was nice paying attention to those earlier sentiments and working with that 21-year-old kid again.”
Rutledge recorded Valleyheart at Toronto’s Woodshed Studios in just eight days last year. That may seem like a short amount of time, but the singer-songwriter has recorded previous albums in as little as three. This time he was determined to give the record “some breathing time” and to give himself some creative space.
“We didn’t overwork ourselves,” he says of his studio band, which included Blue Rodeo bassist Bazil Donovan. “We started at eleven, finished at seven, so everyone got to go home and see their family or girlfriend. And we got eight hours of sleep, and then they got to sleep in and roll into the studio around eleven. When I burn the candle, it doesn’t make for good music. I get frustrated and I get snappy and irate, and it doesn’t help. By the end of it, everything was catalogued and clean, and [I] took the hard drive and that’s it.”
Rutledge, who says he heads down to California about four times a year, mixed the record in Sherman Oaks with his Early Winters bandmate Dan Burns (Rob Zombie, Emm Gryner). He says that working in the Golden State and being surrounded by so many creative people there has taught him to “be comfortable with what I do well, and personally I think what I do well is write down-tempo, acoustic, ballad-y kind of songs. And on my other records, there were times when I was apologizing for that. And maybe it had to do with the creative outlets I found in LA, and maybe it had a lot to do with the acting or these other creative outlets I found in the theatre world, [but ] I really didn’t feel the need to apologize anymore.”
Needless to say, Rutledge is happy with Valleyheart and is looking forward to bringing its songs to audiences, even if that means driving by himself across Canada in February in order to do it.
“I personally love travelling Canada in the winter because it’s Canada in the winter,” he laughs, “and it’s a little uncomfortable. But it’s a little tough because I’ll be going out alone so I’ll have my guitar, my merch, some type of clothing. It’s going to be a little cumbersome on me, but I’m always up to the challenge.”