Interview: Justin Rutledge, “Islands”

Justin Rutledge - Islands

JUNO Award winning singer-songwriter Justin Rutledge is gearing up to release “Islands,” next Friday, his ninth studio album, and first since his incredibly successful “Passages” album from 2019.  Originally from Toronto, but now calling the rural charm of Prince Edward County home, this latest release offers a new perspective from this accomplished folk-roots artist as he takes a journey down memory lane to revisit his musical past.  This album is a retrospective, an opportunity for Justin to re-record a selection of songs from his back catalog in the way in which they were originally conceived – alone, with minimal accompaniment. It’s also a place where earlier tunes such as “Alberta Breeze” can appear alongside popular cuts like “Out of the Woods,” something you may only encounter if you are fortunate enough to catch this artist perform live. 

With “Islands,” Justin looks back on the creative process that spawned the material that continues to resonate with his fans.  Whether recalling time spent bartending in a London pub that inspired many songs found on his 2012 “No Never Alone” album, or the recent joys of marriage and fatherhood that filtered into “Passages,” Rutledge has no shortage of material and memories to bring back to life.  “I look back and view past albums as bookmarks in my life,” he shares.  “I was a different person at the release of each album. Recording Islands required a stroll down memory lane, for better or worse, and shaking hands with the people I used to be.”

Recorded and mixed by Chris Stringer (Megan Bonnell, Liz Stringer) over three days at Union Sound Company in Toronto, and mastered by Joao Carvalho (Rose Cousins, Donovan Woods), the creativity saw Justin mostly alone with his acoustic guitar in the live room (recording during a pandemic being quite a challenge), while friends would step in to add their parts.  With Chris Stringer on lap steel, Mike Brushey on drums, and Devon Henderson on bass, the “Islands” sessions also add electric guitar from Tom Juhas (Joan Smith & the Jane Does), and multi-instrumentalist Aaron Comeau (Jerry Leger) on organ and piano.  Efforts were made to maintain a spacious musical arrangement for the songs, and purposely kept casual to capture the essence of Justin’s typical late-night writing sessions.

Justin Rutledge

Offering ten tracks, “Islands” consists of eight reworked tracks from Justin’s past, and two brand new tunes previously unrecorded, but well known as staples from his live performances.  One of these new tracks was released as the first single back in January, “Jellybean,” a crowd-participation favorite that finally makes it into the studio for keeps.  “I’ve always been cautious about recording Jellybean on an album because it is such a ‘live’ song,” Justin offers. “I’ve tried it a few times in the past but it never made the cut.  I think I finally captured the essence of the song with this recording.”  To recreate the live feel and vibe, Justin called upon several friends to form an informal ‘Jellybean Choir’ for the recording, including household names such as Dan Mangan and Matthew Barber in this select group.  And with his most recent single release, Justin captures the poeticism of Gord Downie’s genius in a haunting version of “Nautical Disaster,” the Tragically Hip tune that has also become a popular part of his live set.  “In many ways, I owe my life as a songwriter to The Hip,” Justin adds. “As a teenager, their songs empowered me to pick up the guitar and instilled in me the strength of the written (and sung) word.”

“Islands” is a perfect glance back on a journey that has been shaped by becoming a songwriter, an artist, a performer and now a husband and a father.  These songs have been given a whole new lease of life, and we are incredibly grateful that Justin Rutledge welcomed the opportunity to discuss this new album with us, and offer some personal insights behind his new interpretations of these tunes.  

It’s hard to believe that it was April 2018 when we last saw you in person, performing in Toronto. So many big events have happened in your life since that time.  You married your sweetheart, released “Passages” in 2019, toured with Rob Baker from The Tragically Hip, and welcomed your son into the world.  Before we dig into the new album, how good are things for you right now?

Aside from the pandemic, things have been pretty good around here.  Our son, Jack, is a dream, and I’ve actually taken this forced convalescence to enroll in some graduate level courses at a local college, as well as take weekly guitar lessons to brush up on some skills.  I’m trying to stay busy, because otherwise I’ll just lament the loss of live music in my life.

You are gearing up to release “Islands” next Friday, your ninth studio album, but the first that allows you to look back at your vast catalog and reinvent or reimagine a few blasts from your past.  What would you say was the catalyst for taking this direction, and can you trace back to the original inspiration behind it?

The boring, but true answer, is that it was my manager’s idea. I work at a fairly quick pace with my writing, and try to release a new album every 2-3 years, so I was interested in the idea of revisiting and reworking some older material because life changed dramatically with the birth of our son.  I aim to do a ‘Volume 2’ in a few years, so I saved some more obvious material for that album.

When I first heard about this new project, I quickly assumed that you were maybe taking one song from each of your eight albums, and adding a pair of new tracks, but this proves not to be the case.  Instead, we find two originally found on both “The Devil on a Bench in Stanley Park” and “Man Descending,” while excluding others from “The Early Widows” and “East” albums.  What was your thought process when compiling the list of contenders for “Islands?

I never really considered doing an ‘album by album’ retrospective.  I chose the songs individually, and not with respect to chronology.  I wanted to go way back initially, and then revisit some other songs for ‘Volume 2.’

“Good Man” was a pretty recent radio hit for you, a track taken from “Passages.”  As one of my favorite cuts from that album, I love the tweaks you have made here.  I still find myself ‘air drumming’ where the percussion normally kicks in – right after you deliver the line, “So you father ruled with a fist and a bible black.”  What was your primary reason for reworking this popular tune?

This is how I initially wrote “Good Man.”  Chris Stringer, who helped produce “Passages,” forced me to speed it up and give it some drive.  I was hesitant at first, but the album needed a track with a little more energy, and I’m glad I listened to him, because I think it turned out well.  Sometimes I get stuck in ‘slow mode,’ because that’s what and how I write – it’s just what comes naturally, and I have to force myself to get out of that pattern at times.  I think that “Good Man” is a decent example of a song that has a different effect when performed solo and acoustic.  The meaning changes slightly, and I think the original intent of the song shines through a little more.

Some of these new versions do not stray too far from the originals, but add a little something.  The powerful inclusion of strings during “This Is War,” which further emphasizes the emotions found in the lyrics.  Or the subtle changes to “Out of the Woods,” with a softer approach, but those signature guitar riffs still packing a punch.  Describe how you discovered these minor changes, and what you feel they do to the songs here on “Islands.”

I feel like there are certain musical motifs that stay associated with a song, such as arrangement choices or musical moments. “This Is War” is perhaps known to some as the song with the big guitar build at the end, so I attempted to incorporate a similar arrangement with the version on “Islands.”  “Out of the Woods” is similar in that the guitar part plays as big a role in the song as the lyrics do, arguably, so I wanted to preserve those moments.

Justin Rutledge

We can’t ignore this fabulous new interpretation of “Federal Mail,” a track taken from “No Never Alone.” This number always did have a slight country-jazz feel to it, and you really tapped into that with this fully instrumental piece.  How did you arrive at the decision to simply drop the lyrical content completely and focus purely on the music?

I love instrumental music, regardless of genre.  I often listen to classical, jazz, or electronic music while I’m at home.  Sometimes I get tired of listening to words.  I love what an instrumental song does to my brain – it allows me to sink in a little deeper into the music; a singer isn’t telling me what to think or how to feel, or how they feel – it’s just the musicians doing their job.  The melody in “Federal Mail” is a simple one that is based on old jazz or country standards, and I just let it stand on its own this time around.

You bring a previously unreleased cover version of “Nautical Disaster” to this album, one that you’ve carried around in your back pocket for several years, and play live every now and then.  How did this one never make it onto “Daredevil,” your album of Tragically Hip covers, and what prompted you to finally record your own version now?

“Nautical Distaster” was never on the table when we recorded “Daredevil.” It wasn’t one of my options.  I started playing it at shows after we recorded the album.  It translated better acoustically than most of the other songs, so I kept it going and people really seemed to like it.  I’d eventually like to record a “Daredevil Volume 2” – the Hip have so many incredible songs.

You close “Islands” just like you close many a live show, with the upbeat crowd participation number, “Jellybean.”  Without rehashing questions you’ve already been asked since releasing this as a single back in January, I’m curious to know which came first – the song being recorded and the new album formed around it, or did you have your vision for “Islands” long before the recording of “Jellybean” came about?

We recorded “Jellybean” specifically for “Islands.”  It was recorded during the “Islands” sessions, so it is very much a part of the album.  I attempted to put it on other albums, but it never seemed to work.  I finally found a home for it on this record, and I’m glad it’s finally out there.

Justin, we are incredibly grateful for taking the time to answer these questions about “Islands.”  Lesley and I cannot wait to get out and see you again at a show.  We’ll get there – eventually – great live music cannot be kept in check forever. 

Cheers Martin.  Thank you kindly for all the years of continued support.  It’s greatly appreciated and I look forward to seeing you and Lesley at a show in the not-too-distant future.

Photo Credit: Christine Flynn

You can catch Justin Rutledge live in a virtual performance – his official release show for “Islands” – on 28 March at 7 pm ET via Side Door Access. You can get tickets here.

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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