Imagine a singer who looks like Anita Baker and sings like Tracy Chapman. Seems rather incongruent, doesn't it? Well, that's what record execs were trying to get when they signed blues singer/songwriter Ruthie Foster to a development contract in the 1990s.
Now based in Austin, Foster was born in Gause, Texas. After graduating from McLennan Community College in Waco, she signed up for a four-year tour with the U.S. Navy Band. "I had to go to boot camp in Orlando, Florida. It gets very hot in July there, especially when you have to run two and a half miles," she says, laughing at the memory. Petty Officer Foster sang the national anthem about a bazillion times and insists the Navy band was "badass."
After the service, Foster moved to New York City, where she landed a development contract with Atlantic Records. It was there she felt the pressure to conform to a more Anita Baker look while keeping her Tracy Chapman voice. It didn't work. When Foster sent home a copy of her publicity photo, her father said, "Who is this white woman with my baby's nose?"
"I think he still has that picture. I know I have a copy of it somewhere; I had to keep that," she laughs.
Foster never did get any closer to looking like Baker, but she did keep her Chapman-like voice. Her mother's illness prompted Foster to return home to College Station, and after her mother's death Foster settled into Austin's music scene.
Fast-forward to today, and Foster's fifth CD, Phenomenal Woman, released this month on Houston's Blue Corn Records. Foster wanted Phenomenal to be "an honest to goodness classic soul album."
Is Phenomenal classic soul? No, not in the Motown sense of the term. Phenomenal is certainly much less folksy than Foster's previous releases, but stylewise, it sits squarely in blues territory.
Songs like "Beaver Creek Blues" and "Mama Said" are straight-out-the-swamp blues, while others, like "Harder Than the Fall" and "I Don't Know What to Do with My Heart," echo Foster's Americana past.
"I try to stay away from putting names on my music," says Foster. "They all fit. I grew up listening to gospel and country. I do blues, and I've put out a couple of Americana CDs, if you will. I've been in a funk band, I've had my own R&B band, I even sang in a big band for a couple of years when I was in the Navy. Some people know me as a folk singer. They all fit."
Many of Foster's songs directly challenge the listener with lyrics like, "You try to change the news with your TV remote / You got the freedom to choose but you chose not to vote," from "Heal Yourself." Foster wrote and recorded that song several years ago but revised it for the Phenomenal CD.
"The third verse was an add. I wrote it because of where we are politically these days," she says. "There's so much apathy, and there's no room for that now. It's time for people to wake up and do something. That's where that verse comes from. I'm just hoping that my songs can open someone else's eyes to situations. I mean, they had more people come out and vote in Iraq than we did here. Come on, people, wake up! Everybody is happy right now in their warm little homes, but it won't be like that for long if we don't get out and do something. What you do really affects your community. What you don't do affects your community."
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While Foster doesn't wholeheartedly embrace the "protest song" tag, she does say she hopes her music raises people's awareness. "The word Ôpolitical' is just another way of saying Ôaware,' I think. The key is becoming aware of who you are and aren't.
"Even breakup songs, I like to call them breakthrough songs because that's an awakening that goes along with ending a relationship. There are two songs about the ending of a relationship on Phenomenal, and those were hard for me to put on the CD. But I did, because there's always somebody out there who is either going in or coming out of a relationship. Somebody's headed straight for one of those situations (laughs).
"I try to express my own healing," she says, "even if that can be uncomfortable at first. Early on in my career, I couldn't get past that discomfort. That's what kept me from even stepping out and attempting to become a full-time singer/songwriter/musician. The songs that I had written at the time were songs about my own experiences, and that's hard to put out in front of people and take a chance on them thinking that they know you.
"However, I have seen the other side of that. I did a song from my Crossover CD, one of my earlier CDs, and it was a song that I was really close to. This fellow came up to me after the show and said that I had [sung] exactly what he had said at dinner that night. It's a small world. It's about synchronicity and part of being connected. It's what keeps people coming back. It's really about living and learning and borrowing stories from other people." Ruthie Foster performs Saturday, February 17, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, 713-528-5999.