Ruthie Foster comes full circle with ‘Joy Comes Back’

Any artist, especially one who was relatively unheralded at the time, with the chutzpah to call her album “The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster” might be charitably thought of as, well, a little ahead of herself. But as they say in Texas, it ain’t bragging if it’s true, and in the case of the Lone Star native with the stratospheric voice and riveting stage presence, “phenomenal” seems an entirely appropriate accolade.

A decade and four albums (and three Grammy nominations) after the release of “Phenomenal,” Ruthie Foster is back with a new disc, “Joy Comes Back.” Fueled by Foster’s characteristic blend of soul, blues, folk, gospel and rock (a Dobro-driven cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pig,” anyone?), the album speaks to a cycle of loss, heartbreak, forgiveness and redemption.

Foster is celebrating the release by headlining at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday. She promises a whole mess of special guests, including guitarists David Grissom and Carolyn Wonderland, fiddle virtuoso Warren Hood, singer-songwriter Grace Pettis and more.

Foster spoke with the Statesman from her home in San Marcos. What follows is an edited account of the conversation.

American-Statesman: Is this the first time a hometown audience has heard the new stuff?

Ruthie Foster: It’s pretty much the first time they’ll hear the bulk of it. We’ll do six or seven of the 10 cuts. Mostly all the tunes I haven’t been able to do acoustically. Been traveling around doing acoustic shows, so it’s hard to pull out that “War Pigs.”

This may be the first album ever to feature a Sabbath cover and a Four Tops song (‘Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever’).

(Laughs) We kind of went around the world, didn’t we?

It’s been over two years since your last release. How did this album evolve?

I funded this entire album myself. Just pulled money out of my own pocket to get it started. I wanted to record it here at home and I just decided I’d put half up and see what happens. (The album’s producer) Daniel Barrett was a neighbor of mine, he lived around the corner from me. And we just started hanging out because he has this great studio. Worked together that first year on and off. I was doing a lot of traveling and when I was home I’d hang out on his front porch because he made this great coffee. The first song I actually recorded was the last tune on the record, “Forgiven.” It’s a really poignant song that addresses where I felt I was in my music and my life. I’ve been turning into my fifties and you get to that place where you want to put the burden down and move forward even if it’s just one step at a time, and that song talks a lot about that.

You’ve gone through some personal travails in the recent past. How did they inform the album?

It’s really about just going through life. I was coming out of an eight-year relationship and with a kid. It was hard for all of us. For me, I have this avenue of music that I can put a lot of it into. Rather than going into therapy, I went into the studio. My ex-partner and I are trying to co-parent our 6-year old right now. Time is a beautiful healer. I’m grateful we were able to get through what we managed to do in order to make sure our lives were where they meant to be and that our daughter’s happy. That’s the most important thing. It’s a lot of healing music for people who may have gone through the same thing.

This record almost feels like it’s all over the place, because it took about two and a half years to do. So you have a song like “Good Sailor,” which is a song about redemption. A song like “War Pig,” that was more of an experiment, just having fun in the studio and brushing up my resonator (guitar) chops. “What Are You Listening To” is one of those looking-back songs where you are thinking about a person who’s either in your life or was in your life. You have the chance to glance over your shoulder and wonder if they’re in the same place as you. Did we do the right thing? How are we going to get through this? Are you OK, am I OK? It’s really, really tough and I put it all in the CD.

The record has great songs, but it doesn’t feature as much of your own material as your past albums. Was that a deliberate choice?

It’s more the way it worked out. I did write, but didn’t have anything that fit in with the group of songs that were coming together. “Open Sky” (her sole composition on “Joy Comes Back”), I wrote in 15 or 20 minutes. Here I was about to step into a new relationship, and I happened to just write about it. So that’s what that song is saying, trying to make that step forward.

How does ‘Joy Comes Back’ fit into the context of the rest of your work?

Honestly, I think it falls back into where I started. I started in the folk world, playing the Kerrville Folk Festival and small places like the Cactus Café. To me, it resonates with that part of my life, it comes full circle. It’s not a blues album, although there’s some blues elements to it. It’s more about my life. That’s what I was doing when I first moved to Austin, and I released “Runaway Soul” and “The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster.” I’m coming back to dealing with who I am, and where I am, and putting that out there. It’s a little scary! But it’s put me in a grateful place.

So you’re in a good place now?

I’m in a great place! Yeah. I always look at it as, you’re always where you need to be. It’s about how do you handle it? How do you manage your path? You’re always on the right path.

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