Full disclosure: I had a small consultative part to play in the UK release of Canadian troubadour Justin Rutledge’s sublime 2004 debut, No Never Alone, the enthusiastic press reaction to which ultimately paved the way for its Canadian release. And in cahoots with my promoting partner, I was also responsible for his UK live debut in Brighton, with a Rachel Goswell-less Mojave 3 acting as his band, opening for American Music Club at their first British show for a decade. True story. It was quite some night.
As a consequence, Justin and I have an ongoing friendship and situation of mutual respect, but please understand that he knows me well enough to expect I would be amongst the first to tell him if any of his music sucked. To that end, while I thought his last album – the 2014 Tragically Hip covers collection, Daredevil – was a curious career sidestep, it was a project he had dreamed of bringing to fruition for many years, and his adherent versions did the Hip proud. Otherwise, fortunately for us both, I have yet had occasion to be even remotely concerned that Justin had lost his way. On the contrary, as it has been fascinating and rewarding to follow his steady evolution as an artist, consistently delivering the goods as he wanders the singer-songwriter landscape, shifting between poetic folk balladeer and purveyor of sophisticated roots-pop.
EAST (all capitals, for reasons that will become clear), is Justin’s seventh and, emotionally, most significant album to date. It is a transitional release born of personal change that permeates the lyrics and overall mood of the record. For the first time in his career, Justin has recorded away from Toronto, where, until 2015, he had lived and worked his whole life. We all feel in need of some kind of change from time to time, but in Justin’s case a complete overhaul of scenery beckoned, so he headed east – sorry, EAST – for a fresh start, both personally and creatively. The tiny village of Wellington in Prince Edward County, on the shore of Lake Ontario, is where he chose to set up home. As he explains concerning the move, Justin’s relationship with his hometown had run its course:
I felt stifled in the city. It didn’t give anything to me anymore. There was no reciprocal relationship. I do believe that one should give somehow to the place one lives, and the place one lives should give back. I wasn’t receiving anything from Toronto, and therefore I stopped giving too. So I left, and here I am.
Following his relocation, Justin prepared the songs that became EAST, the move understandably directly impacting the new material. He also made the decision to record the album elsewhere, considerably further east still, working and writing with musicians he admired, most of whom hailed from the east of Canada.
This would have been an entirely different album had I made it whilst living in Toronto. I know the whole thing echoes of a tired cliché – the artist seeking solitude for his craft in the countryside – but some clichés are built on truth, and I felt that this one was built on some foundation of truth. I wrote the songs on a lake in Ontario, and recorded it on a lake in Nova Scotia. Had I written the songs on a front porch in Toronto, they would arguably have become different songs, with an entirely different temperament.
EAST is comprised of nine new Rutledge songs, including four collaborations and one lyrically pertinent cover. The latter, Queen Street Lost, written by Tom Parker (of the defunct Toronto honky-tonk outfit, the Backstabbers Country Swing Band, now leading Colonel Tom & the American Pour), speaks of the gentrification of a cluster of once affordable, friendly Toronto neighbourhoods. Excepting backing vocals, it is performed acoustically unadorned, the production by Daniel Ledwell presenting it as if heard through a transistor radio. It closes EAST, and a long chapter in Justin’s life, underlining part of the motivation for leaving the big city.
The co-writes are with Madison Violet’s Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac (North Wind); Jadea Kelly (No One Knows), and Matthew Barber (Hey Little Boy), while Heaven Help Us has been resurrected from the eponymous 2012 debut album from Justin’s other musical venture, Early Winters. With his move east has come a newfound approach to songwriting, where Justin is more open than ever before to such creative teamwork:
Perhaps it’s because I’m not so headstrong anymore. I see tremendous value in having the input of fellow songwriters whom I respect. Sometimes I hit a wall with a song and need a fresh, objective eye. Songwriting is interesting in that regard. A painter wouldn’t really give a colleague a brush and ask them to add a few strokes to a canvas, but with a song, sometimes that is all that is needed to break through to a new vision.
Justin’s talented cohorts on EAST include such as acclaimed singer-songwriter (and Ledwell’s wife) Jenn Grant; Kyle Cunjack of the criminally underrated Fredericton folk-pop lovelies, the Olympic Symphonium; ace jazz drummer Sly Junas, and horn player Bryden Baird, who has worked with acts ranging from Feist to Michael Bublé and the Temptations. They collectively perform as if mentally in step with Justin’s new circumstances, laying down a relaxed backing for his delicate vocal delivery. Adding to the texture this time around are lush strings, performed and arranged by Drew Jurecka, whose enormous CV includes stints as a session player with Bahamas, and some chaps named Dave Brubeck and Stevie Wonder.
All in all, while none of Justin’s six previous albums are hardly rave-ups, EAST boasts a calmer, mellower and more organic vibe than any of them, surely representative of where he now is in life. And in neat synchronicity, from a day-job perspective his time recording the album was seemingly a breeze:
The whole process was relatively easy. I try not to complicate things anymore. Everyone on the east coast made it a very enjoyable experience. No red tape was seen. No dirt.
EAST is out now via Outside Music
Photo credit: Paul Robert Wright