Grammy Award-nominee and out blues goddess Ruthie Foster turns up the heat with her latest release “Let It Burn,” from Blue Corn Music. She teams up with the Blind Boys of Alabama on a handful of tracks, including the sizzling album opener and her composition “Welcome Home.” In addition, she leaves her distinctive mark on Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain,” Los Lobos’ “This Time,” The Black Keys’ “Everlasting Light,” The Band’s “It Makes No Difference” and Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.” I spoke with Foster earlier this year.
Gregg Shapiro: The title of your new album “Let It Burn” comes from the song “ring of fire.” I love your smoldering rendition of the song. what was your motivation behind recording it in this fashion?
Ruthie Foster: That song had been in my mind for awhile. It was something I wanted to do. I wanted to do something really different with it. I wanted the song to stand out more. With this particular arrangement I wanted to capture more of the love story behind country music’s famous couple. This was my way of putting that into a different context. Which is kind of what I do with a lot of songs. I change them up a little bit and that introduces it to a new genre and a new audience.
Keeping with the “fire” theme, you do a cover of Adele’s “set fire to the rain.” what did you think about her recent Grammy sweep?
I’m as proud of her as if she was my own sister. I thought that was so great, having her come through the vocal and throat issues she was having. It looks like she’s got the right people around her, so I think that’s great. When I first heard her I almost ran off the road. Who is this woman and where did she come from?
Other interesting choices in cover material include songs by the Black keys and Los Lobos. why did you choose them?
The Black Keys song was brought to me by my producer John Chelew. I picked it out because it’s got the blues progression going on with it, which I thought was really nice coming from one of the newer bands out right now. When we recorded it we put a hallelujah chorus at the end of it, kind of took it back to church. And I love Los Lobos. They’re just the coolest of all. I run into these guys at different festivals. I love the song “This Time,” because it reminded me of the whole cruising thing, just cruising down the avenues. That’s what we wanted to do with it. Vocally I took it to a place where I thought Mavis Staples would take it. That’s why I’m singing really low in my register.
The album includes a couple of Ruthie Foster originals. What can you tell me about your songwriting process?
It’s really quite simple. Whenever I have time and energy in the same room, that’s when I can do it, which is really rare. That’s why I don’t have as many original songs on this CD. I was really traveling a lot with the last one. I’ve limited my own writing because I wanted to concentrate on just picking some really great songs that are already out there on this CD. I wanted to concentrate on being more of a song interpreter.
The Blind Boys of Alabama appear on four of the album’s tracks. How did that come to pass?
I traveled with the Blind Boys, and I’ve opened for them on several occasions. I also grew up with their music, so I’m a huge fan. My manager also manages them, so that made it a little easier to get them down to New Orleans. I love men’s voices when it comes to background vocals. I think it’s a great way to feature a female vocalist. When Amy Winehouse recorded, she had male vocalists backing her up. I just love that. Joan Osborne has done that with the Holmes Brothers. And these guys (the Blind Boys) are just fun and righteous.
Some of the songs have what I would call a political spirit. Do you consider yourself a political person?
People are going to use music and political issues all the time and I am for that. Music has always been used especially in the civil rights movement. I’ve also been involved with folks who were part of that. It’s hard to imagine that that is still going on, but it really is. Music has always been such a huge part of political movements – using music to get people’s attention. It’s a great way to get your point across.
Do you find the blues community welcoming to LGBT people, or is there still resistance?
I haven’t had any face-to- face resistance. I know that Candye Kane had something that happened at some festival, and I thought that was so wrong. She put it out there, she put their name out there and everything, that’s what you have to do, spread the word. I haven’t had a lot of resistance. I’ve had more of a welcome. Because we’re out here doing what we do and loving what we do and singing about what we love to do. When people come to my shows, I hope they’re coming because they love the music. The fact that the music is coming from a gay woman, that says something, too.