AUSTIN DAZE: How did you wind up in Austin?
RUTHIE FOSTER: Who doesn’t wind up in Austin when you are in music or art or any of that? This is the place to be. This is the environment to be in for anything to do with art. I was living, well I was living in so many places, but I was living in College Station for about 7 years after coming back from New York and it just wasn’t as much as a nurturing town. Everything grows here. There is such beautiful music here. I had to come here.
I will tell you this though, I avoided Austin when I first moved back to Texas because I was living in New Jersey and working in the village every night and I thought coming from that atmosphere and coming back to Texas that Austin can’t be as cool as the village so I avoided it for that reason. And I kind of wanted a break from that. I really wanted a little bit of a break from being in music completely because my mother was sick and I needed to devote some family time. But I let a few years pass and decided to jump back in full time.
AD: Did you ever hear people talk about Austin in the village?
RF: People will definitely compare and when people found out I was from Texas it got me in the door of a lot of smaller clubs and a lot of bigger clubs there. So there was a huge correlation between the two places. Austin is more like an entire town–it’s like a small area in New York–so that’s cool.
AD: From a musician’s point of view, is Austin different than New York? Musically speaking, what do you miss the most about New York?
RF: I’ll tell you what’s different, I’m not as exhausted here as I was there. There is just so many things that link to each other in New York. This film links to someone that’s doing something at this club who links to someone that is doing something in the pit, on Broadway–it’s all linked. There is no separation and that kind of made it difficult for me to want to be a songwriter and really needing to focus on that and not wanting to spread myself out too thin. Here in Austin, the focus is on the music, the song writing is the focus, the circle that I’m in anyway, and that’s what is so cool for me. I can focus on writing really good songs and putting that in the clubs that appreciate it for the crowds that appreciate it.
AD: We have heard that musicians often do better financially on the road than they do here at home. Is that true for you and why is that the case?
RF: Well, financially, and it’s true of any town, it helps to get out of an area and spread the music around a bit. People in other places, especially in Europe, love Texas artists and I’m just starting to discover that myself. I run into a lot of Texas artists in Holland and Germany.
AD: Why do you think that’s the case though? Why do think people do financially better away from home?
RF: It’s a really good question. For me, this particular time of year I like to get off the road and play Austin a little bit more so I can hone my songs and gather my audience a little bit more and a little bit more of my fan base because I’m in one place and they can come to me.
But I think that a lot of artists get caught in that too. In fact, in Holland I was actually in an interview and the interviewer referred to Austin as the velvet coffin. The velvet coffin because as a musician in Austin you can get caught up in Austin and it’s hard to break out of it. You get this crowd that comes in and they love you every Thursday and Friday night or whenever you play and then you go play somewhere else and they don’t know who the hell you are and you get maybe fifteen people who show up and they aren’t impressed because they haven’t really had a chance to hear and see your show. So in Austin, you’re playing this one place on a regular basis and it’s hard to break out of that. You get used to your crowd loving you no matter what.
AD: That’s interesting. I had never heard that before.
RF: I’ve never heard it either, I just paid serious attention to it! I was like, “oh you’re going to have to explain yourself now!”
AD: It’s like a vortex in some sense.
RF: In some sense, yeah. But that’s also what keeps this place cool. You know the village is like that too. There are a lot of places like that. In Amsterdam, they have their own little circle of people that just don’t leave Amsterdam.
AD: Do you find your following is as big over in Europe as it is over here?
RF: Not as much. I haven’t had a chance to really tour as much as I’d like to but that’s changing. Little baby steps that I’m taking.
AD: When you’re on the road, what do you miss most about being here?
RF: On Sunday, I miss being able to go out your back door and get in your truck and go down to Maria’s Tacos and hang in the coolest part of Austin. Eat tacos, drink margaritas and sing gospel music. You just can’t do that anywhere. You just don’t do that anywhere. And that’s what’s beautiful about his town. That’s what I love the more time I get to spend here.
AD: Tell me what you thinking of the smoking ban. To me it seems to make as much sense as the sound ordinance on Sixth Street.
RF: Well, I spent a lot of years in smoking venues and I have to say it definitely took its toll on me. For awhile there it made it really hard for me to sing. I’ve played Saxon, I actually didn’t even request it, but David Cotton managed to get me a non smoking show which I thought was great.
AD: Did it hurt your crowd?
RF: No, it’s didn’t hurt my crowd. I think it’s cool if you want to do that. The way I feel, have a show that is non smoking, but to ban the whole place from smoking? First of all, the people that are having a hard time with the smoking don’t go out to these places anyway. And I have a problem with that. If the place wants to smoke, fine. If I want to have a nonsmoking show, I think I have the right to do that. As far as banning the entire place, no. Musicians should be able to choose. Folks that are making these rules and bans aren’t going out to these places. They have nothing to do with it.
AD: What do you think was your breakthrough moment? What was the moment that your career took off?
RF: Kerrville Folk Festival.
AD: More music happens at those campfires than anywhere else.
RF: Oh yes. People that don’t play together when they have been on the main stage get a chance to hook up with each other. Folks who are just testing out their songs. And good songs
Kerrville helped me with the business side of it because my first time going to Kerrville was their music management seminar. I went to that first and then started singing at the campfires afterward. My first time going to Kerrville was there. You know to this day Rob thinks I was actually part of the New Folk contest winners and I’ve never entered that. I don’t know where he gets that. I think it’s great that he thinks that…I don’t where he gets the years and all of it. I never got picked for that. I sent in a couple of entries when I was in college but my end was through the back door. People just hearing me at campfires.
AD: Do you find yourself playing mostly at festivals as opposed to around town?
RF: Well, I’ve been playing a lot in festivals because that’s what’s working in the summer. It puts me out of town and I’m in Canada for a lot of the summer. Canada festivals work and they are just one weekend after another–you can’t go home. Kerrville started that and once these guys find out about you–these directors–they want you and they figure out how to get you from one place to another.
AD: So you don’t really have that much of a necessity to be hanging out at home and playing at many different bars here in town.
RF: No. I love playing Austin.
AD: Loaded question: What do you most want to accomplish with your music? That’s a loaded question.
RF: That’s huge! But I can answer that.
If you’ve seen my shows, my shows are about involving everybody. I try not to look at myself as the artist. In my shows I try to get people , if they want to sing with, if they want get up and dance, because I never know what’s going to happen with myself when I’m standing up there. I may feel like crying, I may feel like changing my intro a little bit. I keep it open because what I want to achieve is camaraderie with everyone and I want everyone to feel like they are not there to just be entertained. They are there to be part of the entertainment. Part of the community. Community is exactly why I moved back to Texas. Community and family.
AD: What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
RF: Don’t’ do this! No…
Be true. Be true to your music. Don’t try to be someone else. What I did was watch other people playing and know that is a place I want to play but I don’t want to be this person. I want to show up at the Cactus Cafe and play there one day and have my own show and do my own show and be true to my own music. And my own story. You get to hear about everybody in my family. My big mama and my papa. I talk about being raised on the Brazos River, I talk about how gospel influences my music. And it’s not about religion. It’s about being inspired.
Be true to your music, be true to yourself first.
AD: What’s next for Ruthie Foster?
RF: I don’t know, tune in folks. It’s definitely changing, you know? It’s definitely changing because I’m not doing the duo thing as much. Sid and I do still play together but it’s not as much because I want to stretch. Because the folks that know my music only know me from the work I’ve done the last five years or so and that’s with Sid or every now and then a group put together that does mostly Americana stuff. But I’ve been in big bands, I’ve sung jazz, I would love to do something even blue grass with a little blues soul in there you know like what Tim O’Brian is doing now. I’d love to do a little bit of everything. So as far as what’s next, I’m definitely working on a solo album that’s coming out next year. What happens after that…?
AD: Anything else?
RF: No! You guys ask some really good questions. You’ve got me thinking now. Thinking about my life, what I’m doing with my music. I’ve just been going, going, going and haven’t even thought about that.