Toronto boy sings the blues

Alt-country singer-songwriter finds his way from university to the Junos

Rutledge will be playing his alt-country music as the opener for Kathleen Edwards next Tuesday night.
Rutledge will be playing his alt-country music as the opener for Kathleen Edwards next Tuesday night.
Credit: 
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Justin Rutledge is a big city boy with a small town soul. The 29-year-old country singer with a mellow voice and the rustic charm to go along with it hails from Toronto.

His latest album, The devil on a bench in Stanley Park, is nominated for the Roots and Traditional Album of the Year: Solo Juno award. He’s opening for Kathleen Stewart Tuesday at the Grad Club. His third album, Man Descending, is also scheduled for Canadian release April 8.

Rutledge tumbled into music in high school by learning the entirety of Leonard Cohen’s catalogue, he said. After completing three years as an English major at the University of Toronto, he decided to take a year off school and record some songs. The result of that year was No Never Alone, Rutledge’s first release, and he never looked back.

“I just went to the Leonard Cohen school of hard knocks,” he said. “The record was released in the U.K. first before it was released in Canada and it was subsequently released here. Man, I should really go back and get that degree, shouldn’t I?” Leonard Cohen was a passing inspiration, though, and Rutledge said his English background has acted as more of a foundation in his song-writing.

“I feel it’s a great platform from which to get into the heads of characters and different narrators and people that inhabit the songs,” he said. “I don’t’ really write confessional material. I tend to base my songs on certain characters. Reading helps, it helps everything.

“I’m not really overly concerned with writing quick pop numbers or anything like that. I think a song should tell you how to write it and not the other way around.”

Rutledge’s songs seem to be pointing him in the right direction: his latest release is up for a Juno April 4. He said the nomination has solidified his career a little bit more, and reassured him there are still listeners out there for his alt-country sound.

“It’s nice to have some validation because the life of a songwriter or musician isn’t a really flattering one and I guess it’s a stage in my career, I don’t know, it’s nice to see that,” he said. “It changes how many times a week my mom calls me. She calls a little more frequently now.”

Rutledge’s upcoming effort has a sparser sound, he said, and discusses darker storylines with characters searching for a way out of their stagnant lives.

“It’s called Man Descending and it’s inspired by the 1982 Guy Vanderhaeghe book [by the same name] that actually won a Governor General’s Award. It’s largely about characters who are at the end of their ropes and that feel this kind of sense of inertia in their story at certain moments of their lives,” he said.

“It’s about not going anywhere, I guess, or feeling a sense of static of emotional paralysis.”

Although he says his work is mostly fictional, Rutledge lets Toronto creep in, even if only in recording locale. The album was done at The Woodshed, a studio in Toronto owned and run by |Blue Rodeo.

Toronto still gives his genre of music a supportive home, he said, which is part of the reason why he still lives in the area.

“There’s a really strong roots music scene in Toronto. There’s some great supportive bars and venues to play at. Surprisingly country music is alive and well,” he said.

“I grew up in the west end in an area called the Junction, which is an old railway,” he said. “Born and raised and I’m still a west-ender.”

One big-city vice he’s picked up is smoking, he says, but don’t worry—he’s trying to quit.

“I was talking to Gord Downie [of the Tragically Hip] a little bit because I knew he tried to quit smoking, and I asked him why he did it. [It was] because he wanted to save his voice.”

—With files from Meghan Sheffield

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