Interview: Justin Rutledge
Sometimes, it takes drastic measures to purge the memories of a broken relationship. You might fill up that box, tuck it away deep in a closest, or even throw it in the trash, but the Canadian singer and songwriter Justin Rutledge went much further, selling his house in Toronto where he had lived his entire life. There was nothing left there for him.
Rutledge made his way to the eastern shores of Lake Ontario and bought a Victorian home that he renovated with a hunting cabin he named Little Ben. It’s a decision that not only affected Rutledge’s personal life, but also greatly influenced his new music. For the first time, he recorded a solo album outside of Toronto. Teaming up with producer and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Ledwell, Rutledge made the journey to Lake Echo, Nova Scotia to begin recording the appropriately titled, East. Spending their days on the lake with peaceful surroundings created a soothing and calming album.
On October 16, 2016, before Rutledge’s concert at The Moustache Club in Oshawa, Ontario, he took the time to sit down with Songfacts, where he discussed the theme of change in his new songs, why he enjoys writing from a character’s perspective, and how his 2014 Tragically Hip covers album has taken on a new meaning.
Laura Antonelli (Songfacts): When you’re writing a song, what method usually results in the best outcome for you?
Justin Rutledge: I have a strange method. Well, it’s not strange but it’s just my own. I work on songs in pieces, so I don’t really sit down and write. There have been few instances where I’ve written a whole song sitting down.
People tell you stories about how a song comes out in 10 minutes, but that doesn’t really happen with me. I guess songwriting has become a little more difficult for me over the years or maybe I regard it in a different light because I’m a little more critical of the songs that I write, so I take my time with them, which means I don’t sit down and overly struggle with a song or overwork it. If I’ve hit a wall with it, I put it aside. I’m generally working on about 10 ideas at a time so I’ll focus on another song. I always like to have several songs on the go so that I don’t just constantly feel stuck on one song.
Songfacts: You recorded your new album East in Halifax, Nova Scotia. How did recording there influence or change your writing?
Justin: I recorded the album just outside of Halifax in a little village called Lake Echo. I’m through with my days of long studio hours and late-night sessions. I want to work an eight-hour day. I want to work from 10 to 6 in the studio and get a reasonable day in because after that, nothing great comes out of me. I get a lot of my best work done in the mornings, so it was nice.
The studio was actually on the property of the producer I worked with, Daniel Ledwell. He and his wife have some property where the studio is so they live right on the lake. It was late spring so we’d hang out by the dock. It was too cold to swim, but generally we gave ourselves enough time that we could actually enjoy each other’s company and hang out and appreciate the surroundings while we were there.
It influenced the writing in the sense that there was just a lot of space around me when we were working on the record. There was a general sense of ease so I think maybe that comes across.
Songfacts: Yeah, it’s atmospheric in a way. There’s a theme of change in the record and you actually made a big shift in your personal life by moving from Toronto to Prince Edward County. What was it about Toronto that didn’t work for you anymore and how did that impact your writing?
Justin: I spent most of my life in the city of Toronto. I’m a pretty impulsive person and I just decided to sell my house. I always said I wanted to live in the country and I was sick of hearing myself say that.
I was coming out of a bad relationship and a pretty unhealthy one. I almost wanted to get rid of everything surrounding it, so I just sold the house. I went that far to say, “I don’t really want any memories around of that because I was a different person then.”
I’ve quit drinking since and there was just a lot of change in the air. I made a pretty rash decision and found a place on the lake in Prince Edward County and said, “Screw it. Let’s sell the house.” You know, “Let’s sell the farm!” It’s been wonderful living outside of the city and it gives me a totally different outlook on life. Change is good.
Songfacts: And a song that talks about not belonging in Toronto anymore is the last one on East called “Queen Street Lost.” It was actually written by Tom Parker. Can you describe the evolution of that tune and why you wanted to record it?
Justin: Well, they call him Colonel Tom on the street but Tom is in a band called The Backstabbers. I used to go see The Backstabbers in my early 20s. They’re a country string band that used to play at various places and clubs in the city. So I used to go see them and that song always resonated with me even back in my 20s because I grew up in Toronto and even back 10 years ago I could see it changing.
It’s a song about someone who really can’t see themselves in their surroundings anymore. When you begin to become invisible in a city or place and you don’t see yourself reflected in your surroundings anymore, that’s when you know it’s time for a change. So that song’s always resonated with me in the sense that it illustrated exactly what I was going through at the time. Toronto, I wasn’t getting anything from the city and it wasn’t giving me anything so it was time for a change.
Songfacts: “Unsettled” begins the album and sets the tone well. You said that it’s about the “dark night of the soul and not placing blame.” Can you expand on that thought and explain what motivated you to write it?
Justin: Well, the whole idea about being unsettled has several meanings to me in that song. In what way does this person in the song feel unsettled? Are they just generally not at ease? Or, do they feel like they don’t have a home? So there are a couple of plays that are going on there with that word.
I truly believe that recovery requires some kind of stasis where you have to sit and internalize and lick your wounds and confront that darkness. The character says, “I just want to be unsettled tonight,” and I think that’s part of the healing process. The song really is about two people that are not good for one another, but there’s really no anger in the song. “You and I have never been made of the right stuff” – that’s just it. It’s not you, it’s not me, it’s us. We’re no good for one another together. It’s not your fault. It’s not my fault. So let’s start the recovery. Let’s start healing. I think that being hurt and recovering from that hurt is important in building character, so that’s all somewhere in the song.
Songfacts: “I was never much of a friend” seems like a pretty honest lyric.
Justin: Well, there is a lot of honesty going on in the song, which I like. That was written about a specific incident. There are so many things you want to say, and I never said that to her, but I wanted to. I knew I wasn’t the kind of friend or partner she wanted. I wasn’t good to her and I knew that she wasn’t good to me, but she didn’t have to say it.
That line is:
You were never much of a savior
I was never much of a friend
People want things in a relationship. There’s a pull and a push and a balance. A relationship requires a balance on both parts and sometimes it’s not there, and it wasn’t there for the people in this song.
Songfacts: “The Great Ascension” was inspired a bit by the television show, The Leftovers. Can you talk about how that show influenced the song and what’s happening in it?
Justin: Well, it’s a pretty great series about two percent of the world’s population disappearing. No one knows what the fuck is going on and there’s no proof. There’s no meaning behind it. People are searching for some sort of reason why this happened but there is none.
It got me thinking about what we’re searching for, and I don’t like to get grandiose in my songs. I don’t like to preach. I don’t like to talk about larger things. I like to talk about the small details, but this song is one of the broader strokes that I’ve toyed with, I guess.
I initially thought it was about religion but then it came to mean more than that to me. The search for meaning can be through religion but it can also be through art and tapestry. It can be through prayer but it can also be through music and sport. It’s whatever provides you with that sense of belonging. So that’s just what the song is about: how we’re all waiting for something, but more importantly, searching for meaning.
Songfacts: What’s the tale in “Heaven Help Us”?
Justin: It was written about a friend’s band. I wrote that song years ago about a friend of mine who started a band and he was really excited about it. They were playing in New York for the first time and they were all going down. I guess that’s how it starts anyway. I just remembered my first time when I started going down to the States. It’s just so hard down there. I mean, you’re playing for no one.
Songfacts: You lose money from it.
Justin: Oh, you lose money regardless no matter what you do.
But I just started with this tale of this band going down, white-knuckling their way down South. “They’re going to be angry at the cops and at the parking.” I just envisioned them getting into New York and trying to find their way around.
But then it broadens out. There’s a verse where I talk about my fictional wife. I don’t have a wife, but there’s a verse:
My wife is sad upon the morning
She says nothing ever goes her way
She looks at me and then she looks away
There are just these little moments. In the chorus, “Heaven help us all,” and then the bridge, “Something changes, something changes us,” there are these little moments that change you. Everyone talks about “the moment my life changed,” but it doesn’t have to be a big event. It can be the way someone looks at you or it can be a night in New York. It can be anything anywhere and it can be really small.
Songfacts: In “No One Knows,” you sing, “No one knows how to fall in love.” What moved you to write that specific lyric?
Justin: I co-wrote that with my friend, Jadea [Kelly]. I don’t know. We were just hanging out one night and we wrote that tune. I mean, it’s the truth, isn’t it?
Songfacts: Possibly. It’s a pretty pessimistic view of love. Do you find?
Justin: No, I think it’s totally natural. I think it’s just stating a fact. It’s not a pragmatic, logical thing to do.
I think it’s a hopeful song. I don’t think it’s at all a pessimistic song. I think the opposite.
Songfacts: Why do you think the opposite of it then?
Justin: It’s not a flaw. There’s some soulness in that. It’s not something that we know how to do. It’s something that’s innate and it’s something that comes to you. It’s something that your body tells you.
I guess with modern love and the new ways of dating, they don’t…
Songfacts: See, that was how I was taking it.
Justin: Right. I see that! Okay. I don’t mean it as a direct statement like, “No!” I don’t mean it to say that. There’s a tone in it. It’s not [cynically], “No one knows how to fall in love.” It’s [optimistically], “No one knows how to fall in love.” [Laughs]
“No one chose to be part of a love.” You don’t choose it. It’s not a decision that you make.
Songfacts: Out of all of your songs, do you have a favorite lyric that you’re particularly proud of?
Justin: Out of all of my songs? I’m not sure but off East, there might have to be a couple in “Unsettled” or there are a couple in “North Wind.” It’s a tough question. [Long pause] I do always like that verse [from “Unsettled”]:
You were always iron and glacier
I was always venom and red
I like that one.
Songfacts: What do you think lyrically has been your most misunderstood song?
Justin: “No One Knows” [laughs]. It’s interesting. I’ve never had that problem. It’s not that I write songs that are easy to get but I don’t think there’s a lesson that I’m trying to teach in any of my songs. There’s not a moral at the end of it.
Songfacts: Like a statement.
Justin: Yeah, it’s not really the way I work. I work more emotively. If someone listens to one of my songs and says, “I know exactly what that’s about,” then I’ve done something wrong. I’m not doing my job properly because that’s not what I want to do.
Songfacts: It’s too obvious.
Justin: Yeah, I want to create something that you haven’t heard lyrically before. It’s part of my job, and even though some of my songs are love songs, I tend to talk about love in different ways.
Songfacts: Your albums Man Descending and The Early Widows were both based off of pieces of literature. Why do you think you enjoy writing from a character’s perspective so much?
Justin: Well, it allows me to leave my baggage at the door. It’s just easier to get into someone else’s head. Most of my songs are fictional anyway. They’re not really about me. So when I’ve got a specific character to think and write about, it just takes the onus off of my personal life because my personal life is pretty boring anyway.
Songfacts: [Laughs] You think your personal life’s boring?
Justin: It’s just like everyone else’s. Get up. Walk the dog. Have a shower. Brush my teeth. Have my coffee and go about my day.
Songfacts: You released The Tragically Hip covers album Daredevil in 2014. With everything that’s happened this year involving Gord Downie and the band, has that project taken on a new meaning for you?
Justin: I don’t know. I’m glad I recorded it when I did because I wouldn’t have done it after his diagnosis was public because it would just seem like a money grab or something. But I’m glad it’s out there. I’m glad that I got to express my love for the music of The Tragically Hip.
When Gord announced his cancer, I got some great responses from people about it saying that it was helping them through their sorrowful times because it [his announcement] really did have an impact on the whole country. At first it was just an album of Tragically Hip covers and now it resonates on a larger scale.
Songfacts: When do you know a song is completely finished and that there’s nothing more you should do to it?
Justin: That’s a good question. My method is so vague. I just get a sense when a song’s incomplete. Even if I say, “Oh, this is done,” I just know it’s not. I can’t really convince myself otherwise. So a song like “The Old Oak,” it required a lot of massaging.
I tend to let things sit for a while, so if I’m frustrated and I’m close to finishing the song, I’ll leave it alone. The great thing about songwriting is that you can work on it in your head. You could be driving somewhere or taking transit. You could be walking the dog. You could be doing the dishes and you could still be humming the song in your head. So that’s what I do: I go about my day and keep the song in my head. It might take a few hours or it might take a year, but that missing part of the puzzle will eventually fall into place. I just get a sense and know that that’s it. It happens to me while I’m driving for a lot of songs, which sucks because I have to pull over and record it into my phone so I don’t forget it.
That’s another important thing: Always record your ideas as soon as you get them because so many times I’ve lost so many ideas saying, “Oh, I’ll record it when I get home.” Or, “I’ll record it in the morning,” and then it’s just gone.
“Trust your gut” is my biggest advice. There are a couple of friends I go to, but I generally don’t do that. I just work on it on my own. So I would say before you go to a friend, try to stick it out and work on it yourself. If it feels done to you, it probably is, but if there’s even the slightest inkling that it could be better, then you got some work to do.
Songfacts: Have the meanings of any of your songs changed for you since you first wrote them?
Justin: No, they just evolve. They don’t change.
There are some songs that I forget about – there are a couple of songs we’re playing on this tour that I’ve always wanted to play but never have before. So it’s nice to go back and play those songs live and revisit those scenes that I wrote years ago. Playing a song is like opening the door to another room in your house. I have seven records now so it’s been nice to pull from them. I think hopefully the set list reflects it. But, yeah, every time we go back and do an old song, it’s a trip.
Songfacts: Does it bring up memories?
Justin: Yeah, definitely. We’re doing a song called “Everyone’s In Love” on this tour. I wrote that about someone from 2007. Like, “Oh, yeah! Her!” It just brings back these flashes that are important. It’s important not to forget.