Justin Rutledge Finds the Joy of Company with Michael Ondaatje

Justin Rutledge Finds the Joy of Company with Michael Ondaatje
Acclaimed Toronto troubadour Justin Rutledge is getting ready for the release of his fourth album, The Early Widows. It comes out on Six Shooter Records on Tuesday (May 4), and gets its launch via a Toronto gig at Lee's Palace on May 8. The album finds Rutledge co-writing for the first time, and he's roped more than a few high-profile guests to lend a hand.

Topping the list is Canadian literary icon and The English Patient author Michael Ondaatje, who co-wrote the The Early Widows' lead-off track, "Be a Man." Rutledge credits his ongoing creative relationship with the author as having a real impact on the album as a whole.

"Spending so much time with Michael's work really affected the way I wrote lyrics," Rutledge explains in a recent Exclaim! interview. "I am dealing with one of my favourite writers so this was no time for me to slouch lyrically. I really felt I had to be at the top of my game."

As previously reported, Ondaatje and Rutledge have also been working together on a theatre project, When My Name Was Anna, an adaptation of Ondaatje's novel Divisadero.

"We are planning on staging it in February 2011," says Rutledge. "In November, we did three weeks of rehearsals and we staged three workshop shows at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto. Daniel Brooks will direct, and he's fantastic. The cast will include [Canadian actors] Tom McCamus and Maggie Huculak, and I'm acting in it too. It is not necessarily a play, more a dramatic reading. Michael asked me to write songs based on this one character, and he incorporated a couple of my older songs into the script."

When My Name Was Anna will mark Rutledge's debut as an actor, a role he's not taking lightly. "I'd never been involved in theatre before so to be involved with one of the most forward-thinking directors around [Brooks] meant I went from zero to 200 m.p.h. It was a little scary but I was a bit surprised at how it felt, better than I thought. I've always had recurring nightmares where it is opening night and I still haven't read the script of the play."

Along with Ondaatje, Rutledge has roped in his regular all-star band for The Early Widows: guitarist David Baxter, Blue Rodeo bassist Bazil Donovan, pedal steel player Burke Carroll and drummer Blake Manning. They're supplemented by drummer Gary Craig (Bruce Cockburn), violinist Jesse Zubot and backing vocalists Oh Susanna, Julie Fader and gospel trio the Faith Choral.

He also tapped songwriter/producer Hawksley Workman to helm the studio board, with recording again taking place at Blue Rodeo's Woodshed studio in Toronto.

"After doing my last two records there, I toyed with the idea of changing studios," says Rutledge. "At the end of the day, though, we know that room and its sound very well, so why not go back to a comfortable environment?"

Also adding to the list of guests is heavyweight Nashville songwriter Darrell Scott (Dixie Chicks, Emmylou Harris), who co-wrote "I Have Not Seen the Light," and Dan Burns and Corina Round, who helped pen "Turn Around." In fact, Rutledge, Burns and Round got on so well that they have formed a band together, the Early Winters, and have already completed an album.

In support of The Early Widows, Rutledge has lined up a Canada-heavy North American tour, as well as some UK dates. To see all the stops, click here.