Justin Rutledge talks about the art of writing lyrics, working with Michael Ondaatje and surviving cat attacks
When singer-songwriter Justin Rutledge brought home a new puppy, his girlfriend was delighted. His cat was less pleased, and attempted to maim the canine while Rutledge was holding her in his hands. As a result, the guitarist’s left hand is in a protective brace when we meet in a coffee shop on Roncesvalles near his home in Toronto’s West End. “I’ve been bitten by cats twice before, which led to trips to the emergency room – it can be dangerous,” says Rutledge, 32.
Small mercies: the injury comes during a rare break for him. Since the release of his fourth album, The Early Widows, last spring, he’s toured the American West Coast with Blue Rodeo and will soon return to L.A. for a stint co-fronting a six-piece band. “It’ll be nice to be part of something, not a solo artist, for a bit,” says Rutledge, who was recently nominated for a Juno. By February, he will have appeared in his first play, working with four legends: Michael Ondaatje (BA 1965 UC) wrote the script Divisadero: a performance (based on his 2007 novel); Tom McCamus and Liane Balaban starred; and Daniel Brooks (BA 1981 UC) directed. Rutledge plays a farmhand-turned-gambler. “I may just retire from the theatre after this,” he says, making the word theatre mock dramatic. “That way I can begin and go out on top.”
After seeing Rutledge perform his music three years ago, Ondaatje approached him to write a score for the proposed theatre piece. Collaborating with Ondaatje was a dream for the avid reader – he’d studied Ondaatje’s poems during his three years at U of T. “My favourite course was one called ‘Reading Poetry.’ I learned to love Richard Brautigan and e.e. cummings – and Ondaatje,” he says.
That Rutledge knows his way around a poem shows in his lyrics, which are by turns soulful and clever. “Jack of Diamonds” – a song on his latest album, which is also featured in the play – has lyrics that place him firmly in the troubadour tradition, with an introduction that deftly draws you in: “Over that horizon, past the streets of Evangeline/ Past the bedrooms where the wounded girls recline…”
Rutledge’s music isn’t mere accompaniment – his tunes are catchy enough. “Things start for me, 95 per cent of the time, with the melody. I write songs in my head, so I can write them even with my hands out of commission, like now.” He holds up the result of his cat’s savagery, the brace, waving it about, as if conducting a piece he’s hearing in the air.