Ruthie Foster wasn’t looking to make an album. Her relationship of eight years had crumbled and she was coping with the heartache and challenges of co-parenting the former couple’s now five-year-old daughter, Maya.

Hurting, between tours, she took day trips to places around her Austin, Texas home, trying to figure out what her life would be going forward. She went on a camping trip to Colorado with some friends, taking the opportunity to reconnect with them.

Other times, when she came off the road from touring, she’d go to her friend Daniel Barrett’s Rubicon Studios in south Austin and hang out. They’d have coffee, listen to music, and occasionally Foster would do voice work for him.

Making an album and starting a new relationship were the last things on her mind.

“I wasn’t really in the head-space to even be in the studio,” Foster said. “I was in the middle of a huge transition, and when that’s going on, it’s really hard to be and stay focused, especially when you’re traveling like I was. I didn’t change my schedule. And it was not easy going through that transition because emotionally it takes its toll. So I did a lot of listening to new songs.”

One of those songs was Forgiven by Deb Talan of the Weepies. “That song moved me so much because it said a lot about where I was in my life with how things were changing. And how you can’t go forward until you let go and forgive,” Foster said.

One day Barrett put a microphone up in the studio and had Foster record Forgiven. The song became the last track on her new album, Joy Comes Back. With one exception, the album is a compilation of cover songs that reflect where Foster has been emotionally the past few years. The exception is the Foster-penned ballad Open Sky.

Album Cover

“It started with Forgiven and it just rolled into my being able to open enough to write a little bit and so Open Sky came after that,” Foster said. “I was just becoming open to a relationship. Someone who was a friend of a friend.

“We got close and that’s where that song really came from, just my feelings about that person.

“That whole thing that happens with, am I moving too quick? I just got out of this long-term place. And I’ve got a daughter. And I will always have a connection to this other person. You know, all those other things run through your mind. And what’s this other person going to think because this new person is going to be a part of our daughter’s life. Maybe. Maybe not. You know, you get in your head about it all.”

Something in my heart won’t say what the rest of me knows
Every little moment I hesitate, tells me that it’s so
Lately I don’t have a clue where I want to go
But I know one thing’s for sure
It’s you I want to know

Foster makes time to sit with her piano or guitar a couple of times a week to write. And she schedules time to practice at least once a week, “just go over songs that I know and really it’s just about making sure my equipment’s working because I travel with a guitar and some pedals and all that. When I’m not touring, I’m co-parenting a five-year-old so I have to make time for life.

“It mostly starts with me with the instrument. I’ll find a riff on the guitar, I’ll find a chord structure that works and usually words come after that. It’s rare I have words beforehand.”

Open Sky was an uncommon instance where Foster wrote the words and music together. Struck by inspiration, rather than set up her home studio, basically a computer and music software, she hit record on her iPhone and laid the song down.

“The idea was there. The important thing for me when that happens is not to get up. Just sit there until it’s done and that’s what I did. It was really about 20 minutes and that’s pretty quick for me because I do a lot of writing and re-writing when I’m writing for myself.”

When Foster and her friend Barrett, now producing her album, were going over songs, she remembered Open Sky and pulled out her iPhone so they could give it a listen.

“He was floored by it,” she recounted. Then Barrett told her, “‘We have to put this on the album.’ So that’s what happened.”

That first-take iPhone version enticed bassist Willie Weeks, who has played with everyone from David Bowie to Bobby Womack, to play on the tune.

Neither Barrett or Foster knew Weeks, but they wanted his signature soul sound on the song. Somehow Barrett was able to track him down online and send him the song.

“He sent us a note back quickly. He thought it was an awesome soul song and he loved the idea of playing a soul song” Foster said.

Foster wanted a “Donny Hathaway soul bass,” and that’s what he gave it, she said. “He’s brilliant and he just nailed it.”

Trying not to rush ahead I get left behind
Trying to catch my breath
I don’t want to close my eyes
Caught up in this open flame and it’s calling me by name
Telling me that, this time, don’t ask why
Trust in open sky

“Open sky to me means possibilities. It’s just being open to love, open to what could happen. And it’s hard. I was in a place where I was very closed. It was painful going through that entire thing. At the same time, I’m giving all of this light to people on a weekly basis when I travel and do my shows. Not to say that I wasn’t there because I’m very present when I sing and when I’m performing.

“But I’d go back to the hotel and you can’t make that call to the person you were connected with for so long when you’re kind of used to it. I kind of closed down for a little bit emotionally, in my personal life. This was a chance to open again at least a little bit at a time.”

Open Sky also represents a long-held wish of Foster’s to get airborne herself and into the wild blue yonder. It’s why she said she joined the Navy and worked on helicopters and in aviation electronics after graduating from McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas.

“I’ve always had this desire to be around planes and anything that can take you up on the air. I love that concept of just being weightless. You’ve got all this openness in front of you. You can go anywhere. The possibilities,” Foster said.

The Open Sky of her new relationship was “learning how to fly again, even if I’m just close to the ground, but I’m up. Wheels up. We’re up now.”

I don’t have a self-defense when I’m looking in your eyes
Giving in is evidence, I’ve got nowhere else to hide
I’m so tired of stalling
It’s weighing my heart down
Catch me while I’m falling
I don’t wanna touch the ground

Her new girlfriend had shown up at a few concerts and asked a mutual friend if Foster was interested in going out. At first Foster said no. She wasn’t ready.

And yet, “no one ever wants to pass up something that could be a good thing. And I’m a firm believer in it’s better to have loved than not loved at all.” And so, eventually Foster said yes.

Trying not to rush ahead I get left behind
Trying to catch my breath
I don’t want to close my eyes
Caught up in this open flame and it’s calling me by name
Telling me that, this time, don’t ask why

Photo by John Carrico

Photo by John Carrico

The song, Foster said, is “giving people permission to just take a chance on love and open possibilities. Being open to what could happen. Knowing that you’re strong enough for whatever happens.

“Open sky is definitely available for all that, you going into it with an open heart. No expectations.”

Trust in open sky


Listen to Open Sky here:

Click here for a Blues Magazine story about the album Joy Comes Back.

Click here for an NPR story about the song Joy Comes Back.

You can learn more about Ruthie and her music by visiting her website.

You can purchase Joy Comes Back at this link.

Ruthie Foster’s #1 album, Rickie Lee Jones


In 1985 Ruthie Foster became the first black woman to graduate from the commercial music program at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. Until college, she mostly listened to gospel and blues. She even sang in a blues band.

And then a classmate played her Rickie Lee Jones’ self-title debut album.

“What I loved about it, it’s got these all-star players on it and it’s just so tastefully done and I love what she’s doing melodically with her voice, with the lyrics.

“There’s a song on there called The Last Texaco and the way it’s produced, the production of it, the lyrics, the way she sings. if you didn’t understand English you would think it’s just a sad love song but then you read the lyrics and you see that she’s singing about a Texaco that’s closed after being open for so very long. I love that, that spin on a song.

“If I’m on a desert island and I’ve gotta have some music. I’m going to reach for that.”