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Justin Rutledge

The award-winning singer/songwriter/actor/poet finds inspiration at home in the County

The historic Corby’s Distillery warehouse on the banks of the Moira River in Corbyville, just north of Belleville, where the world-famous whisky was once stored, now houses Signal Brewery. The space was recently renovated to hold the craft brewery, a restaurant, and tucked in the corner is a small stage. Newly installed expansive windows offer a view of the Moira River and the impressive riverbank patio overlooking the Corbyville dam, built in 1857 by Henry Corby as part of the original gristmill. Even though it’s a beautiful, misty, unseasonably warm, mid-September evening, by nine o’clock no one is left on the patio.

Everyone is inside to see Canadian alternative Country singer/songwriter Justin Rutledge. Many have made their way across the Bay Bridge from the County where Justin recently settled and now calls home. Seems he already has a following from his new home turf and on this September evening there is a buzz about this warehouse space, even amongst the staff. When he takes to the stage conversations stop and the attention is on him.

It feels special seeing Justin in such an intimate setting. After all, since his first album was released in 2004, he’s produced an impressive body of work earning him many accolades. He’s been nominated for numerous Juno Awards, winning 2013’s Best Roots Album of the Year. He’s also worked with the who’s who of Canadian roots artists, including Oh Susanna, Hawksley Workman, Ron Sexsmith, and Jenn Grant.

Tonight, it’s just him. He plays song after song with smooth, flawless vocals, acoustic guitar, and occasionally the harmonica. He includes several songs from his latest album East, and some from his earlier work including the haunting Emily Returns from his Juno nominated album The Devil on a Bench in Stanley Park.

He doesn’t talk much tonight except to tell a couple of stories. One is about the letter he got on Monday, “the old-fashioned way, in the mail, and typewritten on letterhead.” It was from Canadian folk music legend, Gordon Lightfoot, complimenting him on his work. In his understated way Justin just smiles and said, “I guess I had a pretty good Monday.”

The historic backdrop makes an apt setting for the artist who draws inspiration from community and a strong sense of place. He and his sister were raised by their parents in an Irish Catholic household in the Junction, a working-class neighbourhood in Toronto’s west end. In his late 20s Justin bought his own house in Parkdale. He says, although his family is still there, he had lost the inspiration he used to get from his hometown and needed a change. A couple of years ago he sold his house in the only city he had ever lived and moved to Wellington.

This past August over cups of tea, unceremoniously made with tea bag in cup, at the kitchen table of his Wellington home, Justin talked about his move to the County. “It’s extremely rejuvenating. I wasn’t receiving anything from my surroundings anymore. There was no real reciprocal relationship and as someone who is a creative person I need that reciprocity when I open my door in the morning or when I go for a walk in my neighbourhood, it’s sort of a requirement of the occupation. For instance, we are sitting here looking out at Lake Ontario, it returns something to me and it gets sort of processed and turned into something musical for me.”

It’s a large Victorian house with a deep property that stretches to Lake Ontario, almost at the shoreline there is a cabin he renovated and rented out to supplement his income. Justin has connections to the County with several artist friends already living in the area, and he has fond memories of 17 childhood summers camping with his parents and sister at a campground near Adolphustown.

“It’s not just the lake. It all goes back to the time I spent here as a child, and the people. The landscape gives back to me, the community gives back to me, and hopefully I give something back to the community in that regard as well. In a lot of ways, I wanted to return to somewhere I recognized.”

The conversation turned to books and writing. His favourite poets are e. e. cummings, Alden Nowlan, Gwendolyn MacEwen, and Justin said he was introduced to another favourite – Leonard Cohen as a poet not a singer/songwriter. He also likes to read the classics and had just finished reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, “It was more touching than I thought it was going to be. You actually side with the monster, at least I did,” he said. Among his favourite Canadian writers is the late Alistair MacLeod. At the time he was also reading some non-fiction, Guns of August, a book about the First World War.

Of his own writing, Justin said he tried his hand at poetry in his late teens and early 20s. Although there are similarities in the way he approaches song writing he said, with some exceptions, most of his lyrics need the music.

“It’s really one of my favourite mediums because the words just have to jump off the page. Whereas, even though I approach writing lyrics in a similar fashion, I don’t think the bulk of them could exist without the assistance of some kind of melodic direction. I would be hesitant to say I am a poet first, even though there are a few lines I think could live alone outside of the music as poetry. I think it requires a different set of skin to call oneself a poet, because that’s where all the money is, right?”

Justin could perhaps be described as a non-delusional Don Quixote with a sense of humour, albeit sardonic at times. Like Quixote, he loves poetry, and is on a journey to find some sort of truth about or good in humanity through his art.

Perhaps the quixotic part of his journey began when he left his studies in English Literature with a major in modern poetry at the University of Toronto to put out an album. “After that one year I was going to go back to university, get my degree, and become a bartender, you know with my liberal arts degree. I’m still taking that year off. I made that one record – No Never Alone – and it got released in the UK and subsequently in Canada. I got on the train and I’m still on the train.”

The ride has been a busy one. Since the release of No Never Alone in 2004 to rave reviews in Europe and Canada, he has six more albums to his credit, several Juno nominations, including one for The Devil on a Bench in Stanley Park (2006), and The Early Widows (2010). His album Man Descending (2008), was long listed for that year’s Polaris prize. His fifth album, Valley Heart (2013) won a Juno for Best Roots Album of the Year, followed by Daredevil (2014), his critically acclaimed homage to the Tragically Hip, which the late Gord Downie described as career suicide, and his latest album East by his own description with “slightly more pop elements to the song writing,” was released in 2016 to favourable reviews.

Justin seems to be drawing inspiration from his new surroundings. This past summer he spent some time exploring the County on his Indian motorcycle including south Cressy, Lake on the Mountain, and the South Bay area. “That whole area is really turning me on right now. I get on my motorcycle and go; it’s cool. I do a lot of writing in my head. I don’t necessarily have to be sitting down with a guitar to do it.”

Even though his albums are polished, multi–instrumental, and include accompanying vocalists, Justin composes his songs with his acoustic guitar. “As long as I can sit with my guitar and play them and be happy with them. I think that’s the sign of a good song.”  Of his alt-country label he said, “I don’t mind. I’m a guy with a guitar. I guess I’m a folk musician, but I’m not sure what that means anymore.”

From time to time he has taken detours from his singer/songwriter role. “It was my 30th birthday, I was hung over, the phone rang, and I answered it. It was Michael Ondaatje.” The Sri Lankan born, Toronto-based, internationally acclaimed writer was calling to see if Justin wanted to collaborate on a theatrical production of his Governor General award-winning novel, Divisadero. Initially he was asked to help with the music but ended up acting in the production as well.

Other theatre credits include Morris Panych’s 2012 production of The Arsonist as an actor, composer, and musical director.

Currently, Justin plays a character described as an obsessive, one-man mariachi band, in Marine Life. The romantic comedy, written and directed by Canadian playwright Rosa Laborde, previewed November 8 and runs through December 10 at Toronto’s Tarragon theatre. Although he’ll be busy, Justin said he likes working in the theatre.  “It’s a welcome break from music, to be honest. It requires a fuller focus, and it is quite rejuvenating.”

Partly because of his hectic schedule, Justin has moved again. but not very far this time – just into Picton with the hope of simplifying his home life to give him more time for his artistic endeavours.

In the meantime he’s working on a new album to be released in January. After that, he’s not sure or isn’t saying where his journey will take him. He hasn’t ruled out going back to school either. “A couple of times I did go back and see my old course counselor at U of T and asked, ‘What do I need to finish this?’ I am interested, and I do think eventually I will get that degree whether it will be next year or when I’m 70, I will get it.”

Whatever he decides to do next, for the man who has been described as a modern-day troubadour, it appears to be an open road.