It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it, a career in music never easy. From the early days of trying to build a fan base to incessantly touring the world to creating new music, it never gets any easier. Fun? Yes. Easy? No.
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As difficult as it may be, any artist will tell you there’s nothing like live music. The studio is great, and the songwriting is satisfying, but there is no better feeling than being surrounded by dozens or hundreds or thousands of people just like yourself immersed in the music.
Justin Rutledge knows this all too well and it’s a feeling he’d like to bring back.
For over twenty years, the Toronto born, Juno award winning singer/songwriter has been navigating the musical waters and has done so with great success. With musical stylings akin to that of a Jesse Malin or Ryan Adams, Rutledge has built a solid legion of fans the world over.
Given that live shows have been a thing of the past for almost a full calendar year now, fans aren’t the only ones pining for the feel of a live show. As he readies his new album Islands for its March 26th release, he has started to pull back the curtain on the compilation by releasing the album’s first track. The catch is, if you’ve been out to see him live, you already know it and you know it well. A crowd favorite sing along that made its debut when he was just 24 years old, “Jellybean” has been a staple at Rutledge’s live shows.
“Jellybean” actually started off a slow dirge of a tune. Initially I was kidding around with it,” he recalls or the songs origin. “I wanted to write a really dark, slow tune contrasted with a light lyric like ‘Don’t be so mean, Jellybean.’ I thought the juxtaposition of the two elements would be engaging. I wrote the song in my early 20s, I think I was 21 or 22, and kept it in my back pocket for a few years.
“Then when I was 24, I got my first residency at a local club called the Cameron House in Toronto every Monday night. We played three sets and at the end of the night, I had to come up with some sort of rousing finale. So one night, at the end of our third set, I grabbed my acoustic and hopped up onto the bar and began singing this tune. The melody only consists of three notes, pretty easy, and I shouted out the words so that people could sing along, and they did.
“And that night Jellybean was born.”
Along those lines of familiarity, the entire Islands album is comprised of tunes fans probably already know. Re-recording select songs from his eight previous albums, Islands is Rutledge doing so in the manner they were initially conceived, most often with just he and his guitar.
As with most singer/songwriters that draw on their own emotions and life experiences when crafting their music, albums tend to be snapshots in time. Time capsules of where they are and what they are going through at that particular point in their life. Not unlike everyone else, artists evolve as people. While the change may not be much from day to day, when we look back, or in Rutledge’s case listen to the songs, it’s easier to see the transformations. To revisit these songs now, long after those episodes in his life have passed, he explains Islands as “…a stroll down memory lane, for better or worse, shaking hands with the people I used to be.”
Alas, the one constant through it all, has been “Jellybean.” Ironically, that’s also the very reason he’s been hesitant to record the song until now. Being such a ‘live’ song and an event unto itself, it’s practically his unofficial anthem. How do you truly capture the soul of a song like that when every night’s rendition is as unique as the crowd that’s singing it?
“I recorded it at the end of February 2020 and I recorded the guitars with the intention of getting fifteen to twenty of my friends in to sing the group vocal in a few weeks. Then Covid hit and a group vocal wasn’t an option anymore anytime soon!”
That left Rutledge with two options; scrap the idea entirely or lean on technology. Opting to go the technology route, he figured out a way to digitally assemble the organic ambiance he was so desperately trying to capture.
“I fired off sessions of the tune to friends who had recording setups at home and asked if they would lend their voices. Everyone knew it was for a group vocal, so they planned accordingly. I asked them only to do one or two takes each, with no editing, because I wanted to maintain the bar room/concert feel, and I think we accomplished that. It sounds like a bunch of friends singing in a room together.”
In the end, Rutledge accomplished exactly what he set out to do. With no true lead vocal out front, “Jellybean” is the big, swaying, sing-out-loud, lovefest his fans have known for all these years.
“I really enjoy NOT hearing my own voice in this song. I love hearing the voices of my friends, of other voices singing in unison or harmony.
“My hope is that listening to “Jellybean” will bring the listener back to a time when we could all sing a song together – at a club, theatre, or bar – arm in arm. I feel as though I’m forgetting what that was like. I’m sure we all can’t wait to do that again.”
Photo credit Christine Flynn