Unique perspective lets singer-songwriter Justin Rutledge live vicariously

Aidan Knight with Justin Rutledge

When: Saturday, 9 p.m. (doors at 8)

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Where: St. Ann’s Auditorium

Tickets: $20 at Lyle’s Place, Ditch Records and ticketweb.ca

Singer-songwriter Justin Rutledge didn’t necessarily have a tough childhood, and you hear no evidence of great hardship in neither his voice nor his songs. But he did have to keep his wits about him on most days, and he once saw a man die from a stab wound to the chest.

Rutledge undoubtedly has a unique outlook on things, one that enables him to live vicariously through others as he travels the country as a professional musician.

“I really like it. I love travelling. You get a brief glimpse of how people live. For 24 hours, you are part of their system, their community, their lives. As a musician, that’s a pretty special perspective to get. I love this country, and every city in it.”

Rutledge, 34, lives in Parkdale, a Toronto neighbourhood, just five minutes from where he was born. He was raised in the Junction, which today is an up-and-coming neighbourhoood. Back in the day, however, it was nothing of the sort. His memories of the neighbourhood are in stark contrast to what he sees during visits home to see his parents.

“Over the past few years the neighbourhood has gone through the roof,” Rutledge said. “When I grew up, it was mostly used appliance stores or vacant stores. Back then, you could buy a house for $60,000. Now, you’d be lucky to find one for under $600,000.”

Life in the Junction was full of dangerous denizens decades ago. There was a crack house located next door to the Rutledge family that offered no shortage of drama, Rutledge said. “It wasn’t uncommon to hear a ruckus next door.”

One particular incident from more than a decade and a half ago stayed with him. When Rutledge was 17, he heard a noise coming from the backyard of the house next door and went to investigate. He found a man named Peter, the boyfriend of the woman who owned the house, laying in the driveway.

“He was lying there in his boxer shorts with a knife sticking out of his chest,” Rutledge said.

The drugged-out residents weren’t doing much to help, so Rutledge jumped in and began performing CPR on the man who was stabbed during a fight with his girlfriend’s son. Rutledge could hear from his breathing that Peter’s lung had been punctured. Paramedics came, but the man could not be saved.

“It was that kind of neighbourhood, growing up,” he said.

Though it would make for a ripping folk yarn, Rutledge never wrote a song about it. Some things in life are too real, he said.

Surprisingly, most of his material is fictional. He does insert himself into various situations on occasion, but those instances are rare, he admitted. He wrote himself into the song Be a Man, but did so with help from author Michael Ondaatje, upon whose novel, Divisadero, most of the songs on Rutledge’s acclaimed 2010 recording, The Early Widows, were based.

“Be a Man is me telling myself, in a not so roundabout way, to stop being such an idiot,” Rutledge said.

By being an idiot, Rutledge was referring to the occasions in which he drinks to excess. Rutledge hasn’t succumbed to the disease per se — “I’ve been to some [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings,” he admitted — but he watches himself closely.

“That’s sort of the nature of the business. Being a musician, you’re out late, and work on your own deadline. When I go to work, there’s a case of beer [backstage]. It’s hard.”

Alcohol was kept under wraps during the Junction days, Rutledge said. Back in the 1800s, the area was cottage country for Toronto residents. The mix of vacationers and locals (most of whom worked at the nearby rail yards) was volatile, which led to excessive drinking and fighting, Rutledge said. As such, the sale of alcohol was banned from 1908 until 1999.

Being away from his roots is good for Rutledge, who catches up on his must-read list while on tour. He’s had plenty of time to read over the years, having trekked across Canada on a yearly basis for the past decade. During one of those tours, he met Victoria singer-songwriter Aidan Knight, with whom he became friendly. Rutledge was asked to join Knight as the opening act on his seven-date tour of Canada, which concludes Saturday at St. Ann’s Academy.

His tour with Knight finds Rutledge between three projects, above and beyond his recently released fifth album, Valleyheart. He is currently finishing another record, due in April, and is writing a play scheduled for a December debut. In addition, he’s writing a guitar-based score for a made-for-TV movie.

Being busy is a blessing, Rutledge said. But his level of activity is pushed by an underlying force, in a way. “I don’t care what it is, as long as I get to create. I’d rather be busy. Because if I’m not, I’m drinking.”


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