Michael Ondaatje didn’t waste any time, recalls singer-songwriter Justin Rutledge, who turned to the famous novelist last summer for some guidance on a few songs before recording his new album. “I brought some lyric sheets to his place and played him the songs,” says Rutledge. “He acted almost like an arranger, an editor. He saw the words on the page and would say ‘What about moving this there?’ or ‘What about trading these lines?’ ” Ninety minutes and a couple of cups of homemade cocoa later, Ondaatje had made suggestions on five songs, and co-written another, On The Russian River, 1849, from scratch.
Rutledge describes that tune as a lullaby, set during the San Francisco gold rush, “about a poor boy diving for gold and burying timber to impress a stately lady.” Rutledge, who admits that he usually hates co-writing, says working with Ondaatje (who declined to be interviewed for this story) was the best experience he’s had yet. And though Rutledge is confident their song will find a spot on one of his next albums, On The Russian River, 1849, didn’t make the final cut of The Early Widows, which is out on May 4. The English Patient author does, however, get 100 per cent of the credit for the second line—I am a pause in a storm on a dark stair whenever your name is spoken—of Be A Man, the first single. It’s classic Ondaatje, and fits in perfectly on Rutledge’s fourth album. That’s because while Rutledge lacks Ondaatje’s household-name status, the 31-year-old alt-country musician from Toronto is considered one of Canada’s most thoughtful young songwriters.
Ondaatje’s rather seamless transition, despite his very limited experience as a songwriter, shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. As his millions of fans will attest, he has always written with a lyrical cadence. And he’s been writing about music and musicians for much of his career. “He uses a lot of musical images,” says Rutledge. “And a lot of musical metaphors.” Ondaatje’s 1976 classic Coming Through Slaughter, for instance, was described in London’s Sunday Times as “perhaps, the finest jazz novel ever written.” Six years before that he published a much lesser-known 64-page literary criticism of Leonard Cohen’s work.
Ondaatje and Rutledge first met in mid-December 2007, about 18 months before their songwriting session at the novelist’s home. Rutledge was on a concert bill at the Harbourfront Centre’s Enwave Theatre, and when he sang the chorus of his song Snowmen, something clicked for Ondaatje, who was sitting in the crowd that night. Rutledge reminded the author of Cooper, a character in his Governor General’s Award-winning novel Divisadero. The two spoke after the show, and a couple of weeks later met up again. Ondaatje asked Rutledge if he was interested in writing music for When My Name was Anna, Daniel Brooks’s stage adaption of Divisadero. “This character doesn’t say much, so I initially found it kind of difficult,” says Rutledge. “But I thought, maybe this leaves room for me to get more inside him, so I asked Michael if I could take some liberties. He said sure.” Rutledge was a little bit surprised, in fact, by how open Ondaatje was to critical feedback: “He was not precious at all about his work.”
The show, billed as a “dramatic reading,” is scheduled to debut next February. It will feature three of Rutledge’s songs, including Be A Man, and Rutledge himself, who will make his acting debut. Since studying English literature at the University of Toronto, where he also worked on a couple of literary journals, Rutledge has released three well-received records—his sophomore album, The Devil on a Bench in Stanley Park, was even nominated for a Juno. That’s not to say getting the nod from a literary legend isn’t an ego boost. “[Michael] instilled in me a sense of validation,” says Rutledge. “After he approached me, I sort of took a step back and said ‘Maybe, I’m doing it okay.’ ”
Ondaatje isn’t Rutledge’s first famous literary link. He based his 2008 album, Man Descending, on a short story by Saskatoon’s Guy Vanderhaeghe. Asked if he’s worried about getting typecast as a book-loving troubadour, Rutledge laughs, saying he may have to “get a Flying V guitar and sing about partying all night long” on his next album. That’s about as likely as Rutledge taking a stab at writing the Great Canadian Novel. Since writing a poem used to take him months, Rutledge says he’s happy to stick with four-minute narratives. And if he gets tripped up on a lyric or two, he knows who to call.