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A Conversation with Eric Ruscinski (Guitarist/Keyboardist with Alessia Cara)

Eric Ruscinski has one of the most enviable gigs on the planet, serving as both keyboardist and guitarist for Grammy Award-winning superstar Alessia Cara. As an incredibly versatile multi-instrumentalist, he can rock a stadium show or anchor an acoustic performance with Cara when need be.

Born in Hamilton, ON, he credits his grandfather with playing a significant role in introducing him to a range of musical genres, including rock, blues, country, and folk. He began playing guitar at 13 and formed a band in his high-school years that eventually started touring extensively.

In hindsight, Ruscinski reflects on this period as his “musical education,” lerning what it meant to tour, developing his craft as a musician, and honing the art of multi-tasking while developing PR and managerial skills - all endeavours that today's musicians would be wise to master.

After years of touring, Eric began working as a session musician with different Canadian artists and as the house guitarist on The Next Star. In 2015, Ruscinski’s life took an exciting new turn when he landed the gig as Cara’s guitarist and keyboardist following his last-minute decision to change catch her show in Toronto. Since then, he has gone on to perform globally with Cara, opening for some of the world’s top acts including Coldplay and Shawn Mendes; performing on Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and Ellen, to name a few. As a studio musician, Eric has worked as an arranger, guitarist, and keyboardist with Cara on both her debut and sophomore albums as well as with Atlantic Records artists Jason Mraz and Ben Platt.

I caught up with Eric just before Cara and her camp set off to join the European and U.S. legs of Shawn Mendes's world tour.

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CM: How did you land the Alessia Cara gig?

ER: I was hired by Alessia’s manager, Chris Smith, who I met during Canadian Music Week in April of 2015. The opportunity came at a really interesting time for me both personally and in my career, as I was in a period of growth and searching for new opportunities. At the time, I was primarily teaching music and helping to develop some artists in the Toronto area. I was between gigs with artists and had just wrapped up my work as a TV house band guitarist on The Next Star. I was invited last-minute to a showcase as part of Canadian Music Week and impulsively turned around on the highway to attend. After meeting her management team at the showcase on College Street in Toronto, I cleared my schedule and a day later I was in a small rehearsal room with Alessia. The following week, we were in New York performing for Def Jam Recordings and Alessia and I did our first acoustic performance for TED Talks. Within a few weeks, I was playing alongside The Roots, backing up Alessia on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, so the entire experience was completely surreal. I feel grateful to be involved with an artist like Alessia from the very beginning. We’ve gone from a small rehearsal room in Toronto to touring internationally for four years now. It’s taught me so much about music and myself, and Alessia is such a sweet, kind-hearted person.

CM: What lesson did you take away about going from music instructor to the world stage in such a short period?

ER: Since the age of 18, I was working every single day toward a goal to one day travel the world and make a living playing music. I always planned to put myself in that position by the time I turned 25. It was three months before my 25th birthday when I began working with Alessia, and I’ve since been able to live my days the way I had always dreamed. This opportunity came at a time in my life where a lot of things felt like they weren't going right. I learned the importance of resilience and focus. I learned the importance of being uncomfortable and being forced to step outside your comfort zone in order to grow.

CM: Describe the experience of opening for Coldplay.

ER: Touring with Coldplay was definitely one of the best musical experiences I could ask for. It was so incredibly inspiring and I feel lucky to have watched a band like Coldplay perform for tens of thousands of fans every night across Europe and the USA. I learned what connects to a massive audience both musically and emotionally. I learned how simplicity can communicate a strong message to a massive audience in an arena or stadium setting. I was fascinated by the crowd’s reaction to their music - the feeling that they evoked through the set list day-in and day-out. As a guitarist, I loved watching Johnny Buckland play every night and listening to his iconic guitar riffs live. It was amazing to see Coldplay’s fans sing Alessia’s songs all over the world and watch Alessia also connect with a massive audience.

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CM: What other projects have you been engaged with lately?
ER: I recently worked with Jason Mraz in the studio, recording piano, acoustic guitar, and organ on his latest album, Know, released through Atlantic Records in 2018. I also recently recorded piano for Ben Platt, another Atlantic Records artist. Prior to working with Alessia, I was a house band guitarist on YTV’s The Next Star. I was also guitarist in the house band on CTV’s The Launch and played guitar and keys for Canadian Idol winner Brian Melo and Sony artist Tyler Shaw.

CM: What gear do you use?
ER: I use a Gibson ES-335 and a Gibson Songwriter acoustic. In terms of pedals, I use Strymon reverb and delays and a mixture of Xotic Effects and Full Tone pedals for different gain settings. On keys, I use a Korg Kronos and run soft synths and backing tracks from Ableton. Both Ableton and Pro Tools have become a focus since I started to run backing tracks live on stage with Alessia. It’s such an important part of most artists' live shows these days, so it’s been a focus of mine. I’m now confident in building and operating backing tracks, Ableton, and Pro Tools for artists on stage, which I think is valuable.

CM: What has surprised you about touring?
ER: How playing for one or two people in a small, intimate performance setting can be much scarier than for thousands at an arena or stadium. It’s surprising how quickly we as musicians can overthink things, especially in high-pressure situations, so it’s very important to stay relaxed and focused.

CM: How do you spend your down time on tour?
ER: I bring my portable studio, which includes some travel-friendly gear like the Universal Audio Apollo Twin, and try to use my spare time to build on my skills and move forward as a musician. I generally work on producing music and working with artists on different projects. Often, we’re developing Alessia’s live show, preparing covers or the set for the next tour. I also find it’s really important to stay active and exercise on the road in order to be my best self. I love to bike, run, and be outdoors, and will often run in the morning and try to see as much of the city as I can.

CM: Describe your typical warm-up.
ER: The pre-show warm-up is always a fun chance to get together with the band, hang out, have some laughs, and play some music together. With Alessia, we always do a little bit of vocal warm-ups and then play some cover songs. At the moment, we’re preparing a new set for Alessia’s headlining tour later this year, so we spend a lot of time in the green room putting together the show and running new ideas.

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CM: Who are some of your greatest influences as a musician?
ER: At a young age, my grandfather and my parents exposed me to a lot of different types of music. I have memories of my parents playing artists like John Denver, The Beatles, Boston, and some staple Canadian bands like The Tragically Hip and Blue Rodeo. My grandfather always had an acoustic guitar out around the holidays and I have some special memories of him playing country and folk music. As I got older and started to play music myself, I loved listening to and playing The Beatles, Jack White, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Incubus, John Mayer, Led Zeppelin, Foo Fighters, and had a phase where I loved punk rock bands like Blink-182 and Sum 41.

CM: What advice do you have for other musicians?
ER: I can only speak from my experiences, of course, but I would start by saying believe in yourself and be determined to live the kind of life you want to live. We live in a world that can make us feel crazy or wrong to believe that we can have an enjoyable and prosperous career as a musician. It is all possible and there are countless people doing exactly that, so make the decision to do what you want to do and start applying yourself. Be willing to invest absolutely everything from your energy to your time and money into doing whatever is necessary to meet your goals. Since I made the decision to be a professional musician in high school, time and time again I’ve invested everything I had into doing things like touring, recording albums, buying the right gear, or putting myself in a position to learn from or meet other successful musicians. Get uncomfortable and put yourself in positions where you are forced to expand and grow. Always be working on your craft and building skills. So much of working as a professional musician depends on your ability to be versatile, to change and adapt and how you work with other people.

Make sure to follow Eric on Instagram: @ericruscinski.

Jeff Gunn (jeffgunnmusic.com) is the author of Hidden Sounds: Discover Your Own Method on Guitar, guitarist/music director for Emmanuel Jal, and the composer of Sonic Tales (Fretmonkey Records 2019). Follow @jeffgunn1 on Instagram and Twitter.

Stadium Photo by Olivia Aita

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Jeff Gunn is a Juno Award-nominated guitarist, songwriter, and producer whose debut album is 2017's All the Roads We Take. He is a regular guitar tips contributor for Canadian Musician Magazine