How to be a rock star, or at least follow your heart (an interview with Josh Ritter)

Singer-songwriter Josh Ritter fronts a tight band, but his live shows have little use for pomp. The message that comes across is simple. He is happy to connect with anyone who enjoys music as much as he does. Anything else is secondary.

And Ritter really enjoys it. He can’t keep the grin off his face as he sings and plays.

“I’m doing something that makes me really happy and other people are getting something out of it as well,” he said. “I feel good getting up in the morning and I feel good going to bed at night.”

There’s a purity that comes through when talking to him, a certain kind of honesty that’s also evident in his live shows. In an industry of flash, it’s what makes him stand out.

Musically, Ritter knows how to create the big, dramatic moments in his performances — the tension-fraught crescendos that bring audience members to the edges of their seats. But stylistically, he has no interest in spectacle.

While some musicians play up the dramatic moments on stage, Ritter is more likely to shrug them off with a smile as he flubs them. Allow me to illustrate.

Here comes the big moment. Ritter’s band is holding the audience in the palm of its hand as it draws that final chord as far out as it can. This is where a classic rock showman with a big mane might be flailing his arms in wide circular motions, or climbing to the top of a stack of amps, so he can jump off at just the right second.

Ritter realizes he’s in this kind of moment as he’s putting his guitar back on its stand. He contributes a half-hearted gesture, making a slight swinging motion with his free hand and squeezing it into a fist on the last beat. His back is to the audience.

What was he thinking? He was thinking of the next song. The transition he was about to make involved a change of gears. A different sounding guitar was needed for the ride he was about to take audience members on.

In those moments, when a more ego-driven performer might be basking in a spotlight, Ritter is thinking about guitars and plotting where he and his listeners are heading next. Once the band swings in behind him and locks the next song into its groove, Ritter starts bouncing — and smiling — again. He seems to always be smiling.

Why shouldn’t he be? He’s got a dream job, one that many starry-eyed teens would kill for. How he got it, however, is no big mystery at all.

As a kid in Idaho, Ritter found the inspiration he needed for his art in the music of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Specifically, on the album they recorded together, “Nashville Skyline.”

“They were going for something that was different. It really intrigued me,” said Ritter. “There was a heart in it that really appealed to me. They weren’t trying to hit the perfect note or even sing close together. They just sounded like it was a lot of fun.”

After hearing these artists, he headed to Boston to follow his dreams. The city’s folk scene has long been a proving ground for acoustic strummers. The trick was to blaze his own path. He watched the countless musicians around him. Most would never gain the mass appeal that Ritter has. But they had plenty to teach him.

“You can really benefit from watching other people. I’ve had a chance to be with some great bands, some great performers and watch them. See how they manage to make it day to day for six months on the road without going totally nuts,” he said.

Ritter had a hit in Ireland and his career has been growing steadily over the years. But he has yet to hit it big in America. He said he is still figuring out how to define success.

“When it comes to it, you just have to make those decisions for yourself. You either get up in the morning and write or you don’t,” he said.

To me that sums it up nicely. Whether you are talking about one man’s music career or life in general, it boils down to you either get up in the morning and step toward the things you want, or you don’t.

Ritter’s story closely mirrors what other successful people have told me. There really isn’t a secret recipe for success. People love a good story and some stars aim to be a character you’ll never forget. But most of the time, life is more ordinary than that.

Anyone looking for a role model while trying to reach their goals would do well to look in Ritter’s direction, but also, take a cue from him and don’t take it so seriously.

Most decisions are not made at the edges of precipices by daring people with special abilities. Life is designed by the smaller, everyday choices people make, everyday people who don’t stand apart – people who sometimes flub it and forget that they are in the spotlight.

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