Inside the Songs: Jenny Ritter’s Beautiful Canadian Roots Music
I’ve been sitting on this album for a little bit now, afraid that anything I could say about it would only diminish how much I really love it. I’ve jealously guarded these songs, savoring them, enjoying them, singing along to them, for once in my work not wanting to share them around with everyone. I wanted to keep them special. To keep them for myself. But like anyone that tries to hang on to the fragile treasures of life, I keep forgetting that these things only grow stronger by sharing and appreciating with friends.
So now I open my arms to you, friends, to share the songs of British Columbian songwriter Jenny Ritter. I’ve been keeping tabs on her since she was in the wonderful, but criminally under-exposed, band The Gruff. They were like Po’ Girl, back in the late 90s and early 00s, turning out hand-crafted folk songs with a slight Celtic tinge to the instrumentals. Great music, but what I remember were the songs. Anything Jenny touched in that band turned to gold, and their song “General Store” stands out to me as truly beautiful. The Griff broke up a while ago, and I hadn’t heard from Jenny since, until happening on a post of her single, “We Must Sing,” on Facebook. My jaw dropped. The soaring vocal harmonies, that clear clear crystal clear voice, the beautiful words, the catchy melody, this was fine fine songwriting. When I got my hands on the whole album, Bright Mainland, I realized that this was the kind of music that a lot more people needed to hear about. It’s got that special spark of life that makes a song come alive, the very rare spark that so many singer-songwriters are questing for and so few really have. I’ve literally stayed up late crying to these songs. And I get teary eyed half the time I hear them. What surprised me was how much more the songs came to mean once I got Jenny to break down the inspiration and stories behind a few of them. Also, I hadn’t realized how funny she is! I’m SO happy to be able to share this with you all now:
Hearth Music’s Inside the Songs with Jenny Ritter
“This song came about when I had moved from the Island to Vancouver, and the unfamiliar city was squashing me. In the predictably angsty aftermath of both a band breakup and a relationship breakup, I was having a good old fashioned identity crisis. This is a pretty common story. You know the one. The one where you get a tattoo. You drink too much. You live alone in a tiny one room apartment. Except for the mouse who nests under the sink. You name him Hank, but later he gets stuck to sticky paper and dies. Okay, that was a tangent. My apologies…
Anyway, the point is, that I was a stranger in Vancouver, and I didn’t know my role in the community. This is something that’s important to me. I didn’t know what the city wanted from me, what I could provide, and I rode my bike to and from my dead-end job and felt useless. One of the things I loved about the neighbourhood though, were the back alleys which run behind all the residences in East Van. I felt – and still feel – this strange vibrance to those quiet lanes. I wished that I lived in a house with a back alley. And I wished for love and lots of babies. That’s where the lines in the chorus come from “Dreaming of our families, waiting in the future, waiting in the alleys”.
I wrote this song while I was actually riding my bike home from work in the middle of the night… It’s probably dangerous to be concentrating on songwriting while cycling, but you know, strike while the iron’s hot and all that.
There is a music festival on Mayne Island, BC, which is put on by a bunch of my dearest friends. It happens to be on the very same property where this album was recorded. It also happens to be on the weekend of my birthday, and one year I hired my dream band to back me up. On stage I grinned so hard I think my cheeks broke. On top of all of this, I was in the process of falling for a foreigner – someone I had agreed not to fall for, but we were there together, just swaddled up in temporary bliss.
I’ve always thought if there’s a heaven, it’s a music festival. So amidst all this love and celebration, I became aware of how everyone I know is this gorgeous fiery hotbed of artistic talent. We have so much to express, and are compelled to let it out through music, or art, or whatever… It’s truly compulsive. I mean, happiness begets creative productivity as much as sadness. And all the feelings in between. Whatever they are, they’re clawing their way out. I feel so proud of all the artists I know who are putting their hearts on their sleeves and sharing their talents with the world.
That’s why I got my choir to sing on this recording … Did I mention that I run a rocknroll choir called the Kingsgate Chorus? Uhhh… I do. So it was important to band together in a big group, and … well, sing about singing! Express ourselves about expression, and how it makes us stronger. I seriously love working with those guys so much. They really brought the whole song home for me.
You Missed The Boat:
Every year I travel to this idyllic farm in Northern Ontario, and am graciously, unconditionally hosted by a couple of dear friends. There’s a darling little cabin on their property called “the Hobo House”, in which I live, which I guess makes me a willing hobo. I end up writing a ton of music there every time, and call it a self-imposed songwriting residency.
When I wrote “You Missed The Boat,” I was being a hobo, and suffering from yet another breakup. Huh, yeah, this is turning out to be an embarrassing theme in my life… So the song is both a triumphant Fuck You to someone who had dumped me, and also a lament for the loss of the very same relationship. I was sad, but not that sad, as it was Springtime in the Ontario woods. There’s only so much grieving one can do when the river is rushing, birds are singing horny songs from the treetops, foxes are barking, wild leeks are sprouting everywhere… I was traipsing around in borrowed gumboots, and getting the same message from the world no matter where I looked; Basically, life goes on. I was processing the end of the relationship through observing nature, and all it’s resilience. I was a little …. shall we say, “impaired”, thus the “I was blind in one eye/deaf in both ears” lines, but I was coming out alright. And at the same time, flipping the bird at the one who missed the boat. I always think of the part when we burst into the “La da da daaas” at the end of the song as being the moment we find closure, and begin celebrating whatever new chapter of life lies ahead.”
After we both realized that breakup songs seem to be a real thread in her music (and I consider “You Missed the Boat” to be one of my favorite breakup songs!), I asked Jenny to go into what makes a good breakup song. Here’s her answer:
“Honestly, breakup songs sometimes kind of gross me out. I mean, we’ve all been through it, right? But if you can approach the concept with a new perspective, I’m all aboard! For example, I love them when they’re quirky: I think “Papa Was a Rodeo” by the Magnetic Fields is probably the best breakup song ever. Holy moly, those lyrics are genius. But it’s written with this ridiculous mix of brutal blatancy and metaphor. I feel the same about “Mitzi’s” off of Luke Doucet’s first solo album for the same reason. It’s covers quite a lot of imagery, but it’s set in the context of a destructive relationship which he wants to end. It’s dark as hell, and I love it.
YET… I have to admit I’m also a sucker for a good sappy overemotional heart-wringer. Like “Two” by Ryan Adams, or “You’re Still on my Mind” by the Byrds, or Gillian Welch’s “Back In Time”. So I guess the goal for me is to write something in between… something you can think about, even smirk at a little… clever turns of lyrics, while still acknowledging the emotional content. There’s nothing like a good wallow, right?”
BUY THIS ALBUM!! In addition to these three tracks, you also get my most favorite track “They Can’t Tell”, a song so good I could write a whole blog post about it. Seriously, this is beautiful music.