Mark McDermott

Maps: How Lisa Ritchie followed her songs west and what she found [MUSIC PREVIEW]

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Lisa Ritchie on her way west. Ritchie performs at The Standing Room Friday at 6 p.m. Photo by David Ritchie

by Mark McDermott 

It’s a curious enterprise, the making of songs, and how those songs can sometimes become vessels that take their makers far beyond their known horizons for reasons that even they don’t quite understand.

Lisa Ritchie started making songs as a ten-year-old girl in the tiny town of Dexter, Michigan singing quietly in her family home’s upstairs bathroom. As an origin story for a songwriter, this isn’t an unusual launching point —  bathroom tiles offer great acoustics for soft secret singers. But where this story becomes a bit more unusual comes a bit later. At 23, Ritchie was on a path to success in the corporate world, traversing a glittering terrain of boardrooms, high-stakes dinners and high-powered conferences via private jet. She was young, sharp-eyed and articulate, a star on the rise in the monied world, moving with apparent ease towards a life of wealth and comfort.

Instead, she walked away. Ritchie let her songs take her far from everything and everyone she knew.

Ritchie remembers looking around at her formerly perfect life and glimpsing an air-conditioned nightmare.

“It was like a scene out of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ where they are all on antidepressants and still everyone just keeps going,” Ritchie said. “Nobody is like, ‘This is weird.’ They just keep going, living in this weird world. That’s how I felt at work. Everybody is semi-depressed to be there, nobody likes their job. You have money, you play golf, you shop, then you are old, now go to Florida.”

“This is your life. I just dreaded going to work, staying late, the endless cycle. I mean, if you like that, then you are happy. Not me.”

The thing that had always kept her afloat was music. It percolated through her days and nights. She’d known songs were what she loved most by the time she was 12; she’d already written dozens, simply by singing to herself, and keeping “song diaries.” During her middle school years, she played electric guitar and fronted a Nirvana cover band called Perjury, and at 14 she got her first acoustic guitar, a low-cost Cort that somehow seemed to sparkle like a wooden spaceship waiting to take her to unknown realms where melodies flowed like pulsing galaxies.

The problem was she didn’t seem to be particularly good at it. She’d sing her songs to friends, and nobody was moved.

“I never felt like people liked my voice,” she said. “Nobody ever said, ‘Your voice is really great.’ It took ten years to grow into it.”

She wasn’t exactly writing pop music, either. From the beginning, she wrote challengingly abstract songs. Her parents, David and Helena Ritchie, both scientists, were frequently puzzled. “What is that symbolism?” he asked. “Nobody is going to get that.”

“Monsters? What? Where?” Helena asked, hearing an abstract song her daughter wrote titled, “Monsters.”

Yet songs continued to flow from Ritchie in a way that seemed almost beyond her control. As a teenager, she wrote hundreds.

“I spent so much time, hours and hours every day, skipping school to write songs,” Ritchie said. “I’d never do my homework. I think I had 56 absences in high school one year.”

Finally, that moment happened when her voice rose above a room and captured everyone’s attention. It was at a talent show at a church when she was 20. She’d written a song called “These Depths for You” just a day before the show. The audience was enraptured.

“They were just very moved by it,” she recalled.

“You have a great voice,” people told her. “You should be doing this.”

By this time she was a junior in college at the University of Michigan. Her performance also captured the attention of another U of M student, Tom Halpin, a musician who was part of the school’s prestigious Performing Arts Technology program. Ritchie soon found herself recording the song at the university’s multi million dollar studio facilities, and she and Halpin formed a band called Hush, Love, which became a staple of the Ann Arbor music scene for the next couple years.

But as graduation came, band members filtered out to more financially stable careers. Despite her misgivings, Ritchie, a marketing and public relations major, likewise left for the business world.

It never felt right.

“Mine was a steady building restlessness, of just, ‘This isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing with my life,” Ritchie recalled.

For two years music was a hobby. Then she landed a showcase at one of Ann Arbor’s most revered clubs, The Ark. Alone under the spotlight, Ritchie finally felt at home. Suddenly she felt clarity.

“Okay, I’m not supposed to be working in an office,” she remembers thinking. “I am supposed to be a musician.”

Lisa Ritchie at The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Courtesy photo

Lisa Ritchie at The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Courtesy photo

She completed her first EP last September, titled “Expectations,” then a month later packed two guitars, a PA system, and whatever else she could stuff into her Jeep and headed west. It wasn’t a move greatly embraced by her friends or family. Some thought Nashville was a better idea. Others didn’t see why she needed to go anywhere. Nobody thought LA was a good idea.

“I had some serious fallouts,” Ritchie said. “People said, ‘You can do music right here. You can do music anywhere. But don’t go to LA.’ But I knew it was the place I needed to be.”

The first days of the journey the Midwest seemed angry with her. It was dark and cloudy all the way to the Colorado border.

“I left with so much weird tension and fear,” Ritchie said. “Then at the Colorado state line I see mountains, and it’s sunny. I’m feeling this is definitely the right path.” 

 

In Boulder she discovered the underground railroad that is the fellowship of wandering musicians. One of them had a key to the historic Boulder Theater, and they snuck in one night. They climbed onto the stage and played a bluegrass-tinged version of Death Cab For Cutie’s “I’ll Follow You Into the Dark” and the Johnny Cash classic “Folsom Prison Blues.”

As she continued westward Ritchie had the realization that she had absolutely no idea what she was doing. The desert landscape seemed like a different planet than Michigan. But she felt liberated. “I finally felt like myself,” she said.

When she arrived in LA, she bounced around couches and eventually lived a few months in Silver Lake. She made friends in Hermosa Beach, particularly with a music producer, AJ Fox, so she moved here. She’s sung wherever she can —  The Slip bar in Redondo, Saint Rocke in Hermosa, even local farmers markets, and, this Friday night, at The Standing Room. She’s paying her dues. Most venues Ritchie plays, she’s expected to be what she calls “a human jukebox,” playing upbeat cover songs, maybe mixing in a few of her own songs.

But even if she hoped for brighter lights and bigger stages at the outset of her journey, what she’s found has been more illuminating. She’s run across a lot of musicians who have contorted themselves in their attempts to “make it” in the often brutal LA music scene. Though she came west to pursue a career in music, what’s she’s found is a way deeper into music itself.

“I’m seeing musicians performing in clubs and they are totally radio-ready, stadium-ready —  if they just had the right marketing,” Ritchie said. “They lose authenticity because they really want to keep climbing rather than keep working on the music and stay genuine with what is really going on. I want to write music that expresses exactly how a person feels, so beautiful it resonates within you.”

 

She’s got exquisite tools to do this. Ritchie’s voice is not a huge one, but it contains mysteries, a honeyed whisper in your ear. She has flow. She’s a singer of quiet places, like the human heart. There’s a hush and a swirl in her music, an abstract lyricism paired with genuine warmth that has the capacity to evoke worlds within songs. As she sings in her song, “Maps”: “These maps are all I see, with each person that I meet/ all the places they have been, conquerors of continents/Used in love and war, bodies tattered and they’re torn/Drawn with lines in coordinates, all along our wounded flesh….”

Ritchie has come to understand that her 10-year-old self, singing quietly in the bathroom, had the right idea all along: it’s all about the connection of the singer and the song. Everything that takes her more into the music is what she came for, and where she goes next. The rest is clutter. Music is her only map.

“Am I on the right path?” Ritchie asked. “But there is no path.”

See LisaRitchieMusic.com for songs and videos and more information. Lisa Ritchie plays from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on May 20 at The Standing Room, 1320 Hermosa Ave., Hermosa Beach

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