Music has been a part of Jenny Ritter from her earliest years. Her family was artistically inclined and there was always music playing in the house. Like many children, she took conservatory piano lessons and even though she disliked them, her love of music still persisted. Jenny says that the start of her musical career was punctuated by a series of chance happenings. The first of these was getting into her high school jazz program. She explains, "There was a jazz program at my high school and they were looking for someone to play piano in the big band."
Strong Roots (Profiles in Canadian Roots Music): Jenny Ritter
I talk to Jenny Ritter about her evolution as a musician, not writing any more love songs and her "almost compulsive" need to make music.
Her involvement in the jazz program was influential because of its emphasis on small ensemble performance. Jenny says, "I feel like it was more of a lesson in musicianship than making music. As soon as I finished high school, I knew that I didn't want to play jazz but I did use all of those tools that I got in high school."
The second lucky break for Jenny was joining a traveling folk band. She says, "We lived in a school bus as we traveled around the continent. I didn't really want to go to university and I was sort of feeling a lot of pressure, so this offered me an out. It was great! It was a lifetime of experience for an 18 year old."
At this point, she started playing with The Gruffs, a band with which she worked for the next ten years until they broke up. At that point, things took another turn. Jenny points out, "I took a couple of years to have a crisis about music. I worked in a coffee shop and kind of gave up on it. My first decision ever about music was to stop playing it. I had a lot of mixed feelings about that but I was still writing because I had all of these feelings."
Jenny decided to get back into music again but says that she's had to start making more conscious decisions. She elaborates, "Since then it's been nothing but decisions. They're not fun but they have to be made. It's me spearheading everything now, so its not like a group of people sharing responsibility. If we go on tour, I have to decide that we're going to go on tour."
Moving away from writing love songs has been liberating for her. Jenny says, "I've almost become unable to write love songs. I don't know if that's because I'm in a stable relationship and there's not enough strife. It's also that I'm totally tired of the genre. I want to write about other things that I notice. I want to write about family or not being an idiot or some strange dreams that I've had."
Enjoying the lack of pressure has been something of which Jenny has taken full advantage to open up her creativity. She adds, "Sometimes I'll decide that I want the song to have a traditional folk lyrics but I can play around with the subject matter or I can decide I want the song to be conversational. I'm actually super enjoying the writing process!"
Although she doesn't have a formal process for song writing, she has been experimenting with something new lately. Jenny explains, "When I do any writing or journaling, I'll go back through it and pick out words and phrases that have a good ring to them and write them down on a separate piece of paper, so when I have a little inkling of a melody or a chord structure or something then I will refer to that. My last couple of songs have come out of that process."
Like many musicians, Jenny points out that making a living as a musician is challenging. She says, "I have multiple things that I do to pay the rent and I don't even include my personal music career in that. It's basically a labour of love."
However, she adds, "I do believe that monetary challenges force you to be innovative in your life and have a lot of creative output into the world because you have to."
Another challenge that she mentions is the small folk community on Canada's west coast. Jenny says, "The small community is limiting in who can play with me. My music is really deceptive. It sounds quite simple but as soon as I chart it out, I realize it's quite complex. I'm adding beats and it's always in terrible keys like E flat. That said, I have a pretty loyal group of people who do play with me, they're sort of a rotating cast."
Touring is something that Jenny considers very carefully along with her band members. She explains, "There are three factors that help us decide if going on tour is viable: Are we going to have lots of fun? Are we going to make lots of money? Are we going to get lots of exposure? Obviously these things are tied to each other but our rule is that we need two out of the three to make a viable tour."
Jenny adds, "You can imagine that going by this formula, we're really limiting our touring activities. We're pretty much only going if we have a really great festival to anchor. Let's face it, we're in our thirties, it's not possible to just road dog it forever."
In the immediate future, she’s going to be touring during the summer of 2017. She’ll be playing with an instrumental neo-folk band called Aerialists. They’ll be playing the Northern Lights Festival Boreal, the Hillside Festival and the ArtsWells festivals.
In some ways, she says, her need to make music is almost compulsive. Jenny continues, "It's that feeling of 'I just can't quit you.' There are times when I've tried to put it away and they've been bad times in my life."
To find inspiration, Jenny goes to see other musicians perform. She says, "I really get excited about my own music when I go to see small shows that are really inspiring, As a performing musician, I tend not to go out to bars to see shows. I have to really want to see it. There are times when I do go and it kind of blows my mind open and I'll write for five days afterwards."
Ultimately, she concludes, "I'd love to say that the inspiration is something deep and meaningful, but a lot of it is just about wanting to play."