Brooks Ritter admits even he has a hard time describing his musical style. He sometimes refers to it as soulful-folk, bluesy-folk, or bluesy-rock. But soulful rock, country blues standing on theology comes much closer to the truth, even if it doesn't roll off the tongue as easily.
With a voice that rises up and sits somewhere between Adele and John Legend, Ritter exposes his listeners to a harmonious concoction of acoustic tenderness, gospel soul, Kentucky country and expressive rock. His ability to hit notes, especially dissonant ones, within the melody keeps listeners connected to his words.
"My desire is to sing with emotion because there's something to be told here," Ritter said.
The self-taught, Louisville-based songwriter released his newest album, Gather Round, November 18, 2011. If his freshman album from 2009, The Horse Fell Lame, is the laid-back, romantic firstborn, his new album is the energetic, go-getter second child with a zest for life. The two, like any family members, share a resemblance, but they each have a distinct and unique character.
The opening tracks of each album highlight the differences. The Horse Fell Lame begins with a plucking guitar and the words, "She looks just like an angel dancing across these sleeping hills." Gather Round kicks off with an acoustic guitar, blues-influenced piano and a drum groove that wakes the listener's ears for the passionate voice that sings, "Please disregard the fool you see."
Ritter may not be sure how to label his music, but he's confident of what he sings about. Taking his cue from the great Johnny Cash, Ritter writes about three big topics: God, love and death.
"Honestly, sometimes I don't know what to think about things so I write about them," Ritter said.
After completing three years at Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green, Ky., Ritter quit school in the spring of 2006 to join Sojourn church in Louisville, Ky. Ritter now serves as associate director of music at the church's midtown campus. Sojourn fits Ritter - it's a very musical outfit. The church has released several albums and often has Ritter fronting the band on lead vocals.
Ritter also worked with fellow Sojourn member and songwriter Jamie Barnes on a split project, combining Barnes' EP The Mercy Seat and Ritter's EP The War.
"Old spirituals and, I would say, hymns have very much impacted the way that I write," Ritter said.
Gather Round's theme expresses one of Ritter's passions--to see Christians of different race and ethnicity join their voices in praise, without worrying about musical styles or preferences.
Tell us about Gather Round - how did it come together?
Gather Round is my second and most recent record that came out in November of 2011. The idea behind the record was to capture my band and I playing live in the studio together-gathered around, so to speak. The whole thing got started by me taking some demos over to my good friend Eddy Morris' house (where we recorded Gather Round). More or less, Eddy told me to put a band together, which I did, and shortly thereafter we began recording what is now Gather Round.
How did your life at that time influence the recording process?
At the time I didn't want to admit it, but things were crazy! I had just finished being a part of two other records, and my son wasn't quite a year old at that time, so needless to say, my wife was gracious and super patient with me during those four months.
Can you talk about your writing process? Do you tend to get very personal?
I know I'm probably not alone in this, but I write about what I see, how I feel about it and those things most dear to me. Vague, right? A quote that has stuck with me a long time was in a magazine article about Johnny Cash and his writing process-paraphrased, mind you: "I write about the things that are most important to me--Love, God and Death." I very much agree with this philosophy, because everyone experiences each of these things in one way or another.
What's the story behind the song "Marie" from Gather Round?
Marie is a story about life and all her mysteries--first love, the people around us, betrayal, pain, and how hope sneaks its way in there.
Would you prefer that your music not be labeled by any particular genre or category?
No, I don't really care. People will have their opinions about my music, I just want to keep doing what I'm doing, while loving my family and the community that God has placed around me. Did I mention I love my city?
Can you talk about the split album you did with Jamie Barnes?
Jamie and I have been friends for about six and a half years, and when Mike Cosper (Pastor of Worship and Arts at Sojourn) approached the two of us about doing a split EP together, I eagerly jumped out of my seat and said yes! While Jamie, with a smug look on his face, said, "NO WAY!" Just kidding, it was the opposite. Essentially, we had some songs that both Jamie and I, along with other songwriters at Sojourn (Neil Robins and Rebecca Elliott), had written that were being sung on Sundays, but weren't recorded at the time. From that conversation, The Mercy Seat (Jamie Barnes) and The War (Brooks Ritter) were born.
What kind of venues do you normally play? What goes into deciding where you will perform? I play at bars, clubs/venues or houses. It's always nice to meet other bands and folks, so many of my reasons for choosing these types of venues is to connect with the bands I play with and the people who came to the show…also, it's nice to get paid.
What's your most memorable experience at a show?
One of my favorite memories from a live show was at a house show I was playing in Bowling Green, Ky. There were two rooms in my friend's house that were pho-living rooms that were packed with friends and folks I didn't know. It was during the ending of "Song For A Loving Husband" (from The Horse Fell Lame), where everyone in the whole place was singing at the top of their lungs, "We're building houses of light, that shine through the night." That experience is forever etched into my mind and forever ringing in my ears.
What music are you currently listening to? I'm listening to a lot of Wilco, The Beatles, Emmylou Harris, Calexico, Etta James, Mavis Staples, Elbow, Dave Bazan, Feist, Black Keys, Sigur Rós, Peter Gabriel, Starflier 59, as well as some good friends of mine-House Ghost (from Louisville), Interstates, Shai Linne, Jamie Barnes (of course!), Dave Moisan, and The Parade Schedule.
What album can't you live without?
I am an extremely sentimental guy, and a lot of the records I love mean different things to me…that said, A Ghost Is Born by Wilco has been a consistent record that I come back to, whether I'm feeling dry or whatever. I'd say Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris is another one that leaves me wrecked (in a good way) after listening to it.
You seem to be keen on dancing-do you want to comment on that?
I knew someone has been watching me through my window! No…
What have you not done musically that you're just dying to try?
Something in the vein of R&B and Soul…Band and all!
What's happening for you in 2012?
Shows! Can I come to your town or house?