As Josh Ritter explains it, being a musician is kind of like being a freak for a living. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, he adds.
“I feel like one now,” he said, looking out at the crowd of silent high school students staring back at him.
The acclaimed musician spent an hour in a crowded Helena High School classroom Monday morning, serenading a group of seniors from Margaret Belisle’s English classes and talking casually about writing, music and the differences between westerners and easterners.
“You don’t go up to a stranger in Brooklyn and give them a hug,” he said.
Ritter has been deemed one of the “100 Greatest Living Musicians” by Paste magazine and has a faithful following in the Helena area. Later Monday, he played his second sold-out show at the Myrna Loy Center. Though he’s visited classrooms before, and even a few prisons, this was his first time meeting with local students. He headed to Carroll College after the high school trip.
The school visits were organized through the Myrna Loy and are part of several such workshops the center tries to offer each season as artists come to town. Last month, for example, the Fireworks Ensemble taught elementary school children about music. It’s something Bev Fox, who coordinates the educational programs, is clearly passionate about.
“They’re always fabulous,” she said. “This is the best job in the world watching them make magic.”
It seems Ritter was a good fit for an English class. He surveyed the books in the classroom’s shelves and discussed reading material with Belisle as students shuffled in. He asked the students what they’d been reading these days — “The Maltese Falcon,” it seems, which received some unenthusiastic reviews from the teenagers — and said that when he was a student, he was never assigned books in which any people actually died, just dogs.
Ritter discussed his attraction to the songs and stories that are willing to deal with the more realistic, often unpleasant, aspects of life, and to the “people who aren’t afraid to say things.” That’s why he likes artists like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits and Jay-Z. Oh, and this other musician named Bruce Springsteen.
“Do you guys know him?” Ritter asked the students.
He sang them “The River” in case they didn’t. Then he used it as an example of a song that could evolve into a short story or a novel. His own novel, “Bright’s Passage,” which is scheduled to be released next summer, was originally a song that became too long for an album.
Ritter talked about his writing process, which involves scribbling in notebooks more frequently than typing on a computer, and working in the kitchen, since, as he said, “that’s where the coffee is.” He shared that he struggled with songwriting for the first time in his life while trying to put together his newest album, “So Runs the World Away,” and stressed that good writing takes time.
“Working hard is not graceful,” he said.
He discussed his time in Ireland, touring with Glen Hansard, now of the Swell Season, and said it’s a good place to be a musician, because the people there love words. But he also talked about how coming from Moscow, Idaho, has influenced him. Though he lives in Brooklyn now, he said, the people in the western United States seem to “fill up a room” more than those from the East.
In between his musings, Ritter played a sampling of his songs, including “Folk Bloodbath” off his new album, inspired by some standard folk tragedies. He explained that there are some benefits that come with songs about murder.
“They’re super uncomplicated,” he said. “Love songs are complicated. In a murder ballad, when everyone’s dead, the song’s over.”
The things Ritter had to say resonated with Helena High student Jaek Palkovich, 17, an aspiring musician himself and a fan of Ritter’s work. The two chatted after the presentation.
“He’s given me some inspiration,” Palkovich said.
Ritter said he knew he wanted to be a musician when he was in high school, though it’s not something he shared with people at the time.
“I still thought I wanted to be a scientist and do music on the weekends,” he said.
Information about the Myrna Loy’s educational programs is available at www.myrnaloycenter.com/education.htm.
Reporter Allison Maier: 447-4075 or firstname.lastname@example.org