Singer-Songwriter Cliff Ritchey on How Life Brought Him Back to Music

Please introduce yourself. What do you do? Why? What do you want people to know about you?

Hey I’m Cliff Ritchey. I’m a singer-songwriter/guitar player/engineer from a small town in Indiana where I live with my wife and two kids on a 5 acre plot. We live a different lifestyle in the sense that one day we’re gardening, splitting wood, fishing algae out of the pond and the next day heading to North Carolina to play a big festival. The dichotomy is interesting in that one part of our existence is slow paced and laid back and the other is adventurous and high energy. In the early 90’s I was touring regionally with a band called AM Drive, we were fairly successful and had talks with lots of record companies but never ended up signing.

After 10 years of playing together the band decided to go separate ways and I started a career as a singer-songwriter solo artist and touring guitar player. When I had my first kid in 2005 I sold my equipment and bought a camera and became a professional photographer. At that point I figured I was done with music. I did put out a couple of solo albums during that time but it was mostly just for me. In 2016 a friend approached me about recording a record for him but I literally had no equipment and technology had completely changed. I bought LogicPro, a new interface, and a few mics and decided to jump back into the engineering side of music. In the process I spent about a month or two recording some tunes I had written over the past several years and accidentally recorded a new record for myself. I released the record on my 40th birthday, it was titled “The Second Half”.

My wife entered one of the songs, “Honey Baby” in a few songwriting competitions that fall. We had totally forgot about it by spring but ended up winning 3rd place in Tom Waits International Songwriting Competition and winning 1st place in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest which is a part of Merlefest, awarding me with the opportunity to play alongside some of the legends in the folk/americana world. I found myself back into music again.

On a deeper level I suppose the “why” I play music is simply that it’s inside of me and it’s probably best it all comes out. The songs for me are therapeutic. I would say many of the songs come from a very vulnerable place, for example a song of my most recent record “Song For Indiana”, is about the longing to be other places, about friends coming in then out of my life as they move on to bigger places than this little town, it’s the ache of being stuck but the joy of finding peace where I’m at. Now that I have been playing shows again I find that the connection to people who relate to such sentiments is quite inspiring. I suppose that’s why I keep writing new songs and playing shows.

What qualities make you different and unique from everyone else in the industry?

I would say something that makes me unique is probably the variety of style I incorporate inside of the music. Granted, I believe this probably is why I haven’t been more successful on a commercial level. I tend to listen to the music inside of me and let it be what it wants to be as opposed to creating songs that I think a massive amount of people would want to hear. Or maybe I’m just not good at that. For example on the last record you’ll find a folk song that’s very straight forward with three chords and no chorus like “Song for Indiana” as I mentioned before and the next song “Beautiful Lover” I can only imagine has been influenced by Django Reinhardt who was a gypsy jazz guitar player. It’s riddled with weird augmented chords, too many to count, and a key change on the chorus.

And I’m not even sure what this song is about but it’s one of my favorites. My musical taste is pretty vast, two of my favorite song writers are Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson who write two completely different styles of music. I love poetic story songs but am completely turned on by creative melodies and unpredictable chord changes as well.

Describe THAT moment when you realized you’re doing what you were born to do.

I don’t know that there has been just one moment but there have been particular moments that do stand out. One of these moments came when I was standing on the stage at Merlefest in North Carolina. When I won the song writing competition I was invited to play a set on the MainStage in the Saturday afternoon slot. I was allowed to pick one person to play with me that day. I thought about picking one of my many super uber talented musician friends from Nashville to come play with me but decided to choose my wife who had only been playing for a few years and was terrified at the thought of playing on a big stage let alone being on a huge jumbotron. It seemed fitting as the song I had written that won the competition was about us and our life on the farm.

We ended the set with playing the song “Sleeping Princess” which is a song written based on a poem that my wife had written about her experience traveling in Indonesia during a time of pain and heartache. I had noted that several years prior before we were in a relationship she had attended Merlefest by herself in a desperate place in life. I was on the other side of the country in similar shape as I had gotten divorced and was raising two little kids. The juxtaposition where she stood in the crowd at that time in her life and the shape of her heart as compared to where she stood at that moment and who she had become is reason enough to write a song.

Our story is one of redemption and healing. When we finished playing our set there was just something that happened, something in the air. There was a pause amongst the crowd and a sense of peace. When the MC came over to introduce the next performer he fumbled through his words a bit as though he had been deeply moved and offered kind words to us. On the next record I wrote a song called “Song for Merlefest” conveying this experience.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to go through and how did you grow through it?

This is a heavy question. I’m not really sure what you’re looking for but I suppose I’ll just give you the truth. Getting a divorce with two kids is absolutely the most difficult thing I’ve ever experienced. And not for what many people may imagine. It had nothing to do with money or possessions or fighting or anger but has everything to do with the emotional uprooting of everyone’s lives. I liken it to an old oak tree with deep, deep roots that has fallen over. When it falls it pulls up all the earth around it…everyone is affected by divorce; parents, siblings, family, friends and especially kids.

I wrote a song about this called “Alone at 34” and even more excruciating is the song “Still A love for you”, which I wrote for my kids just after the divorce. I found that life has a lot to teach you when you’re at the very bottom. It’s the letting go of control, it’s in the moments when you realize that you are completely powerless to affect your situation, it’s putting one foot in front of the other and moving when you have nothing left.

Somehow through the grace of God, a good family, and lots of counseling, myself and the kids have managed our way through and created what I believe is a pretty spectacular life together. I’m not sure if you are looking for an answer related more closely to music but I would say these experiences have been the bedrock for much of the music I’ve created in the last 10 years. I think that is why the songs connect with our crowd, because so many people are hurting just like this.

If you had to pick the TOP 3 people you’d want to meet that could take your career (or business) to the next level…who would those 3 people be?

This is a fascinating question because the people you might most want to meet may not be the best fit to elevate your career. So I’ve given it a little thought. The first person I thought of is Elvis Costello. Not only is he a super interesting musician and great writer but he seems to be interested in other people’s music too. He has a show called Spectacle that my wife and I stumbled upon during the shutdown. We got through many Wednesday nights with a pint of beer and watching an episode of Spectacle. He invites some world class singer-songwriters on his show, they each play a song or two and tell stories. He’s had artists such as John Prine, Sting, Elton John, James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, and Ron Sexsmith. I suppose it’s a bit like asking the genie in the bottle for more wishes. But perhaps by meeting Elvis Costello I would then in-turn get to rub elbows with other really great singer-songwriters as well. Which leads to me the next person I’d like to meet, Ron Sexsmith who is one of my favorite writer/musicians.

This might seem like an odd pick to many and if fact I would not be surprised if the individual reading this has not hear of him as he is not in the mainstream. But I choose Ron Sexsmith because I think we would have similar style crowds. And of course in my pipe dream he would invite me to play a few shows with him. To me it’s not about the size of the crowd but the style and personality of the crowd. And last but definitely not least Rick Rubin. And why?…doesn’t everybody want to meet Rick Rubin? What I think he could offer me other than a cool, super deep conversation about life and spiritual matters is direction and I believe he could help me make a truly cohesive record both sonically and thematically.

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Vianka Petines
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