Josh Ritter
Singer, Songwriter, & Musician

Leaving Science for Rock 'n' Roll

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Josh Ritter had an epiphany while studying organic chemistry in college: he was meant to be a musician, not a scientist.

Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter is an American singer-songwriter and guitarist, named one of the "100 Greatest Living Songwriters" by Paste magazine. He started out studying neuroscience at Oberlin College, but later switched to a self-created folk music major. His albums include the self-released "Josh Ritter" (1999), "Golden Age of Radio" (2000), "Hello Starling" (2003), "The Animal Years" (2006), and "The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter" (2007). His newest album, "So Runs the World Away," was released in May 2010. Ritter's first novel, "Bright's Passage," is due to be published by Dial Press in the summer of 2011.
Question: Who were your early musical influences?

Josh Ritter: Well, I started playing music when I was really little.  I started playing violin and I played that for a really long time, 13 years.  And it never felt like music to me really, until I—I never got that feeling that I was playing music until I was putting on some of my parents' old records.  They had a record player and they had all kinds of vinyl.  And we lived far out of town, so you’d come home from school and not have anything to do... except throw rocks.  And I uncovered this record player one day and my brother helped me plug it in and I put on—they had all kinds of records, but the record that really struck me was “Nashville Skyline,” Bob Dylan record with Johnny Cash.  It was the first song; it was “Girl From the North Country.”  And I didn’t grow up around grunge, or punk, or anything like that, but that feeling that that song gave me really made me—I think that’s the same feeling that I had, was like this was suddenly kind of a door opened and I could go through it myself.

Question: Why did you quit neuroscience in college to study music?

Josh Ritter: I guess it really, both of my parents are scientists and the talk around the dinner table was always about science and it was about the brain and it was about whatever they were working on.  And they would talk to each other and my brother and I kind of grew up in this world where "serotonin" was somebody down the block, you know.  And to me, it was never a question that I would go into science.  I took aptitude tests and it said that I could be an undertaker or a plumber, or somebody who worked in the woods.  And that was it, forestry.  And so I thought "That’s ridiculous.  I’m going to be a scientist."

And then my chemistry teacher in high school said, “You’re not going to be a scientist.”  And I said, that’s totally ridiculous.  I’m going to be a scientist.  That’s—what else is there.  And I went to school for science and about halfway through I realized, man, I’m just not going to be a scientist.  I’m not going to—it’s not happening.  I was really in love with scientists.  I was in love with the people who studied science and was in love with the people who came up with the ideas and with their lives and how they got interested in those things.  And what were their breakthrough moments, you know.  Like how did Watson and Crick discover, like, the double helix... or these beautiful moments, they always seem like incredible things.

And as I started to write songs, I started to realize that I had those moments myself.  And everybody who’s an artist, like a scientist is an artist; an artist is anybody who has those moments and realizes them and so that’s how I kind of came to that realization.  I was studying for an organic chemistry test and I just—and it was a final and I just knew it wasn’t looking good.  And I left the science library and I called my parents and I said, “I’m not going to be a scientist.”  I’m going to be a musician.  And they were great about it.  They said, you know, we figured you were never going to be a scientist.

Recorded April 5, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen