“”One of the funnest parts about creating is trying to do something but not being able to do it. And then you get into this weird place where it’s you and it’s creating something different. That’s the fun place to be with creativity.” ~Erik Ritland
Five albums, eight EPs, multiple podcasts, writing, copy editing— Erik Ritland has been busy the past 15 years in the Twin Cities. As I learned while discussing music and songwriting with Erik, his desire to learn and absorb knowledge came early.
Back in high school Erik would just pick up the guitar and play whatever chords came out. He never thought to classify exactly the genre in which he was working. “It’s not folk cause it didn’t have folk progressions and I didn’t know how to do those yet,” Erik explains. “So I was just kind of clanking away at random chords. It was basically weird acoustic music I guess.” The spark to write came from The Beatles. He wanted to play all the instruments they did, but nothing he wrote ended up sounding like them.
As he progressed and started playing in bands, his intention with writing changed. He’d write thinking of a full band playing parts. He developed by learning how certain paths would define the sound and used the experience to find intention in his song progressions. Erik shares that he wrote hundreds of songs and continues to dive back into those to learn. He can identify what works, how he’s evolved, and what things he’s done really well over the years.
Song ideas can come from anywhere. In today’s digital age, the ability to write down, record, and hold onto concepts is limitless.
Erik remembers a time before devices in pockets, when he was working at Borders and he saw a poster for “1234” by Feist. His initial thought was, “twelve thirty four, that’s a dumb name for a song.” Almost immediately after a co-worker let him know that it was actually pronounced “one-two-three-four” he decided to write his own “1234” pronounced the way he first envisioned. He penned everything in his head while at work. Scrambling home, he then was able to physically write everything down.
“Songwriting for me has always been a lot of: you sit down with a guitar, you think, you have a few ideas, you go for it and you try it, and you spend three hours and have nothing. You just feel completely drained. Like that’s the story of songwriting 99% of the time for me, and I feel like a lot of other songwriters are that way.”
Erik shares that part of the mystery of songwriting is that you can’t want it too much. When you’re trying too hard, then it becomes contrived. Your brain is trying to do it and it becomes either difficult or impossible because it’s forced. You have to let go to some degree to create. The songs below are examples of Erik finding that sweet spot, the place where ideas happened fast and songwriting came really easy for him.
Walls and Bridges
“Walls and Bridges” is Erik’s favorite song at this point because it gets across what he’s trying to say in a simple-but-direct way. It’s also written in a way that’s artistic and filled with meanings. The song has the same title of an underrated John Lennon album. The concept of walls that you build and bridges you go over intrigued Erik. One is typically thought of as negative, the other positive.
“You don’t love what you won’t fight for
You don’t love what you won’t defend
In the end it’s all we have”
Erik was trying to put a more positive spin on walls and a more negative one on bridges. Sometimes you need to build walls internally to prevent invasion by people who aren’t good for you. We also have bridges to people in our lives that may be carrying over bad ideas or influence, so the need to burn down a bridge to better oneself is important.
“There is room for walls and bridges”
The thesis of most of Erik’s songs is typically revealed in the chorus. The idea here is that you need to be savvy enough to understand the place that walls and bridges hold in your life, both for better or worse.
“Let’s raise a toast to all of the good things
Then throw the glass against the wall
It’s last call”
The last verse is a plea for people to come together and understand where the other side is coming from. Instead of seeing the other side as an enemy, see them as someone with whom you are at the bar, raising a toast.
The song resonates even more when our political parties are so divided and we can’t sit down together to have that toast. “Walls and Bridges” works on a literal and metaphorical level as a reminder to assess relationships and how they bring positive or negative influences.
Holed up in his bedroom with a 30-minute plan to write a rock song, “Promises” came together quickly. At the time Erik was in two different bands and struggling to write something he could stand behind. So he approached songwriting differently and looked to an old Bob Dylan trick. Dylan has been known to find an old folk song, take the melody, change it a bit, and then substitute his own lyrics.
“I should have warned you that I wasn’t what you wanted
I should have told you from the start
When I look at you all I see is a target
An actor cast in the wrong part”
“Promises” is one of Erik’s more brutally honest songs. Months removed from a breakup, he wanted to say something universal, something people could relate to. At the same time, there needed to be a hint of obscurity where the listener could fill in some of those blanks.
“I’m an accident that’s happened
And I’m happening again”
The pre-chorus is simple and frank. Erik shares that writing the song was therapeutic and the chorus was quick to follow. The core of the song builds this cohesiveness. It’s honest, personal, and yet has a tinge of humor. Erik perfectly balances his heart and head in the song.
“I wish I could fall asleep
With the promises I keep
‘Cuz I like sleeping alone”
When it comes to recording, Erik believes in keeping it organic. His songs embrace a simple and classic sound. Here is where his Beatles influence comes forward. He’s not looking to super compress or polish the life out of a song. He wants it to breath and be a living, moving thing.
Erik also approaches making albums in a classic way. “Conceptually, they all fit and they all cohere in a way that they’re really like paintings. I know the title means something. I try to find artwork that means something. I want to have a specific feel for each thing. I wish more people did that,” Erik shares.
His songwriting has also evolved by taking a wide look at a song. Can he write the same thing in less lines? Can he cut out longer lyrics and still say the same thing in less words? It’s a goal of finding the core and heart of a song and delivering it without it watering down too much for the listener. Erik’s songwriting talent has been built from knowing how to adapt. He’s willing to learn, change, and evolve to make better music.
Erik expresses that, for him, the main foundational truth in songwriting — and creating anything in general — comes from a Judaeo-Christian concept. God is a creator and creative. Humans were made in God’s image. So when we create, we’re doing what God did.
“That’ll blow your mind if you think about it. You don’t have to believe in God to understand that there’s something there that you’re tapping into. It’s wild.”