“I talked weird because I couldn’t move the right side of my face,” Josh Ritchie explains. He was speaking at the Black Lives Matter protest in his hometown of Wiarton, ON, which he had organized with the help of some family friends. Stress induced Bell’s Palsy had temporarily weakened the muscles in one side of his face, and that was just a small part of his intense processing of the global Black Lives Matter movement, and the deeper issues of systemic racism and oppression.
Josh was born in Toronto, but his family moved to Wiarton, ON in his infancy. His father is Rob Ritchie, keyboardist of Canadiana folk band Tanglefoot (which makes his uncle Steve Ritchie, guitarist of the band). Josh would tour with the band as a kid, helping them set up and tear down, and experiencing that life on the road. Naturally, he was encouraged to play and create music from a young age, and he took to the guitar. But it was his mother, an avid music lover, who really helped him find his own unique voice. After high school graduation, she took him to a U2 concert—a tribute to the Joshua Tree album (which, in my opinion, is the best U2 album ever). It was that concert that really opened up Josh’s mind to exploring that ethereal, rock heavy sound.
You can hear the emotion and power in his voice, combined with catchy melodies, lyrical and dreamy guitar work, and sweeping drum grooves on his first album, Louder, released in 2019. Josh is a natural songwriter, creating songs that hook you and keep you wanting more. I get Hozier vibes mixed with U2, and a unique quality of rock storytelling. I can’t wait to see him perform live sometime, because you can hear the intensity in his words. I love when you can hear that someone truly means the lyrics they are singing.
Although Josh himself is mixed race (his father being white and his mother being black), he was never as aware of the prejudices against people with darker skin as he became this past year. The Black Lives Matter movement helped educate him and recognize some of his own experiences with race issues. It was a heavy time for him to sit with those feelings and experiences, and when some family friends offered to help organize a protest in Wiarton with Josh, he felt the urge to take action. In the meantime, Josh had developed Bell’s Palsy through his stress. He describes walking in the protest as being such a powerful day, and he was nervous to participate through speaking, but would’ve deeply regretted not saying anything. So he spoke, through the intense emotions and despite half his face being immobile. “I don’t even remember what I said,” he tells me; he had so much to say, so he just said what he felt in the moment.
(On a personal note, I felt the walk and protest similarly powerful here in Collingwood. As a white woman in a small, predominantly white, conservative town, I recognize my privilege here. It is so important for us to embrace diversity and make it clear that we accept and welcome everybody, regardless of background, with open, welcoming arms.)
So Josh Ritchie, a young man with a musical background and family, and a passion and personal connection to the Black Lives Matter movement, wrote music. He wrote about the emotions of addressing racism, and the movement of people challenging the world around them to systemically change. What resulted is his self-titled EP, due to release on June 13th, 2021. This trilogy of songs follows an arc of processing the feelings around rejecting racism and embracing equality and diversity.
There’s a heaviness and darkness to Josh Ritchie’s music, but it’s combined with a sense of peace and calm. Each of the three songs addresses different feelings and experiences. It moves from anger and fear, to curiosity and engagement, to hopefulness, peace, and change. You can hear the influences from classic rock and folk, as well as edgier rock and rock ballads. “911”, the first track, has the heaviness and anger of late Bowie (the Blackstar album comes to mind for me). It taps into that absolute outrage at the racism and the system that allows racism and police brutality to occur. “Buxton”, a song originally written by Rob Ritchie and performed by Tanglefoot, is the most storytelling of the songs. The name references the Buxton settlement, a stop on the Underground Railroad from the United States. It is the story of a conversation between a white man and a black man, seeking to learn from each other’s backgrounds and experiences, embracing change and connection. It’s on “Buxton” that you also hear Rob Ritchie’s beautiful piano playing, really adding to the folk, storytelling, balladic nature of the song. “Walk”, the final song on the EP, is all about the Black Lives Matter protest itself. It has that ethereal quality that you would hear in U2 pieces. It has a lingering pace, with power behind the words and instrumentation. (I think it’s my favourite of the three.)
This EP is a taste of what’s to come from Josh Ritchie. He plans to release his second album, Love at the End of the World, within the next year. Josh is lucky enough to record at his family’s cottage in Big Bay, and through his family he has some excellent studio and mixing engineers to work with.
Live music is also Josh’s goal, as soon as possible. “The stage is my favourite place,” he tells me.
Words by Laura Conning
Photos by Sandra Swannell and Michael McLuhan