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In 2010, Luke Ritchie set himself a challenge – to write a song a week for six months. Between January and July, he composed 26 songs, recorded them at home on acoustic guitar and posted them online as podcasts. By the time the experiment was over, through word of mouth alone, the songs had been downloaded 8500 times and Ritchie was ready to pick the best for an album he planned to put out himself.
Yet the route to the release of The Water’s Edge, Ritchie’s glorious debut, isn’t quite so straightforward. Before they reached the studio, the songs had found fans in globally acclaimed arranger Nico Muhly (Bjork, Anthony & The Johnsons, Grizzly Bear) and award-winning producer Paul Savage (Franz Ferdinand, Arab Strap, Mogwai). The former composed and recorded string parts for five of the tracks. The latter produced the entire album over two snowy weeks in Scotland.
The results led to a deal signed late last year with Angel Falls Records, a label founded by Venezuelan entrepreneur Rodrigo Márquez and distributed by Proper Music, home to artists including Robyn Hitchcock, Dr John and Richard Thompson, whom Ritchie recalls on a couple of his folkier songs. Yet The Water’s Edge is neither a regular folk record nor typical singer/songwriter fare. It’s a rich, varied set of songs that are as feisty as they are folky, as rocky as they are pop. Recorded with Ritchie’s core backing musicians, on double bass and drums, and Jazz Vocalist of the Year nominee Nia Lynn on harmonies, the album may have been made on acoustic instruments, but even its most reflective moments are packed with passion and purpose.
“I didn’t want to make a soft, samey album,” says Ritchie. “I’m not a soft singer. I grew up on Led Zeppelin, Soundgarden and grunge, as well as people like Paul Simon and Sam Cooke. I like dynamic singers and powerful songs – and you can get a lot of power from acoustic instruments.
“I contacted Paul because of the music he’s made with King Creosote and Arab Strap. He’s a drummer and he’s brilliant at getting big drum sounds without veering in to power rock. On the song ‘Shanty’, which has a bit of a military beat, we used two sets of drums. Elsewhere, we messed around with feedback on acoustic guitars. On ‘Lighthouse’, it starts to make the sound of air raid sirens.
“Paul was so enthusiastic and had such a clear idea of how he wanted the music to sound that I totally trusted him, which was a big leap for me. A lot of the songs changed in the recording process and harmonies and embellishments were added on the hoof. ‘Cover it up’ became faster and funkier. ‘Lonely Second’ probably changed the most. Paul really ramped that song up with drums and bass. Then, of course, there were the strings.”
Shortly before recording began, Ritchie received a call from Muhly. A mutual friend had suggested the classical composer check out Ritchie’s songs online and so impressed was he that he offered to supply the string parts.
Lyrically, some of The Water’s Edge deals with ideas of identity, British-ness and an island in decline.
“Warily, I’d say I started out intending to make a concept album,” says Ritchie. “Some of the earlier songs are quite political. ‘Shanty’ I wrote around the time of the American elections. It’s about remembrance, about a country being at war for reasons that don’t seem true. ‘Looking Glass’ is about what it means to be English and the idea of an island in ruins. That was inspired by my great, great, great, great grandfather, Joseph Gandy, who was a draughtsman for Sir John Soane. At Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn, there is a drawing of the Bank Of England as a ruin. Soane had only just built it, but already he could imagine it destroyed.”
The identity theme stems from Ritchie’s nomadic upbringing. His British parents moved around Europe for work – he was born in Amsterdam, his sisters in France and Spain – and he spent time at schools in both Paris and South London.
“I only recently started to feel any roots,” he admits. “It made me begin looking in to my family history, discovering my ancestors in Scotland and Ireland. My mum’s side of the family were Irish travelling musicians.”
Already, The Water’s Edge has done some serious travelling itself. At the end of last year, Ritchie decided to send his album out all over the world, to see how people would react. He recorded the songs on to 80 MP3 players and put them inside tobacco tins with instructions on a luggage label to listen and pass on, but also to photograph the ‘music boxes’ in interesting locations.
“I’ve sent out almost 50 so far, mostly with friends who are travelling abroad, and the response has been incredible,” says the singer. “People have sent back pictures from Tibet, the Pyramids, from a beach in Australia, in front of the Chinese terracotta army and under a waterfall in Venezuela. I’m expecting some soon from Baghdad and Palestine. I put the photos on my website. Somehow, seeing the album in people’s hands, in so many vastly different locations, makes it more tangible. These are songs I first played in my bedroom, unsure if anyone would hear them. Now look how far they’ve got.”
- The Lighthouse
- Off Your Guard
- Cover it up
- Northern Lights
- Lonely Second
- Looking Glass
- Right then and there
- Song to Sundays