Homegrown Folk Fare

Question of the decade: “What happened to good music?” In today’s MTV-driven pop culture, it can be hard to find

Question of the decade: “What happened to good music?” In today’s MTV-driven pop culture, it can be hard to find musicians who are creating art and not merely big-selling beats without much to say. Josh Ritter and Lori McKenna, performing at the Paradise next Thursday night, are two Boston-area singer/songwriters who present their listeners with thought-provoking lyrics and sweet melodies as an antidote to the mainstream.

In an endearing growl, 25-year-old Josh Ritter sings about the “small moments”—everyday occurences that may seem insignificant to the casual observer. Inspired by the likes of Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, Ritter paints evocative pictures of life. His lyrics are full of metaphor and are rich in description and imagery: “I keep you in a flower vase / With your fatalism and your crooked face.”

Ritter attended Oberlin College, where he studied to be a neuroscientist, but songwriting was his real love. He hopes that his lyrics will give listeners a new way to think about something like love; he hopes his ideas become part of peoples’ memories. Despite this aspiration, Ritter is wary of the “confines” that big record labels with their powerful marketing can impose on artists. “Music first and everything else later,” he says.

Ritter now has two albums to his name: a self-titled debut and his 2002 release Golden Age of Radio, which consists of 12 sparsely-arranged songs whose central instrument is Ritter’s acoustic guitar. How is he enjoying touring? “It’s the perfect job,” he says, and there are “bigger and better things to come.”

Lori McKenna’s voice has the warble of a country singer, but she says she’s never been particularly admiring of country music. Growing up, she always thought she had an “ugly voice” and never tried to hone it. As an adult, McKenna saw a vocal coach because she felt she was singing wrong, as her talking voice was different from her singing one. The coach told McKenna that, “I was talking wrong,” she says with a laugh.

McKenna felt a literary urge when a teen, but discovered that her attention span was not up to the extended demands of writing a novel. At the time, she was playing guitar and found she did have enough patience for songwriting, which soon became her literary form. For 12 years, McKenna wrote songs for herself. Now, though her songs remain personal, she says that “the best thing [she] can wish for” is that listeners can identify with her music and derive from it the consolation it has given McKenna.

These days, Lori McKenna is busy with her four children and is in the process of recording a new studio album. Unsurprisingly, McKenna’s songs revolve around relationships and love within the different elements of the family. She gets her inspiration from watching people and “how they manage to get through [life],” she says. The songs on her new album, Pieces of Me, range from upbeat folk-rock to slow music in a minor key reminiscent of the Goo Goo Dolls. The arrangements are denser than Ritter’s. Many of the songs have a rock feel with guitars, bass and drums.

So you’re in search of good music? Maybe you should check out Josh Ritter and Lori McKenna at the Paradise next Thursday.