Last year was big for local musician Ian Ridenhour.
In the spring, a single from his sophomore album, Cry About It, tied for first place at the Music Video Asheville awards, and, by summer, the pop-rock artist was already hard at work on a third album, laying down tracks at Echo Mountain.
Then, just before the close of the year, the 17-year-old musician received a letter of acceptance to the prestigeous Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he expects to fine-tune his passion for songwriting in the fall. “It’s just crazy exciting,” Ridenhour says of his Berklee acceptance. “Every time I’ve been to Boston, I’ve gone and visited Berklee, so I can’t wait to be up there.”
With this news, 2018 is shaping up to be bigger and better than ever for the piano-driven musician — not only because of his prospective college career, but also because his new album, Ribcage, debuts on Friday, Jan. 26, with a release party at Isis Music Hall. The show promises a live performance of the record in its entirety, accompanied by a horn line featuring members of Empire Strikes Brass.
“I feel like my writing has improved a lot since Cry About It, so I’m really excited to release this new music,” Ridenhour says. “The songs in it feel more visceral to me, I guess. I took more of a raw approach. Cry About It was a great pop album — and that’s what we were going for — but, with Ribcage, we went for more of a rock approach. A little more angsty. A little more from the heart.”
Many kids begin an instrument in grade school — around age 10 or 11, but Ridenhour was already drumming professionally (in an adult band) at just 6 years old, taking up songwriting a year later. “I started [music] as a drummer, and I adhered to that for a long time,” he says. “But I found that it was much more fun and rewarding for me to experiment on multiple different instruments. Songwriting is where I feel like my strength and passion are … but only part of that is actual writing. A huge part of it is also tapping into your creative energy — exploring new instruments and writing parts for those instruments. It changes up your entire approach and playing around with that gives you a really unique sound.
“I’ve been trying to explore different possibilities,” he says, “taking this really cool, jazzy bullshit I can do on the piano and writing that same vibe on guitar to make songs that are catchy and really resonate in your chest.”
A six-song EP, Ribcage, features the talents of fellow local artists Jacob Rodriguez and Justin Ray (who also perform with Michael Bublé), vocalist Brie Capone and others — and its lyrics also dive deep into Ridenhour’s personal experiences. In fact, the name of the album is meant as a metaphor: The tracks come from the songwriter’s heart and soul.
“I put a lot of thought into this,” Ridenhour explains. “The title of the album is not something that ever actually appears in the songs or lyrics. The inspiration came, actually, from the band Elbow, a British alt-rock group.
“The first song off of one of their albums … repeats the line, ‘Pull my ribs apart and let the sun inside,’” Ridenhour says. “It was just gorgeous imagery that really resonated with me — sort of letting the light in and letting everything evaporate. And that same sentiment is reflected pretty strongly in a poem my dad wrote about 15 years ago about opening your chest to other people, letting things out and also letting others in.”
Ridenhour’s new album does exactly that, exploring the darker side of human existence and bringing those emotions to the light. The first song was inspired by a close friend’s nearly attempted suicide, and the album’s single, “You Help Me Fall Asleep,” deals with toxic relationships and “just being sort of apathetic to your own situation,” the musician says.
Showing vulnerability is important to Ridenhour, he says, because “it helps to hear from someone else. It helps to know that you’re not alone in struggling with something.
“It’s terrifying, of course,” he adds, “and it’s something that I’m still learning to be comfortable with. … But, when I first started struggling with my own emotions, it was really easy for me to … see it as insignificant because someone else has it worse. It’s easy for people to invalidate what they’re feeling for any number of reasons, and that’s really harmful.”
Once he began opening up about these feelings, though, they suddenly became easier to deal with. “And now I want to share what I’ve been through,” he says. ” It’s a conversation that, I think, is really important to have. It’s really scary to not have someone to talk to.”
WHO: Ian Ridenhour with Beau + Luci and Lost Stars
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Friday, Jan. 26, 9 p.m. $15 advance/$20 day of show