To most people Raleigh Ritchie is also known as Grey Worm on Game of Thrones, except I've never seen Game of Thrones, so when I talk to Raleigh Ritchie I'm just talking to Raleigh Ritchie, and when I'm just talking to Raleigh Ritchie I'm talking to an artist who truly cares about making great art, and being an artist who truly cares about making great art often means being in a constant, simmering fight with your heart and head. Raleigh Ritchie is fighting the good fight.
I first came across Raleigh about a year ago, when his "Stronger Than Ever" pulled me into its orbit. I couldn't stop watching it, and I wasn't quite sure why. It meant something to me, but I didn't quite know what.
And then I figured it out. "Stronger Than Ever" is about how I was scared to have another child, about the realization that even though it might be terrifying, at some point you need to let go and face the future, except of course that's not what the song is about at all, except it is. To make music so universal it can mean many things to many people is a beautiful and terrifying thing. There's beauty in making something that serves as a bridge between your life and someone else's, but that also means what an artist "meant" to say can be effectively rendered meaningless. And so the process of making an album can begin to feel like a trap, an ever-tighening noose of questions. Does this music really project who you want the world to see? Is this really the absolute best music you can make?
“You get trapped in your own self-loathing, trapped in your expectations for yourself" said Ritchie when we spoke. "It’s a shame that people feel that pressure. That’s the wrong reasons to put something out, because you feel like you have to."
And when that music carries the additional pressure of being your major label debut album - that word, "album," still carries so much weight - that pressure can bend even the strongest back. So while Ritchie has been releasing music at a steady clip over the last year, an EP here, an EP there, an excellent remix project with The Internet, the album was always looming just in front of him, expectant, waiting with folded arms. Until, finally, like "Stronger Than Ever" he let go and handed in the album.
“I definitely felt like I could always do more," he said. "I wanted the album to have a journey in it, and I wasn't sure I was achieveing it. I wish I would’ve finished this song up, put that one on the album, add something to that one. There’s lots of stuff like that. But once I handed it in it was over. That was that. I’m happy with where I finished it. There’s still more I want to say and do, but I can do that with the next thing.”
And maybe that's the real lesson. There is no finish line, just a line you cross and then the next line is drawn in front of you. "If nobody buys the first album, I’ll still make another one," Ritchie said. "The only way to make music or anything creative is to do it because you love it. It doesn’t matter how it’s received critically or how many units you sell, it’s a personal quest that means something to you. It still counts if you make things and nobody hears it.”
And so now Raleigh Ritchie is living in a strange sort of rip in the space-time continuum. For him the album's finished and firmly in the past, he's already looking ahead, spending days in his living space experimenting with new sounds, sounds that will perhaps make up the next project or EP or album. But for the rest of the world the album still only exists in the future, and once it's released both he and everyone who listens will be united in a present moment. It's almost daunting to think about, so he's trying not to think about it, something that's only made harder when writers call and drag him through the entire process again. Speaking to him though, he sounds about as at peace as anyone possible could in his position.
“I just want it to mean something to somebody in the way that my favorite albums meant something to me," he insisted. "I don’t care how many people it is, but I want somebody to listen and I hope it helps them in some way, or they can relate to it in some way. At the end of it, I’m happy. It’s exactly the debut album I’m supposed to make.”
When the album does drop I'll be there, looking, searching for a way into the music so I can turn it into something that means something in my life, because that's the gorgeous thing about great music, it connects, travels, changes, moving away from the artist's life and into yours. It's a lot to expect from a mortal man, but it's what we expect from our favorite artists, and it's what I'm expecting from Raleigh Ritchie.
Raleigh Ritchie's new single, "Bloodsport '15," is currently available for digital purchase on iTunes.
[By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]