“When I was in seventh grade, I only listened to punk rock and Leonard Cohen,” Danny Ritz ’23 said. “Such a weird and moody year … But also that was my most loud, happy year. It makes no sense. I was an annoying 13 year old with a faux-hawk and goofy humor and immature silliness to the max. And then I would go home and be like … [listening to] the saddest Leonard Cohen.”
Ritz, in personality and style, struggles to fit definitions. He is equal parts zany charisma, emotional depth and science wizard Bill Nye. This September, I spoke with him about his first EP, “Hence the Heart,” released on Aug. 14. Over a two-hour call, we discussed his process, life story and how love to him is a bit like the binary numbers system. Like Ritz, the six-track record exists at a confluence of genre and style — the electronic mixing of Frank Ocean, the crisp falsetto of Freddie Mercury, the alternative heartbeat of Björk.
“My music lives in an electro-folk-dream-avant garde space,” Ritz said, at the same time decrying the need to categorize art at all. “It’s a little bit of a lot of different things.”
This convergence of genre is evident in songs like “The Cream,” whose baseline sounds like an army of cyborgs exiting a volcano to be greeted by Ritz’s dreamy, overlaying falsetto. Halfway through, the song shifts sharply to an R&B tempo: “I hope I can bear it,” sings Ritz. Songs like “Denial” make use of quodlibet and echoing to overlay melodies into a down-beat heavy march song. All the while, we hear Ritz employ a technique present in several of his tracks — his impressive high-pitched vocalization, like the distant siren song of some old primordial nymph.
The EP was born of a class Ritz took in spring quarter, MUSIC 101: Introduction to Creating Electronic Sounds. Made in the heart of quarantine, every track on the record is self-written and self-produced. During our call, Ritz showed me his music set-up: a small microphone, a keyboard, the cello from his younger days. There’s a track on the EP, “Faith,” that Ritz wrote in one sitting in his Philadelphia childhood home.
“I was in a place I had never been as a citizen of the world, looking at the universe and also internally,” Ritz told me. “My first time being alone in my life was catching up to me.”
Ritz explained how this first EP became a new lens of looking at the world in the midst of global chaos. In his lyrics, we hear echoes of pandemic anxieties, of fears about death and endings. The final song of the EP is titled “Apoptosis,” a reference to the death of cells which occurs as a normal part of an organism’s growth. “I’m here, and then I’m not,” sings Ritz. “The bubble pops, and it was always meant to pop / and it will always pop.”
“Apoptosis” was originally written as a monologue, but Ritz soon discovered it was well-suited for music. The song is composed of an up-tempo, Maggie Rogers-esque background beat that underscores Ritz talk-rapping in the style of the musical “Now. Here. This.”
This blend of scientific thought and artistic expression is not unfamiliar to Ritz. Whether it’s a cell process or a plant or vacuum cleaner: “I think I just love to look for what I perceive as human in things that might not necessarily seem human.” This personifying ethic is clear in “Apoptosis” and its refusal to shy away from topics like loss, maybe because Ritz refuses to see death and pain as individual tragedies.
“Everything builds on itself and everyone builds on each other,” Ritz said. “Not even in like a hippie sense. In like a scientific, biological, holding-the-universe-together sense. Like we are all somehow connected.”
It’s thanks to this love of human connection that Ritz oozes extroversion. In reference to his song “Faith,” he explained that one of the ideas most close to his heart was told to him by his older brother: You just have to believe that you belong. Having dealt with anxiety in his life, he emphasized the value of leaning into a trust in others and believing in your own belonging.
“Sometimes it feels like my brain is running at a million miles an hour,” Ritz said. “[But] I just think of moments when you’re looking into someone else’s eyes … I’ve been saved by other people. Not even saved, more like I’ve woken up, or it’s put me into focus.”
“The Roof,” one of the standouts of the EP, is a raw look at the topic of anxiety and the difficulty of human relationships. Many of the lines feel like an ode to the stress of Zoom University. “To your books I haven’t read,” Ritz sings, “I’ll get back to you / To the messages you send … I’ll get back to you.” In the organ-like instrumental, we hear Ritz’s continued optimism for human connection ring through: “In truth, I want a happy ending.”
Ritz hasn’t always been so sure of his place and belonging, though, particularly in the realm of music. While he grew up playing the cello, singing was something he loved but didn’t come naturally. It took voice lessons, singing in the car and years of musical theater to shape the voice he has today: a mix of musical theater and rock, a stand-out especially in its range. He traced the resilience it took to improve his singing to a conversation he once had with his AP World History teacher.
“He sat me down and he was basically like … ‘You could be fine in life,’ ” Ritz recalled. “‘You could make your way and be fine. But, if you take a deep breath, focus, put your head down, set a goal, be thorough, be intentional, you can do something really, really special.’ He said that’s a choice that I have.”
Now Ritz’s intention and focus has come to include music. Though he calls himself a “pup” in the world of production, his EP is full of maturity and promise, both in content and form. It’s impressive to think that “Take Me to Space,” the third song on the record, was the first song he ever wrote. A “Bohemian Rhapsody”-esque ballad, the piano-heavy track belongs in a world of sequin boots and shooting stars, the belting in the bridge being a particular highlight. Ritz wrote the song on a plane at night last August, up in the clouds, watching the wing lights flash intermittently in red.
“It felt like I was in space!” he said gleefully.
A love song at its core, “Take Me to Space” encapsulates the magic Ritz lights up with when asked about love, whether it be love in human relationships or in art. “You know the binary number system?” he asked me. “Two digits: every number? I sort of view human emotions in a way where those two digits are fear and love. Everything comes down to those two, some combination of the zeros and ones, of loving something and being afraid for some reason.”
For Ritz, love is all about triumphing over the fear of “the thing” — whether it be singing, producing music for the first time, moving away to college. It’s about continuing to grow in quarantine, like “half the room got put in shadows but the plant still grew.” It’s about sharing your music and ideas despite the fear of their reception. The way he sees it, it’s about letting the love lead and “following the want.”
Because, like Ritz and his music, his notion of love doesn’t know genre.
“Love is something making you sad or upset,” he said. “It’s not just the Valentine’s Day heart, as much as that is a part of it. It’s the emotional ability to participate in the moment.” Here, Ritz paused in thought. A cheek-to-cheek smile: ecstatic Bill Nye. “It’s like I can see the wing of the plane, flashing.”
Contact Valerie Trapp at trappv22 ‘at’ stanford.edu.