So, there is this kid named Joao Ritter. He’s a sophomore in UNC-Chapel Hill, with a double major in computer science and math (physics is his minor). He’s 19, has photogenic good looks, a solid head on his shoulders. Oh yeah – he also has this musical alter ego by the name of Élève (pronounced “eh-LEV”).
“It means ‘student’ in French,” says Brazilian-born Ritter, sitting outside a frozen-yogurt shop at Durham’s Streets at Southpoint Mall. “I guess it has some meaning, but I chose it mostly because I like how it sounds, really.”
For Ritter, getting this musical persona off the ground has certainly been an educational experience. He didn’t start playing guitar until the age of 15, inspired by the work of versatile guitarist Kaki King. At that point, he had some compositions he was tinkering with and was looking to find some way to bring it all out musically.
“When I was creating it, it was just kinda, like, what popped into my head,” he says. “It’s hard to describe because I’m not musically trained in any way, so I didn’t set out to create a certain arrangement. I just kind of pretty much recorded what I felt really needed to be there.”
For a couple of weekends, Ritter laid down acoustic guitar tracks in his mom’s office (she’s a dentist, by the way). He was also looking to include some string arrangements. Even though he didn’t know anything about strings and string arrangements, he soon figured it out thanks to his computer know-how.
“I’m kind of like a computer person, so I played everything in the keyboard and channeled it through to, like, string sound, basically – so I could hear how it sounds,” he explains. “And, then, once I played the keyboard, there are these (software programs) that kind of annotate it for you, what you’re playing. So, then, it’s a matter of kinda learning what you’re playing and seeing it on the screen and kinda arranging it.”
He eventually rounded up some string musicians with help from Durham bassist Peter Kimosh (Peter Lamb and the Wolves, The Beast), who served as engineer for Ritter/Élève’s debut album, “The World and Its Mistress,” which is now available on iTunes and Ritter’s Bandcamp page.
“I got a lot of (expletive) from musicians,” he remembers. “Everything wasn’t well-written, you know. I had no experience doing it, so a couple of the violinists that I recorded were like, ‘Ah, you should’ve done this. You should’ve done that. Like, this is weird.’ But we got through it. They were really nice. At the end of the day, we got through my inexperience, and it was a lot of fun. It was a huge learning experience.”
Ritter recorded and distributed “World” on a very limited budget (around $1,000), and the result was a collection of smooth, sensuous, intimate instrumentals that don’t sound as different and unusual as Ritter makes them out to be. To be honest, the music is quite comforting, which is sort of what Ritter was going for.
“I never really had a goal,” he says. “I never really had like, ‘I really need to do this setting – like I wanna make a surreal setting.’ It was really just kind of like, ‘This is a really nice melody. I’m really into this melody. I don’t know – it’s captivating in itself. So, I’m gonna build upon it and doodle some more and see what I can come up with.’”
With a cellist and violinist – both UNC classmates – backing him up while he plays on guitar, Ritter is now looking to perfect his sound for a live audience. (Ritter will perform at Local 506 on Wednesday.) Although he’s not giving up his pursuits in computer science, Ritter would still like to see where this artistic side of his life could take him.
“If, somehow, more people started to listen and stuff, I would spend more time on it,” he says. “I have plenty of songs written. I’ve never stopped playing guitar. The voice memos on my phone probably top 300 or so – different clips of different things that I’ve found, that I’ve been doodling on.”
Just as his French nom de guerre suggests, Ritter is constantly educating himself and pushing the limits on what he can achieve.