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Part Brilliance, Part Torment, Ian Ridenhour Toes a Mental Tightrope to Create His Music

courtesy of the artist

The suicides last year of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington touched millions around the world. But as someone struggling with his own depressive anxiety, soon to be 18-year-old Ian Ridenhour couldn’t help viewing their paths as a potential harbinger for his own.

"Especially when I was first struggling with this, there’s a little bit of tortured artist mentality, that I’m a creative mastermind now that I have pain in my heart,” Ridenhour said with a chuckle. “After struggling with it for so long, it’s not the glamorous thing it used to be in my head, because it’s ultimately not glamorous. It’s terrifying and it's very hard to deal with.”

Unlike many artists, Ridenhour talks freely about his depression, and the album he released a few months ago, called “Ribcage,” is filled with songs born from his suffering. Ridenhour kicks off the ninth season of Concerts on the Creek on May 25, at the Bridge Park Pavilion in Sylva.

“Much of my personal psychoanalysis and self-therapy is through songwriting, through music,” he said. “It’s an incredibly vulnerable point to put yourself in, and with ‘Ribcage, it just reached a point where I felt comfortable sharing this music and telling the story more bluntly.”

Ridenhour grew up in Bismarck, N.D., and started playing the drums when he was 3 and writing songs before he turned 8. His teachers skipped him ahead two grades before he began homeschooling. He studied music theory as a 12-year-old and graduated high school at 15, the year his family moved to Black Mountain. Two years ago, he won $50,000 on the Whiz Kids version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”

Though Ridenhour writes and performs largely seated at the piano, he said he plays 11 instruments well enough to write all the parts for the music he composes.

“I don’t subscribe to the concept of a prodigy,” he said. “I think people learn in different rates and different ways, and I don’t need to hear things multiple times before memorizing them.

Ridenhour grew up listening to everything from choral music to Adele to metal, a span reflected in the album he made when he was just 14. Once he began grappling with his depression, his lyrics grew darker and more focused, yet his music retained a pop, upbeat sensibility.

“I think we really like engaging with sad stuff, and we also don’t want to engage with sad stuff when we’re not in a sad headspace,” he said. “So if you sort of trick someone into listening to it and digging a little deeper, it can create an interesting reaction and response.

“I was really pushing myself to be more open with the stuff I was struggling with,” he added. “I want the music I’m making to inspire other people who struggle with this to engage with what they’re feeling.”

Some might see a young Elton John or Billy Joel in Ridenhour, and he doesn’t shy from that.

“I don’t think I need to necessarily be at that level to fulfill with what I want to do,” he said. “But with the music I’m making and image I want to create for myself, I absolutely want to follow their path.”

In the meantime, Ridenhour said he’s working to grow as a songwriter, beyond the bounds of his depression. He’s also trying to get healthier.

“Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington were two of the most influential rock musicians out there. They made incredible music and they were incredibly talented, and I think a lot of that inspiration came with what they were struggling with. But they died for it,” he said. “Just with what I’ve tried doing in my own life and move forward to a more healthy state of mind, I would want to, if not give up, then deal with it in a way I don’t have to engage with (the depression) all the time.”


Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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