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How does a singer-songwriter deal with self-doubt on stage?

March 10, 2016 at 8:08 PM EST
Singer-songwriter Josh Ritter has been performing music for nearly 20 years. But even today, he sometimes finds himself gripped by self-doubt -- both on and off stage. He copes by remembering the relationships he’s developed and the possibilities that lie ahead of him. Ritter shares his approach to building self-confidence in a new essay.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now to a “NewsHour” essay with a different type of music.

Tonight, we hear from songwriter Josh Ritter on the doubt he feels on stage.

JOSH RITTER, Singer Songwriter: I have been writing songs and playing music for almost 20 years.

I began in my childhood bedroom, moved to open mics and then to opening for larger artists. And now I get to play my own shows in venues around the world. I’m not Rihanna, but I have always considered myself to have a healthy, growing career.

I get to make the music I want to make with the people I want to make it. I have sold out some theaters you have heard of. And my family and I are able to live a comfortable life. Enjoy this time, those close to me say. It’s all happening for you.

And yet, at the strangest moments, I find it impossible to do anything of the sort. In the middle of a show, sometimes in the middle of applause itself, I find myself certain that my wonderful audience will suddenly realize that I’m a fake and that my music has been terrible all along.

Will their collective come during the show itself, causing a slow hemorrhage of silhouettes passing through the exits never to return, or will people be kinder, stay dutifully to the end and then shake their heads softly with friends as they trail down the street?

What of my band? What of the people I work with? How long until they see that I’m a sham?

It’s thoughts like these that rob joy from the very moments when joy is most abundant. So, here is how I’m trying to approach such thoughts these days. I’m trying to remember that, while I’m an artist, I am many other things as well. I’m a father and a partner, a brother, son and friend. These are all roles that I will fill, even if the bottom suddenly falls out of my career.

I think about my heroes, folks like Leonard Cohen and Neil Young and Radiohead, who have followed their inspiration to forbidding places, making some of their finest, most adventurous work without reassurance of any kind that it would be appreciated or understood.

Self-doubt is a very persistent and difficult feeling to overcome. Often, I find it impossible to write because of it. Nothing feels correct. Nothing feels new. Perhaps I don’t have anything to say, so I shouldn’t say anything at all.

During this time, I try and surround myself with the unfamiliar, movies, books and music that I don’t normally listen to. In those moments, when I fear that I’m losing joy to mediocrity, self-delusion and doubt, I’m trying to open up my heart to the future.

I don’t know what will happen in my life. I have no idea what will become of the next album, the next show, the next song. All I know is that with the future comes the chance for many great and wonderful things to happen. It is that future to which I must turn. It’s hard work, but I’m trying hard.

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