By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun
8:54 PM EDT, September 19, 2012
A few years ago, Tyson Ritter, the lean lead singer of the All-American Rejects, was a walking rock 'n' roll cliche.
After experiencing "life-changing" success thanks to "Gives You Hell" — his band's 2008 single that sold more than 4 million copies and catapulted the quartet into the Top 40 stratosphere — Ritter moved to Los Angeles and quickly fell into a life focused on beautiful women and all-night partying.
The Oklahoma native, now 28, says his quarter-life crisis had its "dark" moments, but he was able to come out the other side because of the Rejects' long-standing writing ritual: They find seclusion.
"Every time, Nick [Wheeler, guitarist] and I go out in the woods," said Ritter, who takes the Rams Head Live stage Sunday with his bandmates. "We come back from our little mountain with a new testament each time."
For the group's fourth and most recent album, March's "Kids in the Street," he and Wheeler wrote in remote areas such as a cabin in Maine and Sequoia National Park in Northern California.
Ritter says the quiet of the surroundings helped him re-evaluate his fast-paced L.A. lifestyle.
On the single "Beekeeper's Daughter," Ritter begins, "I've been going a thousand ways / Choked a hundred hearts in half as many days." When he later sings, "I get so lost inside this city," the complaint stems from experience.
"This record is a walk in and out of my life at a point where finding myself was most important," he said.
It's the most autobiographical album of his career, and it could be the group's catchiest collection of songs.
Some might point to the influence of Greg Wells, the album's producer and the studio veteran responsible for hits from Katy Perry and OneRepublic. Wells' slick touch is all over the record, but longtime listeners know that Ritter's ability to come up with ear worm choruses has always been the group's strongest weapon.
"The hook matters more to us than most things in the whole song," Ritter said. "The test is if we wake up the next day and can't get it out of heads, we know we might have something."
Ritter's gift was apparent since "Swing, Swing," the band's debut single from 2002. He was only 16 when he wrote it with Wheeler, but the song's unabashedly pop-py hook was the first sign the Rejects would become more than an above-average pop-punk act.
Credit for Ritter's hook-writing ability partially goes to his grandmother, who he says introduced him to Broadway tunes at a young age.
"Musicals can be as brave and bold as they want melodically," he said. "I think that's where I got my foundation."
Since "Swing, Swing," Ritter has built on that foundation, with popular singles such as 2006's "Move Along" and "It Ends Tonight."
With each new release, the Rejects have moved closer to the mainstream. "Gives You Hell" made them a legitimate pop force, and Ritter hopes "Kids in the Street" follows the same path, without sounding like the band's previous work.
"One thing I pride ourselves on is we've never made the same record twice," he said. "The bands that do that are the dinosaurs. Evolution and growth are something we embrace."
That attitude has influenced Ritter's personal life, too. After the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Ritter founded "Don't Hate on Haiti," a nonprofit T-shirt company whose proceeds go toward building water systems in the country. Ritter says the effort has raised more than $30,000.
"It's cool to see a well with your charity on it and knowing people drinking from that spout are doing so because you opened your mouth for 30 minutes a day on Warped Tour," he said.
While his concerns may have expanded, Ritter remains committed to his band. He says his goal is to be able to "play in front of people for the rest of my life." Writing upbeat pop songs has afforded him that luxury for now, and the plan is not to slow down.
"Some of my favorite musicians were writing their best records when they were 28," Ritter said, "which gives me hope that some of my best music is still to come."
If you go
The All-American Rejects performs Sunday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live. Boys Like Girls and the Ready Set will also play. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $30. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.
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