Folkie Josh Ritter and Violinist Hilary Hahn Discuss Their Collaboration, Intense Fear of Sandwiches

Photo: Matthias Boch/ Courtesy of Nightfrog

Hilary Hahn and Josh Ritter seem like a musical odd couple — she’s a violin prodigy who’s grown into one of the world’s foremost classical soloists, he's a scruffy folk singer compared to Dylan and known for his epic, literary-leaning songs. But the two happened upon each other and they’ve since teamed up as an act, performing together at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Saturday. The pair spoke to Vulture about their lives on the road, sandwiches, and finding a common ground between a Grammy-winning violinist and guitar-toting folkster.

So how did you two first meet?
Ritter: My parents and Hillary’s aunt have been friends for a really long time. They work together on neuroscientific things.

Hahn: It’s funny because we don’t have musical families at all. We’re both kind of freaks in our families.

Ritter: You should see the neuroscientist groupies…

Have you found your on-the-road experiences are similar?
Ritter: Ooh yeah, the groupies, and the drugs…

Hahn: [laughing] Well, you certainly have more groupies than I do. I think the rock groupies are maybe a little cooler than the classical groupies? Although classical musicians are kind of all geeks anyway. The people around us match us.

And how would you characterize your live show?
Hahn: When I see Josh perform, I feel like he doesn’t have to win them over. But when I’ve played those venues, I feel like there is a bit of victory in having everyone’s attention.

Ritter: Definitely. It’s asking a lot, but it’s a really fun time. And the audience knows that at the end of every concert money falls from the ceiling and there’s a big hot tub. I think that’s been key to our success up to this point.

Josh, did you have much experience in classical music before this project?
Ritter: I played violin for a long time, but I wasn’t good at it. I did like playing it, but there was never a moment when it became a personal thing. Like any music I listen to, it could have been written by aliens who beamed it down. I’m from a small town in Idaho. We had Travis Tritt and Billy Ray Cyrus.

So has this made you two see similarities between the classical and rock worlds?
Ritter: I imagine, somewhat like Hilary, I never really put classical in a different category … the word “classical” is such an amorphous thing.

Hahn: And inaccurate anyway.

Ritter: Mostly, getting deep into some of the music I worked on for these shows, or listening to things Hilary has given me … for instance I’ve gotten a huge respect for Schubert. When you really start to spend time with his writing, you realize what a genius of simplicity it is.

Hahn: With Josh, he kind of takes me back to the roots of performing. Every time he performs, there’s this feeling of contagious joy in the room, and that’s really rare.

Last summer you traveled to a lot of different festivals together. How was that?
Hahn: We stayed at a Swiss chalet in Verbier!

Ritter: The ones in Ohio were nice too, but the one in Verbier, the mountains were a little higher. None of my luggage showed up, so I wore all Hillary’s dresses.

Hahn: Oh, no, you didn’t. I wouldn’t even let you borrow my shampoo.

Ritter: I remember we got off the plane in Ohio and the person waiting for us there had chocolate. I’m used to showing up at dingy places at three in the afternoon that smell like beer, where they’re sweeping up and someone in the ticket area is having a meltdown and there are some sandwiches and beer backstage.

Hahn: There’s a sandwich in front of us right now.

Ritter: If there’s one thing I think I could deal with the rest of my life, it would be not seeing sandwiches. —Rebecca Milzoff