JOSH RITTER has been counted among the world's greatest living songwriters. With a voice distinguished by a kind of summery wear and compassionate ease, Ritter guides listeners through searing narrative lyrics that feel distinctly American in their folk roots and, above all, piercingly human.
In 2011, Ritter showed the world the scope of his writing ability with the release of Bright’s Passage, a novel chronicling the life of a widower World War I veteran, his infant son, and the guardian angel watching over them.
We spoke with Ritter about the making of his eighth album (release date to be determined), the writing approach of Novelist Ritter versus Musician Ritter, and the democracy of a good song.
So this is a solo tour?
Yeah, this will be me on my own. I’ve gotten to do a little bit of it in the last year, but I’ve been missing it for so long!
What’s it like touring solo versus with a band? Does it allow for a kind of flexibility?
It’s different. I believe that, to be really good in a band, you have to learn to play solo. And I believe, for my songs to be their best, I have to be able to play them by myself before they have any real credibility with a band. It is really fun to play in a band and have the rock going, but to be really sharp, you gotta play solo sometimes, and really enjoy it. I love it. I started off playing solo—that’s how I got here—so it’s like going home.
Do you have some new material you’ll be playing?
Tons! I’ve been recording a ton recently and honing that up for a new record.
What’s the process like in the studio?
I decided I wanted to have a really fun recording kind of situation. Recording...I don’t believe it should be torture. It’s hard work, but it should still be a party at heart. You’re there with friends, and you have the ability to make a record and hope people will listen to it. It’s an exciting time. You’re in there at weird hours, and magic happens. You know how food tastes different in the middle of the night? Different and exciting? It’s like that.
We made the record in New Orleans. I wanted to go down there and spend time down there, and I wanted everybody to have a great time.
That’s really interesting. Did you choose New Orleans for the inspiration, for the vibe?
Just the opportunity to walk out of the studio and ramble down Magazine Street in the middle of the night is just an adventure. That may not be for everybody, but for me, it’s super-exciting.
What’s the new record like? Are you trying out different directions?
I don’t think I’m really ready to talk about the record itself yet. I’m very proud of it; I’m expressing parts of myself that I’ve tried to downplay in my music in the past.
I remember hearing that you picked up guitar after first hearing [Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s] “Girl from the North Country.” I feel like that song’s a touchstone for so many musicians—what do you think it is about that song that so grabs people?
At the time, I had no understanding of what folk music might be, or of what most music was. I think that, before “Girl from the North Country,” my favorite song was a Janet Jackson song. I didn’t come to it steeped in the mythology of the ‘60s. I still hold it very close, that kind of movement in music. There are amazing artists that came out of that, and there are equally amazing artists alive right now that are just so fantastic.
With “Girl from the North Country,” what attracted me...I didn’t know Bob Dylan at all at the time. The song was so simple; it wasn’t trying to be produced. It felt democratic in the highest sense, where it felt like, ‘if he can do it, I can do it, we all can do it.’ That simple song, it was so beautiful and confident; it was punk, in a way.
Do you think that kind of simplicity and accessibility is what defines folk music?
I can’t speak to what folk is, but for what makes a song good, you should be able to sing it in the car on the way home. It should have some little moment that makes it memorable: “Two Hearts are Better Than One.” “Hungry Heart.” Everybody knows that. It’s not folk music; that’s just a good song.
When writing, do you find yourself deliberately trying to make those moments, or is it more organic?
I think about it like I have to assemble all the stones so I can carve it away. I have to block the marble and cut away at it. There’s so much stuff that gets used, wasted, thrown on the floor and forgotten about.
I am listening for whatever rings my bell in whatever way. That’s why anybody should come to a show or buy a record; I feel like I have, I want to have, the trust that whatever’s ringing my bell is important. And that my bell will maybe catch someone.
Do you go through lots and lots of material?
So much! A large portion of the stuff is so bad. You know how some people burn their manuscripts before they die; they don’t want anyone to know about it? I want to keep it. I want people knowing how much work I did!
You only have good stuff if the bad stuff is gone. I think that editing is the only way to treat a good idea.
You’re a novelist, too; is it a similar process for you?
I love it. I love doing it; it’s really fun, a whole ‘nother feeling of energy.
How’s it different from your songwriting?
It’s much more lonely. It’s almost like: people see you walking around, making lunch for your kid, but you’re working on this thing in the back of your head. You sit, write for half an hour, and it feels like you’ve gone to the beach. It’s the best feeling, a kind of rest and escape. It’s really great.
I don’t think I bring the same kind of nervous attention to novels as I do to music.
Do you think it’s carrying around this big concept, instead of these smaller worlds in individual songs, that makes [novel writing] so solitary for you?
Mostly, it’s that there’s no audience. When you play a song, you can write it and play it for somebody that night; you can play it for the world, just post it up. With a novel, someone asks what you did that day; you drank a cup of coffee, looked at the dog, and wrote down some stuff! It’s so hard; when I go to my job, there’s applause involved. It’s difficult for me to not go a little nuts when I can’t show it to anybody.
Do you ever workshop it?
Well, I’ve only done one novel so far, so my first one, I worked a lot with an editor on it. I’m not a big fan of workshops, or collaboration like that. I feel like if my story isn’t good, it’s my story, and I have to fix it.
What about collaboration in the studio?
In the studio, the people I work with and other people, those people I consider to be indispensable to what I’m doing. I can write a song, but to really bring the full amount of life into it, I have to let people have their own ideas. In the end, it’s not fun to write all the parts yourself. It lacks the wildness and unpredictability of another person coming in and painting on your manuscript; it’s such a good thing. I really enjoy that.
So what’s coming up for you in the near future? Got a timeline for the new record?
I’d like to get it out this year; I’m going to be doing a bunch of writing, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll be traveling to beautiful places like Savannah. I can’t wait. I’ve driven through once and spent a couple of blessed hours there. But I really can’t wait.
SMF: Josh Ritter
Thursday, April 2
Lucas Theatre for the Arts
$22, 32, 42, 47, 55
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