Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter
It has been three years since the release of acclaimed American singer-songwriter Josh Ritter's last album, So Runs The World Away. Plenty has happened since then, notably his marriage and subsequent divorce. That experience has certainly shaped and coloured the material on Ritter's brand new album (his seventh), The Beast In Its Tracks, released on March 5. He and his ace Royal City Band played some warm-up gigs in Ontario in February, and Ritter took time out to chat candidly with Exclaim! in Toronto.

You call these dates a warm-up tour, prior to the release of The Beast In Its Tracks. How are the shows doing?
They've been going great. It's great to be dusting off. I haven't played much live in the recent past. Recording is not the same as playing. I had the whole band, so we rolled in pretty heavy!

One of your band members, Sam Kassirer, produced the new album, right?
Yes. Sam did the last two and he's great. What I love about my band is that everybody has ownership of their ideas. I may have ideas about what sounds right, but when other people come in, they have great ideas. Sam always comes at it in a different way and I always appreciate that. He's a super brave psychologist. I think it takes a certain kind of person to take on the guy who wrote the stuff and tell them how to do it differently. It's the same band line-up. I have played with Zack Hickman half my life, since I was 18, and with Sam for 12 years.

There must be a creative shorthand by now.
You're right. It takes a certain amount of time to develop a vocabulary inside the band, like any family. To know what the silences mean. I don't speak in music theory, but those guys can do that. They can translate whatever I am trying to say into something that makes sense so they can play things better. It's a family you know.

So it was a smooth recording process?
Yes, I mostly recorded with Liam, my drummer, and Sam and a good friend, Josh Kaplan, who I made a little EP with recently. It was a good time. I really didn't want to make a big record. I felt like the songs I was writing were small, and I wanted them to remain small and be recorded small. There were so many of them I didn't know where to begin. There were lots that weren't fleshed out. Sam took me up to Great North, where we recorded, in Maine, and he said "we're going to record every single thing you have." It was great, because it took all the weight off my chest. Then we sat down and listened to them over the course of a month or so, figured out which ones sounded good. I gained confidence then and I was ready to record them right away. It was nice to record them without cramming everything into a week. We recorded over the course of a year.

Your other albums have a bigger sound.
I really felt like there was a side to some of the songs I've written before where I've been really interested in how the sonic environment will tell the story. When it is a big story, you want big. With these songs, they were just smaller, and I had no emotional energy to give to trying to make them anything else. It was such a difficult, bad time that the idea of thinking about having to write larger songs felt like "why?"

There are bright melodies, not just introspective songs. Think that is important?
Absolutely. Much like a show or a book, it has to have a variation of tone. I tend to distrust records that are all one way. If I go to a show and hear two hours of dirge music, that is just too much. It could be great in small doses. I feel with a show or a record, there should be a narrative. I love doing track listings for records, so there is never just one mood for a super long time.

There seems to be an arc in the songs, coming from a very personal place. That a fair comment?
Absolutely. I think back on the records I've made and they do represent a period in time. I remember what I was thinking in little bits and pieces at that time. But with this one, it was like writing things down as they were happening. The feelings I had, I wasn't turning into something amorphous or that was displaced from me and put on some fictional thing. It was real, and for that reason this is the record of what happened. I'm glad it worked out like that. The songs were definitely written over a pretty short amount of time, though a couple of things, like "Joy To You Baby" and "Lights" came later, as things got a little more stable in my life and they started to be a lot happier. Initially, when everything was really going over the cliff, I wanted to make a mean record that said mean stuff. If I had just jumped in and recorded that stuff, it wouldn't have been very good. It'd have been mean, but not good. As time went on, I got more perspective and was able to describe what I was feeling a lot better to myself, so the record had a little more complexity than it would have.

In "Hopeful," there's a line about "coming in from the dark clouds." Does that mirror the arc of the album?
Yes, definitely. I wrote that one in the studio. There are things that people said to me that came off seeming so ridiculous. One of them was "be good to yourself." That such a generic saying. I was doing a whole lot to myself that wasn't good. But "Hopeful," I think that can cut both ways. It can sound like such a bitter word in your mouth when somebody says it to you. But it can also be a very calming thing. It was funny from that experience to find things that cut both ways.

Find it easier to write from a period of personal turmoil, as opposed to tranquillity or bliss?
I have thought about that a lot. My life in general is great. I don't find I sabotage myself to get material. I think if there is any kind of torture in there, I don't usually like to have that out. I think what makes a good piece of song or art is not the effort on display, but the fact the effort is invisible. People should think you wrote it in two minutes. But I do think there is like a sine wave of highs and lows that you can manage with running or something, but the top that gets thrown off the top of the wave are songs. When you are down you don't usually have the energy to do much other than strum away, and then when you are up, you are just invincible. I think both of those things are important to writing, whatever you write. I don't think those things necessarily have to do with outside circumstances so much as they have with whatever is going on inside your head. Everybody in their life has something that drives them. If you have something you can get satisfaction from, well...

You are on album number seven now. Do you take pride in that body of work?
I only started to do so recently, because it had been remarked upon. I think it is very hard these days for people to get started or sustain. It is a combination of luck and magic and really hard work over time. The people I work with are such good people who really take care of me. I do feel proud of the stuff.

And it seems you have a loyal following too.
I definitely don't take that for granted. I think the most important thing to remember is it all comes down to trust with the people who listen. Not just trust on the artistic level but in a more fundamental way. People have stuff to do, they have lives, jobs and kids. They have to make plans to come see a show. They have to decide if they'll buy a record. All they have is trust that whatever it is you're doing, you're not messing around out there. You are working. That is really important. That doesn't mean you have to satisfy by trying to do something similar or trying to hit the same notes as last time. The responsibility you are given is to take that trust, that money and move it forward. Go some place in your art that is different. You can't stagnate. People might want to hear some of the same old songs, but not all the same old songs.

Still play solo sometimes?
Yes. I love solo shows. Most of my ideas come from solo shows. You are on a tightrope, with no one else there to catch you. They can't play louder if you forget the words.

When I first interviewed you, in 2006, you said you felt like an honorary Canadian, after touring up here and playing with Sarah Harmer.
Yes, that feeling remains. We've been lucky enough to be able to play up here a lot since then. A lot of the great summer festivals all over Canada. They are so well done and we have a ball. There are adventures, to go to Newfoundland and all over the place. It's really awesome.