Josh Ritter Talks 'The Beast in Its Tracks,' Sheds Light on Second Novel

BY Kerry DoolePublished Mar 18, 2013

Acclaimed American folk-rock singer-songwriter Josh Ritter released his new album, The Beast in Its Tracks earlier this month through Pytheas Recordings. It's his seventh album, and by far his most autobiographical work, and thus, the well-received record is being universally termed his "break-up album," a trite but still rather accurate tag.

In the three years since his last album, So Runs the World Away, Ritter has been married and divorced, an experience providing the emotional core of The Beast in Its Tracks. Just prior to its release, Ritter and his Royal City Band played some warm-up gigs in Ontario, where he candidly admits to Exclaim! his anxiety over the overtly personal content of the record.

"At times I didn't even think I could put it out," he says. "I was so unsure of opening things up to this. It is easy to write the songs, but then hard to come to terms with the fact that you are going to sing them a lot. I don't think autobiography is the highest form of what songwriting can be. It should be like a great adventure novel, that's my personal belief. But I do think it's great that having crossed that Rubicon that people are responding so positively."

He describes his compositional method this time around as "writing things down as they were happening." He adds, "The feelings I had, I wasn't turning into something amorphous or that was displaced from me to 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. 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."

Ritter is currently working on his second novel, but don't expect some confessional break-up book there. He's reluctant to reveal its theme, but stresses, "I'm working really hard and having a great time on it. It's really fun, very rowdy."

Given the lyrical eloquence he has displayed in his songs, it should be no surprise he is revealing real talent as an author. His first novel, 2011's Bright's Passage, was praised by Stephen King in the New York Times as "the work of a gifted novelist," while best-selling author Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) has long admired Ritter's music.

"Dennis wrote me out of the blue, in an amazing way," Ritter says. "He asked if I could put a line of mine at the front of his book A Given Day. I have never met him in person. The same with Stephen King, but I feel real appreciation. Those guys are writing for a living and they have done it. I have read and enjoyed so many of their books."

As Ritter explains, his love of literature is deep-rooted.

"Before I ever really discovered music I was always reading. Then I found songs and that you could pour all your words into that form. I have learned there really isn't much difference between the two forms. You have to figure out where the audience is. You are alone in a room, writing at a desk, and you have to summon up the feeling of performance and then let it go. The other thing I've found is that even though you are writing prose and it is not rhyming, every word still has to be the right word. It still has to be concise."

The new novel will have to be placed on the back burner as Ritter tours the new record internationally. He has two more Canadian dates upcoming, at the Commodore in Vancouver on March 22 and at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto on April 16. He once told us he felt like an honorary Canadian, after touring extensively here, both solo and with artists like Sarah Harmer.

"That feeling remains," Ritter says. "We've been lucky enough to be able to play a lot of the great summer festivals all over Canada. They are so well done and we have a ball. There are adventures, like going to Newfoundland and all over the place. It's really awesome."

Read Exclaim!'s full Josh Ritter interview here.

Tour dates:

3/18 Solana Beach, CA - Belly Up
3/19 Los Angeles, CA - Fonda Theatre
3/20 Oakland, CA - The Fox Theatre
3/21 Portland, OR - Crystal Ballroom
3/22 Vancouver, BC - Commodore Ballroom
3/23 Seattle, WA - The Neptune
3/24 Spokane, WA - Knitting Factory
3/25 Missoula, MT - Wilma Theatre
3/27 Denver, CO - Ogden Theatre
4/14 Cincinnati, OH - Taft Theatre
4/15 Columbus, OH - Southern Theatre
4/16 Toronto, ON - Danforth Music Hall
4/17 Detroit, MI - Royal Oak Theatre
4/18 Indianapolis, IN - The Vogue
4/19 Louisville, KY - Brown Theatre
4/20 St. Louis, MO - Plush
4/21 Lawrence, KS - Liberty Hall
4/23 Milwaukee, WI - Pabst Theatre
4/24 Madison, WI - Capitol Theatre
4/25 Minneapolis, MN - First Avenue
4/27 Chicago, IL - The Vic Theatre
5/8 Portland, ME - State Theatre *
5/9 Northampton, MA - Calvin Theatre *
5/10 Washington, DC - 9.30 Club *
5/12 Carrboro, NC - Cat¹s Cradle *
5/13 Asheville, NC - Orange Peel *
5/14 Atlanta, GA - Variety Playhouse *
5/16 Philadelphia, PA - The Trocadero *
5/17 Boston, MA - House of Blues *
5/18 New York, NY - Terminal 5 *

* with the Felice Brothers

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