INTERVIEW: Josh Ritter and the Quest to Think What No-One Else Has Thought
American singer-songwriter, guitarist and author Josh Ritter was set to follow in his parents’ footsteps when he began studying neuroscience at a college in Ohio in 1996. However, his discovery of American music icons Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan when he was 17 started a revolution that eventually led him to change his major to ‘American History Through Narrative Folk Music’, record a debut album at the age of 21 and study folk music in Scotland. Today, Ritter is preparing to re-release his fifth studio album, So Runs The World Away, in Australia and was recently named one of Paste Magazine’s 100 greatest living songwriters.
“As much as I tried to love neuroscience, I loved Johnny Cash more. I was 17, and I think it was the first music that I heard that meant something to me, that was in a language that I understood. Girl from the North Country, the duet Cash and Dylan sang together, that was the song.
“I don’t know why [people respond so positively to my music], I’m thrilled they do, but I just love writing songs, I love playing them for people, and I’m lucky that people like my stuff. I just try really hard to write what feels good to me, and you’ve gotta trust people to like and accept it in the spirit it is offered.”
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After returning from his studies in Scotland, Ritter spent time living in Providence, Rhode Island and Somerville, Massachusetts, working temporary jobs and playing at open mic nights. After being discovered by influential Irish rock band The Frames, Ritter returned with them to Ireland, selling enough albums at open mic nights there to quit his day jobs and do music full time. Ritter‘s near-constant touring worldwide has fostered an enthusiastic fan base in the US, UK and Ireland, and Ritter is verifiably grateful for the support.
“The worst aspect of touring is sandwiches. I can’t stand to see sandwiches, I’ve seen so many in the past ten years…but the best is being on stage. On a great night, you get to be the person you wish you were the rest of the day. What you’re creating with the audience, is that you’ve got this understanding and appreciation and willingness to work together to make a night special. Going to a show should never be like going to a museum, it should be biological and kinda messy and fun and maybe embarrassing, and we should all kiss and hold hands at the end.
“It’s a trust thing, you know? When people come to a show, and they listen to a song on the radio in the mornings, they’re giving you the chance to do what you do again. The trust you’re given by an audience is the chance to do what you love again. You wanna work really hard and give something new that feels just as good. I hope that my relationship with my audience is built on trust, and that when I get home, I’m using what’s given to me to build something else.”
Ritter‘s music has been subject to near-universal praise, with the New York Times remarking on the limitless ‘depth and ambition of Ritter‘s songs’ and renowned author Stephen King labelling Ritter‘s 2006 record, The Animal Years, ‘the most exuberant outburst of imagery since Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall‘. Ritter‘s latest offering, So Runs The World Away, was also described as ‘ambitious and literary’ – but Ritter doesn’t feel the weight of expectations.
“With So Runs The World Away, I wanted to write big stories, with big instrumentation and a big epic sort of feel. I wanted my characters to really go through stuff, I wanted the archaeologist and the mummy to fall in love, and I wanted the sea captain to get trapped in the ice with his boat, I wanted nothing small. I loved making that record so much, there wasn’t a thing about it I didn’t love.
“I don’t think any expectations are higher than the ones I have for myself, so I don’t feel the pressure as much from the outside as I do from the inside, which is good news and bad news because no-one can be a harsher critic of me than me. It is certainly very gratifying when someone who is a hero of mine says something cool about a record of mine. Stephen King saying something cool about something of mine, that’s like getting a pat on a back from somebody that’s been really important in my life as a writer and an artist. In the end, it is my own heart, and I am my own worst critic.”
Ritter turned his knack for captivating lyrics to creative writing with the release of his first novel, Bright’s Passage, in June 2011. In pleasing news for his faithful fans, both his latest record and his new novel are now in the works.
“I’m finishing up a new record around February, and I’m deep in the middle of a new novel right now as well. With writing a novel, the everyday discipline is really important – sometimes a song comes and sometimes it doesn’t, but with a novel you have to sit down every day and write away whether you’re feeling it or not, and edit it later. I sit and I stare out my window, and usually something happens. I usually look at the dog down in the neighbours yard, and I drink a lot of coffee, and I get grumpy. The novel is just a big rowdy fun novel, and I don’t know about the release, but I’m totally excited about it.
“The thing that I always think about first (with my writing) is something my mom has – this little thing hung up in her lab by Pascal (Wambiya, education researcher) says ‘See what everyone else has seen and think what no-one else has thought’. I always think of that, especially when I’m trying to write a love song because love has been written about hundreds and thousands of times but the fun part is trying to describe it in a new way.”
Josh Ritter is touring Australia with Simone Felice next month and his new album (his first on Warner) So The World Runs Away is now available in Australia.
Josh Ritter and Simone Felice Australian Tour
Thursday July 5th – The Old Museum, Brisbane
Friday July 6th – Notes, Sydney
Sunday July 8th – The Basement, Sydney
Wednesday July 11th – The Corner Hotel, Melbourne