My Interview with Josh Ritter

For those too lazy to copy a link:


When I first heard Josh Ritter's new record The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (released August 21 by Sony) I was left nearly speechless. It was the first record in probably a decade that nailed me at the core. It was part Bob Dylan circa Highway 61 Revisited, part Brian Wilson and part Nick Drake, yet it was completely fresh and original - sprawling, loud, angry, despondent, depressing, uplifting, heartfelt and just about every other emotion. I had the same feeling in my gut the first time I heard Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run and Richard Buckner's Devotion & Doubt.

After a few months of absorbing this masterpiece, nothing has changed. Every time I listen, I find something new - an outstanding line, a startling musical progression. One song proves impossible not to sing while walking down the street, while another causes me to pause and ponder something existential. I can't remember the last time I experienced a piece of art – be it music, literature or film - that elicited so much in me. I fully realize this may sound like hyperbole but after months of letting this record seep into me I can say with certainty that this feeling isn't going away anytime soon.

On a beautiful San Francisco day in late October, JamBase had the opportunity to sit down with Ritter prior to his performance at Bimbo's 365 Club. As the band got ready inside, Ritter and I sat on his tour bus to talk. His demeanor immediately put me at ease, and his sense of humor and appreciation for his fans only enhanced my appreciation for his art.

Let's hear your thoughts on the new record.

I had it in my head that when I made The Animal Years that I'd want to make a totally different record after that. That was partially because a record you make that has a specific motive in your own mind you can't really do it over again. You don't want to make that same record by mistake. So, when it came time to make Conquest I had to take my hands off the wheel and make a record that was fun. It wasn't about explaining anything to myself. As it turns out, I [usually] look back and say, "This is something that I could've held onto a little harder." Like I didn't hold onto the idea hard enough. This was the first record where I felt like everything was set up - from working with Sam [Kassirer, producer and keyboardist on Conquest], to the place we recorded, to the situation I was in at the time - to make a record that was my own idea. It was all mine.

And you were in-between labels at the time, right?

I was in-between labels. I felt like I had nothing to prove. I had written as complex as I wanted to do on The Animal Years. I felt like I could just go and write.

Would you call this a concept album?

I try and stay away from concept albums. In a lot of ways, they harness a song to an idea rather than an idea to a song. I feel like, well, this is my country record, but maybe it would've been something else if you hadn't forced it into that situation. On each record, themes pop up that surprise me. Each record has images that come to the front. On Hello Starling, it was all windows. The last record [The Animal Years] was Southern Illinois. This record, I think about those pictures of the fool on tarot cards. He's kind of walking along the edge of a cliff. He's reaching for something. You don't know if he's at the edge of the cliff, if he's walking along it or if he's just going to careen. I think a lot of the stuff on this record is that moment [where] a fight's about to start, you're about to fall in love, you're about to press the button. It's the immediacy that I really wanted to have. It's not so much a concept [as] some symbols that came out, like a political record. Records don't have to be political consciously to be about the politics of the time. We write about what we see, what's happening around us.

I read that you mentioned writers such as Paul Auster and Raymond Carver, as well as Christopher Hitchens and Thomas Ricks as influences. How do writers of fiction versus writers of current events influence you?

Every idea we put in our head influences us. I don't think I've picked up a book in ten years without hoping that it wouldn't push me towards a song. If you're pouring in ingredients you're going to make something. Sitting down and writing a song about [Thomas E.] Ricks' Fiasco [The American Military Adventure in Iraq] would be kind of backwards for me. You have to pour it out and mix that in with whatever else. It works best if you don't lend yourself into a specific style or genre. You move all over and all those things mix up.

Switching gears, I saw you on YouTube at the Springsteen tribute. I then read that you met Springsteen that night. Was this the first time that you met?

Yeah. It was right as I was about to go on and someone put their hand on my shoulder. I was freaking because Patti Smith was about to go on. And Carnegie Hall was amazing. It was just a pleasure to meet him. I really don't feel like I have to meet any of the people I love like that. How do you like the new Springsteen record?

I'm mixed. I love "Terry's Song" but I need to listen to the album more.

He's certainly never made himself into a coffee table gig.

Exactly. He still does right by his fans. I actually first heard Springsteen when I was about five. That's what led me into this industry.

My dad bought my mom Sgt. Pepper's when I was ten. The record came out four days before my parents got married.

What about the covers you're playing? What made you choose Springsteen's "The River?"

Well, I played that at the Springsteen tribute. It's kind of about the changes that happen in your life. It's kind of like the sublime moment where you know something's happening and you have no power. You're the witness to your own part in it [and] you have no power to change it and you know it's going to affect you. It's the power to see the immediate future. That's what Springsteen's songs are about to me. It's just a killer. "Body tan down at the reservoir." All of The River is an amazing record, that and "Stolen Car." I feel like "The River" is the ultimate for me.

What about playing solo versus with the band?

Both are necessary, I think. I started playing solo. The energy's very different. With a solo show, you have a cable that connects you and the audience. They're really pushing you forward into the audience and back. It's much more amorphous. I really enjoy it. Playing with a band, I can create a whole new set of emotions that I couldn't do on my own. But nothing gets you sharper than playing solo. At the same time, you can't even approach the highs you get playing with a band.

What about the references to the band in the song "Rumors?"

I was mostly listening to hip-hop when making the record - Biggie, Lupe Fiasco and Jay-Z. There's violence in it but there's always a wink behind it all. There's some funny stuff in there. It's very dark and strange but it's also super creative. I like that cohesive unit of someone in a band, like me and my friends are going to fuck you up. But, there's always a total wink behind it. I like that feeling of capturing a whole different sound and song. It's like you climbed a fence and you're in a whole new pasture that's all your own. It feels like someone's handing you a balloon.

Like on "Mind's Eye" it sounds like you're pissed.

There is [anger] but you can't tie yourself totally to a character. It's more fun than being yourself, and a lot of the time, much more satisfying artistically. It's not so much anger as getting into the feeling. Okay, yes it is anger [laughs]. It's never satisfying staying that mad for that long.

What about "The Temptation of Adam?"

I didn't write that in the studio. That was a lucky one that came into my head. It felt like a play or a short story. I wrote about eight drafts, all the symbols that are there. It's supposed to be a song about regular people. The situation is fantastical, like the Garden of Eden or fish in an aquarium, but it's just a couple people falling in love, but realizing that real life is creeping in.

How is it now being on a major label?

I think these guys [Sony BMG] are doing a kick ass job. I talked to a lot of people but I figured why not? I wanted the record to come out this year. I wanted people who know how to sell a lot of records, but I wanted someone to leave the art side to me, and they're letting me do that. Whether you're on a tiny label or a big label, you pay to play. They haven't tried to direct me. I think it's hard these days for a record label to start a new act. You have to work with a label. You have to do a lot of legwork. It's so easy to blame the majors but at the end of the day you're the person in charge of your career. Not to say that they're saints but the people I'm working with are doing an amazing job.

Last night I was writing these questions and listening to "Empty Hearts" and there was a moment where I got choked up. What is it like knowing you can impact your fans that much?

It feels like a fairly new thing. When I first started selling my records and doing open mics, if I could sell a couple I was over the moon. I really needed the money. When somebody bought a record that was money in my pocket. I never really thought that they'd listen to the record. I mostly thought they were being nice. People who actually go out and buy records still, that's incredible because you don't have to anymore. The thing that you hope to do is have something be accepted in the spirit that it's offered. You kind of have to write to yourself, saying the things that you need to hear for yourself. And you try to write it in a generous enough way that other people can see themselves in that same situation. Leonard Cohen said that you shouldn't be the one declaiming it. People shouldn't be thinking about you but the poem. If people are influenced or involved in the songs it's because I was lucky enough to say something the right way for myself. Then when I'm onstage, I really want to influence people. I want people to feel things when they come to a show. But, when I'm writing I try to say things for myself the way I would want them said to me.

JamBase | Idaho
Go See Live Music!