Josh Ritter went to Oberlin,so he knows he’s wearing Tom Wolfe’s suit in this photo by Ray Gordon.
Here’s my complete interview with Josh Ritter, an abridged version of which appears on DCist today. This version includes the bit referenced in the intro vis-a-vis “shooting your colleague in the face, Dick Cheney-style,” which is gone from the DCist version though the intro reference remains. I’ll have a review of his performance at the 9:30 Club tonight in Thursday’s Paper of Record.
Versatile instrument, the piano. The primarily guitar-based P.J. Harvey turns to it to help her write an album of sober, somber chamber music, while the Idaho-bred, Oberlin-educated, equally guitar-centric Josh Ritter uses it to help him loosen up. At least that was the way he made The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, his fifth album since 2000, but his first since 2006’s The Animal Years elevated him from being just another huge-in-Ireland singer-songwriter to someone critics could compare to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen without anyone laughing at them. (Horrormeister and weekend rock-critic Stephen King called The Animal Years the best album of 2006, for whatever that’s worth.)
To help him shake off what he felt was the air of studied precision that made The Animal Years a near-masterpiece, Ritter completely upended his compositional approach, writing melodies before he wrote lyrics — and writing them on the piano, an instrument he says he could barely play at the start of the sessions. Acclaim for the resulting album has once again been almost unanimous, allowing Ritter to continue his ascendancy despite the hiccup of his former record label, V2, which collapsed earlier this year.
Ritter kicked off a fall tour last week that stops at the 9:30 Club tonight. I caught up with him by phone in Westport, CT over the weekend to talk about comparisons to rock and roll royalty, the delicate work of sequencing an album, work habits, castrato singers, and the inspiration that can come from shooting your colleague in the face, Cheney-style.
Chris Klimek: You’re four shows into the tour now. How’s it going so far?
Josh Ritter: Everything is great. We really hit our stride in the last couple of days. You always have to put your foot in the water and try it out, and then you jump in. Last night [in Somverville, Mass.] was phenomenal. I had a great time. It was one of those ones where you play and you can sleep like the dead for about ten hours afterwards. It was fantastic.
CK: The last time you came to town [in January], you played two solo acoustic shows at the Birchmere, a seated venue. Now you’re on the road with a band, and you’re playing the 9:30 Club, which is all-standing. So we should expect a more raucous show?
Josh Ritter: Yeah! I feel lucky to be able to do both. I definitely believe that whatever songs you write should be able to stand on their own without anything else. I think that’s important. That’s how I grew up learning songs: taking them back to the basics. It’s such a pleasure, and I think it reflects the eclectic spirit of the record, to just show up and cut the tethers. I really love that feeling, and I haven’t fully experienced before, of having the songs to work with, and just blast away. I’m loving it. It’s really a terrific time.
CK: You’ve talked about how your approach to writing this album was less studied than the way you made The Animal Years and some of the earlier records. Is that more freewheeling method reflecting in the way you’re playing the songs live now?
JR: Yeah! I hope that comes across. Writing this record was such a new experience. I needed to do it the way I did. I think a lot of time you’re casting around for new ways to write about things. I found one this time that really worked well for me for the time and place. I really needed to not make The Animal Years again. That was important to me. I didn’t want to dilute the message of it by, like, restating it. I feel like there are so many people out there just bludgeoning away at the same stuff we already know, and that was starting to annoy me. I wanted to make a record that was totally different. I kind of wrote the songs in the studio. I played piano. I did everything I could to make it as loose and unstudied as possible.
CK: A lot of writers have compared you to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and obviously that’s not meant as an insult. But does it annoy you to be likened so frequently to artists who arguably had their greatest cultural impact 40 and 30 years ago, respectively — even if they are both geniuses?
JR: I never really think about it too much. I guess I got so used to that kind of stuff. If it helps people get into [my music], then it’s fine. I guess what keeps me feeling good about all that stuff is that none of those people wrote my songs, which is cool. I wear my influences on my sleeve. I’m proud of the people whose footsteps I’m in, and my contemporaries are in. Those guys are dinosaurs, and they’re still walking the Earth! It’s amazing. It’s amazing to see somebody who’s like, 65 or 66 [Bob Dylan is 66], making records that are still funny and still have this hop in their step. Springsteen is 58. They furnish an example for making music for your whole life. I think that’s cool. It doesn’t bother me. I get a little bit more peeved being talked about as a mellow folk crooner. That’s the stuff that bugs me!
CK: And this is a lifetime occupation for you, right? You want to be up there at 65.
JR: Definitely. I’ll die onstage if I have to.
CK: Let’s talk about the record a little bit. First of all, that title: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. Is that a sly reference to what all this weighty stuff the critics are larding on to you after the last record, about its importance? I know you said that choosing a more freewheeling writing process for this record had a bit to do with shrugging some of that off . . .
JR: Yeah, I wanted a title that was so enormous and heady and egotistical to such a huge degree it couldn’t be taken seriously at all. And people were saying, “Be careful, some people might take this seriously and think you’re just an asshole.” And if anybody does, I think that’s kinda funny, too, because I think that’s the last thing that had to happen to make sure the record was the way it was: sticking to the absolute absurdity of the title. But I think it was fun to try it.
CK: That cover image of the Roman soldier’s helmet is really funny.
JR: That was the one outtake of a big group of pictures of me in fencing gear. And it all looks so hilarious, but it just didn’t look quite as badass.
CK: This album plays like a vinyl LP in that it has a definite A-side and a B-side. For example, what would be Side B on a vinyl record begins and ends with different versions of “Wait for Love.” I take that was something that you did intentionally?
JR: Yeah. I like records. The two records I’ve done on my own, Golden Age and Historical Conquests, I’ve designed like [vinyl] records. I think track listing is really important. It’s like a show. You want the dynamic range to be there. I don’t trust records where you can go three songs in and that’s pretty much the whole record and the rest is like a long tale. Your should save some surprises for the end, which is why I like to have a little instrumental piece in the middle. Stuff like that is fun. I wasn’t raised on records, I just like the way they fit together like that. It feels like the right amount of time. 44 minutes is the right amount to listen to a record. After that it’s a diminishing margin of return.
CK: We’re in a time when downloading is supplanting CDs as the dominant format for delivering music, but for a while there, at the height of the CD era, it seems like an album was suddenly thought of as an hour or more of music, regardless of whether the artist had an hour of worthy material.
JR: Totally. One of my favorite records I had when I was temp working and just getting started was Either/Or, the Elliot Smith record. That record is, like 35, minutes long. It’s so short you just have to put it on again right afterwards, which I think is really cool.
CK: So you’ve sort of already answered my question as to why you split off those four tracks into a separate EP that’s packaged with Historical Conquests . . .
JR: Well there’s a lot more of that stuff, too. It takes me about five days of a schedule of a certain to really start writing, for my ideas to really coalesce. And once that five days is up you just have to write; you can’t pick and choose what you write about. You just have to write it all down. So some songs come out and they’re not really what you’re looking for, but you continue writing them because they might lead you to a different song. They might give you a different idea.
Some of [the songs on the EP] just didn’t quite fit so well on the record, or they were good enough to be on the record but they would fit superfluously on it. So I just kinda wanted to add little things. I’m playing them in shows. I feel like you can add an extra 30 seconds and it can be too much, you know? That’s the only part on this record where I feel we got really anal is on making sure the track listing was right. Once you have the stuff you want you put it in a setting and you really want it to show it off. You want it to really shine, you know?
CK: So you wanted it to be as loose as possible when you were writing it but when it came to editing and sequencing the record you were much more disciplined about that.
JR: Definitely. And after you listen to a song 50 times you stop thinking about it like it’s music.
CK: I love that song “Wildfires” that’s on the EP. I thought, “I hope he’s not burying this.”
JR: Thanks! I was really proud of that one. It felt like an Animal Years song to me but it kinda came out. I haven’t played it yet in shows but that’s one that I’m gonna be working on pretty soon.
CK: You’ve already spoken on how you didn’t want to repeat yourself….
JR: Yeah I feel that really adds something to it. I was really proud of that one and in the end. There was that one or “overnight” the only one I was pretty sure wasn’t going to go on the record was a song that not on [th EP]. It’s about a deputy sheriff who helps a bunch of bordello girls escape and they move to San Francisco. It really just didn’t work on the rest of the record. [Laughs.]
CK: Maybe you’ll work that one out in time for the next one.
JR: We had sound effects and everything for that one. It was great. [Laughs.]
CK: It’s gonna be your Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
JR: Totally! Yeah, yeah. While drinking white wine spritzers.
CK: Not to dwell on the EP too much, but I did want to ask you about that little 37 second thing, “Spot in My Heart.” I haven’t been able to figure out who that man is on the recording talking about the actress he met. I don’t know, I always pay attention when that one comes on. Could you tell me the story with that?
JR: Well at the house where we were recording we had a bunch of tape recorders and a lot of little disposable cameras around. Because at certain points there would be 15 or 16 people around all at once, and everybody is kinda messing around. And there’s nothing to do. It’s winter time. We were looking for stuff to do. There’s no internet or anything like that. So lots of people were just recording one another. Walking in and expecting adlib and everybody got really into it. We also recorded people getting shot by bee bee guns. What is in between “Long distance” and “next to the last”, that’s my producer getting shot in the face with a bb gun [Laughs]. So [“Spot in My Heart”] is just somebody coming in while I’m in the shower and saying “Famous actress. Go!” I’d just been reading that story “Heart of a Dog” by [Mikhail] Bulgakov. I was just riffing a little bit. I wish I knew a famous actress from the 70s, but I don’t. I was thinking of a Diane Keaton type.
CK: So if the plane ever goes down the rest of that stuff will all come out on the box set.
JR: Yeah! Hopefully. (Laughs.)
CK: So what are you listening to these days? What’s the last album you bought for yourself?
JR: Well, I just got Magic but I haven’t listened to it yet.
CK: The new Springsteen album?
JR: Yeah. You know, I’m really into this guy Alfred Deller. He has these really early English love songs. Like songs of chivalry. He was I think around in the 40s. I don’t know much about him. But he sang the castrato style. So he has this really high voice, and the songs are just really plain and there’s just a little bit of instrumentation behind. They walk between classical and very old folk music. It’s really beautiful shit. I’m really into the sound. I just got a bit of Nina Simone. It seems like a lot of her stuff is on compilations. So I buy ‘em whenever I find some new songs. I feel like I’m listening to a lot of people’s voices right now and less to the words. More to just the sounds and the empty space. You know, there’s so much empty space in the old English stuff . It’s beautiful.
CK: You played Carnegie Hall back in April at that charity tribute to Bruce [Springsteen], and you chose one of my favorite songs of his, “The River,” to perform. Why did you pick that one, and how did it feel to play it?
JR: That was one I really wanted to do. I was really sort of torn between so many songs because, I mean, what would you sing? At Carnegie Hall? And Bruce? I asked a friend of mine for help, and he sent me this list of, like, a hundred songs. I picked “The River” because it just seemed like a perfect song about everything in life. I first heard it when I was in high school. And it just made so much sense then. I didn’t know much Bruce, but I had a mix tape with all kinds of stuff on it. So I asked for “Ther River,” and they said, “Look, Jewel’s got it.” Jewel had chosen thirty songs and, she was trying to decide what she wanted to do. I figured I’d just do it anyway. She didn’t show, and I got to it. It was great. I was very proud. It was a bizarre experience: I was sharing a dressing room with The Hold Steady, and I was just about to go on, and Patti Smith was there because she was going on after. And Springsteen shows up backstage, right before I go on, and tells me he likes my record. Everything about that moment was the reason why you play music. I don’t feel like I need to meet my heroes. It’s better if they’re off doing their thing. But that meant a lot to me.
CK: Is the thought of other artists covering your songs something that appeals to you?
JR: Oh yeah! That’s like the ultimate compliment. If somebody likes singing your songs, whether they do it good or bad, I think that’s just really awesome.
CK: You’ve been working at a pretty good clip since you started. [Historical Conquests] is the fifth album in eight years. Especially considering you’re last record label went under just as Animal Years was starting to get a lot of attention. Do you have a work ethic that you’re conscious of or do you just write when you feel inspired?
JR: When something really hits me I write it down. On the road I think of myself as a cup and the experiences, all the stuff and the language that creates a new record gets poured in. And it just sits there but then over time it builds up and starts to overflow and that’s the time when the songs start to come. In terms of work habits on the road I try to stay as healthy as possible. So I can really put it all into the show. I feel like you’re squeezing the same sponge for performing and writing and there’s only so much emotion you can give and mental energy you can expend at a time. I used to beat myself up about not writing on the road but I don’t anymore. I think my idea of what constitutes writing has changed. I feel like the writing is important to do…but just by gathering experiences that will all turn into writing. And then when I’m home and I really start to write I really make it a thing. I get up at 8 and write for a couple of hours and just fiddle around with coffee and stuff and then I go have some lunch and whatever business stuff needs to be done. And then I go out for a run and work it all out. Make dinner, watch a movie and then write some more at night.
CK: Sounds like a pretty debauched rock and roll lifestyle. You never throw a TV out the window or drive a limo into the hotel pool?
JR: The first five days it’s just not fun to be around me. I’m preoccupied and down and wondering why nothing I write is original anymore and all that sort of stuff and then once it starts happening, I’m over the moon.
CK: So when you’re out there playing are you a make a setlist and stick to it kind of guy or do you like to mix it up and see what the crowd is reacting to?
JR: I make setlists but we change it every night. Sometimes there are moments I just want to keep having over and over again. Other times I can feel what the audience or I need and call an audible. But I think Consistency in shows is important. I don’t like watching people fall apart on stage. Some people like that. Seeing someone lose themselves, not in the music, but that just doesn’t appeal to me. So one thing is important is the set-list. Know how you’re gonna start and how you’re going to end. The stuff in the middle you can move around all you want but just have an idea of where you’re going. I know it’s not very rock but that’s me.
CK: But that’s consistent with your having a structured workday. You talked about, and even wrote a song about, your label, V2, going under. You’ve talked about wanting this to be a lifetime career and this being a sort of uncertain time. Any thoughts about longevity and financial survival? This is kind of a shaky time for the record business.
JR: I think it’s important to have something you’re working towards. Those goals are important, family . . . That’s something I want. And I’m not gonna be on the road like this all the time. My goal is to have what everybody else has.
I also feel like chasing around the idea of what a music career has been is also a folly. The music career that somebody like Springsteen has had couldn’t exist now. It’s just not the same for lot’s of reasons but trying to recreate a dream like that is just not possible. It will be different for me than it was for somebody in the 60’s or 70’s and I think that’s something to feel good about but at the same time even with the way the record business is I still feel like I’m the lucky one because I can still write music, I’ve got songs and I can always perform. Who knows what’s happening with record labels. You hear all the time about people who can’t go out on the road because their record label went bust. I feel bad for them but I also feel if you want to do it you’ll do it for yourself. That’s always the way its worked. If you’re born with the fresh water spring on your land then you’re pretty lucky.
CK: I really appreciate you doing this. I’m excited about the show. I actually didn’t get to see you at the Birchmere last winter so I’m really excited about this one.
JR: Oh, it’s gonna be awesome, Man! We’re gonna have horns, so I’m psyched about that.