By Sean Titone
July 26, 2018
Acclaimed Brooklyn-based, Idaho-born songwriter Josh Ritter released his 9th studio album, Gathering, in September 2017. He started to workshop the songs that would end up on that album as early as February of that same year, in front of several live audiences across the country. Many artists prefer to play new, unrecorded songs much closer to their album release, so as to not offer such an intimate peek behind the creative curtain, but not so with Ritter. In our recent phone conversation, the ebullient Ritter said he had a change of heart in the lead-up to the release of Gathering.
“You start off and you write a song in your room and you’re the only person that hears it and, forever, it lives in your mind,” Ritter said. “I used to believe that it should live in your mind until it’s on the record, and now I’ve come to believe that songs are just these weird animals. They’re gonna do whatever they’re gonna do. You can’t control them. So, when you have them, you might as well let them live on stage for as long as possible.”
Even though Ritter has been playing music for nearly 20 years, racking up numerous accolades, he’s constantly learning and tinkering with the songwriting process. “I’ve really come to love the chance to play new songs for people, because it’s a chance to see where they might go,” he said. “For me, it’s a chance to see whether the songs live in the world as well as they live in my own mind. And they don’t always, you know? Sometimes there’s a song I’ve been working on and I think ‘this is perfect’ and I play it and it just doesn’t give me the feeling that I thought it would. And that just means I have more work to do on the song.”
Gathering is a natural evolution for Ritter, an artist with a consistently outstanding and stirring catalog of music. Country, honky-tonk, rock, gospel and folk are all represented on Gathering and are treated with a deft touch and clear vision. Ritter moves from balladeer poet to Johnny Cash-like ramblin’ man with ease. At times, he sings with such quickness that he comes across as an endearing, hopelessly romantic auctioneer. His literary lyrics dance nimbly across his melodies and his mastery of words, along with the sheer number of them he uses in a song like “Showboat” is astonishing. Traditional folk sounds are married to spacey and sometimes dissonant synths in one song, while boisterous horns punch up the festivities on another. Ritter’s songs are often like joyful sermons. Now more than ever, they seem necessary and vital.
In addition to his celebrated work as a musician, Ritter has published an award-winning novel, Bright’s Passage, set during the immediate aftermath of World War I, about a soldier trying to make his way home with his horse as his companion. Recently, he has also found inspiration in painting. He describes his current style as “abstract meteorological events.” The album cover of Gathering contains artwork created by Ritter and it suits the stormy theme of the album.
“I started painting when I was living up in Woodstock when my daughter was just born,” he said. “I discovered crayons the same time she did, you know? I’d be drawing with chalk on these stones outside our house with her and be amazed at the feeling it gave me in my head. I wasn’t fretting over a lyric. It would just shut down everything. It gave me a great feeling, like when I was really writing a lot, which was a feeling of being in a particular state of mind. So, with painting, I just took it up and I’ve always enjoyed doing it. It’s a great hobby for me. It keeps me sane at times when my head is getting a little too hot.”
Lately, Ritter’s head has been getting a little hotter than normal. When our conversation turned to current events, he said that he’s been feeling pretty fired up as of late.
“I think I became a songwriter because it’s a way for me to connect with people, a way for me to make a connection in a way that I wasn’t able to make in other ways. It was a way for me to say things I wanted to say, exactly the way I wanted to say them. I’ve always yearned to have a real connection. And songwriting has given me that chance. These days, I find the inspiration is coming with a fair dose of rage and anger. And where that takes the songs is still anyone’s guess, but it’s taking them to places where they haven’t gone before in my work. So, I’m inspired by a lot of anger.”
Ritter has frequently applied darker subject matter to bubbling melodies and toe-tapping rhythms– and that continues on Gathering— while a song like “Dreams” maintains its darkness throughout in mood, music, and lyrics as the narrator repeats the chorus “Dreams’ll keep a comin’ but the dream done gone” like some kind of devilish mantra.
He continued, “Every day we’re being called to understand better who we are and what we believe. I can’t recall a time that’s ever been so confusing. But, in so many ways, not confusing. The injustice and cruelty is not hard to see. I think it’s a question that’s germane not just to artists but all of us as individuals. The time has come to question who we are and what we stand for and what we’re willing to do. Try to be the country that we think we could be. People are making those choices in all sorts of different directions. As an artist, my job is to reflect that stuff. Reflect the crazy uncertainty, the strange violence. Reflect the absolutely overheated terrifying time. To reflect doesn’t mean providing answers, but it does mean highlighting questions. So, as I get angry, I try to remember that. Instead of it being about having all the answers, art is about probing the difficult questions.”
Ritter is looking forward to his return to the McGlohon Theater in Charlotte, nearly a year and half since his last solo show there. The theater’s former life as a Baptist church sanctuary, complete with ornate stained glass windows, is the perfect fit for a Josh Ritter performance.
“I think a lot of times a performance is like a painting inside a frame,” he said. “The frame is super important. In a place like (the McGlohon), you have such a kind of austere grandeur. It really lends itself to playing a show on your own. There’s something about it that really seems to fit. I really get a charge out of the different situations in which I play. Playing a place like that is really a special evening.”
Whether it’s as a musician, a New York Times best-selling author or a painter, Josh Ritter is a consummate artist. He’s always questioning, always searching for a deeper understanding of the human condition. And with his current state of mind and inspiration coming from new, untapped places in his soul, his future work as an artist could be his most compelling yet.