Josh Ritter: Interview
“Putting all this pressure on a song to change culture is impossibly big for a song.”
I first met Josh Ritter in 2004. I was living in Vermont, and since I liked Hello Starling, I drove down to Northampton, Massachusetts to see him perform at the Iron Horse. After arriving at the venue, I saw Josh pacing around in front of the bathrooms. I never like to bother musicians if not invited, but he seemed approachable and decided to talk to him about music. Our conversation was anything but the perfunctory exchange one would expect from a musician. We talked for awhile about writing, music, and beer.
Since then, Josh's star power has grown considerably, with two more critically acclaimed albums (The Animals Years and The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter), but when I sat down to interview him before his blistering set during the Captain Morgan's Jam on the River Festival in Philadelphia, he was as every bit warm and friendly as he had been in Massachusetts. Perhaps he seemed a little more road-weary, not as fresh-faced, but we spent a fascinating 40 minutes together talking about truth, rural life, and Bob Dylan. Josh also wanted it to be known that he is a true Neil Young fan.
The last time I met you, you were telling me about how you were reading Mark Twain. You said what you're reading influences what you write. When The Animal Years came out, there were some lyrics that referenced Twain: “I was thinking about my river days/ I was thinking ‘bout me and Jim.”
Yeah, that was a line from Tom Sawyer. He said that Tom Sawyer was a hymn to his childhood.
So what you read influences your music?
Definitely. I can't see how anybody who is a writer, or even a musician, couldn't be influenced by things other than music. Your influences come from everywhere. I always think it's interesting that not very many people ever ask about that because it's such a major part of your life. It's like you're asking yourself to only get inspired by other musical creations.
When you hit upon a line in a book that particularly resonates with you, what's the process you go through? What goes on in your mind?
I don't know why some lines resonate and some don't. I think it's about the rhythm. I think it's about where they're placed. Take a writer like James Lee Burke who writes great mysteries. He always ends his paragraphs or his major sections with these blunt hammer lines that are an amazing image. Like with Mark Twain, it's the waiting for the joke, but you never know when it's going to come. I think it's the idea mixed with the rhythm. I don't know why. It just kind of hits you. Some lines hit me and some lines don't. But I always remember them. I make a note of them inside my head.
As we know, Mark Twain had an affect on The Animal Years; what were you reading that led up to the Historical Conquests?
I was reading a lot of stuff. I think some of the major things that really had a effect was a lot of the stuff I was watching like the old Buster Keaton stuff or Laurel and Hardy. The bumbling side of it. For me, I was thinking about the Historical Conquests as whatever The Animal Years wasn't. I wanted it to be funny. I wanted it to be less serious. I wanted it to be less political. I wanted it to be a lot of things The Animal Years wasn't. So in the end, it kind of became a companion piece. It was written around some of the same ideas; it was just not writing about those ideas. That was kind of a negative. Definitely, Julius Caesar and Troilus and Cressida, which is a beautiful Shakespeare play that people have not done much with since the Vietnam War. But it's really influential. It's about the Trojan War. It's about trying to decide what you're fighting for in a long, protracted war with no real reward. It's treasure not worth the keeping. But then you can get Yosemite Sam or Foghorn Leghorn. Like those characters and the steamboat guys Mark Twain writes about. These big-talking characters in history. The ones that were all talk. I really like those guys.
I am getting a lot of images of daguerreotypes and old timey movies where you can see each frame as it's unspooling.
Yeah. The chance to be a big character with a big feather in your hat. I was listening to a lot of music that just had nothing to with folk music. I was listening to Biggie and Lupe Fiasco. I was just getting into that. Aphex Twin. I just wanted to get some other things besides what I had been listening to before.
"Sometimes I feel like you could really do yourself a disservice by veering away from your influences."
You said you wanted this album to be funny, and you compare it with Buster Keaton movies. As you know, in Buster Keaton films he is not the center of the joke. The stuff that is happening to him is the funny part of the movie while he is the awkward bystander to a lot of this.
He is always pricking his own balloon. It always blows up and blows up and blows up, and when the joke comes, it's always on him. That's definitely something I love about Mark Twain too; he's always using his own situations. I just find that endearing, but I don't know if there is definitely a relationship [between that and Historical Conquests]. But I really like the idea of these guys who were so impossibly big in their own minds that you couldn't take them seriously. They took themselves super seriously. But everyone around them didn't necessarily because they were mouthing off all the time. I really love that. Does that make any sense?
Yeah. Is that the force that drove the album?
Yeah, definitely. I was just hearing so much serious, serious music. So earnest about everything. As soon as you have a guitar and a microphone, the earnestness just goes so high. I don't think it ever has to be like that. I don't think it always was. There is so much you can still kind of laugh at, even though we're living in such serious times. Sometimes humor is really dark.
“Thin Blue Flame” is a earnest song, isn't it?
Yeah, it is. I think that is one of the reasons why Conquests was a really important record for me to make for myself. I don't dilute that song by writing it again and subjected myself or someone who bought my record to another song like that. I want to do more songs like that, but I don't want to do them all in a row. I felt like there was a lot of that: the let's all just gang up on the Bush administration and America and say ‘America is bad.' That's so easy. That's so easy, and where's the poetry in that? Okay, fine, George Bush is bad and he's way out of his depth, but that doesn't make for great art, in my opinion, or great writing.
Have you heard Living With War by Neil Young?
What's your feelings on that?
I personally think it's ridiculous. I think he was saying that nobody was writing about it, so he had to. Give me a break. Okay, fine. Write about it. Write a record, but don't take away from everybody else's feelings. Don't diminish everybody else's work by saying you're the only one that's writing about it. Where's the thinking about something? Where's the ideology in that? That's just saying, “No, I think that you're bad.” That's not useful. That's tearing down without suggesting any alternatives.
Well, in one song he suggests a black man or a woman as an alternative, and that's the situation we're in now.
Putting all this pressure on a song to change culture is impossibly big for a song. I think songs can reflect. They are an architectural model of what the world could be, and you're suggesting an architectural idea. But the song can't create that, and I feel a lot of times that's what political songs are attempting or people expect political songs to accomplish. Either one of those is just so difficult. Why not be an artist or be a writer and reflect the situation around you and try make sense of it and contextualize it without getting up on a political soapbox. [Pauses] Sorry about that.
No, that's great. I wanted to go towards the point of songwriting in general. I have seen you a few times, and it seems that storytelling is the main component of your songs. In live performances, it goes beyond the song and becomes a back-story tale that you tell before you even perform the song. Some of your stories are fantastical. I am a teacher, and we talk about reality and truth in my class. Do you feel that once you tell a story, even though it didn't actually happen to you, it becomes truth? Once you write about an emotion in a song, that story in the song becomes truth?
I think it's like a tall tale. There's a truth in there but it's like being worried about the repercussions of questioning God. Once you start to worry about that, you can't really say anything or ask any really good questions about yourself. I was never that concerned with telling the truth in my songs other than putting in the time to make sure that I got the songs right. I knew they were right when I felt I could sing a song for a long time and that I would feel good about that song and proud about that song and that's as close to the truth as I like to get. Otherwise, so many other things are closed off to you. You can't write about getting in gunfights because you're never in a gunfight. Maybe that's a bad example.
"Like with Mark Twain, it's the waiting for the joke, but you never know when it's going to come."
Once I heard you tell a story about when you were in Maine about sliding down the road and people shooting things at you.
Oh yeah, that's true! That's true. They'll back me up on that. That's crazy. You use a toboggan and you put on a helmet and some goggles and everyone would shoot at that guy as he went on down the road. That's what you do without the Xbox.
You grew up in a small town. Do you feel like a lot of your songs are the actualization of rural American life? Do you feel like since you come from a small place you try to encapsulate the rural American experience?
I don't necessarily try, but I think that's what comes out just because of where I was raised. I got really lucky when I think back about it, because I think one of the most important things about writing is you just gotta entertain yourself. That's the most important thing that came out of living in the country.
So what are the specific rural elements that come out in your songwriting?
It's fatalism mixed with optimism. The area I grew up in was really farmland. It was all farmers. It was lentils and wheat and chickpeas and soybeans. A lot of the area where I grew up was all farmers and farmers' kids. You had to live that way. It's like, whatever happens is going to happen, but you hope for the best. That is something I try to get into my songs. At least there is this optimism. I don't want to leave anything with a sense of total darkness. If you're gonna go dark, go as dark as you can and then pull it back up at the end. Pull it back up. Don't leave it with nothing. That's one thing. But also, having a small community of people where you know everyone around you. It's awesome. But I can't say. I've always lived in the country, so I have a hard time saying what it was that made the stuff a rural theme. It was full-on rural. We had a party line where we talked and you had to share the line with everybody. We had two stations that went off at midnight and came on at seven. I'm lucky for that experience. I feel like everyone who's had that experience is lucky to have had it. You can always move to the city.
So what's going on with Ireland? Why are you so popular there?
Well, my shows here now are bigger than my shows there. I sell more records and stuff here. But the place where I first started playing was there. I was introduced to Glen Hansard from the Frames. He saw me at an open mic and just invited to me to come over. So I did. I just kept on playing. It's the same sort of deal where you ride around on a Greyhound and you play pizza parlors and stuff. It was exciting. It was the first chance I had. It was cheaper when I first started to fly over there and go there than it was to go home. It was $93. The Greyhound between Boston and Dublin. I just kept on playing. The introduction was good, and it was just latching on. I wanted to quit my temp job. I was temping and Providence, hating that and really needing to get out. So I was just going as hard as I could for a little over three years. So I would do that and then go to the UK and get started there and then do the same thing here. But now I'm really thankful that I can go there and play and enjoy it, see my friends and not have to kill myself every time.
Did you open for Bob Dylan over there?
No, I sang a song with Glen before a Bob Dylan show.
Did you meet him?
I met him there... it's his birthday today, by the way.
Speaking of Dylan, a few songs on the Historical Conquests sound inspired by Bob Dylan.
Yeah, definitely. Sometimes I feel like you could really do yourself a disservice by veering away from your influences. Sometimes it's better just to go head-on. Because it didn't start with him either. But I love him, though. He's such a good example of somebody who's still making music. He's 67 and still kicking ass. I think that's incredible.
His last album is pretty good.
Love and Theft is my favorite of his. I love it.
Any new stuff in the works, then?
I'm doing a bunch of solo recording. I'm going to be recording a whole bunch of my first records. I'm playing with the Boston Pops in June. Then I'm going on tour. Andrew Bird and I are doing a bunch of co-bills. It's pretty mellow. I've been on tour for two and half years between The Animal Years and this. It's constant. I just need to sit down. I'm working on a novel. I'm just powering in. I'm supposed to have a first draft done in October.