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Interview: Josh Ritter
SoundSpike spoke to Josh recently about his new album The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, his current tour, the joys of reading and the importance of not taking things too seriously.
Josh Ritter Interview September 28, 2007
You're from Idaho, but I read that a majority of your fanbase is overseasâ€"in Ireland, particularly. Do you have any theories as to why your music has resonated so deeply with folks there? It's weird...in terms of...well, I don't know if it's the biggest. I definitely sell more records here in the states than I sell anywhere else. But I think that Ireland is always a special place to me because that's where I started. I kind of began there. I was a guest of the band The Frames in 2001, that's where I started. And that's really the answer. That's where I started, so in terms of the biggest, I don't think it is. But it's certainly the place where they gave me my shot.
I see. And, yes, I did read that Glen Hansard (of the Frames) approached you to tour with them. Can you tell me that story?
Yeah, I was playing at an open mic in Boston and I wasn't really playing shows. I was temp working and playing these open mics and he and his band were in town to play that night down the street and he was there watching a friend of his play and he saw me play and asked me to come and open for him in Ireland and I just kind of jumped at it, you know? Winter of 2001 from Boston to Ireland-it was cheaper and faster for me to go there than it was for me to go back to Idaho, so it worked out perfect.
Had you gone on a tour prior to the Frames tour?
I'd never been on a tour before at all. It was a new thing. I hadn't played for anybody before really. I had played a little in college but I hadn't played any shows. It was a brand new thing. It was great. It cost $93 to fly over there. It was awesome. That's the sort of thing that people ask me all the time, people getting startedâ€"like how to get started. And I just think it's conservation of energy. If you throw your energy in, somewhere or other it'll come out. You just have to know it when it happens even if it doesnâ€™t happen according to the plan that you might have.
What lessons did you take away from that tour?
Well, I guess it was that. If you're putting in your energy and you're doing what you love to do and working hard, things will come out of it that will be unexpected but that will change your life.
And you have to be open to receiving them.
And you also went on tour with Joan Baez, who then recorded your song "Wings." How did it feel to have someone like her pay you such a compliment?
It's always the ultimate compliment when anybody covers your song, no matter who it is. It just means so much that they commit your work to tape, you know? I know how that is because when I cover somebody's song in a show it's a compliment to their songwriting and I think it's a really big compliment. So I take it as a huge one when somebody else does it (with my songs), especially someone like her who's seen it all and done it all. It went a long ways towards convincing my parents that I could do this for a living (laughs). They're the biggest record label, your family.
Wow. So thatâ€™s what it took to convince them that you could quit your day job?
I think it allayed their fears a little bit. They've always been really supportive, but I can imagine if my kid was out doing this I'd be freaked out too.
Your songs are filled with numerous literary, Biblical & historical allusions. You must be an avid reader.
Whatâ€™s the last book you read?
I just read The Most Famous Man in America which is the biography of Henry Ward Beecher (a 19th century preacher). It just won the Pulitzer Prize and itâ€™s about one of Americaâ€™s great entertainment industries, which are preachers (laughs). And it's basically about the roots of Evangelical Christianity and the real, kind of, rock 'n' roll preachers from (Beecher) all the way down the line to Billy Graham and some of those new guys who are coming. It's kind of the melding of the Bible and the dollar. It's pretty interesting. He was a major force in the abolition of slavery. Really interesting guy.
Do you think there's a lot that a musician can learn from preachers?
Itâ€™s really interesting. There are so many corollaries, you know, because at that point there was sort of a vaudeville sort of scene. And that was just starting up in New York and in a lot of ways the large, organized entertainment industry relies on transportation. At that point, the steamboat was giving way to the railroad and that was a major turning point-that somebody could go on a tour. The first real world tour of entertainment was Mark Twain in the late 1890s and it was only because there were all these different transportation forms that allowed them to go to all these places. There was also a media that was burgeoning. Like telegraph and good printing presses that could work fast so that you could have newspapers and fast traveling news. That's all stuff that we see repercussions of now. So, yeah, there's a lot that you can learn from all sorts of stuff. I always think it's weird how people always just ask about...They ask about influences, you know, I do get influenced by music but I'd say far more by other stuff. It's cool to just pick up a book and find out something that you just wouldn't have thought of.
Sounds fascinating, that book.
It is awesome. I was on a panel with the writer, Debby Applegate. She spent 20 years writing it and she's not a...she doesn't look like a librarian, that's for sure (laughs).
And so what are you listening to right now?
Right now, let's see. Lupe Fiasco. He's a rapper, a Chicago rapper. Food and Liquor is a record that I've been listening to a ton-that record's incredible. I'm listening to Joanna Newsom and there's Glenn Gould-those piano pieces that they've just remastered. The Goldberg Variationsâ€"really cool, which I got from a friend. Aphex Twin, who just makes me feel smart when I listen to him. That Richard D. James record-that's so awesome. I feel like when I listen to that, it just moves my brain into a more efficient mode.
Let's speak now about your new album. The mood on Historical Conquests seems more playful and spontaneous than that of Animal Years. What do you attribute this to?
I think it's just the full realization that a record is a record. That's it. If you donâ€™t take the advantage and have a good time...the tendency is to cling so tightly to an idea that you tie your life to it and it just becomes a stone around your neck. Like with anything, the idea that perfection has to exist before you can release a record. So, with the Animal Years-it was a record I believed in so strongly. I really put my heart and soul into that and it was so important for me to get that just right. And this record, in a lot of ways, I think I was just trying to prove to myself that I could do a record in a completely different way with a completely different set of subjects and they would mean just as much to me without having to stake my life on something. The tendency is to get super serious about stuff. That's so weird. Itâ€™s interesting with art, that it's easier to be serious about something than to not be, I don't know why. I wasn't trying to be serious about this record, I was trying to have fun. And everything was set up to be that way. It was just such a ball to make.
Yeah, that definitely comes through.
Thanks! I didn't have a record label at the time. It was winter in Maine and I wanted to have horns and I wanted to have strings and there was an opera singer around. We had BB guns and beer up there and that was it. It just felt like, "well, maybe this will turn into a record and maybe not." At a certain point it was like, "Ok this is a record," but all the way...it just felt like a bunch of people messing around.
Release control and let it lead where it's gonna lead.
Yeah! Just let it go, you know? So often, musicians get taken into a studio and get told what to do. To give them freedom is just the best. It means that you just go into a room, people are recording and you're having fun, not just playing the notes as theyâ€™re written.
I also read that, this time around, you decided to write some songs on piano rather than guitar, although you were very new to the instrument. How did that challenge affect your songwriting?
Well, I've been trying to figure out how to call my piano playing-it's like zombie piano (laughs). It's like how a zombie would play it. All ten fingers on the white keys. So it definitely changed how I do stuff. I definitely can't play the piano, so it was very, very slow. Songs like "Right Moves" and "Minds Eye" and "Rumors" were very slow. I would play them for Sam, my producer, and he would take them and we would speed them up. He can actually play that instrument. And then as that happened that's when the ideas for the drums and all the stuff we were doing kind of turned into arrangements. It was really easy once the skeleton of songs were in place. And suddenly there were a bunch of songs and arrangements with no lyrics. And as the band was adding instrumentation and figuring things out I was working like crazy on lyrics, just hoping that I could get something that was right. And it's funny because I never have had a situation where the arrangements have led me toward the lyrics. It's always been the other way around. It's always been a kind of DNA twine between the lyrics and the arrangements. But this was something where the arrangements were right there, and they kind of opened the door to what the song was about.
Are you on the piano at all during your live shows?
No, I'm not at all. I would have to start giving money back if that ever happens (laughs). Maybe someday down the line I'll have the balls for that. But for the meantime, I think it's better to have it actually played by somebody who wonâ€™t get quite as "modern" on that instrument.
I see. The world's not ready.
The world's not ready for whatever it is I do on the piano (laughs).
Do you have any songs that you particularly enjoy performing live?
I think that every song can be made to shine in a different way depending on the light you present it in. To me, there are moments in a set that I particularly enjoy. I really enjoy the opportunity to move from a loud song to a quiet song at once. There can be times when a setlist can be really graceful in the way it moves. The emotions of the songs move in accordance with the emotions of an audience. The quietest song can be so loud...If you can get a thousand people all at once to be quiet without telling them to be quiet and even the bartenders are afraid to clink the ice. It can be the loudest thing there is. So those moments are made possible by the way you play your songs in a set. At different times I'm just in love with different songs. But, songs that I really love to play-I love the wordy ones. "To the Dogs" or "Adam," and off my last record "Thin Blue Flame" and "Best for the Best." I like those because they kind of showcase what I'm most fond of. But then a lot of this record was just about turning up and forgetting about anybody watching. So that's pretty amazing, too, when that happens. If you can forget about anything else and you're feeling that energy on stage. I wouldn't trade that for anything.
Sounds sublime. So what's the most memorable concert youâ€™ve ever attended, and why?
Can I give you a couple?
Sure. Go for it.
I saw Bob Dylan for the first time the day I graduated from high school in Spokane Washington on Riverside Park. That was the first time I ever smelled weed (laughs). I'm from Idaho so I was fairly sheltered. Then I saw Tom Waits on my birthday two years ago in Seattle. And then I saw Arcade Fire at the Hillside Festival in Ontario and I just thought it was the best show I'd ever seen in terms of just...at the time I knew very little about them and it just broke my heart. They were so good.