Here is more from my way too brief phone interview with Josh Ritter, while heading through Alabama on his tour bus.
How have the new songs been going over live?
It’s always an exciting time - kind of like designing an animal. Then the stage is where they see what they’re going to do. For that reason alone, it’s pretty fun to be playing new stuff.
I read some recent live reviews that mentioned you’ve been tossing in a Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen cover at shows.
On occasion, yeah. We do a bunch of different types of covers from the American songbook.
You toured with veteran country/folk singer John Prine awhile back. What was that like?
I learned so much from watching him on that tour. [One thing was] to go slow and appreciate what’s happening with the people onstage. It’s always good when you get a chance to tour with somebody who’s been doing it longer. You get a chance to see how they manage to incorporate their touring and artistic life into their family life, so they can keep doing it as long as somebody like John Prine has. It takes a lot of effort and work to have your life fully incorporated so you can keep on playing and be happy.
When you have the rare off day on tour, what do you do?
We try and do all kinds of things when we have our days off, just because it’s such an incredible opportunity. We hit the jackpot [this time out]. We’re in New Orleans on a day off and Las Vegas. We had a day off in Chicago and I threw out the opening pitch for the Cubs. Really fun stuff. Always a real change of pace. We live for those kinds of moments.
How have you adapted to the move to Brooklyn?
There are so many things to do and see, from the film forum and Central Park. You take the train up to Central Park and then walk back to Brooklyn and Chinatown...It’s like being in front of a museum with no order to it. You walk and see an interesting thing next to something else that has no relation, but is also interesting.
A couple songs on the new album revolve around travel, which you compare to the journey of songwriting.
It’s the same thing with mythical cities like El Dorado or Atlantis – these places that people look for, but they weren’t really looking for them. They were on a trip. It was sort of an afterthought where they were going. Once found, it wasn’t as important. I think that’s one of the reasons why explorers are solitary figures. They don’t fit in with the world.
You’ve said you wanted to go bigger with the sound on this album and remarked that Zach played instruments you hadn’t even heard of.
Totally. Oh man. We had the omnichord, flugelhorn, bass clarinet.
Plus you play an instrument other than guitar on a track as well.
I grew up playing violin but I was never very good. Nervously playing the violin [on the song], I think I had a couple beers before I played it, so it had a sort of off-kilter feel.
Along with the denser sounding songs like “Rattling Locks” and “Remnants,” you balance them out with quieter ones such as “Lark” and “Long Shadows,” which has a campfire sing along vibe.
I think an album should be a little like a party – you want to stay long enough, but not too long. A song is like that too. Part of the effectiveness of a song is whether you can say what you want to say without totally outstaying your welcome.
Your wife sings background on some songs. Did you feel a feminine vocal presence was needed?
I was just excited to hear her sing. We used her studio for portions of the recording, like the horns. It was great to be able to do that. It worked out terrific.
Referring to the album’s Shakespearean title, you’ve said these songs function like a play. How so?
A lot of the record felt like a play to me. It felt like a story that had the details filled in. A lot of time with the story of a song, you have glimpses of detail that stand for the larger story. With these, I wanted to make sure the glimpses were fully fledged looks. That you could see something. I felt like that was a lot like a play. It’s like the difference between reading a play and seeing one. I wanted that. A lot of the characters felt like they were getting run over by the world. They’re about to be tilled under.
Does the nautical theme on the album artwork, with the oceanic maps and everything, tie into the song “Another New World,” where you sing about Columbus and the voyage of his ships?
Sam took all the photos, including the Natchez [steamboat] down in New Orleans, with a medium format camera. Then with the other illustrations, I felt the symbols and the lyrics were totemic, like tarot cards. I wanted images like that, strong simple images that kind of alluded to the songs. Art designer Matthew Fleming had a beautiful idea how it could all fit together, displaced with the compass and ship.
Where did the phrase on the back of the CD come from?
It was something I woke up with and was the beginning of a song. I always think there’s something special about those phrases you wake up with; there’s something unplanned about them that is important to me. I always try to put one of those on my records somewhere.
Some of your older albums were recently reissued in deluxe editions. Were you glad to have them more easily available to fans?
I was thrilled to be able to do that and record them solo because your voice changes over time. It’s cool to go back and in some cases, change lyrics and arrangements. Then just have a look back over that stuff. That feels great. It also feels great to own my own records again, which is cool.
Were you surprised to discover an Irish Josh Ritter tribute band exists in Cork?
[laughs] I haven’t seen them for awhile, but that was quite cool at the time. They were certainly way better than we were.
It’s a sign you’ve really made it in the music business when tribute bands form specifically to do your music.
Yeah, right. That’s what they say.