Friday, June 18, 2010

Interview with Josh Ritter

A version of my interview originally appeared in the North County Times [] Photo by Marcelo Biglia, courtesy Sacks & Co. PR. Ritter performs on Tuesday at the Belly Up in Solana Beach and Wednesday at the Music Box Theatre (formerly Henry Fonda) in Hollywood.

Unusual characters and scenarios tend to populate Josh Ritter’s literary-minded lyrics.

During the stirring “Girl in the War” (from acclaimed 2006 disc “The Animal Years”), apostles Peter and Paul mixed it up with comedy team Laurel & Hardy. Then there was “The Temptation of Adam” (2007’s “Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter”), where a couple awaited the impending apocalypse in an old missile silo.

Not your typical singer-songwriter fare.

Now the Idaho native adds more unique songs to his impressive cannon via the release of excellent chamber folk album “So Runs the World Away,” whose title is taken from the play “Hamlet.”

“I always go to Shakespeare for ideas,” admitted Ritter in a phone interview. “It gives you something to shoot for, you know? I thought that phrase just rolled off the tongue well and felt so true to what I was trying to write about.”

Classic ballad protagonists are brought together in “Folk Bloodbath,” a bleak, gospel-tinged tune partially based on Mississippi John Hurt’s traditional “Louis Collins.” Delia (popularized in “Delia’s Gone” by Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash) and Stackalee (AKA “Stagger Lee”) are both referenced. Other “Bloodbath” versions existed from previous recording sessions, but they didn’t seem like enough of a departure.

“I was just painting somebody else’s picture a different way.” Once he suggested to producer Sam Kassirer – also the keyboardist in Ritter’s Royal City Band – that the guitar shouldn’t lead everything, “he figured out a great way to make it all work.

“I wanted it to be a mash up and have some justice on this record,” Ritter continued. “I crashed the characters together to see what would happen…they live around each other in the lexicon, but never really interact. I wanted them to walk into somebody else’s house and do something. I thought that would be fun.”

Ritter relocated to New York City after getting married last year and hit a wall creatively for several months.

“Moving there has been an amazing, sometimes jarring, switch…the amount of things to do in New York [is endless]; you can follow your interests in any direction. You almost feel guilty if you don’t. It’s a good place to walk around with a notepad.”

Regular visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian wing triggered the album catalyst “The Curse,” a poignant waltz and love story between an archeologist and a mummy come to life. Drummer Liam Hurley directed and crafted the accompanying award worthy music video, which is acted out by marionettes.

Reading about science history – specifically orbital decay – also helped Ritter get back on the songwriting track. “I thought about gravity as being a lot like love. It pulls us together, although we don’t understand it and can’t see it. But we can see the effects.” An upbeat, pop-inflected “Orbital,” where Ritter recites a litany of objects that circle each other, (think: They Might Be Giants) was the result.

The troubadour pushed his band “into places where they wouldn’t normally go otherwise.” The result is a rich sonic tapestry colored by such instruments as omnichord, flugelhorn, bass clarinet, e-bow, glockenspiel, ukulele and vibraphone.

“Other people’s ideas are like standing on the edge of a ship, looking at a continent and as you move closer, it gets more and more defined. That process is really exciting.”

Voyage is another topic that fascinates Ritter, as evidenced by the lush train themed “Southern Pacifica” and mysterious cinematic sweep of “Another New World,” which Christopher Columbus inspired.

“Writing is like a journey,” he said. “You start off with nothing and then travel across the page. When the song is done and you feel good, you’re excited to write the next thing.”

And for Ritter, that next thing is his first novel, “Bright’s Passage,” due out next year on Dial Press, a division of Random House.

Before choosing music as a career, Ritter studied neuroscience (his parents work in the medical field) at Oberlin College in Ohio. After switching majors to folk music, Ritter recorded an album on campus in 1999 and learned more about the genre during a short Scottish college stint. He put out another independent effort the next year, which was subsequently reissued by a small U.S. label and performed steadily at open mic nights in New England.

That’s where vocalist Glen Hansard (The Frames, Swell Season) was impressed enough to offer Ritter a 2001 tour opening slot back in Ireland. A Dublin music press and fan following quickly ensued. Former Frames guitarist Dave Odlum produced Ritter’s third album “Hello Starling”; it debuted at no. 2 on the Irish charts.

Stateside, Ritter’s appealingly verbose writing style led to Bob Dylan comparisons and tours with folk legends Joan Baez (she later covered his song “Wings”) and John Prine.

“He’s an American master,” enthused Ritter, among the artists contributing to Prine tribute album “Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows.” Due in stores on Tuesday, the covers collection features My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst, Avett Brothers, Sara Watkins and others.

On singing Prine’s “Mexican Home,” he said, “it was especially difficult to choose a favorite, one that you can make your own. There’s so much personality to his songs. They’re tailor-made for him.”

Having shuttled between different labels for every album, the pressure’s off for his latest on Pytheas Recordings, a new venture launched by Ritter and his management. The track “Change of Time” is currently top 40 at AAA radio.

“I have nothing bad to say about labels. You play that game and take what you can get. I’m happy the team I’m working with can take credit for all the great things happening right now.”

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