IDAHO SONGWRITER Josh Ritter has long had an ardent following in this part of the world and his Galway Arts Festival show at the Big Top promises to be a highlight of this year’s music programme.
Ritter arrives on the crest of a creative wave with a superb new album, The Beast In Its Tracks, having been released in March. Recent times have also seen Ritter add another string to his bow with the publication of his debut novel, Bright’s Passage, which author Stephen King praised for its “compressed lyricism”.
Ritter the novelist
When I rang Ritter’s LA hotel room to talk about his work, I began by asking him about his foray into fiction.
“I always had a bunch of words but I didn’t have a bucket for them,” he replies. “The songs became the bucket when I was young and casting about, that was the thing I happened onto. I always felt there was a great fluidity between different types of writing.
“I note it in my own mind as I work on different sorts of writing that a lot of the choices I make are the same, there’s a voice that goes across all of them. I’ve always felt my songs are stories so I didn’t feel as nervous as perhaps I should have by jumping in and starting to write Bright’s Passage. I just felt I was going to go for it and see what happens.
“I hadn’t really written a lot of fiction beforehand but I think of people’s writing as being one of the primary influences on my songs and I’d always been an avid reader. When I started writing, the book came together pretty quickly initially, the first draft only took about a month and a half, and then another year to edit. So it came about in what felt like a very healthy way to write a book, it felt much like writing and recording an album.”
Ritter expands on the contrast between fiction and songwriting.
“I can go places with my prose that I may not be able to go with songs,” he says. “I can develop things more fully. With songs you’re really working with a stiletto and with a novel it’s a much longer sword. You can cut a wider swathe but that is not always good. I really feel you should be able to tell a novel-like story in a good song, like ‘The River’ or ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, songs that stand for something much larger than what they are recorded in. There are times when the voice is really clear and sometimes I feel in myself a kind of evil glee that I recognise from songs to novels.”
The Beast In Its Tracks
And so to The Beast In Its Tracks. It is Ritter’s most personal album to date, charting the fall-out from the breakdown of his marriage to musician Dawn Landes.
“It felt like a different record from the start,” he observes. “Far from the grand, sweeping feel of the songs on So Runs the World Away, these new ones felt like rocks in the shoe, hard little nuggets of whatever they were, be it spite, remorse, or happiness.
“I told all this to Sam Kassirer, my producer and friend. If we recorded these songs, which felt so personal, their starkness needed a corresponding simplicity of production. I hadn’t composed this stuff, I’d scrawled it down, just trying to keep ahead of the heartbreak, and they needed to be recorded like that.”
While the album conveys feelings of hurt and anger there are also moments of generosity, grace and uplift. In tracing the demise of one relationship, Ritter also writes about finding new love, with writer Haley Tanner.
“The songs covered a long time span thankfully,” Ritter states. “When everything initially came crashing down what was in my mind was to get my power and self-respect back and really tell it how it was and get back at the person and dissect the whole thing in all its grisly details.
“The songs that started coming were really bitter but thankfully they weren’t songs that I ended up wanting to use. I had to calm down and let the rage subside before I could look at things objectively and realise I was writing a record that was about hatred and I didn’t feel hatred.
“I felt hurt and anger and surprise but I was also feeling new things, I was feeling relief to be out of that relationship and as time went on I met somebody else and that went into it too. If I had gone the route of recording the record in the first three months - which I could have done - I feel it would have been a far less important record to me, I’d have probably been ashamed of it now.
“I was like this guy who stubs his toe in the middle of the night and is yelling incoherently about stuff. That’s just not how I would like to remember that period.”
The album’s entire journey is perhaps encapsulated by the lines from its gorgeous penultimate track, ‘Joy to You Baby’:
“There’s pain in whatever we stumble upon/If I never had met you/You couldn’t have gone/But then I wouldn’t have met you/And we couldn’t have been/I guess it all adds up to joy in the end.”
“That song and the final track, ‘Lights’, were the revelatory moments of the whole thing,” Ritter notes. “They throw a warm glow around the rest of all that happened. I find that happens sometimes with recording, especially when you have some time to let it grow, the songs spread out a little bit and you can get those songs that sum up everything.
“I really love those songs and playing them out at the end of the record felt great. I didn’t want to make the record a straight-through linear chart of the relationship from its beginning to its end, I wanted to mix it up but I wanted to have the ending be graceful.”
Ritter concludes our chat by declaring how much he’s looking forward to resuming his acquaintance with Galway.
“I’ve had some of the greatest moments of my life in Galway,” he declares. “From the very beginning, playing the Róisín and bumping my head every time I went onstage there, and going out to TG4 and going along the strand, and going to the theatre, there are so many great memories and the last time I played in the Big Top was such an epic show. I really can’t wait and we’ve been playing a lot lately so we’re totally ready!”
Josh Ritter and The Royal City Band play a ‘Galway Arts Festival and Róisín Dubh presents...’ concert at the Festival Big Top in the Fisheries field on Saturday July 20. Sharing the bill is Mick Flannery and support is from the West Cork Ukulele Orchestra. Show commences at 7.30pm. Tickets are available through www.galwayartsfestival.com and www.roisindubh.net and from the Festival Box Office, Galway Tourist Office, Forster Street.