Josh Ritter may be between records, but he’s anything but stagnant. His seemingly nonstop touring is interrupted only by his newly minted family life and all of the duties that come with being a father and a husband. We caught up with Ritter during a rare free moment before he heads back out on tour to talk about his latest reissue, writing for Bob Weir and his next record.
Paste: I appreciate you taking some time. I know you’re really not on a press run right now.
Josh Ritter: Yeah, you know, we’re digging out from the winter up here, getting the garden in. It’s great.
Paste: What are you planting? What’s in the garden?
Ritter: All kinds of beets, carrots and radishes. We got lots of bitter greens, mustard. That sort of stuff.
Paste: Do you cook?
Ritter: Yes. It’s funny, coming home, especially after a year, and kind of easing into all that stuff. Take your time with it. Feels so good.
Paste: Did you grow up knowing how to garden, or did you find that later in life?
Ritter: Haley really runs the garden, but me and my brother definitely grew up outside, and it’s nice to fold back into that world.
Paste: That’s a nice trade to have. You’ll survive during the apocalypse.
Ritter: That’s what we’re hoping. We’re trying to grow anti-zombie vegetables.
Paste: That’s different from garlic for vampires.
Ritter: They’re not huge vegetable eaters anyway, zombies.
Paste: Well, the old joke, do you know what a vegetarian zombie eats?
Ritter: Ha, what?
Ritter: Ha! That’s good.
Paste: And that’s how we roll this whole thing out. Okay, we should re-direct to the music. Let’s “catch up” with Josh Ritter. Let’s see, where we last left you, where our movie last left off, you did a nice little re-release on Historical Conquest.
Ritter: Yeah, totally. It’s like, my record that I’ve been lucky enough to hop from major label to major label for a couple years there. Always a cool, interesting experience, but I’ve always found that it’s been nice to be back on my own label. When Conquest’s rights came back to me, I was really excited to get it pressed up on vinyl and put out some b-sides. Stuff that I had wanted to do, but hadn’t been able to do with that one yet. So, that’s totally satisfying.
Paste: How hard is it to get your rights this day and age?
Ritter: I don’t know. I think it’s completely based on an individual basis. I think it’s good to look at a record label, any kind of business relationship, you have to expect them to work in their own best interest. And they have to expect you to work in your own best interest. I’m very Hamiltonian when it comes to that view of human nature. You can’t expect people to work against their self-interest, so I always make sure that the records will always return to me after a given amount of time. That’s always in the contract to begin with.
Paste: It’s an interesting little dance. And it sounds like you’re very good at the industry dance.
Ritter: You know, being on a major label is really fun and really cool. When you have a thing working for you, even to the degree that it worked for me, it’s really cool. But in the end, I think that stuff is flattening out to such a degree now that you can have the major label experience by yourself if you want.
Paste: Yeah, you’ve become very known for that. You took your career in your own hands and seem to be quite successful at this point.
Ritter: I feel good about it. There’s times when I think that Darius, my manager, and the people that I work with that help do the label, really run that stuff. It’s a hard, big job, but in the end, you can me more creative. You can be smaller. I love that we can do re-issues of stuff and not have to worry about them being in every store or anything like that. You can be more creative. That’s a real thrill to do that.
Paste: Do you ever see any reason, and who knows what the future holds, but to say, “for this project, I’d like to work with a label, big or small?”
Ritter: Totally. It’s a lot like when you mix a record. You’ve been living with the record for six months and you need someone who has a fresh pair of ears and fresh ideas to hear it. A lot of times, people at record labels, if you choose the right one, are really great, really artistic, cool people. And they want to run. They want to go. I think it’s always in your best interest to hand it over if you find the right people.
Paste: So you got the rights back to Conquest. I find it really fascinating, artists’ relationships with their past. It’s so varied. You have some people that say, “Oh, I never go back to my old records. I never listen to them.” And they just don’t like to think about them. And you have other ones where it feels like they don’t mind flipping through the yearbook and saying, “Oh, look at my goofy haircut.” This is an earlier record for you. How is it looking back on something like this? Was it at all painful, where you can listen to it and go, “Oh man, so many things there I would have done different. I never would have had that haircut”?
Ritter: You know, I think that you have to make the choice what you’re going to be. For me, I feel like if I’m going to disown that stuff, then I’m disowning myself and my artistic vision at the time. Luckily, you cannot see forward into the future. But you can hope that the records you’re making, you’ll be able to listen to in years to come. And I think the only way, sound aside or whatever that should be, it should always be, “can I listen to this in 40 years?” I always feel that unless it passes that test, it shouldn’t go on the record. I was out in Chicago and got the chance to see Neil Young play. It’s gratifying to know that somebody’s not afraid to jump back into stuff that they did when they were 20. I think that stuff can only get better.
Paste: That must have been an amazing show.
Ritter: He’s like a wild man. He’s awesome. Beautiful playing and weird kind of moving around all these different instruments. I thought it was great. A real treat.
Paste: Have you been following the news on his PONO player?
Ritter: Just vaguely. Not being an audiophile to that degree, I find that I go for convenience, but that’s just me.
Paste: I feel like that’s going to be its biggest obstacle, because most people are like that. I mean, you and I both work in music. I’m in a part where I listen to music daily. But it never occurs to me that…there’s an old saying that you don’t know what you don’t hear. I wouldn’t know otherwise that I wasn’t getting everything. With that said, I believe in it. I’d love to see it take off, but it’s definitely a convenience deal for most.
Ritter: I remember when I was doing The Animal Years with V2. This was my first time with an idea for singles and all that sort of stuff that I could see and be around in. And I remember a couple of guys from the label going down three of four flights to the street to get one of the guys’ cars to drive around and see what it sounded like through the car radio so they would know what to do. And I do think there is a way to be an audiophile and make it as good as you possibly can. If you like good chocolate, go and find the good chocolate. But I do like the idea of somebody being able to pick it up and play it however they want, you know?
Paste: I have something written down here in my notes. “The Historical Conquest of Josh Ritter vs. The Beast In Its Tracks.” I have that there because of the album titles. It’s the first time I’ve noticed that it’s the beginning of a story and the sad end of a story.
Ritter: Ha! Interesting. That’s really true. That’s funny. I’ve never thought of that.
Paste: There’s some kind of bravado that goes along with that. The conquest and then the beast. Of course, what’s not there is the word “stopped.”
Ritter: Totally! I remember that time. That was my first record with Sam Kassirer, and it just seemed like we were making a big, cool comic book. It felt like big, big colorful pictures. Splashy. Lots of symbol. I thought that was really fun, and Conquest felt like real saber rattling.
Paste: I like the roleplaying image. I don’t think enough people do that.
Ritter: No. And it’s so fun.
Paste: It’s the whole idea of…I mean, I love the idea of rock ‘n’ roll, which I talk a lot about in interviews. The mysticism that’s been built up over the years, the mystery, all that stuff. You’ve got to have stuff like that, to be able to lose yourself, even if it’s not into a character, just into the fun of what it can be.
Ritter: Absolutely. And every record is so different. You know, every record that somebody makes is going to be different, and there’s always a story there, somewhere in there, about how it came together and why it exists in the first place. I think that’s so cool.
Paste: With The Beast In Its Tracks, it had its own story. Now we all look back on that one, and people say, “There is Josh Ritter’s divorce record.” You’re past it now. Are you happy to finally be out of that and moving along?
Ritter: It’s funny that even at the time, even as the record was finishing, how I felt like I was past it. You know, it was never the big moment. I had kind of excised this pain. But I found that during the process of starting to feel better, I would mimic the process of making the record in this really cool reflective way. And then we jumped right into the tour, and I had a baby and discovered this whole other way of writing. Maybe rediscovered it. Things have just been going gangbusters since then. The writing has been so much fun. So I felt that the transition back into a real happy life was amazingly seamless. I’m very happy about that.
Paste: Have you got an update on these songs you’re writing? A style? I’m guessing there’s got to be some influence there from the family life, too.
Ritter: I think the influence there is I’m definitely not the guy that’s going to be writing children’s songs or a children’s record. I think I would shelter them from that. Also I still want my daughter to think I’m cool. She doesn’t need me singing her song. But I would say that the songs have gotten very—they’re just really fun. After The Beast in Its Tracks, I stumbled on writing that I felt was much more lighthearted. But what’s come in alongside that has been this really awesome, surreal kind of richness, which I’m really excited about.
Paste: I love The Beast In Its Tracks, but I’m really interested in a bit more of a lighthearted Josh Ritter.
Ritter: It’s going to be really fun. And alongside that, I’m working on writing a bunch of songs for a record that Josh Kaufman, who did Bringing In the Darlings and a lot of stuff on Beast In Its Tracks. I’m working on a record that he did for Bob Weir. So I’m writing a bunch of songs for Bob Weir, which is really exciting.
Paste: So this is all happening at once.
Ritter: Yeah, it’s good.
Paste: It’s work!
Ritter: It is, but you know, when you’re hanging out and you have a primary responsibility, which is to watch the kid, make sure she’s not being eaten by saber-toothed tigers or falling off cliffs or like, goes on some incredible journey without me. I find that it goes back to how I first started, which is going around and you have to have a notebook. You only have time to write down one or two things and then you have to do something else. You have to go to your job or do something else. It’s been the best thing for me. I don’t have nine hours a day to think thoughts. I have to run around, and it’s been the best thing in my life for my creative side.
Paste: Is there a big plan at this point as to when all of this music might make it out into the world?
Ritter: Right now, the tap is on. I’ve always been wary of, when that’s happening, to make any plan. I know there’s way more than enough for a record, but I want to see where the rest of it sifts out. I feel like whatever record I want to make, I want it to be a really stellar record, and I don’t really feel like I have the room to make anything but a stellar record right now. I really want to make something great, and I’m having the best time of my life doing it, too.