Josh Ritter

Songs For Days Of Doubt

Music Features Josh Ritter
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Jan. 12, 2006 Moscow, Idaho

“The only ghost I’m haunted by / I hear her howling down below / Idaho oh Idaho”

Josh Ritter is hard to keep up with. Despite my long legs, he scampers up a steep embankment while I’m left grasping at flimsy reeds. In my defense, Ritter is only two days from running his first marathon—a fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders. But this offers little comfort as his Jack Russell terrier, Punkin, bounces circles around me like a rabbit shot full of amphetamines. We’re in the woods behind Ritter’s parents’ house, a dozen or so miles outside Moscow, Idaho, and the land is completely untamed. A few minutes earlier, down by the creek, we spotted a bald eagle flying overhead; it landed, shrieking, in the upper branches of a tree taller than any building within 100 miles. The family’s bull terrier, Curley, is in the habit of snacking on young birds living in nests along the trail embankment. And Punkin recently came home bleeding from the throat, luckier than his predecessor, Jiggs, who fell victim to the local coyotes. “That was the first time I heard my dad sound like George Bush,” the young singer/songwriter remembers. “He said, ‘Well, I guess we’re going to have to go shoot ’em. Teach ’em that there are lines you don’t cross.’”

With his curly mop, scraggly beard, sweater and secondhand corduroy jacket, Ritter looks more like a college professor than either of his parents, who both teach neuroscience at Washington State University, just across the state line. Though he left Idaho after high school, he’s at home in the woods of the Northwest, where he first began writing songs. He points out the different types of trees—enormous cedars, cottonwoods, ponderosas, willows and Douglas firs. Further up the mountain from Ritter’s childhood home, his best friend Rocky Weitz’s family owns hundreds of acres. “I could disappear into those woods for hours,” Ritter says. “Just take a book and spend the day by myself.”

Ritter’s family lived near the last bus stop for Moscow High School. Any further and Josh would’ve gone to Potlatch, the meanest town Johnny Cash says he ever played, according to a legend locals retell with great pride. “Those were the kids,” Ritter says, “you didn’t want to wrestle.”

Ritter returned home last fall after signing a record deal with V2 for his fourth album, The Animal Years. Though his first three haven’t received enormous attention in the U.S., he’s become something of a star in Ireland, where he even has his own tribute band, Sleepy Hollow. Between healthy CD and ticket sales abroad and his new contract at home, Ritter was able to buy a house in Moscow last fall, where he’s resting before a massive PR-and-touring blitz to support the new album. For Ritter, buying a home with money made playing music still feels surreal. Only a few years ago, he was just one of thousands of singer/songwriters playing open-mic nights in front of tiny audiences, and dreaming of doing it for a living.

Feb. 7, 2003 Nashville, Tenn.

“I’m singing for the love of it / Mercy on the man who sings to be adored”

Josh Ritter is opening for Amy Rigby at the end of a long hallway in a hotel in Nashville. The 20 or so folks awkwardly lining the walls constitute a decent crowd for Folk Alliance—a convention that turns every suite, many single rooms and even some elevators into concert venues. Ritter’s showcase is a way for Jim Olsen (of Boston-based indie label Signature Sounds) to show off his latest discovery to a handful of music execs. I’ve already been won over by Ritter’s sophomore effort Golden Age of RadioEven here in these awkward environs, one of the most striking things about Ritter when he performs is how much fun it seems he’s having. From Kurt Cobain to Elliott Smith, much of the best rock ’n’ roll has come from tortured artists, but Ritter’s music, like his attitude, is filled with optimism.

“I can have hard days or bad days, but I know what I’m supposed to do. I have a job that makes me feel like I’m doing something important. When I’m home, it’s just pure bliss to sit there with instant coffee in my kitchen and work on a song. And when I write a song, I think, ‘Oh my gosh—I could be doing this for at least 40 more years. There’s just so much in my life that I feel lucky and grateful for.” Olsen discovered the elusive songwriter while Ritter was playing the Boston open-mic circuit. The Oberlin College grad had continued east to Providence, R.I., working an odd array of jobs during the day and playing venues like Kendall Café and Club Passim at night. “I took it really seriously, as a job,” he says. “You get your one song, and everybody’s there, and everybody wants to play. It’s like going from zero to 60 and seeing how fast you can do it.” Ritter already had a self-titled CD under his belt that he recorded while still in college, though he’d left high school on the same trajectory as his parents, headed for a career in neuroscience. “My parents loved it, so I thought I’d love it. I had a science teacher, who after a test said maybe science wasn’t for me. I was so mad at the time, but now I think that if it hadn’t been for him, I might have stayed with science. I could have probably gotten a job somewhere as a neuroscientist, but I would’ve been a bad neuroscientist. “[Playing music] made me happy, but I didn’t know if I was going to make any kind of living at it. I had no idea how to do it, but I knew I wasn’t going to be happy until I tried. [So] I created my own major—‘American history through narrative folk music.’ I made it ‘narrative’ folk music so they couldn’t make me take any more theory. It was great. I got to go to Scotland and study the roots of Appalachian folk.”

Oberlin was filled with bands, but Ritter never formed his own, believing his lack of rhythm a detriment. Instead, he began soaking up as much new music as he could. “When you discover music everything else takes a backseat,” he says. “I think the later you discover it, the more you feel you have to catch up. Every new person I discovered—it’s like, ‘Whoa! Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits!” The same girl gave me both those CDs in the same night. Every time you hear something new, you can’t even believe it. I was obsessing about The Band or Silver Jews or Lucinda Williams, all these people—Pavement, the Pixies, Magnetic Fields.” Through college Ritter kept writing his own songs. But the day before he was supposed to record his first album, his girlfriend of three years broke up with him—and started dating the guy who’d volunteered to record it. “I hated that guy and sang those songs about her through the glass to him. They’re still together. I’ve had a few girlfriends since then, but it’s tough when you’re touring. I always liked touring more than dating those girls.”

New York, N.Y. Nov. 18, 2004

“The words on the bone of song were close and small / And though their tongues were dead I found I knew them all”

On the strength of his third release, Hello Starling, Ritter is in town for a Paste ensemble-cover shoot, along with three other up-and-comers—Kathleen Edwards, Sondre Lerche and Erin McKeown. While the twentysomething artists take turns enduring the rigors of hair-and-make-up in our Chinatown hotel suite, they quickly strike up friendships. Ritter will later tour with Edwards in her native Canada before taking her on tour in Ireland, where he’s picked up quite a following since we last met. Glen Hansard (of Irish rockers The Frames) had invited Ritter to join his group on a tour of the Emerald Isle after catching Ritter’s set at a Boston club during the spring of 2002. “I saw him play at Kendall Café,” remembers Hansard, who was in town on a solo tour. “He wasn’t very good on the guitar, and you could tell he was kind of winging it a bit—he was the classic young guy with a few gems, but with something wild in that. He had this really raw thing. It was one of those times where you look at someone onstage and go, ‘I want to hang out with him. I don’t know what it is, but I like this guy.’ I got chattin’ with him after his performance and said, ‘If you come to Dublin, you can open up for me.’ And he seizes the opportunity immediately—he’s like, ‘When?’ So I set it up and he came over.

“Live, he’s this very charming guy, and he’s really warm. And his lyrics are f—ing amazing. He had this very raw thing, where his rhythm playing is really off. It’s kind of like listening to early Dylan or something where everything didn’t quite add up, but you felt really good listening to him. So he came over and opened for me on a tour, then opened up for The Frames on the tour, and after about six months, he was playing the same size venues that we were—on his own. And he was blown away by it. And the confidence he got from playing his own headliners in Dublin in front of 1,000 people really [translated] everywhere else.”

“Stuff took off pretty quickly,” says Ritter. “The first time I played [Dublin club] Whelan’s on my own, I had like 60 people, and it was the only place I was playing that I could get shows. Then I started playing everywhere, playing these little venues. And crowds grew from like 60 to 100, to like 500, to 3,500 or 4,000 in the space of four years.”

It wasn’t long before Ritter’s success in Ireland grabbed the attention of U.S. record labels. A few months after he appeared on the cover of Paste, I was back in New York visiting labels, and two people at different majors gushed excitedly about how they were working on signing him. A bidding war ensued, but Ritter took his time, finally deciding on V2. “It was a whole year of friendship-building,” remembers Ritter’s manager Darius Zelkha. “And our whole stance towards V2 was, ‘You don’t have an artist like this, and we’re fans, and if we’re lucky enough to be able to work with [V2], then great.’ They did the whole pursuit of Josh, but then it just turned into a friendship.”

Chicago, Ill. April 27, 2005

“We were dancing to a song that I heard / Your face was simple and your hands were naked / I was singing without knowing the words”

It’s a chilly spring day, but nowhere near chilly enough to stop the sausage-scarfing, Old Style-beer-guzzling bleacher bums at Wrigley Field. The Cubbies are playing the Reds, and smack in the middle of the raucous die-hard locals—who tossed back Felipe Lopez’s first career home run and cheered loudest when a seagull shat upon some unsuspecting fan’s head—I sit next to Ritter who, until last year, had never been to a baseball game. “We were more into wrestling than baseball growing up,” he explains.

Earlier this morning, I flew up to Chicago to visit Ritter and producer Brian Deck at his Clava Studio where tracks for The Animal Years are being mixed. The pair had just come back from a recording session at Bear Creek—a barn converted into a studio far outside Seattle—where a lot of grunge records were made (Ritter even found Dave Grohl’s old Foo Fighters ring amongst the floor planks). “The sounds out there were bizarre,” says Deck, who’s also produced records by Modest Mouse and Iron & Wine. “Making records at midnight was like—‘the woodspeople are closing in. Close all the doors. Lock in the noise.’”

With a fulltime band in tow—Sam Kassirer on keyboards, Zack Hickman on bass and assorted strings, and Dave Hingerty on drums—Ritter brought another great set of folk-rock songs and let Deck lead everyone down a more experimental path, adding flourishes of keyboards, strings and percussion. The result is Ritter’s most fully realized album yet—and a deviation from the path some labels previously courting him were expecting. “A lot of those people I talked to seemed to think that I had to limit myself to whoever produced John Mayer. That’s just… no way. A lot of [producers] wanted to do a soul record, like a blue-eyed soul record. And that’s just ridiculous. These songs obviously aren’t going to lend themselves to that. I want to make a record that feels like—if Mark Twain had written songs, what would he write about? America, when he was an old man, was like America is today, in so many ways. I thought he’d be an interesting person to think about as I was writing the record. I told that to Brian Deck, and he was the only person that seemed to get it and didn’t seem to bat an eye. When I used non-musical descriptors for what I wanted, he always went for the mood.”

Manchester, Tenn. June 10, 2005

“Because the keys to the Kingdom got locked inside the Kingdom / And the angels fly around in there but we can’t see them”

The 1,000 people cheering Josh Ritter at Bonnaroo look more like his typical crowd in Ireland than the States: half of them are singing along, and the other half look like they’ve just discovered their new favorite artist. It’s a triumphant moment for the band, and I spot them seconds after they exit the stage; they’re huddled like a football team and giddy as a bunch of cheerleaders primping for the homecoming parade. And, suddenly, it hits me. No one on earth is having as much fun as these guys are right now.

“Somebody once told me I should smile less during my shows,” Ritter says. “I thought about it, and it kind of bugged me for a while. And then I thought, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ This is me, and it’s my chance to do what I do, so I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be so happy if you’re lucky enough to actually be playing music for a living and traveling, how it wouldn’t just explode off you. The bands I love are the ones that I can tell are really enjoying themselves.”

Among Ritter’s concert standards today was “Thin Blue Flame,” from The Animal Years. It’s an epic, nine-minute dream-sequence set to a military march, and it beautifully sums up Ritter’s philosophy. In it, the narrator sees the world from the perspective of heaven, where God is “in a cold, dark room / The heavenly host are just the cold, dark moons / He bent down and made the world in seven days / And, ever since, he’s been walking away.” Among the wreckage of streets “swimming with amputees,” “those still looking in the clear blue sky for a sign / Get missiles from so high they might as well be divine.” But when he wakes up, he notices “angels everywhere were in midst” and that “Heaven is so big there ain’t no need to look up.” Between “Thin Blue Flame” and the new album-opener, “Girl in the War,” Ritter has issued something of a humanist manifesto. “My faith for America and my faith for people,” he says, “is that they have huge potential to do great things, and the reason to love America is that it has the potential to do incredible things …. And I feel that way with religion in general, but there’s a lot of stuff that I don’t believe and that I feel is a distraction from the actual problems going on in the world right now. Why are we worried about the Rapture when we can see [the genocide in] Darfur? That’s hell right now—not hell coming down the line.

“With ‘Thin Blue Flame’ and ‘Girl in the War,’ I was trying to pay credence to all different sides and show that we’re just better than calling each other names. We deserve more from ourselves than getting up on stage and singing songs that just call the other side evil while they’re calling us evil. And so ‘Girl in the War’ is just about arguing, while at the same time, there are loved ones being killed physically or killed spiritually by the effects of the war that’s going on. And ‘Thin Blue Flame’ is just about the importance of seeing the heaven and the hell that are right down here on earth, rather than looking or fighting or running from the heaven or hell that might be coming later, and I think that’s really important. One of my favorite quotes is from Theresa of Avila—‘All the way to heaven is heaven.’ If you’re looking for heaven you can find it here, and you can work for heaven on earth. And if you’re looking for hell, it’s easy to get there, too, on earth. And before you’re dead, before anybody can say what’s going to happen to you later, it’s important to work for the stuff you see in the world that you really feel is important. I just don’t see that in a lot of the shouting back and forth across the aisle and self-righteous screaming at each other. It’s more complicated than that and we deserve more.”

Moscow, Idaho Jan. 11, 2006

“That single word it landlocked me / Turned the masts to cedar trees / And the winds to gravel roads / Idaho oh Idaho”

In addition to hosting The University of Idaho, Moscow is “The Heart of the Arts”—or so boasts the welcome sign. I’m following Ritter’s old Subaru toward his house, and I call him on his cell when I see the city’s motto. “Yeah,” he deadpans. “It’s like the Paris of greater northwestern Idaho.”

More than anything else, books dominate. A stack by the chair includes Muriel Spark, Thomas Pynchon, Shakespeare and The New YorkerHis record collection is almost predictable in its reverence for the greats—Springsteen, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Clash, Bobbie Gentry, Patsy Cline, Elvis Costello, Ray Charles, Waylon and Willie, Tom Waits, Loretta Lynn, Link Wray, Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Roger Miller, Lou Reed, The Band and Van Morrison. Today he’s spinning a 1977 Brian Bowers autoharp record featuring Sam Bush and Steve Goodman. “In a funny way,” says Ritter, “I think Moscow and some of these bigger guys are the same. I come back to them all the time because they’re the first guys I discovered. My biggest and first love is Johnny Cash, just because he did it his whole life and did it with integrity. And Leonard Cohen, especially, is close to my heart because of this sense I get of real searching from him. And I appreciate that. You get the whole journey with Leonard Cohen.”

In the same way, Ritter found himself back in Idaho. Though he hadn’t really lived here since high school, when it came time to buy a place, his first thought was of the mountains outside Moscow where he grew up. But he quickly realized the last thing he needed after months of touring was more time to himself. So he settled a few blocks away from downtown and the comforts of his co-op grocery store, bookshop and restaurants. “I actually bought it [when I’d been] on the road for about 16 months touring Hello Starling,” he says. “I didn’t live anywhere; I didn’t have a home. I would stay at my band’s house in Boston. Sleeping on the road was the only time I was sleeping in a real bed, which is weird. … I think that for the first couple years of touring, I thought my dream life would be on the road. Then I got it, and I got a booking agent, and I told him I wanted to play every day of the year—and, suddenly, I was. And I nearly went completely bonkers. But that was because I was starting to think my real life happened when I wasn’t touring, and the reality is that it’s happening all the time. You’ve got to stay in close touch with family and friends and people that will remind you that you do actually have a life o? the road. You’ve got to do whatever you can to remind yourself every day that you’re not only living the dream, but you’re actually living your real life. And you do whatever you can to stay as normal as possible, because it gets crazy. Me and a band that doesn’t do any drugs, and we still get crazy.” His first homecoming was last year during a break from his Canadian tour with Sarah Harmer. He booked Moscow’s art-house theater for a show, selling out the 400-seater and turning another 100 people away. It was a proud evening for his parents.

Sue and Bob Ritter settled in Moscow soon after they married, when nearby Washington State offered them both jobs. Like Josh, they’re soft-spoken, kind, and concerned about their community and world. They’re Habitat for Humanity volunteers and are appalled by the idea of big-box retailers creeping closer to their community. Though neither is particularly musical, they started Josh and his brother, Lincoln, on the violin when they were five and three, respectively.

“But [Josh] didn’t have the technical precision, so we switched him to fiddling,” Sue says. “We thought it would more suit his style. Then he went to piano. But he never learned to read music, and I thought he’d never be able to write music without being able to write down the notes. When he started writing songs, it came totally from inside.”

Those first songs came in high school. A middling athlete, Josh tried out for the basketball team for years before they finally let him warm the bench. When I ask him about the Idaho in Napoleon Dynamite, he says it was pretty much his high-school experience. He even had his own version of Pedro—a kid named Ignacio. Josh rode the bus until 11th grade and asked nine different girls to the prom without getting a “yes.” But soon he was writing songs about whatever subjects in history interested him. “I was writing Randy Newman songs before I knew who Randy Newman was,” says Ritter. His senior year, he won the Mr. Moscow High School competition on the strength of his rendition of Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” “[It was] either that or the evening gown competition,” his friend Afton Swift quips, out on the town with Josh and some friends, celebrating Weitz’s 29th birthday at Moscow watering hole John’s Alley.

Drinks with his buddies are part of a thorough 36-hour tour of Josh Ritter’s Idaho that also includes shooting pool, drinking local huckle-berry wine, pancakes at the Breakfast Club, a tour of his childhood neighborhood, hiking in the state park, loading snowmobiles into a trailer at the Weitz’s and dinner at his parents’ house. But it’s the paperback copy of Voltaire’s Candide he gives me when I leave that offers the most insight into Ritter’s perspective on life.

Like the book’s expert in “metaphysico-theologo-cosmonigology,” Ritter is an overwhelming optimist. His obsession with Candide is a resistance to that natural optimism—a reminder that though he’s been blessed with a job he loves and is able to do it alongside people he loves, all is not right with the world. He knows that until we go beyond fighting about the specifics of religion or politics, if we don’t start looking for ways to bring heaven into the everyday, we’re soon going to be looking at hell on earth. “For me,” he says, “it’s almost like there’s a crack in something, and I need that crack patched or else I’m going to sink. I sometimes think political songwriting gets mistaken for that patch. That patch is going to fix or hold back whatever is coming. And I just don’t ever think that a song can be done specifically for that. I don’t think that as humans we’re intelligent enough to design something that incredible. I think the hope of music is that it catches you in the moment you need it—not that you can take it like a prescription. You can never take it and hope for what’s going to happen. So I feel like … you have to look at it sideways. You have to write about things you care about and hope they fill something in your heart. You can’t write on days that you know all the answers; you can’t write on days you feel any sense of conviction because those aren’t the days when you need songs. You need a song on those days when nothing seems like it’s going right and it feels like the world is just plummeting. And even for someone optimistic, these days that’s fairly regular. So I write songs for me. And those songs are the ones that help me really get by and feel like I’m doing something. They’re the patch for my cracks and whether they fit for anyone else’s and help anybody else—if others feel the same way, maybe our cracks aren’t that dissimilar.”

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