Josh Ritter: Feeding the Monster

Music Features Josh Ritter
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As he prepares to release his new album, So Runs the World Away, one of our favorite songwriters opens up about his artistic inspiration

For hours I’d been lying awake in the dark, listening to the garbage trucks trawl the neighborhood. Occasionally a ship would blow its horn over in Red Hook, and I’d wonder again what it must be like out there on the ocean in one of those cold, steel boats. For the last year I’d been playing music in all weathers, all over the world.

Now it was early spring and I was home in Brooklyn, sung out from performing, wrung out from jet lag and bone-tired in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. Most importantly, I didn’t have a single new song. The year had been the busiest of my life, and I hadn’t built in much time for versifying. And versifying takes real time if you want to do it right. Not having put pen to page for quite a while, and with recording sessions planned and coming up quickly, I wondered if the songs would come easily. I suspected they wouldn’t, but hoped that I’d been feeding the monster well enough that it would let me have a few to get started on a new album.

The monster is the invisible force that decides what you write about. Some people call it “The Muse,” but I’ve never found that to be a particularly apt description for a creature so voracious. This is no gossamer-clad maiden. I don’t know much about it, but I know that it lives deep in the synaptic jungle, its tail twitching lazily, its slow-breathing bulk heaving sulfurous sighs as it waits. You have to feed the monster everything you come across, be it books, music or movies, your friends and enemies and any other shiny baubles you find strewn in your path. You shovel everything you’ve got—a long-handled snow shovel works best—into its big toothy mouth, and it chews everything up and sighs once again. It never says “thank you,” and you don’t expect any gratitude, but once in a while the monster will taste something it really enjoys. When it does, you’ll notice a slight lift of its scaly brow and a narrowing of its keyhole pupils. It doesn’t give away much, but if you know your monster, that’s all you need to see.

Now your job really begins. This part is fun—you go and find everything you can find that relates to the monster’s favorite new food. You bring it full wheelbarrows of Barton Fink, Steve Martin, nachos, Myrna Loy, the game of Life, Dire Straits, jungle gyms, whatever. You never question the monster’s taste. If it wants Louis L’Amour, for God’s sake give it Louis L’Amour. If you don’t give the monster what it wants, the damned S.O.B. will never give you anything in return. But if you do a good job feeding your monster, it’ll occasionally let you have a little inspiration. In my case, that means the idea for a song.

The radiator began to crank and clack. Steam whistled into the room like smoke from a dozing dragon. Since I’d gotten home a week earlier, my monster seemed to be on a steady diet of four things: Muriel Spark, Barbara Tuchman, Alfred Deller and Jeri Southern. Spark and Tuchman were authors and Deller and Southern were vocalists. I had no idea what the four had in common, but I knew enough not to ask.

Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh in 1918, during the waning days of the Great War. Her father was Jewish and her mother English, and Muriel matured into a permanent outsider with powers of observation and description that could decode the crook of an elbow and the shift of a glance. She was funny in a genuinely wicked way. I pity the characters that were born into her intricate, often surreal little plots. Dougal Douglas, the central character in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, believes he’s turning into a devil. Jean Brodie, the teacher and ingenue of a clutch of school girls, is a fascist carrying on a love affair with an artist, who, in turn, carries on an affair with one of her prized students. With childlike glee, Spark smashes her characters into each other, as though constructing a beautiful dollhouse and then setting it on fire. Her attitude towards her characters is both malevolent and just; they all get exactly the fate they deserve. After finishing Spark’s amazing Loitering With Intent, I thought about how I would have liked to know her but was somewhat relieved I’d never gotten the chance.

Loitering with Intent was back on the bookshelf now, replaced on the nightstand by Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, about the quarter-century before the outbreak of World War I. For awhile, I had been picking it up and reading a page here and there, but of late the book, with its ornate sense of foreboding, had become very important to my monster. In a collection of essays, Tuchman described the years when the world was wracked by the death throes of the 19th century and the birth pangs of the 20th; a self-taught historian, she (like Spark) had a keen eye for those innocents who were headed for a cliff. Among other topics, The Proud Tower tells the stories of the decaying and flaccid European aristocracy, the contentious, often viperous socialist and anarchist movements, and the beautiful and doomed cultural flowerings of pre-war Germany. The whole world was painted here, in the instant before it plunged from its own ramparts. Barbara Tuchman’s book was tense and heartbreaking, and that’s what my monster wanted.

I’d been listening to music only rarely. So little held real appeal or made me feel compelled to listen again—certainly few rockers or songwriters. The only folks I kept coming back to were Alfred Deller and Jeri Southern. Like Tuchman, Deller was born in the last few months before the Great War. He was born in Kent, England, and possessed a beautiful, remarkably high voice. In the years after the courtly fashion of castrating silver-voiced young men fell out of favor, much of the choral music written for castrati had only been sung by boys who hadn’t completed puberty or the very few men, known as countertenors, whose voices didn’t break after they reached maturity. Deller, born in an age that eschewed the knife, sang in the choirs of St. Paul’s and Canterbury Cathedrals and then went on to become the main proponent and re-populizer of the countertenor voice. I had his HMV recordings and listened to them incessantly. Songs like “Peg-a-Ramsay” and “O Rosa Bella,” made me feel like I was walking through some Dorset field that never existed. First, there was his voice, androgynous and pure; then the instruments, apparently miked far behind him, with their strains combed into Martian drones, making his voice sound all the more ethereal.

I could totally understand why the monster wanted Alfred Deller. I’d been swamped with all kinds of music for years. A lot of it was terrible—cynically written and cynically performed. Deller performed songs from as far back as the 1400s, songs that thrived on their own merits, untouched by marketing and radio campaigns. For these reasons, and because I loved listening to him so much, I was happy to throw Deller to the monster.

Much more perplexing to me was the monster’s love for Jeri Southern. Lying in bed, I tried to remember the first time I’d heard her. It was recently, but that’s all I could recall. Like some of the best people in life, she was just there all of a sudden, a friend I felt I’d known for years. Southern was born in 1926 in Royal, Nebraska. She sang plainly. She made standards like “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” and “The Very Thought of You” feel as if they had been written just for her. She didn’t seem as if she was trying to impress; she was only trying to tell a story. My favorite song of the moment was “All in Fun” by Kern and Hammerstein, which she sang slowly, with a trace of fun and large dose of fatalism:

We are seen around New York
El Morocco and The Stork
Other stay-up-late cafes
I am on the town with you these days
And that’s the way it stands…

Just a fellow and a girl
We have had a little whirl
Our feet have left the ground a bit
We’ve played around a bit
And that’s the way it stands….

I’d gone so far as to record versions of “You Better Go Now” and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” based on Southern’s interpretations. I wasn’t going to release them; I just felt it was necessary to record them to keep the monster happy.

Of the four artists, I noted that none of them were songwriters. This came as no surprise. But I thought about how funny it was that people seem to believe only a songwriter can inspire another songwriter, or only a novelist can inspire another novelist. Two of the people I fed the monster each day were American, one was Scottish and the other English. Three were born around the time of the War. There was no telling why any of this stuff was important, or even if it was. I was too busy trying to keep my monster well-fed to ponder why it wanted what it wanted.

By now, true darkness was falling. I lay in the bed, looking up at the ceiling. A song came into my mind. It’s tempting to say out of nowhere, but I know where it came from. I got up quietly, made my way across the creaky old boards to the bathroom and shut the door. I sat on the edge of the bathtub and wrote and wrote, trying to get down on paper as much of the song as I could in that quiet moment of reverie. In the morning I’d be feeding the monster again, and this magical moment would be gone.

The song was about an Egyptian mummy who seduces and betrays an Egyptologist. And I wrote it in waltz time—a graceful Straussian cadence that suffused the years before the First World War. I liked the tempo because it felt decadent. I wanted the mummy to feel the excitement of coming back to life. I wanted the woman to suspect her mummy is cursed, but to be so full of love for him that she is blinded to her own catastrophic fate. While the tempo and the time signature felt like Tuchman’s Proud Tower, the actions of the characters felt to me very much like Spark. I sang the song in a higher register than I would normally choose, probably due to my appetite for Deller at the time, and I set the story in New York City because I liked the idea of the two lovers waltzing their way from one stay-up-late-cafe to the next. The song was far from done when I put my guitar down and closed the notebook, but I felt grateful to my greedy monster and went back to bed knowing that whatever parts of the song weren’t written yet would still be there in the morning. Over the next several days I worked hard on the song, sharpening and softening the story. Several months later, as October snow began to fall and stick, I recorded the finished version of the song, which I’d entitled “The Curse,” at Great North Sound Studios in Parsonsfield, Maine. It’s now on my new album, So Runs the World Away.

This is, of course, far too simple a way to explain where a song comes from, but it’s as close as I want to get to the monster. We have a reasonable relationship, he and I, and I’d rather keep it that way. Songs can’t be explained, and they shouldn’t have to be. A well-written song should be able to speak for itself, as Jeri Southern well knew. Still, it’s a marvelous, mysterious process, and one of the fascinations we have with any artist is the chance, perhaps, to get a fleeting glimpse of someone else’s monster. The most frequent question I am asked in interviews is, “What are your inspirations?” On rare occasions, I tell the truth.

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