“I had in my head it was going to be exuberant,” says songwriter Josh Ritter.
For his eighth album, one of Paste’s 100 Greatest Songwriters had a roadmap before he started writing songs, ready to follow 2013’s The Beast in Its Tracks with his most rocking, rollicking record yet.
“That’s what I was going for the whole time, a feeling of great kinetic energy. I saw it in my head as much as I saw the songs, just a Technicolor, red-blooded record,” he says. “I really feel like I caught a big fish on this one.”
A songwriter who has been at it for nearly two decades, Ritter says he’s gotten to know his style and his way of thinking so well that his output had almost become a foregone conclusion. So for Sermon on the Rocks, he reached for a new vibe, working in unfamiliar ways to create a different result.
“Once you do it for a while it can be a bit boring,” he says. “You know what you’re going to write beforehand. I just cared less what my voice was telling me to do. It felt like a rebellion against myself. If a song came out and it was really weird, I just had to tell myself to go to hell and finish it.”
The Beast in Its Tracks was an album Ritter put together after his divorce, not necessarily about the heartache but about moving on, and as much as he needed to write those songs, he needed to move away and into a new realm for Sermon on the Rocks.
“I wanted it to be wild. I was feeling pretty wild,” he says. “I was up there in Woodstock, with a lot of free time and a real desire to do something fun and weird. I had this pent-up energy, and writing is a good way to get rid of that. I was ready to make this album more individually mine.”
Two songs came early in the process and helped point Ritter in his new direction.
“Seeing Me ‘Round” came together with a darker sound as Ritter began experimenting with more in-depth early demos and self-production. “I like the spooky vibe of it, that gave me one of the strands that goes through the record, that weird messianic vibe that I liked,” he says.
“Henrietta, Indiana” gave Ritter a place to write about, a small-town world to explore with typically rich characters and situations that force people to the edge. The narrative in “Henrietta, Indiana” brings together suffering and hard choices, the consequences heavy on either side.
“I’ve been through some rough factory towns where you feel like everybody’s just trying to hold on,” Ritter says. “All that has to happen is the factory closing down and a girl sees father turn bad, turns to alcohol to get help and medicate. It all just seems realistic to me.”
Ritter had about 30 songs written, choosing from that batch to get an album “with a real bounce to it.” Aside from that bounce, he found themes that overlapped and tied together.
“One of the lucky things for me about writing is I don’t typically look back on a song once I’m done, not in the writing process. For that reason, I wrote a lot of stuff without noticing the themes that are coming out,” he says. “I’m afraid of that happening beforehand. They need to come out and then you notice these incredible things that have come out you didn’t know you were writing about beforehand.
“What was really driving me, not consciously at the time of writing, but I see it now, was this disappointment in some of the ways that the Bible and the religious language of the Bible are being used in such two-faced ways,” he says.
“There’s this elevated idea of the Sermon on the Mount, that poor shall inherit the Earth, the idea that we’re supposed to be good to each other, and it seems right now there’s so much about religion that’s about being good to yourself. I don’t think any of us need prodding to be good to ourselves, but trying to be good to others is hard. The phrase ‘Love your neighbor’ makes it so simple, but you don’t even need religion to try to live to that aspiration. Sermon on the Rocks is more about trying to be human and realizing that you yourself have to do that. Those commandments fall flat every time; it’s the decisions you make not based on fear of hell or hope for heaven that make you a better person.”
Small-town life and questions of religion continue to show up in ways beyond “Henrietta, Indiana.” Inspired by fall evenings of his teen years, “Where the Night Goes” is about the enchanting possibilities of Fridays, of weekends, of getting wild and free when the moment’s right.
“I grew up in a small town, and I think those characters are super important to me,” Ritter says. “Those are all people who had an effect on my life. There’s such a grand tradition of these small-town people, and the stories have always attracted me to that. It’s a manageable range of characters. In a big city there is so much to write about, and those characters I don’t feel like I know their mind as well.”
The last song Ritter wrote for the album was “Getting Ready to Get Down,” which ties the themes of the record together into a jaunty, hook-laden track. As the recording session was approaching, he was sitting on the porch when the first line came into his head: “Mama got a look at you and got a little worried.”
“I’d tried to write songs like that for a year and a half, and it never worked,” he says. “I got bored. But that first line came and the rest of the song came very fast.”
With a touch of wry humor, Ritter writes of a teenage girl who is sent away to be domesticated at Bible school, yet retains her independent spirit. “She comes back and she knows who she is, she respects who she is and doesn’t see any reason to change for a town. I’ve always respected that,” he says.
In some ways, the song mirrors how Ritter feels about songwriting—and even life—at this stage in his career. Focused, happier and confident, Ritter says he’s proud of what he’s accomplished with Sermon on the Rocks.
“I feel like I’m at a good spot. I totally have what I need to write songs and my family can be comfortable and I can go in some cool places artistically. I have a lot of freedom now thanks to the people who listen and come to shows,” he says. “I feel like that girl—I went away and I’m back and I know what I want.”