Josh Ritter: What Comes After Heartbreak

Music Features Josh Ritter

Every time Josh Ritter takes the stage, he’s tapped into the kind of pure joy that most of us only find at those really important milestones—engagements, marriage, childbirth. In between songs—or in between verses, or when he stops to take a breath between syllables—he breaks into a wide smile, returning the affection from audiences who learned to adore the Idaho native soon after his breakout album The Golden Age of Radio in 2002.

But back in 2010, in the middle of a tour, his marriage to singer/songwriter Dawn Landes began to crumble with a phone call. He learned “things that happened,” he says, “that were just more than I felt I could live with her in the relationship.”

Touring with friends who felt like family and playing music for his fans were the only things keeping him sane. His parents are still happily married, and he never imagined his marriage would be any different. Unable to face his life back home in New York, his music became his life; he could only take solace in those two hours every night on stage.

“Then, when it was over, and I was back in Brooklyn,” he says, “suddenly I realized I’d been stable enough to stay ahead of the anger and rage for that time. But then it caught up with me. Then it was just time to figure out how to deal with it—not in an artistic way or anything—but in a personal way. What do I do? Where do I live? How do I just keep going? I felt like everything was just a failure—this major thing I thought I believed in. So, that’s kind of where it was at when I started to write.”

Just months before his marriage fell apart, Ritter wrote an essay for Paste on inspiration called “Feeding the Monster”: “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.”

But now the monster was feasting on Ritter’s heartache. And while the songs came rushing out, very few from the immediate aftermath would make it onto Ritter’s new album, The Beast in Its Tracks. “I needed no inspiration for this record,” he says. “I jumped right into writing songs. I felt it was another thing where ‘at least I can do this.’ But really, it was so unsatisfying at first because I had so much back there, so much stuff pushing the songs and pushing the hand on the page—real rage and wanted revenge and anger and self-pity. There were so many things that felt completely unmanageable. Yet, I had this ability to write them down. Then, when I saw that stuff written down, I realized that it felt very…not immature, but certainly I wasn’t made to deal with these emotions in this way.

“I’m not the person who’s going to sit down and put out the songs that I’d written in the heat of the moment,” he adds. “They felt honest in a way—but they didn’t feel good. They didn’t feel like they were going to elucidate anything to anybody else. I feel like there’s only certain times in our lives that we get a clear enough stream of emotion and power that we can kind of see the rest of ourselves by the light that it gives off. The rest of the time I feel like we don’t need that. It can be more gray or the light can be a little less bright. But in those moments, when you can actually see everything, you don’t need inspiration—you have it. You just need to be willing to stick with writing it down in a way that has a little clarity to it. Describe what you’re seeing in there, don’t describe all the things that have been done. Describe the feelings that you have and let them stand. You go into a cave and you hold up the lantern and you look around, you want to describe that—not anything else, I think. You want to have that clarity.”

And so the album doesn’t just feel like a breakup record. Sure there’s a classic dig at the end of “New Lover,” a song mostly wishing an ex the best and enjoying his own new love. He begins:

I can’t pretend that all is well, it’s like I’m haunted by a ghost.
There are times I cannot speak your name for the catching in my throat.
There are things I will not sing for the sting of sour notes.
I feel like a miser; I feel low and mean
For accusing you for stealing / what I offered you for free.

After switching the focus onto his own new lover for the middle verse, he lets a little bit of his anger peek through at the end:

I hope you’ve got a lover now, hope you’ve got somebody who
Can give you what you need like I couldn’t seem to do,
But if you’re sad and you are lonesome and you’ve got nobody true
I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too.

“I came to this idea basically when thinking about forgiveness and how much pressure there is on forgiveness,” he says. “There’s a pressure almost immediately to forgive. And that’s not a pressure that I feel is useful. And it’s also like blaming a sick person. The anger that you have—whatever it is in your body at that point, which is like a scent or soap, it’s this cellular thing. It’s in there and it’s not going to come out because you will it out. It’s a biological thing and you have to let it happen over time. I think the most we can do as humans is intend to forgive. I intend to—and I hold on to that. And as soon as I started to realize that I’m not a bad person because I’m so angry right now, I can set these things aside and not write about who I wish I was but write about who I am at this moment and let that stand for itself.”

Ritter waited for the hurt to subside—and a different set of songs to arrive—before heading into the studio. The healing came in the form of a new girlfriend, novelist Haley Tanner, and their brand-new baby girl Beatrix Wendylove. And the songs didn’t stop coming throughout the whole process. He had more material than ever to choose from, many about the break-up—but with the perspective of time.

Instead of a divorce record, The Beast in Its Tracks is about what comes after. “I’m happy for the first time in a long time,” he sings in “A Certain Light.” The healing is there but so is the lamentation: “She only looks like you in a certain kind of light, when she holds her head just right.” It’s two-and-a-half years of intense emotion condensed into 13 mostly acoustic tracks.

“When I initially started writing,” Ritter says, “it was out of reflex. Then, as time went by, it was—this is what I do, I can’t let this knock me sideways. I won’t let the terrorist win, you know?” He laughs. “And, as time went by—you go in with all this indignation and all that, which is fine, but I met Haley, I realized I fell in love with her, she took care of me, we understood each other in some ways—we’d both been through difficult times recently in that time period. And we took care of each other, and that changes you. It changes your outlook on yourself. That was really good. I think it did change the writing, but it made me reassess. I couldn’t, from that moment on, go on and resurrect these old ghouls and try to mimic the anger that I had.”

Picking the tracks turned into a bit of a challenge, so he sought the advice of his longtime collaborator and producer Sam Kassirer. He knew the album was going to be about a relationship gone sour, but he didn’t want it to just be filled with anger. “I was afraid it was just gonna be too much for me at the moment,” he says. “I was worn out by the whole thing. But I knew I wanted to record.”

Kassirer suggested that Ritter just record everything, from the finished songs to the bits of verse that had been put to bits of music. “So I went up and we spent the first session recording, I think, 38 things. That felt great because everything was out there and there were things we could both look at and say, ‘OK, that, that—this feels really good.’”

A lot of what he recorded never made it to The Beast in Its Tracks, and some of those earlier songs won’t ever see the light of day. “There are great moments on something like Blood on the Tracks,” Ritter says, “but I don’t believe that being mean to somebody is the way to become artistically brave. I don’t want to be mean; I want to be honest about what I was feeling. But I don’t believe in letting out all the details and all that.”

He kept writing after he became a father, but his schedule changed. “You have all these ideas in your head,” he says. “You want to be writing them down and then you get a baby, and you have to hold onto those ideas in your head for a long time before you have a chance to write them down. And I think it’s always better for that. They kind of polish and get weirder the longer you don’t get the chance to write them down. I think the writing’s getting really fun.”

The songs that made the cut were stripped of some of the layers featured on Ritter’s most recent trio of records, beginning with 2006’s Animal Years through 2010’s So Runs the World Away. He brought in guitarist Josh Calhoun, and Kassirer added his subtle flourishing touches with organ and sparse keys. “They were short,” he says of the new songs, “and I recorded a number of them just by myself as little demos. Usually, one or two guitars. A guitar solo in the middle that had a doubled guitar line—that seemed to connect a lot of them. I liked how you can’t add too much stuff to them because they’re pretty slender things.”

In the midst of everything, in 2011, he published his debut novel, Bright’s Passage, an engaging tale of a World War I vet, told with the same poetic touch found in his songs. The process for writing differed from what he was used to, but he enjoyed it so much, he’s already working on a second book. “To know you can do it, that’s the most important thing with the first thing in anything,” he says. “I did it. I loved it. I loved going around and talking [about it]. I think what I really learned is that I’m taking more time with this one. You can’t be writing songs every day that feel really good. You have to take time. But with prose, you can spend a little time every day and the world doesn’t go dry. It’s a big, rowdy, fun novel. The language is awful. It’s really really fun to write. I’m totally loving it.

“It’s really strange,” he continues. “It wasn’t like when you get a song in your head and you’re like, ‘This is really cool and this is really interesting.’ But it is that feeling of ‘Here’s a puzzle for me to work on.’ And you can work on it because it’s fun to work on and you’re writing an adventure story. It’s like, when do you go back in? You got be wearing the right clothes. And then you can’t do it for so long—not because your emotions run out or something, but just because there’s not the same kind of joy in it. The joy is about getting through it and getting it out. That’s the exciting part of it.”

Most importantly, though, it seems as if the beast has devoured its share of hurt and sorrow and returned to a more diverse diet. That smile up on stage isn’t just a temporary symptom of the joy he takes from performing. He’s got a new lover now, and a beautiful baby girl. Inspiration no longer needs to hurt so much.

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