When you first meet Josh Ritter, sunken into his sand-colored thrift-store jacket and sporting a wavy Anglo-fro, and he greets you with his aw-shucks smile and Midwestern kindness, he doesn’t seem like an artist who’s spent too much time cooking up a master plan for his career. He seems part surfer dude, part coffee-sipping Bohemian bookworm. Shy but secure. Confident but not arrogant. He’s 26 and looks even younger.
But once you get beyond pleasantries and introductions and start talking music, it’s as if a switch is flipped. When we sit down to discuss his new sophomore release, Hello Starling, my first question elicits an almost knee-jerk explanation of his career—where it’s gone, where it’s going (hopefully), and why. He shares what’s nearly a mission statement for his life, one that rejects the typical music industry machinery. He’s articulate and surprisingly aware of who he is as both a young man and artist.
For the Idaho-born, Arlington, Mass.-based singer-songwriter, the next 30 years are all about “developing a voice,” he says. “That’s something I’m really patient about. I think that all the songs on this record are kind of taking into account where I am right now, which is like a young songwriter still finding out something about my own voice.”
He rightly adds that today so many young artists, especially those signed to major labels, face an often ridiculous amount of pressure, of which he wants no part. (Despite courting from various major labels, Hello Starling was issued on the Massachusetts-based indie, Signature Sounds.) “There seems to be a thing that says if you want to be in music, you have to go in and work in this music industry thing that says that you have to make something of yourself in three records. None of the artists I respect, who I really love, were anywhere near complete in three records…Neil Young, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen. … Well, [Cohen’s] a different thing altogether.”
Ritter wants to write and records songs that will hold up well, songs that his grandchildren could enjoy, he says. Based on what he’s already accomplished, he seems off to a good start. Ritter’s influences are clearly heard on Hello Starling. In its lyrics, phrasing and melodies, the sparse acoustic disc delivers shout-outs to Cohen, Bob Dylan, Richard Buckner, Cat Stevens, Don McLean and Bruce Springsteen, among others. Ritter is fortunate that such songs as “You Don’t Make It Easy Babe” come off as an homage to Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” instead of a blatant heist. And that’s one of the reasons why he’s won the critics’ admiration.
Lyrically, most of these songs—which were recorded at a rural French dairy farm using equipment once owned by Curtis Mayfield—are “window songs,” Ritter says. “They’re like little serenades, so the windows show up all over the record.” In the westward-bound “California,” he sings, “Don’t say the trip’s been done a hundred thousand times / ’cause this one is mine.” On “You Don’t Make It Easy Babe” he repeats, “I’m trying hard to love you / You don’t make it easy babe / I’m trying hard to love you / I’m looking for an easy way.”
Thanks to such songs, Ritter has, in a sense, accomplished his ultimate goal. After working a string of odd jobs while living in Providence, R.I. (including doing taxes for people with Down syndrome, serving as a safety screener at an MRI facility, handling paperwork for a landfill, and moving files alongside prison inmates) and selling more than 3,000 albums from the stage, he’s now able to support himself exclusively by touring and selling records. “I get to wake up on a Monday morning and drink coffee and write; that’s it. And that’s my dream. It’s better than anything in the world.”
A first step toward realizing that dream came last year while Ritter, a graduate of Ohio’s Oberlin College, was playing open mics at night and working his various temp jobs during the day. Glen Hansard, singer for Irish band The Frames, attended one such performance and asked Ritter to come to Ireland to open for his band.
The buzz began there, and Ritter says it was there that he experienced the definitive moment in his career thus far. Thanks to those gigs with The Frames, Ritter headlined a show in October at an 1,800-2,000-seat theater in Dublin. It was sold out.
“That was the moment when I thought, ‘How does it happen?’ and ‘Who cares how it really happens?’ Ya know, I just think it’s proof that, with all this stuff, with a digital world and there’s just millions of things out there—everybody has their face on a billboard—there’s a moment where you can play a quiet song and it means something like [Cohen’s] ‘Chelsea Hotel’ means to me, or something like that. If it can mean something in someone’s life, and mean something in your life, then it’s an amazing collision and it means something that’s more than just, ‘Here’s another guy playing music.’ It’s valuable. For like three minutes, we were all just together. It’s nothing enormous, it’s nothing earth shattering, it’s just three minutes. …
“I’m not saying that somebody else couldn’t do the same thing; it’s just like that was the moment when it was perfectly clear to me that if you really put what you have into something, and you try to be honest about it, then it’ll come around back to you.”