Working on a dream
As he prepares to release a new album, publish his first work of fiction and embark on an Irish tour, Josh Ritter reflects on his unrealistic ambitions starting out and the unlikely turns he’s taken, writes TONY CLAYTON-LEA
TEN YEARS’ hard livin’, breathin’ and workin’ can change a man, and if that sounds like the opening line to a Josh Ritter song then so be it. From his self-titled debut in 1999 to his new album, So Runs the World Away, Ritter has referenced the latter-day pioneers of the contemporary American folk song (Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen) as well as paying respectful tribute to the forebears of same (Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie). When you think of it, that’s a lot of hard livin’, breathin’ and workin’.
This is probably why when you hear a Josh Ritter song there is a dawning awareness that what you’re listening to might not be the most original thing you’ve ever heard, but by the spirit and soul of Mark Twain it’s as authentically American as jazz and as historically/politically informed as Gore Vidal. It’s from the heart, too. Let’s face it, anyone who changes his major from the subject of neuroscience to American History through Narrative Folk Music, and who, following graduation, travelled to Scotland to attend the School of Scottish Folk Studies, has to have something other than mere fame on his mind.
“Sometimes I think back on what exactly I wanted when I was 21 and just starting out,” remarks Ritter, kicking back in his Brooklyn apartment where he lives with his singer-songwriter wife, Dawn Landes. “I wanted so much of everything, and I didn’t see why that was impossible. Over time I started to realise that the small victories seemed so enormous; each time something minor would happen – like playing a show on my own, or selling some CDs after a gig – it seemed so huge. I think my initial ideas of world domination changed, because I started to realise that it was victory enough to be able to do what I do for a living at all – in these days even more so than it may have been 20 years ago. I also think back and can’t believe some of the stuff that I thought I wanted, things that are now total anathema to me.”
Born in Moscow, Idaho, in 1976, the son of two neuroscientists, Ritter has the air of an academic, educated background about him. His jettisoning of such a future, however, was inspired by his love of writing and books, which started in his backwoods home, where, he recalls almost glumly, “there wasn’t much to entertain me”. Passing time in rural Idaho amounted to heading out into the woods to dig holes and cut down trees. Ritter remembers he and his pals once attempting to construct an entire Ewok village (the small furry characters in Star Wars).
“We didn’t get too far with that, however, so the alternative would be reading, which was always something that sustained me, and it still does. On the road, especially, there is so much you can put into your brain that fractures it, particle-ises it, whereas reading assembles your thoughts. Simple as that.”
Early ambitions were, he admits, unfeasibly large. “When I switched from science to music there wasn’t anything I didn’t want. I wanted all the things that people who come up to me now tell me they want. I wanted to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, I wanted music videos on MTV, I wanted to sell millions of records. Everything had to be big, everything that Neil Young had. But it took me a long time to realise that that’s what Neil Young had, not me, and in the end I didn’t mind at all.
“I have always felt that my ambition was pretty huge, and you know, it’s worth owning up to that and trying to give it as full a range of expression as possible. In a lot of ways I feel like I am doing everything I can to be happy artistically, and really that’s all you can ask of yourself.”
DOES HE THINK that it would be a good idea for every singer-songwriter that’s starting out now to study American history through a narrative of folk music? “Hah! Well, for me it was great,” he smiles. “The dry academic part of it was one thing, but as a whole it was a magic eye painting – you look at it for a long time and you see all these dots and these random things, but then eventually you see the picture emerging. I believe really strongly that learning about music that early on in my life was invaluable; it gave me a sense of place that I can hold onto, a centre.”
Ritter hopes and prays that he still has that centre. He feels it’s one way of keeping everything around and about him in context, especially when, he admits, he’s surrounded “by all kinds of media saying one thing or another, and all kinds of people who expect lots of things”. Judging by So Runs the World Away(the title is borrowed from Hamlet), he still retains the creative values that have justifiably afforded him the title (bestowed by various magazines) of one of the 100 greatest living songwriters. Ritter is casually humble enough to take such a title with a pinch of salt, but pragmatic enough to accept it with grace.
THERE IS to come, however, another outlet for his intuitive wordsmanship in the form of a novel, Bright’s Passage, which will be published next year. We know what you’re thinking: musician-turned-fiction writer is a loaded topic, weighted down by an over-arching sense of ambition and an imagination either working overtime or gone riot (or both). It augurs well that Ritter himself views works of fiction written by musicians with a cynical eye.
“I don’t want this to be a vanity project, I want it to be real,” he asserts. “There are so many things to write about, and thinly veiled musician-on-the-road stories aren’t the ideal.”
He signed the book deal with Random House last year. He had been working on various fiction ideas for quite a while, he explains. “I’d pick them up and then I’d put them down, but while I was writing for the new album I was working on a story that I initially tried to make into a song.
“It was a half-hearted attempt, to be honest, so I started writing the story as a book. The scope was clear in my mind and it had the same feeling that a song has when it jumps into your mind and it’s as clear as day; it’s like a little diamond, and you know exactly how it should go. It has changed, of course, as time has gone by, but at the outset it felt very clear.”
Ritter knows the book has to be good; he knows that, historically, only the very best of songwriters can cross over or, indeed, be accepted into the realm of literature (that’d definitely be Leonard Cohen and Willy Vlautin, then, with Nick Cave slouching behind). Anyone who is aware of Ritter’s subtle but steely songwriting skills, however, need have no doubts.
“I want to make sure it’s really good,” he states in a way that makes you believe he’s said this many times. “I don’t want it to be just a book by a songwriter. You can see the headlines, can’t you? Songwriter writes a book that doesn’t rhyme.”
So Runs the World Awayis released through Independent Records on April 23rd. Josh Ritter plays the Radisson, Galway, on April 24th (as part of Cúirt International Festival of Literature; he will also speak to broadcaster Philip King on the power of the lyric in the festival’s strand, The World of Spoken Word and Song); Dolan’s, Limerick, April 25th; Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin, April 27th; Festival Marquee, Belfast, April 29th (as part of Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival); and Ormonde Hotel, Kilkenny, April 30th (as part of Smithwicks Kilkenny Rhythm Roots Festival)