Interview: Josh Ritter

1 Apr

Publication: University Record
Date Published: February 2006
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“So what are you studying in history? That’s one of the things I really loved at school …”

An early Friday morning in a deserted Dublin café. Two guys sit side by side at an old wooden table, nursing cups of coffee and absorbed in conversation. They chat like long-lost friends, finally given the chance to catch up on old times – yet, in reality, they have never met. One is a friendly, down-to-earth young man with no delusions of grandeur. The other is Josh Ritter, a twenty-nine year-old from Moscow, Idaho whose new album The Animal Years looks certain to consolidate his position as one of the finer exponents of the singer-songwriter tradition.

Following on from his 2002 debut ‘The Golden Age of Radio’, and 2003’s highly-acclaimed ‘Hello Starling’, Ritter’s third album was never going to be an easy task. Aside from the obvious need to consolidate and build on his success, thus preventing the downward spiral into oblivion which seems to befall so many modern troubadours, ‘The Animal Years’ also represents Ritter’s major label debut. Despite his decision to stick with Independent Records in Ireland (the label which originally championed him on these shores), Ritter’s signing to V2 Records worldwide is symbolic not just of the magnitude of his achievement to date, but also of his potential for the future. “You have the opportunity to put out a record that a lot of people are gonna hear … it’s all your dreams come true.”

Staring such a daunting prospect in the face, one could have forgiven Ritter for playing it safe this time and following the tried-and-trusted formula of lovelorn ballads so excellently employed on ‘Hello Starling’. However, in the dog-eat-dog world of modern music, where bands with boundless capabilities bloom and perish in the space of one moderately successful album, Ritter was only too aware that he needed to evolve or die. “I just didn’t want to make another record like ‘Hello Starling’, because I think every record has to stand on it’s own, and I’m a far different person than I was when I wrote that record … I think now, early in my career, it’s important for me to blow open the doors, and not start to understand myself as a person who makes a certain type of record.”

Much to the delight of his ever-expanding fanbase, Ritter instead opted for a much more ambitious, and ultimately, much more rewarding option. Juggling the interconnected spheres of politics, culture and relationships, ‘The Animal Years’ provides a frighteningly lucid account of inner turmoil, illuminating a mind struggling to come to terms with issues that are both personal and public. Conceived in a world dominated by the aftermath of 9/11 and the US-led invasion of Iraq, it comes as no surprise that the underlying thread which binds the eleven tracks together into a seamless narrative is a political one. Setting the tone is album opener and long-time fan-favourite, ‘Girl in the War’, which recreates the political divide over US foreign policy. Framed as a conversation between St. Peter and St. Paul at the gates of heaven, the track revolves around some of Ritter’s most poignant imagery to date: “I got a girl in the war Paul, her eyes are like champagne / They sparkle, bubble over, and in the morning, all you got is rain”.

Fundamental to the credibility of both the album and the sentiments expressed therein is the fact that these issues definitely seem to be resting heavy on Ritter’s young shoulders. Nowhere is that more obvious than on the thirteen-minute apocalyptic maelstrom that is ‘Thin Blue Flame’, a track which in retrospect seems to be a therapeutic liberation rather than a political statement. Penned from fragmented observations compiled over an eighteen-month period, the imagery-rich musings remain unashamedly brazen in their political criticism. As Ritter explains, “I started running about a year and a half ago. It was the only way that I could feel like I was getting the anger out, because the songs weren’t getting the anger out. And there were always just points on the run when a line would just pop into my head, and it made no sense anywhere else. It didn’t fit in a song in any regular way. And so, I started to really feel like there was something chasing me, something on my back, and I had to get it off … that song was just the only thing to make me feel better about stuff.”

Whilst providing a through overview of the state of affairs, Ritter approached his role as commentator with a cautious and mature sensitivity, determined not to engage in the exploitative Bush-baiting or warmongering that has become the mainstay of fellow US artists such as John Mellencamp and Toby Keith. “I didn’t want to come down on one side of the issue or the other. I wanted it to be a photograph, a snapshot of the time. Like you walk out into a war zone, and you take the pictures, and you throw them out on a table, and you say ‘this is what’s going on – no captions – make up your own mind about what this is’”

Yet, at the same time, despite the fact that the record appears quite anti-patriotic in its criticisms, Ritter is quick to defend his stance. “You have to be able to criticise the place that you love, because nothing is ever perfect. I think that shows a certain amount of respect. My favourite writers have always done that, and that’s what makes art so vibrant. What if Shakespeare’s plays weren’t political? … You always knew that he loved where he was from, but you could tell that he held it to a high account and he held it to a high standard, just like Mark Twain or Voltaire”.

With a number of the songs tried and tested on the road during the draining sixteen-month tour of ‘Hello Starling’, the inexhaustible Ritter was raring to go. However, rather than rush matters, he was willing to leave these songs maturing on the backburner until he found the right man to help capture their essence. That man was Brian Deck, famed for his work with indie rockers Modest Mouse and acoustic outfit Iron & Wine. Right from the outset, it appeared that Deck and Ritter had an almost telepathic understanding. “He was a guy, I felt, who was as weird as I was”, Ritter explains. Working in tandem, the duo embarked on a voyage of discovery and realisation, carefully crafting each song in its own unique style. “I felt like sometimes it was me and Deck standing on the edge of this ship and looking at this big mass of land. You see it getting closer and you have an idea of what it is, because you can see the outline. But as you get closer, you see the details, and they pop out at you.” These ‘details’ – the careful deployment of the Hammond organ on ‘Monster Ballads’, the minimalist soundscape of a desolate ‘Idaho’, and the electronic bubbles which carelessly burst in the background throughout – are ultimately impressive, though there will doubtless be some among the Ritter faithful who shun them in favour of the more organic acoustic-picking of the past.

But where does Ritter see his future, a lonesome guitar-toting songster in a world dominated by ‘art rock’ and the indie revival as of late? “Music is like fashion, it comes in and out. There’s some things that are just flashy, and you look back on them and you’re like ‘what the hell were we thinking?’ … I feel like there’s bell-bottoms and high-heeled shoes, and then there’s jeans – you know they’re gonna be around for a while!” On the basis of this record, it could be a while before the young American’s music goes out of fashion. On the contrary, with a bit more hard work and a helping hand from his new-found friends at V2, all that’s Ritter’s may soon be gold.

Josh Ritter plays Dublin’s Vicar St. on May 12th and 13th – tickets are on sale now. The Animal Years is out now on Independent Records.

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