Josh Ritter on Using Music to Speak Out

The first time I met Josh Ritter, he was a young man bashfully accepting the effusive praise of a room full of Irish music fans. Forty minutes earlier, few people in that room had even heard his name, but every single one left as a devoted fan, copies of his two self-released albums tucked in their pockets.

With every return visit, the venues got bigger, the crowds got louder and Ritter transformed from a man who blushed at each round of applause into a consummate entertainer. By the time his third album, the stunning Hello Starling, came out in 2003, Ritter was a bona fide superstar in Ireland.

It only took a little longer for the world at large to catch on. Paste called him one of the 100 greatest living songwriters. Joan Baez covered his songs.

Stephen King called The Animal Years the best album of 2006.Not bad for a guy from Idaho who dropped out of a neuroscience degree at Oberlin to play open mics in Somerville, MA coffee houses.

It was in one of those coffee houses that he crossed paths with Glen Hansard (star of Once and frontman of Irish indie legends The Frames), who was so immediately smitten with Ritter’s songs that he invited him back to Dublin.

With each album, Ritter’s star has reached a new, higher firmament. His tenth, Fever Breaks, arrives on April 26th and, at this rate, someone’s going to need to invent a higher firmament.

We caught up with Josh on the phone to chat about his new record, working with Americana superstar Jason Isbell and the importance of dressing well on stage.

Was it a very different experience for you, making this record with Jason Isbell and playing with his band, The 400 Unit, rather than your own?

It was a totally different experience, in big ways and in small ways. In 20 years of recording, I hadn’t really gone into the studio with all new people. That was my decision that I made with a lot of thought. I wanted to punch out of myself, not knowing what was going to happen at all. And working with Jason was a thrill and was so much fun, we had such a good time.

Recording should never be torture, you know? It’s a moment when you can kind of take stock of what people want and you can kind of celebrate. And in this case, you can make new friends. It was an amazing experience and it’s different from any that I’d had before, which was my goal.

Playing with The 400 Unit under Jason’s gaze, did that feel a little bit like driving someone else’s car, but they’re sitting there watching you do it?

Well yeah, it was really nerve-wracking. Oftentimes when I write, I like thinking about my band, and I think about what someone’s going to do in a certain spot of the song or just how I can hear the music swelling under the song while I’m writing it.

That’s something that I didn’t have going into working with the 400 Unit, and so, what I had was an opportunity to see the songs really, truly, kind of unfold in front of me in ways that were really surprising.

You know, I love playing with my band, the Royal City Band, it was so incredible to see somebody take a song and kind of explode it. That was a thrill of this one, seeing this one through with a whole new group of people.

Is there an element of letting go involved, giving up the old habits that you would have formed with playing with the Royal City Band?

Yeah, there is. In the last several years, I’ve had an opportunity to co-write with different people, like Bob Weir [The Grateful Dead] and Joan Baez, people who have really got me thinking about the way that I write and the ways that I let a song go when I have taken it where I can take it.

With Bob, I had to write the song and then watch where it went once it left my hands. And that was really important to me in making this record, then being able to let the song go and unfold itself in ways that I couldn’t have taken it on my own. To me, it’s that moment of watching a song kind of do what it’s going to do.

At what point in the process did you start writing the record? Had you written much before you knew Jason was going to be producing it?

Yeah, I was writing and I was finding I was writing a lot of reaction to current events. I had a bunch of songs that were starting to pile up. They kind of circled together and they seemed to form a really tight knit collection of songs, something I hadn’t felt since my record The Animal Years.

They came together in a way that felt really reflective of the moment. And they were kind of there waiting for me to figure out what to do with them. Around this time, I had toured with Jason and had a great time, about a month around the States. I really got to know him and got to see what he did every night with his band and his songs. That’s how we kind of came together to work together.

Did you have an idea in your head of what a Jason Isbell-produced Josh Ritter record would sound like?

You know, I didn’t. When these songs were showing up, I pictured them initially as being a solo, quieter record. When Jason brought the idea of working with the 400 Unit, it was something I really had to think about. It was a real radical reinvention of where I initially was gonna go.

That was kind of what I was in it for, you know? I was in it to work with the producer who was going to take my music to a new place that I wasn’t expecting, and that would be good for me as well.I just feel like it’s really important to continue to shake yourself up and try to keep from getting too comfortable.

Is that something you set out to with each record? Did you try to find something new to do with it to keep it fresh for you?

Yeah, I think recording is just trying to create an ideal situation for your art to exist. I think that rarely goes together with a tortured recording process. I like to make it fun and exciting. We went to rural France one time, we went to recording in New Orleans. It took us on all kinds of fun and weird adventures.

Do you find the record take on the character of where it’s made?

I think there’s always a little bit of the town of the studio being an instrument. In my mind, they’re inextricably linked, the moment of recording, and the situation we are working in, with the song itself. Yeah, I do think there is an element of that. Even if you’re not paying homage to the music of the place, it still seeps into the music.

You mentioned your adventures while recording. I remember you telling a story on stage one night that had something to do with the whole band chasing each other around at night with air rifles and flashlights.

Yeah, we invented a whole Winter Olympics that got too dangerous for any actual competition. It’s funny what you can get up to after two and a half weeks in a rural farmhouse in Maine, you know? You can’t record the whole time.

You mentioned earlier that the songs on this record reflect the current climate in America. Is it hard to be a liberal-minded songwriter and not comment on that?

I think it’s always so interesting to look back at history and see the argument being made at various times. I think I loathe the turbulent thing, but I notice in my own work a turbulence which I have the choice of either disregarding and writing something that was consciously free of that, of the moment, or I could go and describe the moment as it is and try and make the record a personal document of the moment, of the things I’m noticing and seeing.

I think there’s times when it’s really important for me to notice how you’re reacting to the world events and things going on. I just felt like: “If not now, then when?” When would I write? When would I say some of the stuff that I had been thinking about?

I strenuously try to avoid writing songs that feel like they’re educational. I don’t feel like songs should be educational, but I do believe that songs could be reflective of a moment and exposing questions that we all have that can make us closer together.

It feels like this record listening to the songs over the last few days it feels to me like a personal reaction rather than a kind of explanation.

It is, a lot of soul searching went into this record. There’s no one thing that can speak for the time that we’re living in, but a record is more a constellation of issues and personal obsessions. That’s why I think it’s a really vibrant art form.

You can really get into that with a record, you can really explore a bunch of different facets of the time. And I really appreciate that about making them.

Had you set out with the intention that you wanted to write this kind of personal reaction? Or did you just find yourself picking out this thread as the songs start to develop?

There are songs, like ‘All Some Kind of Dream’ or ‘Torch Committee’, that came to me as whole creatures, they were just right there. Those are songs that are personal reactions to the world going on around us. I hadn’t really looked to get political in songs very often. It was something that I had to think about.

What was it going to do to the key to the record and how would it affect the rest of the songs on the record? What did some of the other songs on the record have to say about the current moment? I thought a lot about how the songs relate to one another. I knew they did, but I find that somehow, oftentimes, the larger meanings would rarely show themselves until after you’re done.

Has your interpretation of what’s going on in the world changed at all since you’ve become a father?

I don’t know. There is a part of me that would say I’m a human being, you know? I feel like all this stuff’s going on and being a father hasn’t changed that fundamental feeling. In terms of how my daughters have affected me with my art, it’s been an entirely positive and incredible thing. It’s given me a focus and a joy to my working life, which is something I’m so happy about. I wasn’t expecting to feel this way. I didn’t know what I was gonna feel like, but I wasn’t expecting this kind of feeling.

It does refocus you. Since my kids were born, I’ve gone from being the most important person in my life to somewhere down around number four or five, which is probably a nicer way to see the world.

For me, I have a lot of ideas in my head and not enough hands to write things down. I carry around ideas for stuff I’m working on without being able to write it down for hours and hours and, in that time, they often get weird. By the time I actually do write them down, they’ve gone through a whole different kind of process that I never tried. So, that’s kind of a really fun part about how writing has been affected by kids.

And then there’s the things that my kids notice, and the questions they ask. It’s hard not to be in a kind of songwritery mode when you’re hanging out with your six-year-old and they ask you, “What’s more important, letters or numbers?” It just puts you in a frame of mind that’s really good for writing.

Has being a dad changed touring for you?

Yeah, it has. It hasn’t changed the amount of touring. In the last five years, my daughter Bea has been on the road with us the whole time. Now, she’s in school, so it’s changing, but it’s made our touring lives really different and really fun.

We go to all kinds of museums and aquariums and we get to know every little neighborhood over time, with repeated visits. We’ve learned to live in the space of an elevator at the back of the bus. It’s really made the times super rich.

It makes it so much fun. It’s always fun when you’re going around with someone new who’s never been on the road. You get to see the whole thing through someone’s eyes. With kids, it’s like that with the entire world, you know? So taking them on the road is just a real pleasure. It makes you notice and be grateful for so many things.

What’s your daughter’s reaction to seeing her dad get up on stage in front of all these people and sing in front of all those people?

It’s really funny. She’s six now, so she’s been seeing my shows for years now, but she just got to hear her first full set the other day. Up to this point, it makes her cry. She loves it, and it just brings out a lot of emotions.

I remember the Hello Starling era when you were wearing a lot of suits onstage, do you still do the suit thing? Or do you have a new uniform for getting onstage?

I’ve gone through a bunch of different things. For a while I was wearing just a painters suit, which was a really fun thing to wear on stage. For a while I was wearing only black. Now I’m kind of wearing sort of a professor assemblage.

I go through all sorts of different things, but I always think it’s really important that when you’re onstage, you are dressed with intent. It’s important to put on something that you haven’t been wearing all day, so you’re going out there with something that feels like armor.

Does that help get you in the right mind frame, like these are my work clothes? It really does. People are having their night out, people have gotten babysitters, people are making all kinds of sacrifices to come to our show. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or anything.

When I was first starting out, I had a number of polyester suit jackets which were, I think, flammable, and used to the point of exhaustion. When I see them now, I laugh and cringe in equal measures.


Mark Grassick joins us with over 17 years' experience as a journalist covering pop culture in the UK and Ireland. He's interviewed everyone from Alan Rickman to Iron Maiden and is currently a bearded, music-mad father of two and husband of one residing in London, England.

Scroll to Top