When Josh Ritter first showed up on radars outside his native Idaho, he was hailed as an heir to Townes Van Zandt, Nick Drake and, yep, Bob Dylan. That groan you hear echoes on from 2001, the year Ritter released Golden Age of Radio, a rough-hewn collection of earnest and moving acoustic songs. (Signature Sounds reissued Radio this year.) Thankfully, skepticism has faded with each passing album, as Ritter has explored orchestral pop, soul and disco, while retaining his skill with imagery and narrative. The RFT chatted with Ritter at his home in Brooklyn, New York, on the eve of his departure for Ireland — after which he's heading back to the States for a tour where he'll be picking up different horn sections from town to town.
Roy Kasten: Let's start with the title of your last album: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. You've never struck me as a player of epic proportions.
Josh Ritter: No. I'm not a good Lothario — the title of that record is my one chance. With the characters in those songs, I wouldn't talk about them in the third person, but that side of the songwriting was fun, a big, bragging, Foghorn Leghorn thing. I wanted a title to match that. I wanted the biggest, most presumptuous title that there could be. All the songwriting I'd been hearing was so serious.
There's an evolution in your music, from the kid playing songs on a porch in Idaho, to a young man leading a 24-piece orchestra in Cork, Ireland.
It's funny. All the stuff about records not selling, that's such a small portion of who you are as an artist. It's not defining. I feel like I haven't wasted the last ten years of my life. Each record should feel like the best thing you've ever done. That's a state of grace. So I feel there's that, and then with any experience you have, like this orchestra thing, it's just an amazing thing to do, an amazing opportunity. I enjoy it. I definitely remember the first time I ever got to play in front of people for my first show. That's a great feeling. That goes with not wanting to necessarily look towards larger goals beyond just making a record that will show a different side of things.
I wonder if you miss the kid playing songs with his friends on the porch.
I don't think so. I feel like I've always been ambitious for experiences. Those experiences are just as rich as these new experiences. Life changes, circumstances change, so I don't feel nostalgia in that way. When you're not moving all the time, not wondering what you're going to eat, and you finally have time to think, that's amazing. I feel pretty free now.
It's easy to romanticize that kid on the porch. He probably didn't get paid for the gig that night.
Yeah. It's amazing, though, the things you'll do when you don't know what's stacked up against you. All the stuff that goes with the music business side of things, it pays to be realistic about what's going to happen to your music later. But at the same time it doesn't pay to think about it too much. It doesn't pay to try to write a song that you think will fit on the radio. That's just serendipity.
Is Moscow, Idaho, still a refuge for you?
Definitely. My family still lives there. I'm going back to do an outdoor show, to do a show with the Helio Sequence and my brother's band, Lady Drama. They're one of the only trombone rock bands out there.
Will the next record be orchestral?
It's not clear yet. Working with [producer] Sam [Kassirer] has been great. We've found a common language. The hardest thing to work out is how to express where you want the music to go. That can only be expressed verbally. Otherwise, you're just hacking your way through the jungle. This new record we're doing slowly, a week here and there. The benefit of spending time with the orchestra is that I'm hearing things I've never heard before. The songs are also longer in form, so there's a larger palette to paint off of. We're finishing it up in August, and we're looking at the beginning of the year for a release. I'm excited. The stories feel really fleshed out.
You've said that you were weary of writing songs on the guitar. Do you still feel that way?
Not to the same extent. In the past, the guitar was the lead beat instrument, setting the meter. The last record helped me get away from that. But I've been taking some guitar lessons and learning songs that have stranger chords and listening to music that isn't just American roots music. You know, I was never raised with that music, so when I found it, I was kind of glutted with it, but now I'm listening to other stuff.
I've been listening to a lot of Toumani Diabaté, a Mali kora player and his record the Mandé Variations. He's also got this great orchestra, the Symmetric Orchestra. It's beautiful. And I'm listening to Amadou & Mariam. It's not that roots music isn't fulfilling, but it doesn't light me up right now.
You can play to your strengths, but sometimes you have to go against that.
I think that's true. You know it, but everybody else knows it too. When people buy your records or go to your shows, you're in a compact that you're going to do something new. I don't like the idea that you can just skip a whole record because it sounds the same as the last. I feel that way sometimes about artists, and I know the reason. I hear a song, and it sounds the same as the last. So I'm sure if I listen to it a bunch I would probably love it, but I don't feel the need to do that.
How many things could go wrong enlisting horn sections for shows in every town?
We'll see. My sound guy is patient, and my bass player Zach [Hickman] is the music director, and he's good and patient. You get all kinds of submissions. You get tap dancers...clarinets, anything you could imagine. I'm optimistic.