Josh Ritter has been compared to many a great songwriter from Townes Van Zandt to Leonard Cohen, and in fact, he has already been named One of the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters by Paste magazine at the fairly tender age of 33 years-old. His path to achieving such lofty critical status as a songwriter hasn't included so much the familiar tales of the "school of hard knocks" as it has actual school. He created his own major in folk music at Oberlin College, and after graduation followed up for six months at the School of Scottish Folk Studies in Edinburgh.
Ritter has released six studio albums, the first one self-released and recorded while he was still on campus. His latest, So Runs the World Away, showcases his deep love of those folk music roots. I recently got a chance to ask Ritter about the origins of his new album as he was returning to the States after kicking off the new tour, appropriately, in Ireland.
As the son of two neuroscientists, Ritter said he wasn't necessarily brought up with a lot of musical influences coming from his parents, but when he did first stumble on those old folk tunes, they awakened something powerful and immediate. "Wow, this is something that I understand; this is my thing. That was the feeling I had. When I first heard some of those songs, it was sort of like a lot of people when they first heard punk." He described his pursuit of learning more about the history of folk music as a full-on obsession, and he discovered some interesting differences in the way songs evolved from their earliest forms to later versions. "I loved those songs -- the old songs -- with no moral. We're such good moralizers in America. I would hear a Scottish song that I knew from America and realized that we would just tack on a last verse to a song that was a moral. I loved those songs where everybody dies and then it's over." It is no surprise then that his new album features a song called "Folk Bloodbath," in which several familiar characters from well-known murder ballads come together and, well, murder each other.
Over his career, Ritter has showed a startling range and versatility. Labels such as folk, country-rock, or pop-rock, could all be applied, depending on which album, or even which song from that album, that you were listening to. The thread that runs true through them all is his gift for the poetic turn of phrase. His lyrics are loaded with simile and metaphor -- intricate, literary, but grounded in what feels like a real emotional connection to the stories that he tells through song.
He is at his story-telling best on the new album, especially with "The Curse," a creepy tale of a mummy and a beautiful young curator that could have come straight from Edgar Allan Poe. "It was an attempt to tell a story, but like a movie, in an impressionistic way. I like the kind of bloody, beating heart -- the real deal, rather than a more ephemeral kind of writing. ...With these I wanted to tell a story first and find a way to do it with the song."
As prodigious as Ritter's lyrical gifts seem, however, he has been visited by periods of what he called "utter barrenness," one of which preceded the writing of So Runs the World Away. Rather than drawing from a running spring of words, as at other times, Ritter felt that "this record was more like a well, and I was just throwing stuff down there hoping -- for a wish. I felt like there was nothing. So when this stuff started coming, I was far too happy to question what it was. I just realized when it was good, it was good. And whatever it was, it was like a rope to a drowning man."
Since Ritter has begun the tour and started performing the songs, he's had some time to reflect over the difficulty he went through and what it taught him at this stage of his career. The most important thing was to let go of others' expectations and just do what feels right. "Whether there's a radio hit or whatever it is -- other people's ideas of success -- I feel like I'm here; I'm at the party to stay. And I'm not courting anybody. That's the big thing that's come out of this record for me now, playing these songs-- is realizing that I didn't have to do this all along."
I learned a couple things about Josh Ritter during our conversation that may be of particular interest to some. First, he is married to musician and former Louisvillian Dawn Landes, and therefore "knows where to party." Secondly, he has a very special connection to Glen Hansard, who will be stopping in town at the end of the month with Swell Season at The Palace. Ritter largely got his start thanks to Hansard, who heard him play and invited him back to Ireland to tour with the Frames. "The kind of introduction that Glen and The Frames gave me was crucial. At the time I was 22, 23 -- I was temp-working and playing open mics and the opportunity came to come and play in front of 400 people. It was an incredible rush to play an enormous room. It felt like the heavens opened up. It was an amazing experience." Ritter remains popular in Ireland due to that early introduction and just last January opened for Swell Season at Radio City Music Hall.
You can take advantage of the opportunity to see a songwriter in his prime when Josh Ritter and his Royal City Band take the stage next Monday, May 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Brown Theater. Tickets are $25 and available through the Kentucky Center box office. (Visit the Josh Ritter Web site to hear the new album and also download a free MP3.)