is an old-time American troubador
JOSH Ritter was still at school when he did his first Australian tour, although it had little bearing on his future as a performer. The American teenager landed in Adelaide for a year in the early 1990s, by virtue of his parents’ employment as lecturers at Flinders University.
Next week Ritter, now 35, will be back in the country, this time with guitar in hand and a reputation shaped across the past 12 years as a songwriter with a strong narrative strain running through his music that has led to him being compared with Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, among others.
He arrives also heavy with product, spruiking an album, So Runs the World Away, that was released in the rest of the world two years ago and a new EP, Bringing in the Darlings. He’s also shopping around his first novel,
Bright’s Passage, which has earned favourable reviews since its publication at home and in Europe last year.
To complete his work schedule Ritter is halfway through writing his second novel and is in the process of adding the final touches to a new album to be released later this year.
Such a heavy load may not be to the taste of every rock ’ n’ roll troubadour, but Ritter appears to be a man in a hurry and happy to follow his muse no matter what direction it takes. Even when he speaks, it’s as if he can’t get the words out quickly enough.
‘‘ It’s a matter of planning,’’ is how the Idaho-born, Brooklyn-based singer explains his multi-tasking. He says there’s room for inspiration as well as perspiration.
‘‘ You have to realise that you can’t just keep going with the one thing, so I write for an hour and a half a day on my novel and then I write songs whenever they strike me.’’
So Runs the World Away (it’s a line from Hamlet) is Ritter’s sixth album and like much of his work sets vivid tales incorporating personal laments and US history against a backdrop of sparse, rootsy instrumentation that just occasionally breaks out in a sweat. It’s folk music, of a sort, beautifully so in songs such as Change of Time, Lantern and the delicate piano ballad The Curse. The centrepiece, a faux roots almanac titled
Folk Bloodbath, ties together several strains from traditional folk material, such as the murder ballad Stagger Lee, into one singalong ode to death, hanging and ghosts. Ritter rides pathos and humour in equal measure on this song, a combination that features regularly in his writing.
Surprisingly, it was listening to mash-ups of material by Jay Z and Prince that gave him the idea for the song.
‘‘ I was getting into a lot of mash-up stuff and I was thinking about all of those great characters in folk songs and how poorly they usually fare,’’ he says. ‘‘ I thought it would be fun to just ram ’ em all together.’’
Ritter was studying to be a neuroscientist at Oberlin College in Ohio when, in 1995, the music bug took hold and he recorded his solo self-titled debut album at a studio on the university campus.
That album was heard by Glen Hansard, singer with Irish band the Frames (also the Swell Season), who invited the young singer to perform there. That turned out to be the launch pad for Ritter’s career. The singerauthor has been a regular visitor to Ireland since then and remains very popular there. He was in Ireland a couple of weeks ago to launch his book.
‘‘ It’s really the first place I started,’’ he says. ‘‘ Ireland is a narrative country. They love stories and their verbal technology is light years ahead of ours. I worked really hard there. Gigs now in the States are getting bigger but in Ireland on a good night there’s nowhere better to play.’’
It’s not surprising, then, that there’s a Celtic influence in Ritter’s work, one with roots in Scotland as well as Ireland. weirdness and history and unapologetically surreal stuff,’’ he says.
The singer spent six months studying at Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies after he graduated in the US. ‘‘ Some of the first gigs I did were there,’’ he says. ‘‘ I’d rent a PA and go shout at people in coffee shops.’’
Ritter’s second album, Golden Age of Radio, in 2000, was almost as low-key as his debut. Recorded on a budget of $US1000 in three studios, it did little commercially, although it cemented his position as an indie favourite in Ireland. The follow-up, 2003’s Hello Starling, was produced by Frames guitarist Dave Odlum and gave the singer his first hit, reaching No 2 on the Irish album charts. From there his star began to rise internationally and his popularity has increased with each album. The Animal Years (2006) and The Historical Conquests of
Josh Ritter (2007) brought rave reviews and were accompanied by extensive touring.
Ritter is accustomed to playing with a band, but we’ll be seeing him in Australia as the solo acoustic performer on a bill also featuring another American songwriter of a similar bent, Simone Felice. He played solo last time he was here as well, opening for Martha Wainwright in 2005.
I started solo so I’ve always believed it’s the other stuff. When I’m writing it’s just me and guitar.’’
Some American roots performers have turned their hands successfully to fiction in recent years, among them Willy Vlautin and Steve Earle. Ritter’s arrival at the novel came by way of a song. He couldn’t figure out why the song didn’t work, until one day he realised
Bright’s Passage was much more than that. The novel tells the story of a young man, Henry Bright, who begins to hear an instructive voice while serving in the army during World War I. When he returned to the US, it becomes clear that this angelic presence isn’t always giving him good advice.
The book has received favourable reviews, with The New York Times stating that it ‘‘ shines with a compressed lyricism that recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime’’.
‘‘ It just came to me,’’ Ritter says with some
WHEN YOU TAP INTO IRISH AND SCOTTISH FOLK SONGS YOU’RE TAPPING INTO THE MAIN VEIN OF WEIRDNESS AND HISTORY
modesty. ‘‘ I had this idea that this guy receives instructions from what might be an angel. I didn’t give it any great import, but then I was reading about the first world war, not having known very much about it at all. I was so excited and interested in that, so suddenly the story was set in the first world war.’’
The singer’s storytelling attributes can be small town of Moscow, Idaho, and says that while there he ‘‘ didn’t have many ways of examining ideas apart from reading’’.
‘‘ I always in my mind felt I was a writer,’’ he says, ‘‘ but I didn’t know which format until songs came along. Then I started writing songs. A novel is just a different bucket to pour the words into.’’
It’s also a bucket that is harder to fill. ‘‘ I loved it, but it was incredibly hard work,’’ Ritter says. ‘‘ It was an education over the course of a year and three months. I’m deep in the heart of writing my second one now and it’s really so much fun.’’
Ritter’s newest bucket of ideas is the sixtrack EP Bring in the Darlings, which is available in Australia as an addition to the So
Runs the World Away CD. The EP is made up of songs that didn’t fit his next album but that he felt were too good to abandon.
‘‘ Over time with songs you write . . . they don’t necessarily have a place to go,’’ he says.
‘‘ I had a couple of songs that were just sitting around and I didn’t want them on the next record. They were too good to get lost but also small, courtly songs. I just recorded them as simply as possible.’’
The EP contains stripped-back songs such as Make Me Down, Can’t Go to Sleep (Without You) and his single Why Love is Making Its Way Back Home, a song he was inspired to compose while doing the housework at his Brooklyn,
New York, home. ‘‘ I was cleaning the house
and it got in my head,’’ he says. ‘‘ When something is right the lightbulb goes on and I can move on. I sat down and I wrote that song quickly. Sometimes that happens. It’s like a gift. Then you go back to your day.’’
Ritter will go back to his second day job of novel-writing after his short Australian visit. After that he’ll get back to being a storyteller in song, a folk singer or purveyor of Americana; he doesn’t mind which term people use.
‘‘ Whatever people want to call it is fine,’’ he
says. ‘‘ Some people call it folk music, others call it Americana. Whatever they want to call it is fine by me if they’re listening to it.’’
Josh Ritter performs a New Orleans club gig last year