Josh Rit­ter

is an old-time Amer­i­can troubador

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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



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

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