Idaho folk-rock singer and au­thor Josh Rit­ter talks Trump, cre­ativ­ity and get­ting writ­ing ad­vice from Bruce Spring­steen with JOHN MEAGHER

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Gath­er­ing

It’s been many years since I last in­ter­viewed Josh Rit­ter, but he greets me with a hug. It’s charm­ing and dis­arm­ing and a re­minder that a man long con­sid­ered to be one of mu­sic’s nice guys hasn’t changed. The song­smith — born and raised in Moscow, Idaho — is in Dublin for promo du­ties and he has ev­ery rea­son to be en­thused about his lat­est, and ninth, al­bum, Gath­er­ing. It’s full of cast-iron songs that cap­ture some of that anx­i­ety that comes with liv­ing in these very chal­leng­ing times.

There’s also a duet with Bob Weir of The Grate­ful Dead (‘When Will I Be Dead’), a pay­back of sorts for all Rit­ter’s song­writ­ing work on Weir’s Blue Moun­tain al­bum last year, and when you let the songs per­co­late, you sense just how spe­cial this singer can be.

Much of Gath­er­ing was in­spired by the sense of anx­i­ety that comes with liv­ing in Trump’s Amer­ica. He says the ma­lig­nancy of his pres­i­dency is deeply en­trenched — and grow­ing.

“He’s caus­ing so much dam­age and it’s all per­vad­ing,” he says. “Af­ter the elec­tion, we hung up a ban­ner out­side our house that said in three lan­guages ‘No mat­ter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neigh­bour’ and we had it up for a lit­tle bit and then some­one com­plained and we were forced to take it down or pay a $10,000 fine.

“I don’t think I’ve ever re­ally known ha­tred, but now you see it in peo­ple and it’s fright­en­ing,” he says. “And there’s so much stuff that hap­pens ev­ery day that it’s im­pos­si­ble to keep up. He’s not even in the pres­i­dency a year, and there’s very lit­tle to be en­cour­aged about.”

Rit­ter be­lieves mu­si­cians should not shirk from tack­ling big, con­tem­po­rary sub­jects.

“It’s im­por­tant to cap­ture the mo­ment and that’s a way of deal­ing with it. I guess I dis­trust a lot of protest songs be­cause usu­ally I find them preachy and not very well done, and they ex­pire quickly. But I do think the great clas­sic al­bums and the great mu­sic have al­ways been able to cap­ture a mo­ment in am­ber.”

De­spite the un­set­tling world of 2017, Rit­ter in­sists his per­sonal life is hap­pier than it’s ever has been. He and his part­ner have a four-year-old daugh­ter, Beatrix, and he says he loves be­ing a fa­ther. He took some time off the road in her tod­dler years and has no re­grets — af­ter all, this 40-year-old had been tour­ing since his very early twen­ties.

Rit­ter re­leased a self-ti­tled de­but al­bum in 1999 and spent a great deal of the next few years hon­ing his live craft in Ire­land. His sec­ond al­bum, The Golden Age of Ra­dio, was much loved on its re­lease here and for a while it felt as though he was part of the fur­ni­ture of the Ir­ish singer-song­writer scene. Rit­ter is friendly with sev­eral of the home­grown mu­si­cians who cut their teeth in the 1990s, in­clud­ing Glen Hansard, and says this coun­try will al­ways hold a spe­cial place in his af­fec­tions.

“It feels Iike com­ing home, in a way,” he says. “I got to know a lot of Ir­ish peo­ple, and all those shows, right around the coun­try, helped me to im­prove. It was a very in­spir­ing time. And there are so many mem­o­ries — all those great con­certs and peo­ple, and lit­tle things like try­ing to or­der a veg­e­tar­ian sand­wich at 2am in a gas sta­tion in Drogheda.”

He has been pro­lific, av­er­ag­ing an al­bum ev­ery other year.

So many mem­o­ries... lit­tle things like try­ing to or­der a veg­e­tar­ian sand­wich at 2am in a gas sta­tion in Drogheda

“I dread to think of a day if, or when, that spark to cre­ate wanes,” he says. “I still feel very grate­ful to be able to do this as my pro­fes­sion, but you can’t get com­pla­cent. So much can change.”

There’s been enor­mous change dur­ing his time in the mu­sic in­dus­try, in­clud­ing the huge de­cline in the sale of al­bums. But Rit­ter is keen to look to the pos­i­tives.

“Tech­nol­ogy al­lows us to do so much,” he says, point­ing to the iPhone record­ing the con­ver­sa­tion. “It would be pos­si­ble to record some­thing now, and have it out there in the world so ev­ery­one could hear it within 10 min­utes. It’s helped to make mu­sic more demo­cratic — you don’t need to have lots of money for stu­dios and so on. If you’ve got ta­lent, there’s a chance you can find an au­di­ence.”

Rit­ter’s tal­ents ex­tend be­yond mu­sic. His de­but novel, Bright’s Pas­sage, was crit­i­cally ac­claimed on pub­li­ca­tion in 2011 and he says he has com­pleted first drafts on two “nutso” books. And, yet, he ad­mits it’s dif­fi­cult to jug­gle the busi­ness of be­ing a busy mu­si­cian on the road — and a fa­ther of a young daugh­ter — with the re­quire­ments for sus­tained pe­ri­ods of work to get the next book done.

His part­ner, Ha­ley Tan­ner, knows all about the chal­lenges of de­liv­er­ing a fol­low-up book. She has also en­joyed glow­ing re­ports for her first, and to date only novel, Va­clav & Lena. Rit­ter jokes that it’s good that both are cre­ative — they un­der­stand each other’s artis­tic mo­ti­va­tions.

“I was talk­ing to Bruce Spring­steen a while ago — he came to one of the shows. I was telling him about writ­ing the book and he said, ‘Yeah, it’s just like writ­ing a song, you put one word af­ter another for a long pe­riod and then no­body ap­plauds at the end’. I’ll get back to the books — I’ll need some time in a padded room.”

Although Rit­ter says he some­times em­ploys fic­tion­alised char­ac­ters in his songs, much of his mu­sic is heav­ily drawn from his pri­vate life. That was cer­tainly the case on one of his best al­bums, The Beast in its Tracks, which cen­tred on his feel­ings around the break­down of his 18-month mar­riage to fel­low mu­si­cian Dawn Lan­des and the sense of re­newal he felt when he sub­se­quently met his new part­ner.

“I think when you’re knocked side­ways in life, it can be mo­ti­vat­ing, when it comes to writ­ing songs,” he says.

“If ev­ery­thing is go­ing too swim­mingly in your life and in the world at large, it’s harder to be in­spired.”

He says he doesn’t want to turn into one of those mu­si­cians who are happy to tread wa­ter.

“I live in fear of be­com­ing a med­ley artist,” he says. “My re­la­tion­ship with my au­di­ence is so much on trust — I’d never dis­re­gard my old stuff, but the au­di­ence who come to your shows, or buy your work or lis­ten to your song for three min­utes on the way to work, is giv­ing you the chance to do new work and go and ex­plore. Your job is not to recre­ate, but to cre­ate.

“What keeps me go­ing is that fear des­per­ate fear that I’ll be­come un­o­rig­i­nal.”

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