Josh Ritter’s Hungry
With ambition, for songs, and quietly at the Moody Saturday
By William Harries Graham,
4:35PM, Fri. Jan. 17, 2014
We caught up with Josh Ritter by phone in upstate New York as the renowned Idaho songsmith prepped his current tour. Saturday’s load-in at the Moody Theater with opener Gregory Alan Isakov is the third stop on the trek. Pitching it as an acoustic tour, Ritter says, “It’s just as exciting to play rock & roll quietly. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Austin Chronicle: Acoustic tour?
Josh Ritter: I’m bringing a few guys with me. The music is much quieter. I feel like things have been building and building and getting louder for a while. I started out solo and there’s something really fantastic about playing quietly. Volume can start to be a crutch and you start thinking you’re not reaching people if you’re not loud enough. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and turn everything down.
AC: Gregory Alan Isakov’s opening?
JR: I’m a fan of his. And I always want the show to be interesting, new, fun. I want to make people feel that when they come to a show they’re going to get a full night of music.
AC: Set lists or feeling out the audience?
JR: It’s a combination. I believe that a show’s like a story or a narrative. There should be some ups and downs. It’s like a bird flying from fence post to fence post, but in the middle anything can happen. That’s where the great stuff usually is.
AC: Difference between writing songs and a book like your Bright’s Passage?
JR: Writing like that is similar. The pros of writing a book are really packing in a lot of stuff and putting a lot of time and work into it. I’d write some 2,000 words a day, but with songs it’s such an intricate little process. It’s like writing on a grain of rice, yet as time goes by you start to realize that they’re exactly the same. It’s putting one word that feels perfect in front of another word that feels perfect. Books, songs – it’s exactly the same.
AC: Influence of travel?
JR: I seem to gravitate toward open spaces. Having grown up in Idaho and touring around the world, I found that the places that really felt like home were those big open spots. That’s why Texas is Texas and Idaho is Idaho: it’s that big open sky with barns and farm houses.
AC: Audiences: UK vs. U.S.?
JR: On a good night every place should feel the same whether your’re playing to 20 people or 100. If you’re really going for it and being brave with your choices, it will come across and there will be a kind of human element. There will be a feeling that the room is the same wherever you are in the world. It really is a remarkable feeling, and it’s one of those feelings that you really start to live for.
AC: Musical influences?
JR: Two things that really move me are: I’m a hungry guy and I really need that feeling that I’m working on songs that matter. I write songs that I want to play. I’m a performer and ambition keeps me going in that way. I have the best job in the world. I follow my interests wherever they go. That freedom is exciting and I would never want to lose that.
AC: Early song where you knew you were onto something?
JR: I always felt like I knew the language of songwriting, kind of like how people know the game of baseball. And I felt like I had to prove in my own mind that I was good at this thing. There are times when you’re lucky and you write better than you can, and for me that was after a show in West Virginia when I wrote “Monster Ballad” and “Girl in the War.” That was the moment where I thought, “This is what I’m living for.”
AC: Favorite artists?
JR: The biggest musicians in my orbit were ones that were already legends: Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams. Those were the ones that really gave me the spark.
AC: Big break?
JR: It’s kind of like someone pitches you a slow ball, you get a hold of it, and it goes. It’s the combination of you and someone else doing you a favor, like when Joan Baez took me out on tour when I was just getting started. I will never forget going around the world with her. And going over to Ireland with Glen Hansard. That what a big break. I was always playing and it was always like someone giving you something, and then you getting it and making something out of it.
AC: Music genre?
JR: I’m not one of those guys who says he can’t be pigeonholed, because you can pigeonhole anything. I long to be pigeonholed in some things. I feel like that stuff is just a good way to find out about music, but when people ask I say, “I play rock & roll with lots of words.”
AC: Leisure time?
JR: I just bought this ancient 18th century little house in the woods. It was really romantic when I got it, but now it’s a boutique of wonder. I’m learning how to take care of a really old house. And I have a 1-year-old daughter. Those two things are consuming a lot of time in my life, but the great thing is that I’m learning so much. If you’re learning something, it’s going to help your writing no matter what. Nothing is ever what you think it’s going to be. And it all adds up to something that turns into music at the end, whether it’s long distance running or learning how to cook.
JR: Everyone around me comfortable and the permission to go crazy once in a while.
JR: Keep on going no matter what happens.
AC: Advice to musicians?
JR: Pay attention to the music. If you’re making art with your heart on your sleeve and you’re not afraid to fail, then the things that you need to keep on doing that will find you.