Josh Ritter’s Sermon
Songcatcher delivers Rock-solid narratives
By William Harries Graham,
1:00PM, Wed. Jan. 13, 2016
Releasing an eponymous debut in 1999, Josh Ritter has followed it with seven more albums, written a novel (Bright’s Passage, 2011), and started a family with writer Haley Tanner, all while performing for the world. The Idaho-born New Yorker loads back into the Moody Theater on Thursday with new LP Sermon on the Rocks.
Ritter’s reached by phone at his Brooklyn apartment. When we spoke last year, he was living in upstate New York in an 18th century house.
“The move has been terrific,” he enthuses. “There’s so much to do and see in New York. I think we needed more than we could get in Woodstock.”
His daughter Beatrix turned 3 in November.
“When you have a child, your old life is gone,” he chuckles. “There’s no informing. It’s just all wiped away. Which is not to say that’s a bad thing, you know. What comes out is this whole new person, and you have a whole new life – a whole new role. You grow up together as people, you and this little kid.
“I think my art has stayed vibrant and continued to develop to a place that I wouldn’t have gotten to without the freedoms and constraints of fatherhood.”
Ritter has toured with his wife and daughter since just three months after the arrival of the latter.
“It’s fantastic to have this growing mind on the bus. We have a membership to every children’s museum in the country. You have somebody on tour who has not seen the entire country out the window. It’s a really great time.
“And it’s wonderful to be there with my partner Haley. I look over at her and I know she’s somewhere deep. I don’t ask questions, but I know she’s working on new things.
“Beatrix loves being on the bus and she loves waking up in a new town each morning.”
Sermon on the Rocks was recorded in New Orleans and overseen by Grammy-winning producer Trina Shoemaker, who sang backup vocals on James McMurtry’s latest, Complicated Game.
“Sermon on the Rocks is about self-realization and suddenly thinking of things in a new way,” explains its singer-songwriter. “I sent Trina some of my demos, and she wrote me back with these incredible notes and really genius ideas. Meeting and working with her was a really great experience. I really wanted to live there while I was recording, so we got a big old mansion and everyone came and stayed in it.”
In title alone, Sermon evokes spirituality, so it’s no surprise some of the material follows suit.
“It just seemed to happen like that,” admits Ritter. “It just kinda worked. There was no conscious effort toward weaving religion into the songs, but it seems to be all over the record, which is something that I noticed at the end of making it. I guess that’s why it’s so great to have a record: A whole other kinda abiding theme can emerge.”
Since he was a child, Ritter’s been interesting in religion, reflected in earlier songs like “Harrisburg” and "Girl in the War.”
“I went to church a lot as a kid, and I think through that I found a lot of those characters and kinda came up with my conception of God, and if God existed. I learned all of the stories that we use now in metaphors and ways of talking to each other.”
Ritter’s known for thought-provoking lyrics and a charismatic stage presence. His songs involve narratives most songwriters can only dream about. The new album falls directly in line with the man who early in his career gave us the masterpiece “Me & Jiggs,” with the line, “Sitting on the porch playing Townes Van Zandt play guitar to burn off the hours/ ’Til we climb the fences at the edge of town and paint our names on the water towers.”
“I never start out with a concept,” ventures Ritter on his album-making process. “Once you have a concept, it feels a little like a prison and you need to feel free to write whatever is on your mind. I think that the only thing that really is important is to stay open to ideas, and to have something around to capture them. So often you have an idea and you don’t have a pen. I think that’s a simple responsibility – to have some way to write down inspiration when it’s there.
“And not shaming yourself into giving up, just continuing to write. I think that’s so important, and it’s hard to do sometimes.”
Ritter puts on an energetic show. Two years ago at the Moody, he performed solo. This time, he’s reunited with his group, the Royal City Band.
“If you’re lucky, every night feels like the greatest show. You always try and get to this one point where the gig is feeling a certain way. Where it’s feeling like the best.”