Saturday 21 September 2019

'I live in fear of becoming just a medley artist'

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

Musician Josh Ritter on Dublin's Drury Street. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Musician Josh Ritter on Dublin's Drury Street. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
John Meagher

John Meagher

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.

"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."

Gathering is out now. Josh Ritter's mini tour of Ireland begins at Vicar Street, Dublin, on December 7. See for more Irish dates

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