Josh Ritter: interview
Simon Parkin Constantly compared to Dylan and Springsteen, Idaho-raised singer-songwriter Josh Ritter might not yet be a household name, but for those who've fallen for his mix of country-rock, humour and politics he is something special.
Constantly compared to Dylan and Springsteen, Idaho raised singer-songwriter Josh Ritter might not be a household name, but for those who've discovered his intelligent brand of musical complexity, where humour and politics go hand in hand, he is something special.
The two giants of US music are obvious influences, but it's words rather than music that are his true inspiration. His lyrical deft turns of phrase are packed with references to American civil war history and cowboy mythology.
Over the clatter of piano and strum
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of electric guitar that opens his fourth album, The Historic Conquests of Josh Ritter, his rapid-fire lyrics reference Joan of Arc, Calamity Jane and Florence Nightingale.
This active mind, twinned with his simple, captivating song-writing style, is a product of his unusual background. The son of neuroscientists, he was raised in remote town of Moscow, a six-hour drive from Seattle.
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Playing the violin from the age of four, he listened to political radio shows from over the border in Canada and attended church every Sunday.
He left to go to college in Boston and planned to follow his parents in academia, until he discovered music at the age of 18. He stands out as an unusual performer, thinking very carefully about not just his songs - all written in the first person - but the themes of his albums.
t The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter is a strange album title, what's it about?
“I wanted something that was so big and absurd that no-one would take it seriously. Song titles like The Temptation of Adam or To The Dogs Or Whoever are funny, to me anyway.”
t What kind of music were you surrounded by growing up in Idaho?
“There were no big bands were I was from. Grunge was six-hours away on the coast. People listened to a lot of country but new country, the likes of Shania Twain. The first records that made a big impression on me though were Johnny Cash. He and Bob Dylan were the first artists that fitted me as an aspiring writer.”
t You were raised in the Lutheran church, so were hymns an influence?
“It wasn't a conservative upbringing. Both of my parents are neuroscientists and they always encouraged a healthy scepticism but religious music was around. One of the things about religious imagery is that its such a huge part of our culture that if you don't write about it, it's like you're afraid of it. A song like The Temptation of Adam is basically the story of the Garden of Eden even though it's about falling in love in a missile silo.”
t A lot of your lyrics, about wolves and so on, seem to reflect that rural outdoor background?
“That's something that's in my blood. Being on tour it seems like I spend every night in a city but the outdoors is always in my head. It's that background that I turn to express anything that is real to me.”
t Many touring musicians say they dislike the travelling, it sounds like you enjoy it?
“My life doesn't start and stop on stage. The thing about touring is that a lot of it isn't that interesting but when you do come across something you treasure it. You just have to go out into the world with your senses out. A lot of stuff I get inspiration from is just being out there experiencing different situations. Every night you're in a different place meeting a new cast of characters. ”
t A lot of your material is quite political?
“Yes, to a point, but I definitely don't consider myself a political songwriter, mainly because I think that is equated with preaching
and usually it's preaching to the choir. I'm not a politician, but I do think there's some things I want to figure out in my own mind about the war. I've been trying to work out how to question the sacrifices that have been made without diminishing them. People are dying and I feel if I'm going to comment I've got a duty to reflect the complexity. I feel a lot of music recently has done a disservice to the issues.”
t How would you describe you're song-writing style?
“Whatever way works - there is never one system. Sometimes the words and music come all at once, sometimes the words are just a big idea that are looking for a way out. Piano or guitar I don't think it matters, just as long as you get down what you want to get down. There are no rules with that kind of thing.”
t You're frequently described as the new Bruce Springsteen, how do you deal with that?
“It's obviously a huge complement. But Bruce Springsteen is Bruce Springsteen because he's been playing music for 40-years. I've been playing for eight - seven on the road. I think over time the only thing you can do is keep on playing and hopefully through that your influences don't own you.”
t What do you know about Norwich?
“I've played there before and it'll be awesome to be back. I'm a huge fan of the Sargasso Trio who are from Norwich - those guys kick ass!”