Unleashing the beast: Josh Ritter on turning personal pain into songs that connect

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Josh Ritter
Singer and songwriter Josh Ritter brings his stripped down show to Headliners this Monday night, featuring his friends and bandmates, Josh Kaufman and Zack Hickman. Speaking to me from his stop in Chicago, he sounded excited about playing as a trio with musicians who can handle a variety of instruments, including guitars, bass, and percussion. He's also pretty excited about his new roadie, and by new, I mean new to this world -- one-year-old daughter, Beatrix Wendylove Ritter (great name, incidentally). She and her mother (author Haley Tanner) have accompanied him for a full year of steady touring  since The Beast in Its Tracks came out last March. "She's holding up great. She's used to trains and buses. She loves the bus!"
 
Beast is something of a departure for Ritter in that the songs are probably the most personal he has written to date, coming on the heels of his failed marriage to musician Dawn Landes. Ritter said that he had avoided that kind of writing in the past.
 
"I wasn't real comfortable with writing about myself. There was too much autobiographical stuff in songs and I also had the feeling that just because you have a microphone doesn't mean everybody wants to hear about what you think about...whatever." The upheaval of that parting, however, was an experience he couldn't ignore in his songwriting, and he discovered something unexpected in the process. "The thing that I was really struck by with The Beast in Its Tracks was that I didn't have any moment of feeling unsure about the writing once I discovered what I was writing about. It was like taking a barium test, you know, that lights up your bloodstream and you can see every tiny vesicle. For that reason it was super easy to write about because it was all painfully, perfectly clear, and I didn't expect that. I thought it would be harder." 
 
The particular can also be universal. Songs about love and relationships that go bad are easy to relate to, and Ritter feels that what he owes his fans are songs that they can connect with because they offer details that make them engaging. He illustrates this by revealing an earlier musical epiphany: "I liked New Kids on the Block. I thought they were kind of cool, but I didn't like the way they only referred to somebody as girl. I wanted a name or some tidbit that would lead to a story....There can be such a push to fill more seats that you end up writing gigantic songs about nothing. You can't do it."
 
When I asked Ritter for the one song that really tied Beast together as an album for him, he didn't hesitate in naming it. "All the neurons in your brain will fire around a certain idea and you'll find this one hard little nugget of truth.... I started working on this song 'New Lover,' and there was this moment when I realized a sad song doesn't have to be sad-saturated -- songs don't have to deal with one emotion at a time. A sad song with humor is just a killer. That was a big moment for me in my own songwriting." The song is both wistful and generous, offering the wish that an ex will find a new lover to treat her right, just as he hopes to do. But the last lines strike the wry note and are the ones that ring true for many of us in similar situations: 
I hope you got a lover now, hope you’ve got somebody who/
can give you what you need like I couldn’t seem to do/
But if you’re sad and you are lonesome and you got nobody true/
I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy, too.
Ritter is a natural-born storyteller, a trait that has set him apart as one of the best songwriters around. That gift is also on display in his budding career as a novelist. His first effort was published in 2011 and went on to become a bestseller. Bright's Passage tells the story of a young man returning from World War I to West Virginia to find his life upended by tragedy even there. I asked Ritter what sparked the idea to set his novel in that era.
 
"What I loved about it was that World War I for me was a discovery. I first discovered it through a book I found in a hotel called The Proud Tower by Barbara Tuchman about the 25 years leading up to the war -- the kind of extravagant world that got built right before it got washed away. I don't think there could have been more shockwaves if aliens had landed. So to me having a guy, a nice, simple, normal person, to suddenly be thrust into that -- it just felt exciting and mysterious and juicy, you know?" 
 
It's clear from talking to Ritter that he is always enthusiastic about what lies around the next bend. He is ready for some time to write when this tour winds up in early March. Then he will return to his new home in the Catskills, which he says feels more like the Alaskan wilderness right now. "I'm almost giddy. I've got so many songs that I want to get to, I've got a draft of a book--I'm very excited."
 
You can catch Josh Ritter's show Monday, February 24 at Headliners (doors at 7p.m., 18 and over). Tickets are $20 in advance and $23 at the door. Gregory Alan Isakov opens.
 
[Photo Credit: Laura Wilson]
 
Josh Ritter performing "Joy to You Baby":
About Selena Frye
I'm a writer and editor living in Louisville for 14 years. I'm originally from the Blue Ridge of Virginia.
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