Arts & Entertainment

Press Pass: Josh Ritter

PresspassWhen Josh Ritter finishes his songs they often sport a refined elegance that speaks to his skill as a composer and absurd talent as a lyricist. Supporting that claim, he’s earned praise from esteemed publications such as the New York Times dubbing him “the cream of the young singer-songwriter crop.” That’s why it’s funny to hear him describe his songwriting process as a game of Whack-a-Mole.

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Josh Ritter (Photo: Sam Kassirer)

 

When Josh Ritter finishes his songs they often sport a refined elegance that speaks to his skill as a composer and absurd talent as a lyricist. Supporting that claim, he’s earned praise from esteemed publications such as the New York Times dubbing him “the cream of the young singer-songwriter crop.” That’s why it’s funny to hear him describe his songwriting process as a game of Whack-a-Mole.

“Songs seem to pop into my brain,” Ritter says. “It’s far less about carving them into ice sculptures and far more about bopping them on the head.”

By that standard, the latest batch of bludgeoned yard pests should sport some particularly robust bruises, so successful has Ritter been with his latest release, So Runs The World Away. But, to continue the carnival-game metaphor, it wasn’t so long ago that songs stopped poking their plastic domes into Ritter’s consciousness. And he wondered if this was the end.

On his website, Ritter describes the period as dwelling in a lingering shadow. “I wanted to write and I wanted to play, but nothing felt right to me anymore,” he pens.  Epiphany came not in the form of a song, but of a story, that of the unlikely love affair between a female archeologist and the cursed remains of a mummy.

From that story sprung “The Curse,” which spawned the other tracks that comprise So Runs The World Away. Before long, Ritter was back on his game, spinning yarns about frost-covered ships named for Edgar Allan Poe poems, the golden ratio and a fictional massacre of folk-song protagonists.

Ritter is nothing if not unique. The son of two neurosurgeons from Moscow, Idaho, he adores literary allusions — he also has a novel of his own to be released next summer — and other high-brow historical references. Of all the people in the world, when asked who he’d most like to be stuck in a recording studio with, he replies, “Benjamin Franklin.” Then he acts as if it’s the most obvious answer in the world: “The inventor of the glass harmonica?  The man who gave us electricity?  The man who gave us the first truly American epigrams?  No doubt it would be Franklin.”

While most songwriters turn inward, preferring self exploration when it comes to writing, Ritter reaches out. That theme is echoed on So Runs The World Away, which features songs of polar expeditions and interminable wilderness train rides. It is also contrasted by the angst-filled track “Rattling Locks” which paints a stir-crazy character endlessly frustrated by an inability to get out and discover the world around him.

In writing these tracks, Ritter is seeking to paint something much larger than a self-portrait.

“As with all songs, the temptation is always there to get psychological about the writing, Ritter says. I try not to, because a song should be able to stand on its own and remark on the general human condition as opposed to my own personal human condition.  I am always more comfortable, and feel I write better, when I am writing about others.

The overall sound of his latest album, released on Pytheas Recordings, is not a far departure from his previous discs, particularly 2007’s The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. Certain songs invite comparisons to songwriting greats like Paul Simon (“Lark”) and Bruce Springsteen (“Lantern”), but the mix is distinctly Ritter.

“Sam Kassirer, my producer and bandmate began working together on Historical Conquests,” Ritter. “We had so much fun making that record, and both learned so much from it, that we decided to make another one together and really bring the rest of the band into the fray. There was much less of an analytical theory to it all and more of a desire to simply make big song sound even bigger.”

The result may not be the wall of sound that quote makes it seem, but it is a varied and extremely enjoyable album that indicates that the once-stopped-up Ritter is once again wielding his song-writing mallet with aplomb.

 

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