Josh Ritter is a Marathon Man
The ambitious singer tells Francis Jones about his love of music, language and Ireland
Josh Ritter likes a challenge. The esteemed troubadour is in New York, having just run the marathon. Not one to rest on his laurels, he’s planning to write a novel, thinking about the next studio record and anticipating a return to Ireland for an end of year tour which will include two Belfast shows.
As anyone who caught his performance in the Empire earlier in the year can testify, the affable Ritter enjoys demi-god status on Irish soil. The Idaho man has some theories as to his popularity here.
‘It’s the place I started and I think that it’s in the Irish heritage, this love of language. That’s not the case everywhere, some places like it more if you make it all arty and dress up in a black leotard. Irish audiences appreciate honest, heartfelt lyrics.
'I’ve always thought that language is a technology and in that regard the Irish are ten years ahead of the rest of the world. I’ve always felt that way, there’s great sayings and great jokes. That’s why I love travelling over.’
Mobbed by fans after his Empire performance earlier this year, Ritter is keenly anticipating December’s return fixtures.
‘I’d never seen The Empire before. It was kinda like the Old West, an amazing venue to step into and perform. I’ve never played any place quite like that, the way it looks and the Glamarama sign above the stage.
'So two nights there in December, that’s gonna be awesome. I’ve played just a ton of places in Belfast over the years, but that one’s my favourite.’
Musical adulation is one thing, the sense of achievement from running the marathon quite another.
‘It was an amazing experience. I’ve run one before, but this was the New York marathon. It was through all five boroughs, the route lined with people the entire way cheering you on.
'And the people taking part, everyone was just so excited about running it. It’s rare that you would get the chance to do something which physically puts such different demands on you. Especially in the modern world, you don’t often get the chance to run twenty-six miles for no reason at all! It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve done.’
In his ambition to keep developing as a songwriter, to undertake new challenges, and having heard him talk with such enthusiasm about the challenge of marathon running, Ritter seems something of an overachiever.
‘To some extent I probably am. But, there’s not necessarily any underlying reason for why I do these things. It’s just that something gets stuck in my head, it starts out as something I want to do and then I just have to do it.
'At the start of the year I thought I want to run a marathon and I want to write this novel that I’ve been thinking of. Well I decided marathon first, because it seemed easier. Now I’m gonna settle down and really start working on this novel.
'There’s something about writing a song, it’s different to other things. A song you can write in a day, sometimes in ten minutes and it’s done. But, running a marathon, or writing a book, it reminds you that there are some things that take a long time.’
His inherent sense of competitiveness, drive to keep improving and most importantly to outdo himself is further fuelled by an awareness of the recent growth in the singer-songwriter market.
‘I always feel competitive. It’s something that I’ve got in me which pushes me to keep on doing better. It’s not so much that I’m competitive with other people, though I am aware that there are a lot of people out there doing great things, it’s more that I’m competitive with myself. That’s the engine that pushes me forward; you can’t stand in the shadow of yourself.
'It’s about switching it up, trying to write in a completely different way, or write a different type of song. Being competitive with other people, even if it’s with my friends, to me it’s about trying to do something that they’ve never done.’
From self-released debut Josh Ritter in 1999 through to major label bow The Animal Years in 2006, Ritter has proven himself more than capable of ‘switching it up’.
‘I don’t think it’s a progression in a quality way, to me it’s more of a progression in terms of personality. When I did my very first record I was still in college, I couldn’t look at the people behind the glass when I was recording, I just couldn’t look at the audience. Even by the time of Golden Age Of Radio I couldn’t look at the audience.
'Then with Hello Starling it was like looking up and realising, ‘oh yeah, there’s an audience.’ With The Animal Years I see the first steps towards something completely new. You could describe that as progression, but to me it’s more like an evolution.
'Evolution means you can go in any number of directions for random reasons, whereas progression would suggest there’s more of a plan than there actually is.’
His increased ease with an audience is evidenced on forthcoming release In The Dark: Live at Vicar St, a live album and DVD. At his showman best, he flits from the introspective and lovelorn, to defiantly upbeat, to become the astute social commentator.
What shines through is Ritter’s ability to connect with his audience.
‘That’s gonna be awesome. People have been asking about it for a while. We had these shows coming up and Dennis Fitzgerald, who helped me make the video for ‘Lillian Egypt’, he came over and we did this video in Vicar Street over two nights, with all the bits and bobs, bells and whistles, the jib and crane.
'It was a pleasure, the shows were great, the audiences amazing and I’d never done anything like it so it was a great experience, to be able to go out there and see if it would all work out. It’ll come out on DVD and then a separate audio version. Different songs and trying different things, it’ll just be really cool.’
With strong audience connectivity and an ability to communicate other’s thoughts and feelings, some say Ritter’s last studio album gauged the political temperature of contemporary America and everyday Americans with unerring accuracy.
‘I picked up so much on the mood of the country with The Animal Years and that was something that I was happy with.
'Thomas Jefferson said that ‘Your deepest beliefs are the ones that you keep to yourself.’ I don’t feel that it’s a songwriter’s job to try and change people’s minds. There’s a lot of horrible music that’s been written in the service of political ideas.
'If you’re out there trying to change people’s minds rather than see what they’re thinking I just feel that you’re setting yourself up to make second-rate music.
More than second rate music it is crass, second hand and uninformed sloganeering that Ritter detests.
'There are so many people during a heightened political period who are willing to say things that lack all subtlety and lack fundamental respect. For whatever reason people my age and younger have decided to go to war in Iraq.
'They might be poor and need to get to college and so they join the army, maybe they were raised in a family for whom military service is seen as a responsibility. The last thing I'm gonna do is tell those people that they’re wrong.’
Singer-songwriters may be in abundance, but artists of the calibre of Josh Ritter are rare indeed. We look forward to his next album and to those Belfast shows.
‘I’ve got a ton of ideas for the next studio album, there’s so much I want to write about. For a start I know I want it to be different from The Animal Years, but right now I’m just filling up with lots of bits and pieces. It’s gonna be really good, that I know! And you gotta make it down to the Empire shows, they’re gonna be awesome.’
Josh Ritter performs at The Empire Music Hall, Belfast, 13 and 14 December