I believe that we, the listeners, best love those artists who tell us something about ourselves. About our humanness and our flaws, but also about our potential: the worth of our dreams. But rare is the musician who holds up that mirror while also letting us into his own world. Josh Ritter is the man in that mirror.
Ritter’s new record, The Beast in Its Tracks, is a breakup album, which is about as universal as it gets, though breakup albums also tend to be universally self-indulgent. Tracks, however, transcends most of the bitterness associated with that sort of event.
“When I started writing, they were angry, angry, angry songs,” he admits. But the tradition of the breakup album that didn’t sit well with him was, “Where it’s like someone’s torturing a raccoon.” So darker songs like “Nightmares” share space with the bittersweet but achingly lovely “Joy to You Baby.”
“I didn’t want to cherry pick the emotions,” says Ritter. Nor does he want to shy away from that intensity — sad or happy — in front of an audience. He describes a concert as singing to people, not for them: “I don’t want to be on stage to be different from everybody,” he says. “I want to be part of it. Maybe it’s the only way I can be part of a group without being painfully embarrassed.”
Anyone who’s ever watched Ritter perform (his boundless energy, his massive grin) would have a hard time imagining him as painfully embarrassed. But his felicity is underscored by realism: “I never felt like I was going to be the guy who was winning Grammy awards and being on the cover of Rolling Stone,” he says. “You have to have different hair than I do, and wear skinnier pants.”
But he’s OK with being himself — in fact, Ritter names Teddy Roosevelt (“Truly a weirdo who appreciated his weirdness”) as an inspiration. “I live in Williamsburg, in Brooklyn. The hippest place in the world. It’s very easy to start to second-guess what you do with all the music around and all the fashion and all that stuff,” he says.
Ritter describes his own sound as coming from a deep well of American music, from African-American composer Scott Joplin and New Orleans’ Storyville to country singer Merle Travis and vocalist and guitarist Odetta, from whom Ritter says he learned (indirectly) to finger pick. “I feel like everything becomes an influence at some point,” he says. “But I do think that by sticking to your guns and doing things if they feel right, hopefully you can be a rock in the current.”
The musician has not only found his voice as a songwriter, but as a novelist; he read from his debut, Bright’s Passage, at Malaprop’s in 2011. And he isn’t concerned with choosing one genre over the other, explaining that, art is a biological thing that comes out of us. “We’re biological, we’re messy. And that’s the stuff that’s usually the most entertaining and cool,” says Ritter. “I enjoy being around people, in general, in life, who are willing to take chances without being so precious about it.”
He continues, “Being on stage is like life. Stuff falls over, shit falls apart, words get forgotten. Things happen that aren’t expected and everybody rolls with it. The show isn’t over if I forget something, or if I should fall into the drum set. I need to see that when I see somebody else play because I need to know that my life is going to go on if something happens.”
Tracks hints at both what went wrong and also what went right. While creating that record, Ritter met novelist Haley Tanner, a remarkable woman who had lost her husband to cancer, a disease he’d fought for the duration of their relationship (“She’s been through her own share of hard times as well / and she’s learned how to tear out the heaven from hell,” Ritter sings on “Hopeful”). Tanner and Ritter seem well matched. Their creativity, their positivity and, now, a daughter named Beatrix.
“I do believe you should have the chance to have a family and not be like what you see in movies, being a musician on the road, all tortured,” says Ritter. “It seems like people make the best stuff when they’re happiest.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
who: Josh Ritter & the Royal City Band (The Felice Brothers open)
where: The Orange Peel
when: Monday, May 13 (8 p.m., $19 advance/$21 day of show. http://theorangepeel.net)