Interview: Josh Ritter
by Tim Borland
On Oct. 21, musician Josh Ritter performed with tour mate Jason Isbell at Mobile’s own Saenger Theater. The exciting concert event, presented by Huka Productions, featured not only a set from each musician, but a collaboration with each other on “Storm Windows” by John Prine during the encore. The audience, who may not have been as familiar with Ritter by name, warmly received the musician’s set.
Currently on tour in support of his 2015 album “Sermon on the Rocks,” the musician performed a mixture of both old and new songs. The masses filling the seats of the historic Saenger inspirited Ritter with audible praise when he mentioned western locales such as nearby Texas. With a no frills stage set up, the songwriter turned out to be a very well-received and deserving special guest for Isbell’s tour.
Ritter’s success should come as no surprise to music listeners – Paste magazine has listed him as one of the “100 Greatest Living Songwriters.” This reputation is likely to have gained Josh the awesome opportunity to collaborate with Bob Weir, cowriting numerous songs on the Grateful Dead guitarist’s new album “Blue Mountain.” The Associate Editor of Mod Mobilian spoke with Josh Ritter prior to the Mobile Saenger performance about his musical career, and how all of his experiences have led him to his current heights.
Click above for more info on “Blue Mountain”
Q&A: Josh Ritter
1) Can you tell me a little about why you created your own major at Oberlin college in Ohio?
“One of the things that really moved me is that I always had this suspicion I was gonna give it a shot as a musician early. I had a feeling. I guess learning about music and learning about people singing music down through the eons was really useful to me at that point. It gave me perspective. It showed me success is second to survival, and that is what art is all about – keeping the hunger that you have. All these musicians over the last 1,000 years have operated under the same set of general rules in the same art. I think that’s what I learned outside of my musical career, is that I found that to be true,” Ritter shared.
2) When you talk about that hunger that musicians have, do you think that is what it takes to be an underground musician – is that what drives you to perform?
“There’s always the real hunger to play for people. The performance is something I feel that I’m very lucky that I enjoy. I have friends that are fantastic but who don’t enjoy performing as much as I do. I feel very lucky that I do. I tend to gravitate towards that. But the real hunger comes in the writing and in the performing when your trying to surprise yourself every night. The desire to do that really does feel like a hunger, and its so important because it keeps you from being bored … it leaves you always feeling a little dissatisfied, but I think that makes you feel alive at the same time,” Ritter expressed.
3) Speaking of the writing process, can you explain your goals with your most recent album “Sermon on the Rocks,” and what creative lengths you took to achieve those goals?
“Its always useful to have the rear view mirror of time. Looking back now, that album I was really trying to capture something about what was going on in America at the time and now. I feel like there is something about the record that to me sounds really unsettled, and I’m a little bit shocked at what it is saying. I think normally of course of youth and happiness, but there is also an ominous presence in there; I feel like it has played itself out in the past year. When you are writing you never really know what your going for at first. Its pretty useful not to have preconceptions of what it is going to be because it can scare you in directions that are maybe more creative,” Ritter suggested.
Photo courtesy Laura Wilson
4) How did the School of Scottish Folk Studies in Scotland influence your songwriting?
“The chance to hear the old songs … I was just fascinated at the time. It was sorta like discovering a secret library, but no one has ever read any of the books – they are forgotten about. There are these beautiful songs with stories of great adventure and high romance, and it was exciting to discover those. I think a lot of the elements of my music are really based on stories and fantastical situations …” Ritter explained.
Click above for more info on “Sermon on the Rocks”
5) You were able to quite your day job when you went on tour to Ireland with Glen Hansard of The Frames to play open mic. How did it feel to finally support yourself with your passion?
“I feel very lucky and fortunate because I don’t know what my plan B would be. What I feel is most gratifying is that people who invest in you, like buy a few albums and come to your shows, they are giving you the opportunity to be an explorer of the world, and I think that is like a super awesome responsibility … the chance that I get to make art for a living. It is like a fantastic dream, and it is incredibly fun,” Ritter related.
Photo courtesy Laura Wilson
6) When you perform, what is it that you hope audiences will take away from your performance?
“Firstly, I would like to say that I’m super excited because this will be the first time I ever set foot in Mobile. I’m going to try to do what I love to do, which is play a show which somehow connects me and the audience in a way that feels satisfying. I love to perform, and I love the satisfaction of being able to make it through a rock set and feel like I’ve lost myself a little bit,” Ritter enthused.
7) Do you have any advice for up and coming musicians out there?
“I would say that you know you start out alone, and as time goes by as you need help, the help will appear. You just gotta stay focused on your craft and have the courage to show the world what you do,” Ritter asserted.