A little bit of advice to everyone who is about to interview or even interact with someone whose work has had a profound impact on you:
Do not drink three cups of coffee and skip lunch.
Don’t do it, friends. You will shake, and it will seem just like your tenth grade production of Godspell when you had to sing that one solo part on “Day by Day” and your friend helpfully points out that your knees were quavering like anthropomorphic maracas.
But if you’re lucky you will be talking to someone as nice as Josh Ritter, who does not point out your vibrating hands, and instead lets you settle into the tiny room in the labyrinthine Neptune backstage before having a terrific conversation about his new heartbreaker-and-fixer of an album, The Beast In Its Tracks.
Ritter has been open about the context of this record – it was born out of his divorce. It is an album written in the midst of the clattering uproar that consumes all of us who try to make sense of our collapsing, well-laid plans. It crackles and hums with raw, brutal emotion blooming into moments of mercy and elation. It slides down and soars up the slick surface of healing with its tiny toeholds. It is an album of splintering agony and vast kindness, and stands out as my favorite album of his to date.
The Beast in its Tracks scales down the epic narratives and expansive production qualities of Ritter’s prior endeavors, but his preternatural gift for storytelling wasn’t lost when he traded the forest for the trees. When we sat down that afternoon we covered all manner of topics, including the late and very much missed Jason Molina, the tattoo I have on my arm based on his lyrics, and the experience of having his newborn daughter, Beatrix, on tour with him.
Forgive me for keeping those tangents out of the transcript, but Ritter’s words about this record were too good to not share in continuity. Ritter sat with his elbows on his knees, thinking frequently with his eyes closed, smiling easily and often, and he spoke with fluent openness about his take on autobiographical songwriting, the life art takes apart from its creator, the importance of sharing experiences, and writing to save his own life.
I know this album has been talked about as your most autobiographical songwriting, and it’s definitely personal. I was wondering if that is because we as listeners have context, or if it is only the content? Has this been the most personal album for you?
I don’t think there’s any way for you to not be autobiographical in some ways in everything that you do. When we write, we are all telling a story from ourselves. In that way, I think with every record I’ve made, what I’m trying to do is be honest without telling the truth. You have to tell a story, you have to write about things that are interesting to you, which are things that drive you for a reason, and those reasons are the things in your life.
I do believe that everything is in one way autobiographical. An album is a collection of preoccupations from a very specific time. So I could go back and think about different records like that. Golden Age of Radio was a preoccupation with traveling and starting to be on the road, Hello Starling was a very philosophical mission statement about why I wanted to do music, and what I believed music was about for me. The Animal Years was about my anger and confusion about where we were going as a country, and so on and so forth. Those things are all autobiographical. This one happened to be autobiographical to regular human relationships, which I think is a little easier to approach than some things that are actually just as personal to me.
In this album there aren’t as many dense literary references. In past albums, a listener could pick through the lyrics in an exegetical way and figure out what you were reading or listening to. This album sounds like someone who is writing more than reading.
I think I had the wind knocked out of my sails, I mean; there was an energy to writing. There’s always an energy to writing. Usually I wait to start a record until I get the feeling like, “I can do this, I can do this really well. I want to do this better.” I usually have an ambition and a drive that fuels my writing.
With this record, it wasn’t like that at all. It was very much about having the wind knocked out of my sails. There was nothing left to drive it, except the realization that there are so few times in your life when you know yourself really clearly, and when you see yourself really clearly, and you see yourself in unadulterated form. When joy is joy, and hate is hate. When that happens, I thought that if I didn’t write about it, I’d be missing out on the biggest opportunity I had to write about something so clear. Something that is right in front of me, like still life in the moment. And if I don’t do that, then I’m missing out. And for that reason there wasn’t time to make it bigger, or more energy to make them larger, since it was such a horrible time. It was just about capturing that one time as honestly as I could.
So was writing this album a cathartic time?
It wasn’t really cathartic. I would say that catharsis is when you’re exorcising something, or cutting something away. And this was not that. These were, for at least half this record, songs I wrote at night to keep from doing other things. They were much more like, tie-yourself-to-the-radiator, or lash-yourself-to-the-mast. There wasn’t catharsis, there was self-preservation.
Something that you had to do.
Something that I would do instead of all the other things I shouldn’t do. Dangerous, unproductive things. Some of those songs were to save my own life. Which is different than a song like “Joy to You Baby”…though that song came from all of those. It came from being able to make it through. It wasn’t hard to write those songs, because they were right there, right there to describe. It was about choosing which part of myself I wanted to write, which part of myself I would want to hold on to 30 or 40 years down the line.
I think break ups and break up records can be very unattractive, and not very useful. I don’t want to hear somebody talking about their relationships in some sort of clichéd, boring way. Everyone has their ex-girlfriend stories, and I didn’t want to put people through that. I wanted to see who I was, and when I was really angry and had revenge fantasies, I wanted to make sure I had that in there but I didn’t want that to be the only thing.
That thought seems to be clear on songs like “New Lover”, when there is a definite dig toward the end. The song is primarily very positive, and then right at the finish there is a complete negative shift, but one that everyone can relate to. It seems like those kinds of songs resonate honestly beyond the initial pain, when anger can come across as just plain mean. It also gives people who are afraid to say those kinds of things the permission to say them honestly, but not hatefully.
You know, we’re all allowed to say those kinds of things. We all go through these moments in one way or another. I was hurt really badly, but it doesn’t make me look any better to act like an asshole. If I’m going to be an asshole, I can admit to it. But I can also admit to things that are better, and to things that were good.
It’s everybody’s prerogative to talk about it however they want. My agenda with a break up record is not to hurt a specific person, but to describe a condition in a way that hopefully, if I describe it well enough, they won’t think about it as “my” break up record. It’s a bunch of different stages in the end of a relationship and the beginning of a new one, and I feel that’s more universal than me sending out a Smart Bomb.
So you were aiming to write for a collective condition, and not just for the relationship that made you a part of that condition?
I wouldn’t allow myself to be writing autobiographically in this way if not… because when you stand up in front of a microphone long enough you start to believe that everything you say is more important than anyone else, and this is a moment I felt very much that I definitely did not want my experience to take precedent over what it feels like to have your heart broken. That’s the most important thing. Details are cool, and they can be thrown in, Famous Blue Raincoat being a great example of that. He throws in all these details, and at the end he even signs his name, but in the end it’s a song about everybody, a song about drifting away- I love it, it’s a very generous song that Leonard Cohen does.
You know, I do agree this is a shift in songwriting for you. Especially with the singular kind of experience that inspired it into being written. But I don’t think it involves a lack of continuity. A lot of feedback seems to be that this is a profound change for you in style and substance. But in your catalogue you talk about these messy human entanglements with as much honesty and clarity, for instance my favorite line in “Kathleen”
Every heart is a package
Tangled up in knots someone else tied
I think that sentiment, and others that are similar, carried through to this album. I think these concepts are a thread, and I wonder if you see that as well, or if you too see this album as a radical shift, an entirely new direction?
You know, I don’t think so. In fact, I think making records is like carrying a little bit of fire from one campfire to the next. The stuff that grows up around each one may be different, but there has to be some of the very first record in everything. I think that’s all I’m usually looking for in terms of continuity; that something carries on. I mean, I believe in progression. Not necessarily that it gets better, but that it continues to move. But I was really interested to find that people thought that this was such a different record, because I didn’t think so.
I honestly didn’t think that people would pay much attention to this record. I was very prepared for that. It had none of the big songs, none of the epic things I’ve wanted to do recently, none of the big production, some of the songs are only two minutes long. I didn’t think most people would think it was that worthwhile, so it’s really amazing.
I felt like this is something that happened to me, like I’m clearing the decks. To not put something out would feel so dishonest, so I’m going to do it. I see it as a continuation of the other records, but it’s been so surprising to have people react to it in this way. It’s funny- you work so hard, put yourself into so much, trying and trying, and then the things that feel in some ways like the smallest and least preconceived…it’s been awesome, the reaction to this record, a total surprise.
I returned to the Neptune later that evening for the show, and stood at the back of the floor. I was lamenting my choice to park near the talkative bar for fear of missing the mellower numbers, when Ritter and his band ended a song and paused. Ritter leaned into his mic and asked very kindly for the stage lights to be turned off.
Rather than use the amps to sing over the chatter, or even ask folks to quiet down, Ritter stood at the edge of the stage, unplugged his guitar, and started to sing. He chose “In the Dark”, a tender and quiet song from The Animal Years. Without a microphone to lend its help he sang, his voice just breaking the surface over the drone of conversation.
He never directed us to sing along. But we started to. People next to me, and people behind me, and by the time he reached the tenth line the bar was singing too, flooding the freshly hollow air. It was both soft and mighty as our voices swelled to meet his, and from the smallest glow of the house lights, Ritter’s face was ecstatic.
I thought back to him talking about how he didn’t want to share only his story, he wanted to invite everybody into the human story. There we were, so many individual humans all mottled with our own secret stories, watching one of us who had stepped away from the microphone to lend his voice with the same weight as ours. To share our stories with his own. And so we sang:
Every heart is much the same
We tell ourselves down here
The same chambers fed by veins
The same maze of love and fear
We thought you were a saint
But the halo was an eye
It’s hard to see how there could be so much dark inside the light
Don’t you leave us in the dark