Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Music Q & A: Josh Ritter

Though he didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 17, singer-songwriter Josh Ritter has quickly made a name for himself as a leading Americana artist. His music straddles the line between folk and rock, and he has been compared to Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Paul Simon. Ritter’s sixth album, “So Runs the World Away,” was released this spring to positive reviews. Ritter will perform a solo acoustic show at McCarter Theatre on Wednesday at 8 p.m. Before he comes to campus, Street sat down with Ritter to discuss what he brings to performance and songwriting.

Your performance on Wednesday will be a solo acoustic show, without the Royal City Band, who usually backs you up. Will you be altering your set list or the songs themselves?

JR: Well, the songs don’t change, which is the great part about playing solo. I always consider myself a solo performer first. I think it’s really good to do it — it keeps you sharp. It’s pretty much like when you go to a steak restaurant and you order steak and they just bring it out to you on a plate and that’s it. That’s what I think about the solo stuff. If the songs don’t stand out solo, they don’t stand out in a band — you can’t hide. I really love it. I love playing solo.

Do you feel like the other band members in your group have a big influence on your music?

JR: They do. They’re tremendous musicians and they’re good listeners. They’re listeners to lyrics, and for that reason it’s good for me.

Are your lyrics necessarily important to you in the exact way they’re written? Are the words just interesting things that pop into your head, or do they have deep emotional significance?

JR: I think it’s funny because a lot of writing is caring about what you say, but also being cold-blooded about it. You have to really care about what you say but you have to willing to change it as well. And to work all day writing something and then playing it for someone and realizing you don’t like it and then you can’t let it survive, you can’t let it live. Some songs you have to put down. And it’s important to do that.

But then the other part of writing is that you have to be willing to accept your inspiration coming from anywhere. It never comes from the same place. For a song like “To the Dogs or Whoever,” that’s a song where I just realized I liked a bunch of words; I realized I had to let go of any kind of storyline or anything. It’s very different from, for instance, “Girl in the War,” where images are important and specifically important.

Do you write your lyrics with your audience in mind?

JR: When I started, I started playing open mics, and open mics are a really good way to start thinking about how a song affects an audience. When I started making records I kind of went at it from “performance first” — that is, a record should be a collection of moods. One mood all the way through never holds my attention. When everything is dark and dreary or when everything is just a joke, it becomes monochromatic. I really enjoy the shows where I see somebody taking on a full spectrum of emotions, and I feel the same way with albums. That’s why I feel like while I may write a lot of different songs, there’s only a spot for so many of a certain type on a record. But that’s what great about it: If you’re really honest with yourself, there’s some songs that do that better than others, and some where maybe it’s good to hold on to them and let them wait until the next time (kind of a “Put me in, coach” sort of thing).

What goes into constructing your albums and putting the songs together?

JR: An album is your chance to show that you’ve been spending your time doing what people give you money to do. It’s your responsibility not to be the same every time. Whatever the charm that you have that makes people listen and makes your music what it is — you have a responsibility to stay true to that while cutting free and going someplace else. People want to hear some of the songs they’ve heard before, but your career and your art won’t progress if you become afraid of playing new things. That’s your responsibility, and a record is like that as well. It’s like when you’re standing on the edge of the dock and you’re about to jump into the cold lake. You know it’s going to be one way or another — maybe it won’t as bad as you think, or maybe the shock will be incredible — but it will be exhilarating no matter what. Putting out a record is kind of the moment that I think most people who make music for a living become pretty addicted to — that great moment of delivery.

A lot of your songs use religious imagery or references. What role does religion plays in your music?

JR: Religion is a set of rules, but what people actually believe is what’s fascinating to me. That’s never an easy thing to quantify. It’s one of the most freeing things to write about because our culture has religious images everywhere. For some reason in our pop music it’s not there — it’s like a desert for that — when it’s almost like a universal language.

Earlier this year you went on tour with your wife, Dawn Landes, who opened for you. What was that like?

JR: The ideal job with the ideal woman.

This interview was conducted, condensed, and edited by Daily Princetonian Street Staff.

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