Big Think Interview With Josh Ritter

A conversation with the singer, songwriter, and musician.
  • Transcript


Question: Who were your early musical influences?

Josh Ritter: Well, I started playing music when I was really little.  I started playing violin and I played that for a really long time, 13 years.  And it never felt like music to me really, until I—I never got that feeling that I was playing music until I was putting on some of my parents' old records.  They had a record player and they had all kinds of vinyl.  And we lived far out of town, so you’d come home from school and not have anything to do... except throw rocks.  And I uncovered this record player one day and my brother helped me plug it in and I put on—they had all kinds of records, but the record that really struck me was “Nashville Skyline,” Bob Dylan record with Johnny Cash.  It was the first song; it was “Girl From the North Country.”  And I didn’t grow up around grunge, or punk, or anything like that, but that feeling that that song gave me really made me—I think that’s the same feeling that I had, was like this was suddenly kind of a door opened and I could go through it myself.

Question: Why did you quit neuroscience in college to study music?

Josh Ritter: I guess it really, both of my parents are scientists and the talk around the dinner table was always about science and it was about the brain and it was about whatever they were working on.  And they would talk to each other and my brother and I kind of grew up in this world where "serotonin" was somebody down the block, you know.  And to me, it was never a question that I would go into science.  I took aptitude tests and it said that I could be an undertaker or a plumber, or somebody who worked in the woods.  And that was it, forestry.  And so I thought "That’s ridiculous.  I’m going to be a scientist."

And then my chemistry teacher in high school said, “You’re not going to be a scientist.”  And I said, that’s totally ridiculous.  I’m going to be a scientist.  That’s—what else is there.  And I went to school for science and about halfway through I realized, man, I’m just not going to be a scientist.  I’m not going to—it’s not happening.  I was really in love with scientists.  I was in love with the people who studied science and was in love with the people who came up with the ideas and with their lives and how they got interested in those things.  And what were their breakthrough moments, you know.  Like how did Watson and Crick discover, like, the double helix... or these beautiful moments, they always seem like incredible things.

And as I started to write songs, I started to realize that I had those moments myself.  And everybody who’s an artist, like a scientist is an artist; an artist is anybody who has those moments and realizes them and so that’s how I kind of came to that realization.  I was studying for an organic chemistry test and I just—and it was a final and I just knew it wasn’t looking good.  And I left the science library and I called my parents and I said, “I’m not going to be a scientist.”  I’m going to be a musician.  And they were great about it.  They said, you know, we figured you were never going to be a scientist.

Question: What advice would you give to someone learning guitar?

Josh Ritter: Well, I think one of the great things about rock 'n' roll and guitar and the idea of America is that we all have our own unique voices, and I think that that’s something that we have very distinctively since we’ve become a country, that each one of us, our own opinions, are just as important as the next guy's down the street. And that’s the same as guitar.  Guitar is not, like, an instrument that is stuck in a canon, or stuck in a particular form.  Blues is this continually evolving thing.  Blues and jazz and rock and country... and to me, I guess coming out of playing violin, where you had to play those things perfectly, you had to play the notes written on the page just as they were written, or you were play wrong.  It was such a freeing thing.  And I’ve always embraced the idea that my own guitar playing is very distinctively my own, and whether it’s good or not is beside the point.  It’s just my own playing and it evolves, and in some ways it gets better, but it’s always just mine.  And I always thought that was cool. 

So, I guess my advice in that way is to never—don’t hold yourself to whatever is on the page.  And I feel that way about whenever you are playing someone else’s songs; make it your own by playing it the way you would.

Question: What’s the secret to successful songwriting?

Josh Ritter: I think it’s not necessarily like the writing the song part, it’s the willingness to like just survive because it’s like, it’s really—to me I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t doing this.  And I feel that it’s perseverance and it’s also self-confidence, and it’s like very few things in my life I have confidence about like I have about songwriting.  And that doesn’t mean that the song is necessarily good, it means that I think it’s good, and I feel like I’ve come—and I’m willing to let the songs that aren’t very good go by the wayside because I know I’ll have a song that I do feel that kind of "Eureka!" feeling about. 

And so, from what I’ve seen in 10 years of playing music, it’s a complete mystery to me what somebody else is going to like.  You know, the song that I think is just a great song, or friends of mine who have like a great song, and never get out of their bedroom with it.  That has never made sense to me.  And also, you know, people who come out and are successful that I think, I don’t understand why.  There’s no way to know those things.  So, I think that everybody starts out playing music because they love it and if you’re lucky you get the chance to keep on doing it because you love it, but I think that that’s... I have no idea why.  It’s a mystery.

Question: What mistakes or clichés do you try to avoid when writing songs?

Josh Ritter: Well, I think—I have lots of like, tics, that I think that—or lots of things that bug me.  I sort of think about it, it’s kind of like fashion.  A song has to feel good when you’re singing it.  It has to feel like somebody will put on a suit.  You have people that you know that put on clothes and they look effortlessly good in them and it’s like, there was no work.  And whether or not that’s the case, the fact is that you have to feel comfortable singing what you’re singing and so some things that make me feel uncomfortable are rhymes that seem a little too obvious.  Rhymes that seem a little too—rhymes that are overused: “girl/world,” girl/world syndrome, “knife/strife,” “shelf/myself,” you know, I stay away from all of those.  I don’t like autobiographical songs.  I don’t think that they’re—and I don’t like autobiographical singing.  I don’t want to think about the person singing the song on stage.  Like I feel like the song is your chance to like—like a short story, or anything is a chance to live inside a character that’s been given to you.  You are being given this character and then you can live inside it, not a chance to see inside somebody else’s private life.  You know, I don’t like that, and I don’t think it leads to very original songwriting.  You know?  Those are some things that bug me.  And good songs, they’re just things that you can sing in the car, on the way home without a guitar, that you can play yourself and learn how to do.

Question: Did you consciously turn away from political songwriting after “The Animal Years”?

Josh Ritter: Well I guess I just didn’t think it was, like I thought about it a lot like a surgery, you know, like there was something there that—I remember I was, with “Animal Years” I had just started—when I was writing that record, I had just started running, and I was running and running—I was back in Idaho and I would go on these runs down these long gravel roads, and I remember sometimes just getting so angry about nothing specific.  Just free floating anger, and I felt like it was growing in me, and I felt like “Animal Years” was about just cutting that out and getting it out.  And then once that was out, I felt like—I felt pretty expunged and purged of it.  So, I didn’t think that was, it wasn’t like I was trying to go out there and teach anybody a lesson, I wanted to go out and say what I felt... which I felt “Animal Years” was kind of about religion and whatever a religion is getting taken away from people, and used for kind of cynical ends.  And I thought that—but after that I had no desire to tell people what to think.  That’s one of my big pet peeves.  Like most political songwriting I would say is just about teaching people like they’re children or like they had never had no experience with the world on their own.  People believe what they believe for a reason and I just think that music is the wrong place to kind of teach somebody.  Especially because I don’t like artists who are—you’re a musician, you’re not a political scientist, or... you know. 

So, and then—going from that to “Conquest” just felt like it wasn’t so much that I wanted to stop writing political I just didn’t feel the drive to do that at that time, you know.  And it was just really fun, like “Conquest” was a lot about—I was working with Sam Kassirer, my piano player, and my producer for this record as well.  And it was like I just did an experiment and it turned into this great fun game of recording, which was a hold new discovery, you know, getting to work with somebody who really got what I wanted.

Question: What did you set out to achieve in your new album that you hadn’t before?

Josh Ritter: I think in a lot of ways, this was a real defining record for me, making it.  I guess the major one is the fact that I turn 33 and I have six records out.  And at the end of my last record, really I was touring a lot, and touring and touring and I had a chance to do a lot of stuff.  And kind of in the back of my mind while I was doing it, I was thinking, "What’s going to happen now?  What am I going to write about, how am I going to keep from being just—how am I going to keep this new?  How am I going to keep making new music?" And I was worried about it and it’s just, I wrote, and wrote and nothing seemed right.  It felt like—it just felt like I was repeating myself.  It’s like the Springsteen song, you know, “Same old story, same old act.”  And I just always felt that I fought to get a career where I could play music and I could do that for the rest of my life.  And I felt like when I got to that point, I suddenly felt like, "Do I have anything else to say?"  It’s sort of like, you’re campaigning for an office and once you get there, you have no idea what to do. 

And I think that that’s dangerous and I feel like I’ve met people who have decided that they’ve got to that point and then they’re just going to play their songs that people know, their hits, and that’s it; and they stop developing.  And I didn’t want that to happen, so I spent a lot of time just kind of chewing on my fingers and then trying to make sure that, like, I could write some songs that actually meant something new. And out of that came eventually, out of a lot of working and strife, life strife, I started working on some songs, one of which was called “The Curse,” and it started as just the idea of a mummy’s curse and what would happen if the mummy and the archeologist fell in love.  And it was like—you only need one song usually to get you going, you know, one song to make you feel like you could do this again and you’re not as bad as you think you are at the moment, you know. And once that happens, the world kind of opens up.

Question: Do your international fans respond to your music differently?

Josh Ritter: Well, I think it’s kind of hard to say, but one thing I do feel like I do notice is that on a good night, it feels the same anywhere.  And it has nothing to do with language.  It’s like kind of amazing that you can go, especially for somebody like me who’s pretty wordy in a song, I’m always amazed that even in places like Italy where people shouldn’t be able to understand, and probably don’t understand everything I’m saying, they are just as—on a good night they are just as happy.  And that’s funny.  And I think that that’s really cool and it’s been a big surprise to me.  But I guess that it should always feel the same to me.  It should feel kind of sweaty and happy at the end of a show.

Question: How has the relationship between musicians and fans changed in the Internet age?

Josh Ritter: Well, it’s 24 hours a day now, you know?  In a lot of ways, it’s amazing, you can get this—if you have a song and you want people to hear it, there’s no way to keep—the world can hear it in the space of time it takes to upload it.  You know?  There’s so many people out there with music who want to be heard and who deserve to be heard.  I think that with an audience like—I started with an audience and it’s been growing over the last 10 years, so I’d say that with me, I’ve been lucky that I have an audience that I can keep up with in a number of ways.  It’s also a matter of how much do you really want to know about your favorite artist, or even your third favorite artist?  You don’t want to hear about it too much.  You want to go to their show, you want to spend the night going to a show, maybe go get some dinner beforehand, or you want to listen to like three or four songs on a record.  And you don’t need to hear from them every day about what’s going on.  So, there’s that line to tread. 

Same with like Twitter and all this—Twitter is another thing.  You know, you don’t need to have this constant connection all the time.  I really think that playing a show is... a good show feels like the length of time you stay at a party.  You know when to go and you know when to leave, and like don’t overstay your welcome.  You know?  So I think that carries over in the digital world too.  It’s constantly evolving, but it’s—the end is still the same.  It’s just being there a little bit.

Question: Where does folk music stand now as compared to the ‘60s?

Josh Ritter: Well, it’s, I think of folk music as anything you can sing in the car on the way home.  That’s always been what I think of because that’s—so whether you’re coming back from a Fleetwood Mac reunion concert, or whether you’ve got Mississippi John Herd on, or you know, you’ve got Gillian Welch, it doesn’t matter.  Folk is such a marketing term, you know.  And it’s not—it’s so hard to quantify or classify anymore.  I don’t know.  I mean, I always thought that what I was doing was rock n’ roll with lots of words because I get the feeling when I’m playing that I’m not a part of any sort of—I feel like what I’m playing is rock n’ roll, although I don’t know why.  And there’s no real reason to say that, but I feel that the quietest music can be rock n’ roll—Beethoven is rock and roll.  So, you now, it’s hard to say. 

But I would say that folk music is in the same boat with everybody now.  You know, it’s like in a world where you can go on Facebook and hear millions of people playing millions and millions of songs, and it’s hard to say what the community of music is anymore.

Question: Are you unhappy with the turbulence of the music industry?

Josh Ritter: It’s going through lots of upheaval I guess, but it’s also funny, the people that are screaming the most about it are the ones who have the microphones.  You know, if you are a major record label—and I’ve been a part of several—it must be awful because you have... you’re still working on stuff that you love hopefully you love music and you got into it for that reason, and you’re losing the ability to do what you’re supposed to do, which is sell music. 

I mean, I could complain about that myself, but I don’t because it’s just, I think it’s not worth it and it’s also, you know, that’s the way it is.  Millions of people still listen to the music, they may not pay for it, but they’re still listening.  And hopefully, like there is still a way that they will keep coming to the shows.  The shows are—I feel like, in the last four or five years, the shows have gotten incredible.  I’ve started to see so many more shows that I love because I thought the people were professional.  They’re doing it because they love it, and the show has to be good because that’s the only way now.  People hear a song and it’s like an advertisement for the show, you know. 

Plus I think that it’s incredible still, you can be a part of somebody’s life for 3 ½ to 4 minutes.  So, I could—you know, it’s useless to complain about that stuff.

Question: Which artists on the current music scene deserve greater visibility?

Josh Ritter: Yeah, well that’s—I mean visible or invisible, I’d say like there’s still some people that are doing it like incredibly well.  You know, I think that Glen Hansard, both in The Frames and The Swell Season, is one of the most amazing live shows I have ever seen.  I think that my very impressive wife, Dawn Landes, is amazing.  And I love seeing—Ray LaMontagne is incredible.  I love seeing him play.  Gillian Welch is proof that you can do something with two people that’s pretty life changing.  And then there’s just so, so much music happening right now that it’s hard to name them all.  

Question: What made you want to write a novel?

Josh Ritter: I really have wanted to do it for a long time and I’ve started and I’ve worked on a number of different things that were all just terrible.  But I got this idea when I was working on “So Runs the World Away,” and I had this idea as I started writing the song, and it was way too long a song.  It was about a guy who has an angel who tells him to do things. Not necessarily a guardian angel, but it was a long song, and it was pretty overwrought and I realized it needed a lot more subtlety, more subtlety that I can get into a song. And so I stared writing and I wrote 1,000 words a day for 50 or 55 days and then I had this big rough draft.  And then after that, it was just, you know, keep on going over it and over it.  And it really is, it’s like you’re writing a really long song.  Every word kind of matters and if it doesn’t feel right you’ve got to work until it does.  So, yeah, I’m very excited.  It’s coming out next year.

Question: Which is harder, writing a novel or making an album?

Josh Ritter: Well, putting together an album is a group effort, you know?  Luckily you have a number of people that can help and everything from helping you to record it to—I write a song and I bring it to my band and I say, let’s like open this up and fiddle around with it, and I’m so lucky to have that, people to help record it.  But with a novel, it’s you’re kind of going across the page alone and there’s been times when that’s been really tremendous.  It’s like running; it’s like a solitary thing.  And other times, it’s just really terrifying.

[Josh Ritter plays]

Josh Ritter: This song is called “Change of Time,” and it’s from “So Runs the World Away.”


I had a dream last night; I dreamt that I was swimming

And the stars up above, directionless and drifting

And somewhere in the dark were the sirens and the thunder

And around me as I swam, the drifters who’d gone under

Time love, time love, time love. 


Time love, time love, time love, it’s only a change of time. 


I had a dream last night, and rusting far below me

Battered hulls and broken hardships

Leviathan and lonely

I was thirsty so I drank, and though it was salt water

There’s something about the way it tasted so familiar

Time love, time love, time love


Time love, time love, time love, it’s only a change of time. 


The black clouds I’m hanging, this anchor I’m dragging

The sails of memory rip open in silence

We cut through the lowlands, all hands through the saltlands

The whitecaps of memory, confusing and violent.


I had a dream last night, when I opened my eyes

Your shoulder blade, your spine were shorelines in the moonlight

New worlds for the weak, new lands for the living

I could make it if I tried; I closed my eyes, I kept on swimming

Time love, time love, time love, it’s only a change of time love


Time love, time love, it’s only a change of time love,

Time, time love it’s only a change of time love, time love,

It’s only a change of love—seas that carry me wherever I go

Rough seas, they carry me wherever I go,

Rough seas they carry me wherever I go,

Rough seas, they carry me wherever I go.

Recorded April 5, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen