The Reinventions of Josh Ritter

From the politically charged songs of “The Animal Years” to the more playful narrative style of his new album, the singer has consciously avoided repeating the “same old act.”
  • Transcript


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.

Recorded April 5, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen