Interview | Josh Ritter: “It wasn’t so much therapeutic as it was just necessary.”
Photo by Laura Wilson
There’s pain in whatever, we stumble upon
If I never had met you, you couldn’t have gone
But then I wouldn’t have met you, and we couldn’t have been
I guess it all adds up, to joy in the end
When Josh Ritter visited St. Louis last July, I had no idea that his next album, The Beast In Its Tracks, would soon become the soundtrack to my current days. That’s the beauty of music, though — the promise that it will soon take hold of your life and allow you to heal. Times change, people change, and we should always hang on to whatever joy remains.
I recently had the chance to talk to Josh Ritter by phone about Record Store Day, one of his past shows at Off Broadway, The Beast In Its Tracks, and, of course, relationships and love.
We are excited about your upcoming show in St. Louis on Record Store Day — two performances, actually — one during the day at Vintage Vinyl, and the other later on at Plush. How is Record Store Day special to you?
Well, I love Record Store Day. As a musician it’s super near and dear to my heart. If you go into selling records these days, in a store, you are a stone cold bad ass, because it’s hard to do. And you have to love music, and you have to have a talent for loving music and sharing it with people. So, I think a record store makes a community, and not every one is lucky enough to have one. It’s going to be a great time. The record store people are amazing people.
I totally agree. I know a few of them here, and they are real, genuine people. If we lose our record stores, we are losing a lot of our arts. Performing in a record store is a thrill, I’m sure.
Oh yeah, it’s great. Always an awesome time.
You know, and I think you will remember this but a couple years ago you performed at Off Broadway in St. Louis, and it was the sweatiest, hottest night in the world. Do you remember anything about that show?
I do, I remember it really well. It got so warm in there, it rained on us, it was crazy. (laughing) Shows are fun for that reason. Most of the time I feel like if I’m not sweaty at the end of the show, I’m not doing my job. (laughs)
I still talk to people about that show, and they always say that because of the environment, it seemed more special. Do you agree?
Oh, I completely agree. There are good things always about playing all kinds of venues, and there are more that are pristine than others, and they are enjoyable because they are pristine, but when you’re playing a show and it’s biologically different, whether it’s the heat or the cold, or if there’s a power outage — that’s what really is great. There’s things that you do, or things that happen that you can’t predict, and those are things that make shows the most important. Or most memorable, I should say, and that show (at Off Broadway) is one that sticks around.
Well, let’s talk about the new album for a bit. I have been listening to it for quite some time now, and I’ve dissected every lyric, every thought. (laughing) It’s very important to me, just because it’s about relationships. And I’ve had my share of failed relationships and good relationships. Is it easy to write about relationships for you?
You know, only in certain situations. I think it’s probably easier…this album is definitely more autobiographical. I was surprised of the ease, you know? It was actually…when you can see things as they are, as they happened, and you just write down what you feel about them, and your emotions — that to me is easier than coming up with a brand new relationship.
For that reason, seeing them and writing them down as you see them — you can’t change them. If you’re going to do it this way, you have to write them down exactly as they are, and as clearly as possible, and not try to change them. Because the only power is in it being relatable as a thing, like my feelings about this thing should be relatable. Otherwise, it’s just me writing about myself.
Was it therapeutic at all?
It wasn’t so much therapeutic as it was just necessary, you know? It’s much less sitting in a chair at the therapist’s office, and much more getting pulled down off a bridge over and over again, you know? That feeling. It was so necessary, that I really wasn’t thinking about whether it was making me feel better, and I don’t think it did. It was just something to do from keep me from doing other things. It was just something that I knew how to do.
One of the lyrics that keeps coming up in the album is the whole idea of someone only looking like someone “in a certain light.” “She only looks like you in a certain light.” You sing that on “New Lover” and “A Certain Light.” The imagery there is very powerful. Can you talk about that, and maybe why it comes up in two different songs?
Sure. I think that there’s a haunting…there’s a haunting that goes on after something that is such a big part of your life, like a marriage, or a big relationship. You leave, and you think you’re done, and then you see a part of that face again, or you see yourself looking at somebody with a face like that. That’s really like a haunting. I wrote it in “New Lover,” and it just kind of came out, and I thought, “you know, I really like that, and I’m afraid to just let that be that song.” So, I continued with that. (laughs)
It stuck with me right away. And maybe it was because I had just gotten out of an important relationship. I remember hearing those songs and thinking, “oh my God, I know exactly what he’s talking about here.”
Yeah, you find yourself in that kind of old, familiar place. It’s such a weird thing.
In “New Lover,” you talk about your dreams. You say, “she loves them, but she never needs to tell me what they mean.”
Yeah. I always thought that the most amazing things about dreams in general is that we have them, and they’re ours, and we have no control over them. It’s a dream that’s in your head — it happened, and you’re not to blame for it. You can admire it, or get the chills, but it’s an amazing moment. And as soon as someone tries to tell what it’s about, then they’re taking ownership over it. And I love the idea that — what I thought was really important — that if I was going to write about the emotions I was feeling, and the things I felt, it should be the things that I felt, and they were mine, and they wouldn’t belong to anybody else. Hopefully, they would be relatable, but I wouldn’t have to give them over, or make them fit someone else’s idea of me. I’m really proud of that line…I’m really proud of that line. I’m pscyhed that you liked that one.
It affected me. That whole song affected me. It’s like your “Idiot Wind,” without the full onslaught of anger. Although, you kind of get into an angry thought at the end.
Yeah, totally. I think that “Idiot Wind” is one of my top five Dylan songs, it’s a masterpiece of weird Americana, genius and then bullying, you know? It’s just all over the place. For being so raw, it’s so great. It’s not how I would have done it, but I love that song so much.
Tell me about “Hopeful,” because I feel it’s one of the centerpieces on the album, and you’re getting out so many thoughts. It’s funny, because lines are popping into my head as I speak to you. Like, “she kept telling me of the good things I deserve.” I’ve been told that, but I’ve never known what to make of that. I don’t really know what that means. I mean, I know what it means, but I think there’s an ulterior message there when someone says that to you.
I think that song has a bunch of moments. Like, “the good things that you deserve,” when you’re leaving somebody, you’re going to let them down — that’s it. There’s no way around it. You’re trying to soften it.
Does it make it harder, though?
Oh, I think it makes it more infuriating. It’s clearly not something that is true…well, it is true, probably — you do deserve better. But, to hear it from the person who’s done you wrong, that’s a real slap in the face, you know? And I do deserve better. (laughs)
It’s almost like — when you break up with somebody…it feels so cold, and you start to wonder, “who is this person?”
Oh yeah. I think one of the most frustrating things about a breakup is that you see the person doing the same things they’ve always done, and they’re doing them without you. It’s a really weird thing to say, but for that reason, it makes it…it was something that was stuck in my mind, and I really thought about it, but it felt best just to say it just how it was said, and call it out for what it was.
Was it hard for you to accept love back in your life again?
No. No, it wasn’t. Because I love…I feel like I’m a loving, trustful person. That’s who I am, and I would rather be trustful than jealous, and I try and stay that way. So, it was really good.