“There’s no success or failure anymore.” How Josh Ritter’s Sermon Got Here At The Right Time

Photo by Laura Wilson

Let’s see where the night takes us
Let’s see where the night goes

In late April of 2014, Josh Ritter traveled to Chicago to play two shows at the City Winery. In between those dates was an off day, and playing across town at the Chicago Theatre was Neil Young, who was performing solo-acoustically.

Ritter went to the show.

“It’s so amazing, when I was in the 7th or 8th grade, I remember watching the Detroit Pistons play in the NBA Finals,” Ritter tells me by phone. “And I would probably watch like a quarter of the game, and then I would go outside and start playing basketball. (laughs)

“And watching Neil Young is sort of like that. You see somebody doing it, and it looks so easy, and you think, ‘I want to do that, I know how to do that.’ And then you try, and, of course … it’s Neil Young, you know? It really does inspire you. When you can see the guy and the bones of the song that he wrote — and he knows them better than anybody — and when you can see him play the songs like that, it’s just so cool.”

Ritter had recently finished a long tour supporting his latest album at the time, The Beast in Its Tracks. It was a personal record, a sad record, and also a hopeful record. And while the show I saw on that tour was one of the best I had seen that year, Josh Ritter seemed different somehow: although he still wore a grin, he looked tired.

“Boy, I really [was],” he remarks. “I really did need a break. And I think that’s kind of the way it should be. You tour until it’s not physically possible anymore, and then you’re broken down and tired enough that you have to just sit there, and that’s when you can write. I was really needing it; I needed the end to come there. And when I got home, that’s when the real writing really started to happen, you know? It really got wild and crazy there for a while. But it’s such a different thing — you have to continue with the show, and each night make the show filled with as much passion and excitement as you possibly can, and it does start to wear for a while. And, I’m pretty much an introvert when I’m not on stage.”

The writing led to the songs that form Sermon on the Rocks, released tomorrow (October 16). an album with a “real leaning forward feeling. The songs feel like they are oracular, like you open your mouth and the stuff comes out, and there’s no past, there’s just whatever you’re saying.”

Sermon on the Rocks was co-produced by Ritter and Trina Shoemaker, “whose genius is utter and pure,” according to Ritter. The album begins with the chaotic and tone-setting “Birds of the Meadow.”

“That was maybe one of the first songs that I did,” Ritter tell me. “At the end of all the touring for Beast, when I was washed out, worn out … I had nothing left to say. And then time goes by, and I started to understand my main problem with how I was feeling about my music was — at the point I was at — I felt I was kind of…writing the songs and then giving them away in a way. It wasn’t that I wasn’t sticking up for my choices, it was that I wasn’t making choices. I assumed that the main thing that I do was write the songs, you know? And I started to get annoyed. I thought, “How can I keep writing these unless I start to really take ownership of them, and to really sculpt them in a far more advanced way than I had done for myself in the past.”

I wait for him to continue.

“So I sat down with this weird keyboard, and I tried to start to learn how to use the computer and rip through some of my own recording, just to get ideas, initially. And then these little happy accidents would happen, where I would get this incredible sound, and it would be so easy to write to. And “Birds of the Meadow” was the start of that exercise, and it ended up as a song. And it was really about … the feeling that there is definitely something out there right now. Trina really wanted it as the first song, because she thought of it as the real wild man song on the record and the first thing that she would want to hear. She really stuck up for it being the first song.”

It wasn’t the first single, however. Those honors were given to the rollicking “Getting Ready to Get Down.” Where did that come from? I wondered. So I asked.

“Well, I had been writing the songs for well over a year, a year and a half,” Ritter says. “And of maybe 30 songs I sent to her, I sent her pretty much everything except for “Getting Ready To Get Down,” which I wrote like eight days before the sessions. There were some things about the record that weren’t a question to me — and when it came down to that sort of thing, like choosing on what song should be on a record, I don’t think we should be fighting about it. It should just be my choice. So I went in thinking, ‘I’m going to cram this song on the record no matter what.’ And Trina was like, ‘Oh yeah, this has to be on the record, and it has to be the single.’ It was awesome. That’s just one of those things that, I don’t know, you get really lucky sometimes and a song like that kind of comes out with very little effort.”

Sermon on the Rocks is an important album for Josh Ritter because it’s the one he wanted to make, and he wanted to create it in New Orleans. He wrote this on his website when the news was announced:

I wanted the wind off the Gulf. I wanted the air that touches the skin. I wanted the paint that sticks to the back of the eyeball. I wanted the scream of nutrias. I wanted a house full of music and laughter. I wanted to make something grand. I wanted it to swing hard. I wanted to peek through death’s keyhole. I wanted my monster to run. I wanted to sing songs that I had written in stretches of frenzy. I wanted to fall in love with every note. I wanted to hold each one and let it slip away like ribbon through the hands. I wanted to make something important to me and to no one else. I wanted it like I’ve never wanted anything in my life. I wanted it because life is short and I wouldn’t want to leave it without giving it all of my love.

The brevity of human life. What made him think about it now?

“There is so much that happened to me in like a short amount of time,” he says. “Crazy life moments — I’m married, then I’m divorced; then I met somebody. And then I had a child. And suddenly you see two sets of years passing you by, you know? You have this kid, who is blazing through childhood, and then you have your own self, and then you have your parents, and then there’s sickness in your elders, and that’s a sobering thing.

“There’s just a whole bunch of things that add up to, well, “I don’t give a fuck.” (laughs) I’m going to write the songs that I want to write about, and there’s no success or failure anymore. There’s songs where … like, “A Man on a Horse.” I finished it, and the song, it just wasn’t for me — it’s not who I am, and … I’m thinking … I don’t know about this song. It’s a love song to another man on a horse! (laughs) It’s not the song I would have written if I paid attention to the writing. But if I was to not sing this song, then what a waste. What a total waste. And besides, life is short. Stop wondering about stuff so much, and just find out where the song is going to take you.”

Our conversation gets me thinking about Idaho, where Ritter grew up, where his parents still live, and where he still visits. His voice lights up when asked about his home state.

“I feel like I’ll wax rhapsodic about it, but there’s so many things about Idaho that are so beautiful,” he says. “Like the South, where it’s this absolute bone-dry desert with lava flows and huge mountain ranges, to where I grew up in the North where there’s wheat fields. It’s a very austere place, certainly. It’s like windblown. But at the same time, it has that true western beauty. It’s just the best place. But there’s no neighborhood coffee shop; there’s no bodegas on every corner.” (laughs)

His thoughts then turn to writing: his process — how he begins and when he rests.

“For me, if there’s a first line…the first line is what captures me. A first line is so great. You don’t always know what the first line is going to be. You might have a really great idea, and you just haven’t found the first line yet. There’s just so much about writing, that’s just by chance that you got it. And sometimes you get lucky. And I don’t think it’s something that you can work toward, except you just have to keep on working. When I stop writing, I feel it usually takes me about five days to start writing again. And also, you just can’t write forever. If you have nothing new to say, it’s not going to sound new.

“This is the first time I’ve ever felt like no matter happens, commercially with the record or whatever, I feel like I hit it out of the park, and I’m so proud of it. I’m just super proud of it. It’s super fun to play with the band, and it’s going to be a great year, I can barely wait.”

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