“I Could See Where the River Was Flowing”: An Interview with Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter
Beast in Its Tracks
Pytheas Recordings

When Josh Ritter faced a divorce, the acclaimed singer-songwriter (and sometimes-novelist) felt all the things most people would feel in that situation. Being a songwriter, he turned that conglomeration of feelings into a new album, The Beast In Its Tracks. However, what ultimately made Beast a true Josh Ritter record wasn’t his subject matter but his commitment to telling the truth — not just the unpleasant, angry, bitter parts of the truth, but the hope and self-knowledge gleaned from the ordeal.

Ritter has never one to be angry in his music. The 36 year-old from the small town of Moscow, Idaho, has, in part, built his songwriting reputation on his ability to pithily find a shard of hope or joy. Take, a case study, “Kathleen”, (from 2003’s Hello Starling). A longtime crowd favorite told from the point of view of a man who gets to drive his crush home from a party, Ritter’s lyrics simultaneously accept and rejoice in what is. “I know you are waiting and I know that it is not for me / But I’m here and I’m ready and I’ve saved you the passenger seat / I won’t be your last dance just your last goodnight,” Ritter sings before concluding “Both our hearts have a secret only both of us know / ’bout the night that I drove you back home Kathleen.”

Perhaps it has something to do with optimism or something to do with the omnipresent, huge grin he wears throughout every show he plays, but Ritter gives off the impression of being every bit the wholesome idealist while remaining fully grounded in the troublesome reality. Even his most bitter songs (perhaps “You Don’t Make It Easy Babe”) are playful, and his most angst-ridden ones (such as the stunning “Thin Blue Flame”) are more contemplative than hitting the one note of anger: “One of the things I’ve found less admirable is for this to be incredibly one-sided and rage-filled” he tells us, “I don’t feel that that’s my place. I don’t feel comfortable doing that. I don’t feel that’s me. I would rather be conspicuous for my absence from that type of songwriting. Basically because I don’t feel it’s that interesting. An unmixed emotion is not as tricky to write as one which has some highs and lows — forgiveness, joy, spite all at the same time. Something I can be proud of later on. A breakup is hard, and it’s hard for both people, even when somebody’s done something that really, really hurt you. I don’t think that kicking them on the playground is a way to write a record.”

And Ritter, named by Paste in 2006 as one of the 100 Best Living Songwriters, should know the way to write a record. His quest to make polymorphous songs that hint at acrimony even as they celebrate hope is ultimately a success. He does wield traces of bitterness on Beast. The upbeat “New Lover” ends “But if you’re sad and you are lonesome and you’ve got nobody true / I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too.” However, “Joy to You, Baby” finds Ritter singing “Joy to the city / Joy to the streets / And joy to you baby / Wherever you sleep.”

“Only a few records I’ve ever listened to can successfully carry through one feeling,” he notes, “I feel like Either/Or by Elliott Smith is one of those records. That’s not to say it’s a better record; it sticks to a very same vibe. That’s one thing I also believe. It should be generous in every way. It should be generous about being human. I like the idea that songs can be about bad people and still be humane and funny and uplifting. I never like to leave a record on a sad note. I like to leave it on a hopeful note.” Indeed, one of the catchiest tracks on Beast is simply called “Hopeful”: “These days I’m feelin’ better about the man that I am / There’s some things I can change and there’s others I can’t.”

Yet Ritter hasn’t always been able to find the silver lining in his divorce. In an open letter written to fans (which glibly references both his thoughts of suicide and excessive drinking), Ritter describes the first post-divorce songs he wrote:

“I wrote, because that’s how I try to deal with everything in life, but the songs that came were unfocused, full of hatred and self-pity.  I could have recorded them, but these lines I was singing weren’t songs yet, just stillborn, terrifying things. Far from allowing me some release, seeing them lying there on the page before me they only made me lonesome. They were painfully personal, and I’d always disliked autobiography in songwriting. My marriage had fallen apart, but the same thing, and worse, happened to people all the time.  All heartbreak is awful – my broken heart wasn’t unique. But these songs were helping me get through the night and I didn’t have the strength to care or question.”

According to Ritter, the hardest part about writing the songs that eventually comprised Beast wasn’t the actual writing, but looking at himself clearly enough to see what needed to be said:

“Most of my life I feel like I’m kind of dark inside because I can’t see what’s in me. I don’t have that power of being able to see myself so clearly. If I don’t look at myself in the mirror, I can’t get dressed. And suddenly, I could see everything. I could see everything in my heart. I could see the good stuff and the bad stuff. I saw who I was. It wasn’t who I thought. And in that moment, all this rage and anger and hopefulness — I could see them so clearly that writing them down was easy. Describing was not hard. This was a moment in my life when a flashbulb went off, and I could see all the capillaries and veins and arteries and where the river was flowing, and that was an amazing moment. The writing wasn’t the hard part; the hard part was looking at it.”

Yet, he managed a look at divorce that takes himself as unflinchingly to task as he does the other person, all shot through with the sort of enthusiastic melodies that trademark Ritter’s music.

Whereas Ritter’s earlier albums have been full of narratives about mummies and nuclear missiles, Beast is, by far, his most straightforward album yet, lyrically. There are no complex metaphors or figurative language. “One of the things that I’ve always loved is the courage to speak very plainly about that stuff,” Ritter says of those who write about heartbreak. “I wanted whatever songs I had to not be one-sided and be emotionally complex but at the same time not lyrically complex. I wanted to stay away from lyrical, crazy complexity. I wanted to say things plain. There’ve been big songs, and there’ve been adventure narratives, and this was a time the wind was so knocked out of my sails that if I’d tried to write those they would’ve turned out bad anyway. They would have run false. These were all the songs I had the energy for.”

His more plain-spoken lyrics and stripped-down musical arrangements are also winning Ritter new fans who may have found his earlier albums too polished. Pitchfork’s Stephen M. Deusner notes that “the best moments are the rawest and least guarded, when the pain and regret sound inescapably present tense: when he laughs off his insomnia on ‘Evil Eye’, when he notices similarities between his new lover and his old wife on ‘A Certain Light’, when he finally allows himself to enjoy a bit of happiness on ‘Joy to You Baby’.” Ritter’s avoidance of hostility didn’t go unnoticed by the press either: “There are myriad songwriters in the world who can competently string together an album’s worth of volatile putdowns in the face of a romance’s end, but few songwriters dig deep enough to discover the humanity that comes with delivering deeper truths,” writes No Depression‘s Justin Wesley.

And was it hard to organize these deeper truths? When asked how he assembled the album’s track-listing, Ritter explains a plan he once had and abandoned: “Initially, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool with these songs and some that didn’t go on the record, to order them to create a scope, to give a real narrative arc of the relationship?’ And I tried that and it just didn’t sound good. It felt kind of like I was turning the record into a concept record. I lose the dynamic of the record, and I also lose the chance for people to just listen to one song and think about that and not what came before it. It ended up being a mish-mash of that. Which is actually now how it feels, especially when you’re in the throes of something manic. Your emotions are all over the place.”

Surprisingly, given the glut of breakup albums available, Ritter didn’t listen to many during the writing of Beast. Rather, he virtually shied away from music altogether, finding it often too painful. “I didn’t listen to a lot of stuff at that time. This sounds really nerdy, but I was reading ‘Macbeth’ over and over again. ‘Cause that is dark, but there’s a music to it. It didn’t hurt my ears. Music became so painful to me at the moment. You know how it is with music. You have these songs that you love and then something happens that’s very much like them, and they’re loaded guns, and they’re much more dangerous than you thought.”