Josh Ritter
Photo: Sam Kassirer / Sacks & Co.

Working on Not Feeling Alone: An Interview With Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter is a revealing conversationalist, holding little back about the emotional inspirations for his new album and his intellectual curiosities.

Spectral Lines
Josh Ritter
Thirty Tigers
28 April 2023

“I think it’s important for us to share some of our most basic and common experiences with each other however we can. That’s what we really, really need right now. I know we have common experiences, and it’s important to telegraph those back because they don’t have to be lonely experiences,” wrote Josh Ritter ahead of releasing his latest LP, Spectral Lines

The collection was produced by Sam Kassirer (Lake Street Dive, Langhorne Slim) and follows the acclaimed 2019 effort Fever Breaks; in the interim have been joys and upsets, losses and gains, moments of isolation and moments of shared experience, all of which inform the ten songs on Spectral Lines. It should be no surprise that the album is emotionally nuanced and complex, nor should it surprise us how masterfully Ritter has executed the material, and yet Spectral Lines stands as a heady revelation.

It has its contradictions. Often the instruments that cast the listener into the most otherworldly places are traditional ones, such as woodwinds rather than loops and synthesizers, or maybe it’s the juxtaposition of soundscapes and those timeless features that make us feel as though we’re drifting between the known and unknown, between the place we’ve always been and the place we can barely comprehend. In this way, the songs are packed with information and spare, minimalistic, as though Raymond Carver has taken over a Salman Rushdie story in midsentence, and we, its reader, have lost none of the beauty or impact. 

Ritter remains, as ever, a potent lyricist and gives us plenty to cite and celebrate, lines that populate material such as “Horse No Rider” (“What is love anyway but the prettiest bird singing such a bitter song?”), “Whatever Burns Will Burn” (a genuinely arresting torch song that stands as arguably the LP’s greatest emotional achievement) and the prayerful “In Fields”, during which Ritter reminds us that each of us is capable of getting it right “sometimes” as he celebrates his own “sometimes”. 

For those and many other moments across Spectral Lines, we remain lucky to have him; he’s taken his rightful place as a treasured songwriter who pleases our emotional and intellectual needs in equal measure. 

Speaking from his home in New York just before Spectral Lines‘ release, Ritter is a revealing conversationalist, holding little if anything back in terms of the emotional inspirations for the album or his intellectual curiosities. One feels that, in some ways, he is as much a scholar as his late neuroscientist parents, and they are as much artists as he is. Despite the weighty matter that populates the album, one can sense Ritter’s warm, subtle humor in the appropriate places as they appear while talking to him. Most of all, Ritter reminds his conversation partner and audience that we are not alone for at least the space between the start and finish of Spectral Lines

There’s a sense of loss that comes across on the record. 

I didn’t feel an escape from that feeling, so I didn’t try to write one. How I make records goes back to how I perform, and that means providing a full arc. A narrative arc to an evening or a narrative arc to a record. It should have a rise and fall. I don’t believe in leaving everything at 70 percent. That means musically but also in terms of the raw emotions that come out. I really listen to those when I’m making records, and on this one, too, which I made at what felt like a lonely and paralyzing time that we all came through. I didn’t want to wipe it out. I didn’t want to smudge it or blur those particular edges. 

That was the real purpose of this record for me: I wanted to share my feelings, not because I wanted people to know how I was feeling but because I felt like a record is a chance to let people know that they’re not crazy either. There are other people out there who are thinking these sorts of things. I was really looking for communion in it. 

Did you have a period where you wondered if you would make another record? 

I found that when the pandemic happened, I went into musical hibernation. Artistic hibernation. That was very puzzling for me. I tend to find an outlet, and I had none. I couldn’t feel enough to paint or write. Or to do any of these artistic things well. That was a real problem for me. But I came to the belief that that was a normal reaction. A normal human reaction to a really scary time. We were all being attacked by something, and we didn’t know what it was. Who can report back in the middle of an attack? You’re paralyzed with all kinds of fears. 

At the same time, my mom was dying of ovarian cancer. We were trying to get across the country. This was before [COVID vaccines were available]. We didn’t know what to do. There was a lot of crazy emotion going into that period and no real way for it to come out. It was a very artistically baffling and lonely time. I was very grateful to have my family around. 

In the early days of the pandemic, it was strange for me to be in the center of a city but essentially isolated. 

It was so bizarre. When we decided that the only way we were going to get to my mom with these tiny kids was to drive across the country and not go inside anywhere. It was the middle of winter, or else we would have camped. We didn’t know what was out there. My memory of those drives was showing up at the hotels and motels at night and that they would be completely empty except for us and somebody at the front desk. The corridors were quiet and dark, and there was no other sound, our car the only car in the frozen parking lot. It was shuddering! [Laughs.] 

But you could see your mom at the end of this trip.

I was able to be there with her when she died. I felt grateful for that opportunity.

I lost my mom last year. My dad was gone for a long time before that, and I have to say that I learned a lot about myself and my place in the world through mourning her. 

The feeling that comes back in a recurring corkscrew fashion is the feeling of being on a space walk. It’s come down to this. My mom is not here anymore. My safety. In those moments, I feel like I’m perched above the world, and I’m just out there floating. That’s a strange feeling. My relationship with my mom was close. She was a very fascinating, complicated person. Not an easy person to know. I feel like I’ve learned so much about her and about myself in the negative space there. It’s been a beautiful, strange experience. I’ve begun to change how I think about large metaphysical questions. I think it’s made me a more empathetic writer. 

Had she passed before you started working on the record? 

She passed about two years ago. The first song I wrote for the record was “For Your Soul.” We had rented a little place back in my hometown. We were taking the kids to the snowed-in playground or the empty mall, someplace where they could run around. I remember being back in that little house and looking in the mirror one morning and feeling completely unprepared for what I knew was happening and realizing that I would not be worthy of the experience but that I was really going to try to be. You don’t know what’s happening in those last hours. You don’t. You try to be worthy even though you know you’re not. That came to me just looking in the mirror. I thought, “The mileage our bathroom mirrors get when we stare at them at odd hours of the day and the things those mirrors show us [is profound].” So I wrote a song about that. I wrote a song about self-reflection. 

That feeling you’re describing of space is why, I would guess, there’s such a feeling of space and night on the record. 

I’m not a person who goes down to JSTOR and downloads peer-reviewed scientific papers. The stuff that comes to me comes to me boiled down, a layman’s reading. But I grew up with scientists. My parents were both neuroscientists. I relate to scientists in my work very well. Not necessarily the scientific method or anything quite like that but more that there are absolutely fundamental things in our reality that have yet to be understood or even noticed. While that’s frightening to many, I take great comfort in it because it means there’s mystery in the world. I love mystery. I love where it takes my heart and my brain and that feeling of complete awe. It can be so cosmic and so real at the same time. 

What is it about people in a room all singing together that makes it so powerful? We don’t even know how to begin to answer that question, but it’s magic, and it’s right there. It’s real, and it’s in our world. Those sorts of things are really beautiful to me. I found in the last several years, with our fragile little attempts at discovering other worlds, I see in the most profound human desire to share in an experience of this reality. I think that’s such a beautiful thing. 

When you go to the Grand Canyon, and you’re there all alone, you have no one to share it with. When someone’s there with you, you can say, “Wow!” You vocalize it. You let it out, and I really feel like that’s what we want, that’s what we look for, that’s what we hope for. All those scientists and technicians working on that are, at their core, working toward not feeling alone, and I think that’s beautiful.