Josh Ritter – In the moment
Josh Ritter is intimidated by our waitress.
“Excuse me…” he says, trailing off as the striking young woman in an expensively plain black-sheath dress — who we’re not even sure actually is our waitress — turns and walks in the opposite direction.
“I’m always this way,” he says with a rueful laugh. “I don’t do good with the girls or the bars or, you know.”
To be fair, we’re having lunch at the kind of casual-chic Manhattan eatery that is all but designed to make you feel not quite cool enough to be there. It is a slightly comical setting in which to encounter Ritter, who with his wide grin, mildly scruffy beard and open-necked blue polo shirt, looks every bit the heartland grad student on a weekend excursion.
Which, in fact, is what he might have been. The son of neuroscientists, Ritter spent his childhood in Moscow, Idaho (population, 21,000), and attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where he discovered Bob Dylan, guitars and songwriting. Following the path of countless college kids with guitars before him, he lit out for the coast (in this case, east, to Boston) and spent a few years honing his craft in clubs and coffeehouses.
All of this has been often told in the dozens of Josh Ritter profiles written since, but the volume of those profiles alone should tell you something about where Ritter stands in the category of guys with guitars. Now 30 and releasing his fifth album, he has a discography that has progressed neatly from introspective folkie to politicized rock poet, a press packet bristling with adulatory adjectives, and an international fan base that includes a particularly fervid Irish contingent and boldfaced names such as Joan Baez and Stephen King (who, in his Entertainment Weekly column, declared Ritter’s last album, The Animal Years, the best record of 2006). Oh, and Keira Knightley. Imagine for a second knowing that Keira Knightley was a fan of you.
But if all of that has gotten to Ritter, he doesn’t show it, either in person or in his music. The new album, cheekily titled The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter (released August 21 on Sony BMG), is his loosest, loudest and least self-important, stepping away from the measured tones and tempos of The Animal Years toward ragged rock ‘n’ roll settings that give his tumbling words and newly unleashed singing plenty of room to range. It shows a simmering confidence that no number of Chelsea waitresses is likely to dent. Ritter is secure enough in his own abilities to let go of his familiar approaches and sounds; on this album, that meant even changing the instrument he wrote with.
“My friends gave me a piano, and I was playing on that a lot,” he says. “That was a big deal for me, because I don’t play piano. It’s like an old upright, an old family piano moved into my house. They were just getting rid of it. And I only could play in C and A-minor. It really takes you in a different direction, in a melodic way.”
His rudimentary keyboard skills led to a lot of pounded quarter- and eighth-notes (it is a percussion instrument, after all), orienting the songs toward heavy downbeats and stentorian riffs. On his previous albums, Ritter wrote with an acoustic guitar, and he wrote lyrics before music. This time, he recorded “little bits and pieces of melodies, all kinds of stuff, just whatever felt good to me.” He brought the snippets to regular meetings with his keyboard player, Sam Kassirer, who has been part of Ritter’s band since his 2003 album Hello Starling. They would get together on weekends and listen to Ritter’s half-formed notions.
“He would come up, and he probably would have sent me a minidisc with fifteen ideas on it, ranging anywhere from 5 to 20 seconds,” Kassirer says in a subsequent phone interview. “And he’d say, ‘Let’s pick out a few of these, tell me what you think is cool and we’ll work on it.’ We’d sort of work on mostly kind of feel stuff, how certain songs could potentially feel or be arranged, what instruments to use. He would take those ideas back and then we’d meet again and he would have just completely different lyrics to one of those songs, kind of in reaction to what we’d come up with, musicwise.”
Ritter found moral support for this approach in Paul McCartney’s 1971 album Ram, which McCartney and his wife Linda strung together from pieces they wrote on their farm in Scotland while adjusting to life after the Beatles. Critically reviled at the time (although commercially successful, with the single “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” hitting #1), it has since emerged as a favorite in the indie-pop canon.
“I just discovered it, just before going into the studio,” Ritter says. “It’s so tip-of-the-tongue with him on that, it’s such an exciting feel. With Animal Years, I had all those songs written before we went in, and I knew what they were like; I really wanted something planned and carried through and executed a certain way, because I felt like those songs hung together that way. But Conquests is about kind of coming away from that, the exciting moments where you’ve just written something and you haven’t had a chance to really feel whether you personally know what you’re talking about or believe in it.”
Planned spontaneity is a difficult thing, but Historical Conquests taps into a freewheeling spirit very different from Ritter’s other albums. It’s there from the first track, “To The Dogs Or Whoever”, which begins with a morass of keyboards and guitar that resolves into a thumping piece of barrelhouse pop, with rapid-fire verses and a big sing-along chorus. Ritter’s filtered vocals make him sound like he’s singing through an open-ended trash can.
The song is raucous and good-natured, an opening salvo of noisy fun that serves notice of what’s to come. It is also effortlessly tuneful. When I suggest to Ritter that, for all its clatter, the buoyant album is too likable to alienate many of his admirers, he sounds a little disappointed.