Josh Ritter talks about songwriting, novels, and the open road

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Josh Ritter. Josh Ritter.
C-VILLE Weekly’s Graelyn Brashear sat down with singer/songwriter and novelist Josh Ritter for a radio interview live on WTJU before his show last night at the Jefferson Theater. Ritter, a remarkably candid interview and a compelling communicator, talks about his friendship with C’ville musicians, his attachment to Appalachia, and his love of writing.
Graelyn Brashear: Glad to have you back in Charlottesville. We were talking about the fact that you’ve had several visits here recently, you’ve been back in this area a couple of times, and you set your novel, Bright’s Passage, in Appalachia. Do you have connections to Charlottesville in particular and this part of the country in general?
Josh Ritter: Well this is pretty mythic American country out here, you know, with the history of some of the intellectual fiery cradle of this country. So it’s pretty great to be here. And it’s an amazing town. There’s so much good food, and there’s music, and it doesn’t hurt to come back.
GB: I wanted to ask you about your novel. It was a really interesting change of hats for you. I know you get asked about that a lot, the difference between songwriting and moving into a different writing style. What was that like, and what’s it like to take different tacks with your storytelling?
JR: I’ve thought about it a lot. When I was growing up, a teenager, I had a lot of words, and I had a lot that I felt like I wanted to do, but I didn’t know what it was, you know? And I discovered songwriting, and it was like i found a bucket for the words. It was a form, and it was so exciting. But I never really thought that that was the only way that a writer could write.
For me, I find that it’s mostly a temperament thing. You have to adjust your temperament. With songs there’s  chance you’ll write a song in an afternoon, or a week. I’ve had a few songs I’ve written over a long period of time, but in general, songs are short things. and a novel takes years. I think that finding your freedom and the excitement of creating something in the morning and then setting it down and coming back to it the next day is something that I had to learn how to do. In general, the two things are very similar—you have words, and you’re trying to put the right word after the right word after the right word, like a tightrope walker.
GB: With Bright’s Passage, I was curious about the juxtaposition of the settings and the themes there. It follows the story of a man really traumatized by World War I who comes home to West Virginia, and the trauma sort of weaves its way into his life. So what drove you to juxtapose those two settings—Europe in World War I and Appalachia at the time?
JR: Well World War I was this moment at the cliff’s edge there. In 1913, we thought we had everything figured out. We thought we had things pretty much sussed. Niels Bohr was told not to go into physics, because physics had all been figured out. So all these things happen, and then suddenly the world explodes, and the modern world came in like a rush of water and washed everything away. Horse and cavalry, cannons—these things, they disappeared and were replaced by new things, by planes and poison gas, and all these technologies that have gone on to be good for us as well.
And I think Appalachia has always been a symbol, I  think for me, of a place that is at the edge of time. it’s always on the edge. If the future happens, it’ll happen in Appalachia, and the past is happening, too. It’s a place that stands for something, where time is under different laws. I thought the two worked well together.
GB: Do you think you have more books in you?
JR: Definitely. I’m working on a second one right now.
GB: Can you tell us about it?
JR: it’s a big, rowdy novel with lots of terrible language. My mom’s going to be mortified. It’s gonna be fun.
GB: And you’re working on other projects. You were saying you’ve wrapped up your next album as well.
JR: Yes, it’s getting real close. There are still some finishing touches to go, but I hope to have it out in the first part of next year.
GB: What can you tell us about it? From what you’ve been saying, it opens a door into a more personal part of your life than fans might be used to.
JR: I’d always shied away from that, with the very specific idea that there is more to write about outside your own personal experience, and that’s good. It’s good to write that way. Autobiography makes the focus a little smaller a little tighter, and sometimes that’s uncomfortable for the listener and the writer. So I haven’t always done that, but now with this one, I feel it—it’s a lot of short, sharp little songs. I’m pretty excited about it.
GB: Big rowdy novel, short sharp songs— a lot of emotion in both.
JR: Yeah.
GB: Bringing it back local again—you actually toured in ireland with Love Canon, a local band.
JR: I am very proud of my assoc with Love Canon. They’re amazing. Zack Hickman, who I’ve played with for almost half my life, on the bass here, he knows some incredible musicians. Two of them are fantastic—Adam Larrabee and Jesse Harper. They’re (from) right around here, and we got to play some great songs together.
GB: What was it like to tour alongside them?
JR: It’s like standing in the middle of a hurricane. You’ve got to hold on.
GB: Thinking about the arc of your career—you’ve come along way since your first album, which you recorded while you were in school. Do you miss anything about the early days, and the process of figuring out who you were as a musician?
JR: It’s really interesting. Nobody’s ever asked me that. What I really get out of playing music and why I do it…to be creative and impress yourself and entertain yourself, is the idea that it should always feel new, hopefully. The two things you have as an artist that really matter are confidence in your work and excitement about the future. If you don’t have that, what’s the point? You’d end up doing medleys. It scares me to even think about it. So I always hope that things are just getting more and more exciting.
GB: Anybody’s who’s seen you live would feel that you bring that to the stage still. Is that a conscious effort? You’re a performer for sure—you interact and you smile a lot, and its very much a live show. Is that part of channelling that energy and bringing newness to it?
JR: Absolutely. If you love somebody, hopefully every dance you have with them is your first one—you know, that feeling. And that’s how it is with songs, and that’s why it’s really important to write and write until you get thing exactly how you want them, because when you do that, that’s your partner for the next 40 years, or 50 years, and you want to always be proud of it. Some songs, they start to lose their love, and other ones gain more love with your experience in life. I love performing. You write a song, and it’s like making an animal in a laboratory. And when you’re performing, it’s like the animal’s out there on the stage, and you don’t know what it’s going to do.
GB: So it is new when you bring it to the live audience.
JR: Every time, depending on what’s going on in the audience, us—it’s totally crazy.
GB: You’ve lived a lot of places in the country. Is it strange to go back to them as a performer, as a musician, and go back to a place where you spent time before this career really started?
JR: Yeah. It’s said that Abraham Lincoln said he had more hometowns than anybody else in the world. The great thing about being a musician, a traveling musician, is you get to see the whole place. You get to see how it’s stitched together. And it’s funny, what we learn as a band about places that we go. We’ll learn about places to eat, or the place that gave us a free coffee last time. Its great. There’s all kinds of memories that get rolled up into this. You may not remember the stage, but you definitely remember the good sandwich you had, and the good show.
GB: Your songwriting influences are clearly varied. I wonder how much comes from seeing new places all the time, and how much that influences your writing and how you go about the process of bringing these things to the page.
JR: I used to get so wound up about it. I write prose stuff on the road a lot. But I used to get the physical act of putting words on a page confused with the act of writing. Writing is 90 percent listening and picking things up and reading and watching and meeting people, and 10 percent reorganizing those ideas. It’s like visible light. There’s so much more light that’s going on that we can’t see, but that 10 percent is what we see by, and that’s how we judge ourselves. Being out on the road is a chance to meet all kinds of crazy people, do all kinds of crazy things and have experiences, see things out the window, walk down the street, see a movie, hear music. It’s all in there. And for me touring is what powers this, the writing. I don’t know what I would do without it.
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