Josh Ritter penned the following essay about the writing of his new song “Showboat,” the introductory track off his forthcoming album Gathering (out 9/22). Listen to the tune and check out Ritter’s upcoming tour dates at the bottom of this post.
I have almost no memory of how “Showboat” was born; that’s true of most of my songs. I have a vague notion that I was watching an infomercial, the kind where a guy rubs some goo on the hood of a car to remove a scratch. The TV salesman offered a “helpful tip,” and for some reason that struck a chord with me. Once I had “here’s a helpful tip, the rain,” the first two verses came easily. The song was about a heartbroken somebody who can’t wait for it to rain so that the drops will hide his tears. With these two verses done, I was stuck. I wrote a couple horrendous third verses, burned them, ran them over with a car and tossed them off a bridge. Then I waited for the rest of the song to unfold. As I waited I began to realize that what was needed was not another verse/chorus combination, but a verse leading into an extended kind of coda. “Coda” is one of the words I learned while I was failing out of music theory. It means a section at the end of the piece of music that does not follow the rules or order of what precedes it. I always enjoyed this word because on tests it meant I would get at least one answer right.
The coda idea really gave me room to let loose; the floodgates were open. The rest of the song came so fast my pen couldn’t keep up, it was messy and frantic, that sharp-edged, manic laughing/crying feeling — just like this lonely guy, heartbroken, sinking, scrambling to keep his head above water. I heard somewhere, sometime, that a true writer knows when to lift the pen and call a piece of writing done.
Finally I had a finished draft and I just needed to figure out how to play it.
I took “Showboat” out on the road and tried it out by myself. It took on a kind of train beat that propelled the song without drums and bass. I liked the easy feel of it, the way it crescendoed into the coda. The song felt a little long, so I trimmed it a bit and played it some more. I had it where I wanted it and I took it into the studio to introduce it to the band.
You never know, when you’re writing a song, what it will sound like when the band gets involved. You begin by singing it to your kitchen table, all alone. It’s nerve-wracking fun when four or five more folks pick up instruments and join in, when the music transmogrifies in ways that are unexpected.
I’ve been playing with the Royal City Band for a long, long time, and I was excited to be sharing production of the album with them on this record. After we tried my train-beat version a few times it was clear to everyone that it wouldn’t work, so we opened up the floor and shared a bunch of ideas. What would happen if I started the song on my own, just shouting it out? The opening chords sounded a bit too crunchy. Someone suggested a smoother, almost slinky, first several measures. We tried it and it was really fun. It meant slowing the song down and losing the train beat, but you have to keep an open mind in the studio, so we ran the song down several times to get the feel and work out the kinks. Who would take the first solo? How would we signal the end of the song? Because much of the recording was live, we all had to know exactly what we needed to do to all work together, while at the same time feeling free enough of constraints to take musical chances. Trina Shoemaker, the intrepid and genius recording engineer I’d worked with on Sermon on the Rocks, was instrumental in bringing her signature devil-may-care attitude to this point in the session. She egged us on from the control room, and we managed to play the song better and wilder with each take.
I took the track home and listened. I could hear some big, brassy horns on there, so I asked Matt Douglas of the Mountain Goats for a big favor and he obliged.
I’ve always believed that a good idea deserves to be further crafted in order to fully reach its potential. In the months between my search for a suitable set of verses and coda, and the final ringing notes in the studio, the whole song had changed and improved thanks to the creativity of the Royal City Band and Trina, and had coalesced into the song you hear now.
Very little art is effortless, I’ve learned. But the effort doesn’t always come all at once. The rest of life happens — dogs get fed, kids get off to school, dinner gets made — but all the while, if I’m lucky, a song is getting worked on, refined, weirded-up, in the back of my mind. There’s always a delicious nugget of preoccupation waiting for me in those spare moments. “Showboat” came together piece by piece and with a lot of help. I’m proud of it and I hope you like it.
JOSH RITTER & THE ROYAL CITY BAND TOUR
October 22 /// Dallas, TX /// Granada Theater
October 23 /// Birmingham, AL /// Saturn
October 24 /// Atlanta, GA /// Variety Playhouse
October 25 /// Carrboro, NC /// Cat’s Cradle
October 27 /// Boston, MA /// House of Blues
October 28 /// Portland, ME /// State Theater
October 29 /// New York, NY /// Brooklyn Steel
November 1 /// Pittsburgh, PA /// Mr. Smalls
November 2 /// Washington, DC /// Lincoln Theater
November 4 /// Northampton, MA /// Calvin Theater
November 5 /// Philadelphia, PA /// Union Transfer
November 8 /// Toronto, ON /// Opera House
November 9 /// Chicago, IL /// The Vic
December 2 /// Berlin, DE /// Passionskirche
December 3 /// Nijmegen, NL /// Doornroosje
December 4 /// Amsterdam, NL /// Paradiso
December 5 /// London, UK /// O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire
December 6 /// Belfast, UK /// Mandela Hall
December 7 /// Dublin, IE /// Vicar Street (seated show)
December 8 /// Dublin, IE /// Vicar Street (standing show)
December 10 /// Limerick, IE /// Dolan’s
December 11 /// Cork, IE /// Cork Opera House
January 12 /// Austin, TX /// ACL Live at the Moody Theater
January 13 /// Houston, TX /// Heights Theater
January 15 /// Tucson, AZ /// Rialto Theater
January 16 /// San Diego, CA /// Belly Up
January 17 /// Los Angeles, CA /// Teragram Ballroom
January 19 /// San Francisco, CA /// The Fillmore
January 20 /// San Francisco, CA /// The Fillmore
January 24 /// Portland, OR /// Crystal Ballroom
January 25 /// Seattle, WA /// Neptune
January 26 /// Spokane, WA /// Knitting Factory
January 27 /// Boise, ID /// Knitting Factory
January 29 /// Denver, CO /// Ogden
January 30 /// Lawrence, KS /// Liberty Hall
January 31 /// Minneapolis, MN /// Fitzgerald Theater
February 16 /// Nashville, TN /// Ryman Auditorium