Sitting on a cement wall in Newport, Rhode Island, Josh Ritter’s tousled hair looks even more wild than normal. The wind from the ocean has picked up, blowing the sounds of the Newport Folk Festival’s three stages of music across the grounds, and Ritter’s hair into his eyes. He doesn’t seem to notice though, because he’s talking about songwriting, and he’s completely-utterly-absorbed.
“Working on a record is like working on a novel, I think,” he reflects. “You have to have something new to say.”
There are a lot of people anxiously awaiting what Ritter has to say next. The 28-year old Idaho native has recently signed with V2 Records (White Stripes, Moby, Charlie Mars), which will re-release his latest folk/rock album, Hello Starling, and will issue a follow-up CD in late Summer or Fall. Already a big star in Ireland, Ritter is in that sweet spot nestled snugly between starving artist/writer and celebrity. And he sure seems right at home there, even if, these days, home is pavement, hotels and airplanes.
“My life is traveling right now,” Ritter says, after spending much of last year touring both the U.S. and Europe extensively. Never being in the same place can bring a lack of routine that sometimes gives him focus, though. “You can concentrate on something like a song,” he says.
When you talk to Ritter, it’s obvious that songwriting is never too far from his mind most days. Hailed by critics for their thoughtful, intelligent and unique lyrics, Ritter’s songs sound more like literature and poetry than most music genres are used to. When Ritter cites novelists and poets like Philip Roth, Raymond Carver and Richard Hugo as influences as important as singer/songwriters like Neil Young, Gillian Welch and Johnny Cash, it becomes clear that words hold a deep significance for him.
“You can look at a Bob Dylan lyric, and it makes as much sense whether he’s singing it or not,” Ritter says. “To me, writers are incredibly important…and music…it takes [the writing] off the page and keeps it up in the air like a balloon or something.”
Perhaps that’s why Ritter would describe himself as a writer first and musician second. It’s the words, and the words and works of others, that constantly inspire him.
“It’s food, you know?” he explains. “You can write about things in new ways, but everything’s already been written about. These experiences don’t change, but the words do and the poetry does, and it never stops being incredible-the stuff that people can come up with out of their heads. That, to me, is the most inspiring thing. People thought of all this stuff, and there are people out there that are just geniuses and they’re saying things that I understand and make me feel good. It fuels you. It keeps you going.”
That outside fuel, combined with the patience needed to wait for inspiration, seem to be the driving forces behind Ritter’s own successful songwriting.
“All the phrases and all the words kind of come to me at different times,” he says. “And then once you have a structure, like some sort of rhythm and melody, the words just fall into place. It’s almost like you’re just making something and the only parts that fit are the ones you keep.”
The pieces that fit may not always come regularly or easily for a songwriter, but Ritter doesn’t force his songwriting process, he says.
“I think for me, the best process is no process. It just doesn’t work very well for me to sit down and decide to write a song. I just have to kind of catch myself unaware-and not to be trying to write a song. And suddenly something comes to you and it’s off on a roll.”
The question many songwriters struggle with, though, is how to know when that roll is heading in the right direction. Ritter’s mix of folk and rock has garnered him several awards, including Boston’s Outstanding Male Singer/Songwriter honor for 2003, and his single “Come and Find Me” was featured in the HBO hit series Six Feet Under. But how does Ritter judge for himself when he is onto something with a song?
“When I feel like they’re good, I finish them,” he says simply. “When they’re bad, I don’t finish them. I just leave them.” Ideas come all the time, he says, but not everything makes it into a song.
“And I always feel like there’s a real cutting room,” he explains. “I’ve got tons and tons of stuff that I write down that I work on, but if I don’t finish it, it’s not a big deal. Some songs come out fully-formed and I feel just right about them, and then some songs take like eight or nine songs that don’t work and then finally you get the perfect little pearl of a song.”
But if he doesn’t enjoy writing the song, he doesn’t feel like anyone else will enjoy it when it’s finished either. “I always feel like if I get bored writing it, then it’s not going to be a very good song,” he says.
Ritter’s songwriting instincts seem to be working. Folk legend Joan Baez heard his song “Wings,” which appears on Hello Starling, and chose to record it for her most recent album-something that obviously delighted Ritter. He later went on to tour with Baez. The Irish Times hailed Hello Starling as the landmark record of 2004, and the record debuted at No. 2 on the Irish charts. Most people would agree that Ritter’s not doing too badly in the music world for a man who was originally studying at Oberlin College (Ohio) to become a scientist. It wasn’t easy for the twenty-something Idaho native to choose music, move to Boston, play one open mic after another, and work temp jobs while trying to make ends meet. But, you won’t hear Ritter complaining about his troubles or bragging about his triumphs in his songs.
“I think you can write great songs about all kinds of things-great things and bad things,” he says. “But I don’t want people to know about my great things or my bad things.” Ritter seems to prefer to let the work and the writing stand on their own, and take the focus off himself.
“One of my favorite things that I live by [that] Leonard Cohen said is when you recite a poem, recite it and then get out the way, and I think that’s so true,” he says. “Why make a big deal of it, you know, and refer to yourself all the time when you could just let the poem stand for itself and just be a poem…be an emotion that isn’t tied to a particular person? You know, you can’t walk around with, like, a song on a leash.”
It’s exactly that steady emphasis on the work, and not himself, that makes Ritter’s writing so unforgettable. Like any good artist, he’s dedicated to the craft and committed to growth and development. But there is something more there too-a seemingly innate passion compelling him to write. It’s most apparent when he speaks to a fear many songwriters have; encouraging them not to worry about it, but admitting it sometimes still troubles him.
To fellow songwriters, Ritter advises, “I guess, don’t ever be worried that you’re not going to write another song.” Ritter says he spent so long worrying about that. “I still wake up worrying about it, but it’s not worth it. Once you start to write a song, you’re always going to be a songwriter. If you just fall into it naturally, it’s like breathing or doing any other thing that people like to do.” The songs, he says, will become apparent. “Always just let those songs come, and enjoy them while they’re coming around.”