The first artist Josh Ritter ever opened for was Gillian Welch. It was the fall of 1998, and Welch and her musical partner, Dave Rawlings, had just released Hell Among The Yearlings. They performed in the Student Union at Oberlin College in Ohio, where Ritter was just beginning his senior year. Ever since, Ritter’s looked up to the duo as a model of artistry and integrity.
When it comes to giving advice to emerging artists, Josh Ritter has a lot to say. In fact, a few years ago he devoted an entire blog, The Book of Jubilations, to the subject. How has Josh Ritter managed to build a successful career as an independent, plainspoken singer-songwriter who has, by his own admission, never had a particular groundbreaking record in terms of sales or press?
“I’ve learned two important things, and that’s to make concrete goals and to always have a perspective on what you’re doing.” As corny as he admits it sounds, Ritter’s main suggestion for any emerging artist is to set explicit goals: 6 months, 1 year, 5 years and 10 years. One of Ritter’s first goals when he started out was to sell each of the 2,000 copies of his self-released debut record he was storing in his college house’s damp basement. Another goal was to make music his full-time job, which he achieved, finally, in the fall of 2004, after quitting his temp-job at a luggage factory in the midst of touring behind 2003’s Hello Starling. “Nothing will help more than setting goals so you have the reward of reaching them,” he says, “because the rewards won’t be monetary for a lot longer than that.”
Josh Ritter started turning a profit on the road just a couple of years ago, long after groundbreaking albums like 2006’s The Animal Years caused novelist Stephen King to claim Ritter’s song, “Thin Blue Flame,” was the “most exuberant outburst of imagery since Bob Dylan’s “A-Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Before then, Ritter, who had already amassed a big touring business, traveling around the United States and Ireland with a full band and small crew, found ways to be thrifty while still always making sure his musicians were well compensated, in some form or another at least. In lieu of payment, Ritter gifted Zachariah Hickman, the longtime bassist of Ritter’s Royal City Band, his old accordion and his banjo as a thank you for playing for free on his second album, Golden Age Of Radio.
Has Ritter ever lost perspective himself? Plenty of times, he says, laughing, mentioning 2007’s “Man Burning” as a song he thought was going to be his huge breakout hit. “I wasn’t being quite as honest as I could have been,” he says. “That was not a song I would have written otherwise.” Ritter’s other concrete piece of advice? “Don’t try to write a hit,” an adage he repeats three or four times, for emphasis. But the 39-year-old songwriter says he’s almost always avoided trying to be someone he’s not, artistically. When I suggest to him that one of the reasons Ritter may have never fully caught on as an en-vogue, buzzworthy Americana act is because his music has never postured as either Southern or rural, Ritter agrees heartily. “So much of that stuff is so limiting. It’s a costume, and I hate clothes,” he offers. “There’s a lot of ‘whiskey on the train tracks.’ It’s hard to want to be that.”
There’s a moment on every Josh Ritter record where he gets so caught up in the story he’s telling, so overcome with the thrilling rush of the music he’s making, that he crams an inordinate amount of words and syllables into a single line of verse. He does it on 2007’s “Right Moves,” on 2013’s “Hopeful,” and again on Sermon’s “Homecoming,” a five-plus minute song that serves as the centerpiece of his new record. The song, full of layered harmony vocals, spectral keyboards and a driving rhythm section, might be the best example of the new sound Ritter is chasing.
“Homecoming” is also one of the few places where Ritter’s increasing love for hip-hop surfaces, when he sings, “Even me, yes yes y’all” in the song’s opening. During our conversation, Ritter mentions albums like Jay Z and Kanye West’s collaboration Watch The Throne and Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 opus To Pimp A Butterfly as a few of the records that have inspired him the most in the past few years (he has also been on a huge Lady Gaga kick lately). “Those guys have everything,” Ritter says of Throne. “That record’s so much about how you stay hungry when you have everything. How do you stay interested? That has to be the constant challenge for me.”
Don’t expect Ritter to make a full-fledged rap LP anytime soon, though. Ever since he started his career in the late ’90s, Ritter has steadily worked his way up to the point of selling out theatres and clubs around the country by crafting a close relationship with his audience over a long period of time. “The chance to build up trust with an audience over time is really a lucky thing,” says Ritter. “To be able to build a career over time is not just so you can learn the ropes, the audience needs to learn how to trust you. I’m not going to lead them down a blind alley, or some direction that’s so bizarre and weird that people are going to feel ripped off.”
That trust is most evident at Ritter’s concerts. To witness Josh Ritter perform new material live is to witness every musician’s dream realized: Ritter’s fans receive his new material with just as, if not more, excitement as they receive their favorite Ritter oldies. The songs from Sermon On The Rocks, which Ritter says he wrote in large part with the idea of crowd participation in mind, will surely be no exception. It’s during these moments that Ritter feels most grateful for having the dream career he has. “If early on, something had caught on in some way and I sold a million records,” he says, “I wouldn’t be who I am now.”