I’ve written several times that I believe Idahoan Josh Ritter is one of the most important and talented songwriters of our generation, making music that is weighty and beautiful, that will stand up to time. Each of his six albums over the last 11 years has trod different musical ground, from folksy acousticism to uptempo soulful rock, and all shades in between. Yet all of this is ballasted by his insightful, dazzling lyrics – drawing lessons from mythology, psychology, religious narratives, archaeology, and historical figures, but never inaccessibly so.
I am an unabashed lover of words. I’ve been known to fall for folks strictly on the basis of their vocabulary. For me, the way Josh can excise things deep within me using only a handful of words is truly rare. Here is a guy who gets it, who pursues stories and emotions relentlessly to evoke them powerfully in his music. He gets my highest respect – I mean, even how created his own major at Oberlin College in “American History Through Narrative Folk Music”; I’m incredibly jealous that I didn’t think of that. Plus, he just rocks, and is one of the most ebullient live performers you will ever see.
I walked into this interview with so much apprehension, not because I thought he’d be anything but marvelous (I’d been warned how generous his hugs were, and he didn’t disappoint) but because I am so deeply impressed with what he does. My usual types of interview questions seemed to fall so short it wasn’t even funny. So under some big trees in Telluride on a Thursday evening, we just talked instead. And it was warm and wonderful. It went like this:
JOSH RITTER INTERVIEW
Fuel/Friends:I have a whole jumbled bunch of questions that I would love to ask you, but hmmmm . . . I think I want to start with something that references your new album, something I’ve rolled over a lot in my head these past months. In “The Curse” . . . do you think it was worth it for her?
Josh Ritter: Ooh, wow. That’s a really good question. I don’t know. Well, let me think . . .
I think that love is like a trap sometimes. You get deep in and you think, “This is the wrong place to be,” and by that time, it’s all built around you. I’m not sure, but I typically tend to stay away from an idea like [says grandly] “But it was all worth it.” I mean, if it wasn’t right in the end, then it wasn’t worth it. My experience with love has been this: if it’s good, then it ends good or it continues good. But if it’s not good then it’s just . . . not good. I mean what is the difference between a tragedy and any other sort of genre? The tragedy ends badly. I think of that song as a tragedy, but the interesting part to me is that he knows the whole time that he’s doing this to her.
F/F: So he knew? I always couldn’t tell if he knew, or if he just somehow hoped that it would be different this time, that his curse wouldn’t be destructive.
JR: Yeah, I do like the idea that it could be interpreted a number of different ways. But I like seeing him as calculating, like he built this thing around himself (“Think of them as an immense invitation”) so that this one day this would happen. As much as there may have been periods when he was truly in love, he was ultimately using her.
F/F: See, I was thinking about how it might not have been a bad exchange for her — I think of the lyrics about how they talk of the Nile and girls in bulrushes, and I mean, through that relationship, she got to be as close as she would EVER be to that world of Egypt that she had dedicated her whole studies to.
JR: I never thought about it quite like that. That’s really cool.
F/F: And the video is amazing. I never expected puppets to make me cry, the way his eyes twinkle.
JR: I know, I know! I feel exactly the same way! Liam (our drummer, who made the video) is a ninja.
F/F: Do you think that you are telling old stories with a new voice? Or new stories?
JR: Oh, old stories, definitely. There is nothing new. Whether it’s Cormac McCarthy, or Mark Twain, or whoever, they are never telling a story that’s completely brand new. There’s always an archetype. It reminds me of that quote about: “See what everybody else has seen, think what nobody else has thought.” (Albert Szent-Gyoergi). Songs are just reimagining old stories, old feelings. It’s like in science how an electron microscope helped us to see things that had always been all around us since time immemorial, but now we saw it in a whole new way.
F/F: There was a time you considered a career in science. Is music at all like science?
JR: I think science is like art, yeah absolutely. There’s a tendency to put your own discipline on a pedestal, and hold it above all others, but there are so many similarities. There’s an idea that scientists wear these white robes on a mountainside and write down these massive truths, but science fills a societal need of figuring out answers to questions we have, just the same as art does. For example, my parents are studying appetite and how it affect diabetes and obesity, and that’s important research, but really it is filling a need – the same thing that happens in art. You see a need out there that interests you and you follow it, and there’s gotta be a reason why you are interested in it. They speak to different needs in different ways. Science and art and religion are all very similar – all trying to fill in the gaps.
F/F: You mention religion, and many of your songs almost strike me as parables, or at least allegorical fables.
JR: A parable is like a multi-faceted metaphor. To go back to what we were talking about with “The Curse,” you can see it a lot of different ways – and that’s what makes it so interesting. Elaine Pagels is an amazing writer about religion, and she talks a lot about the Gnostic Gospels, and this idea that a few parables of Jesus had been written down before he died, and then after Jesus was dead all these people came along who knew these parables, but they meant something different to everyone, whether it was Peter and Paul, or Mary Magdalene, or Mary, or James, all these people that claimed to have a secret knowledge about what that parable meant – Thomas, the gospel of Thomas is the best example of that, and the secret teachings. Even when we talk about something like the Sermon on the Mount, there are things that seem perfectly clear, and also completely mystifying the next moment. Like Leonard Cohen says, “from the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount / which I don’t pretend to understand at all.”
But maybe it’s really holding a mirror up to yourself, and how you interpret something tells you a lot about yourself. If you think A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor is funny, are you being honest with yourself, or are you just a mean person?
F/F: Well, I think my last question is…..
JR: (interrupts, leaning forward) – I got a question for you. What’s your favorite song in the world, that you’ve ever heard? If you had to choose.
(I am stunned with the vastness of this question, and Josh asking it to me. I feel like I haven’t studied for a really cool test. I cannot pick.)
JR: I think mine would maybe be “I Dream A Highway” by Gillian Welch.
F/F: Oooh! Such an excellent, excellent choice. That song has everything you could ever want. Hmm, that kind of reminds me of a song I love that I was listening to on the way here, I don’t think it is my favorite song ever, by any means, but one that speaks volumes to me – “Mary” by Patty Griffin.
JR: Oh, yeah! Yessss, that song is a SICK song. “….Stays behind and starts cleaning up the place,” (we both say in unison). It shows so many facets of her . . . and it makes you mad that she’s just being used every which way.
F/F: Agreed. So I want to talk a little about the sticky intersection between art and commerce – do you think they are mutually incompatible?
JR: I certainly hope music is a commercial venture. I have no bones about the fact that I feel I deserve to make a living off my music. I mean, what else would I do? People who choose to follow art are often ill-suited to be anything else. The best writers or directors or comedians, you cannot imagine them doing anything else. I’m curious if I could do something else – I mean I wrote a book, but I guess we’ll see if I can do that well. What I do helps me survive; I definitely wouldn’t want to do anything else. Whatever there is about God or whatever, I think it helps to believe you were put somewhere for something. And if someone decides their profession will be one of an artist, that’s a noble choice. In the end you are selling something that you think is important, because you are spending your time doing it. And also, I think people can tell when you don’t think it’s that important, and there’s tons of artists that are doing that as well.
Commerce and art are only good when you have a level of trust with the people that are buying your music. What they are actually buying is a chance for you to spend more time doing what you do – playing shows, putting out albums. That is your responsibility to account for yourself, for the money they have given you. That that’s gotten a lot harder, I think, is not necessarily a bad thing. The last 50,000 years of human history have been about artists working hard for very little, and only about 50-60 years now where that hasn’t been the case. So it is a kind of historical aberration right now. But I definitely think that the amount of stuff that musicians and other artists go through, and the relatively small returns, you know, we all deserve the same kind of normal life that everybody else has. Like I would like to have kids and be able to support them. So to those ends, there’s probably not much I wouldn’t do to be able to keep up playing music and be able to support my family.
Certain decisions would need to be made on a situational basis, like commercials. I did a commercial for Crayola with my song “Great Big Mind,” which I was really happy with. But I’m not The Black Eyed Peas, I’m not gonna go out and do, like, the Camel Cigarette Tour or anything like that. It’s also sort of a thing that sticks with me a little bit because I feel like people in the last generation have always looked askance at making money from commercials, you know? There are people like Tom Waits, who I love in every way, except that I don’t agree with him (in his staunch opposition to commercials). He came up in a different time where people sold records, and made money selling records, and that’s not a thing that happens anymore so we have to look in other places.
F/F: Do you ever feel the struggle in the balance between writing something that will sell and something that is artistically true to you? Is there a conflict selling something that comes from the deepest parts of you?
JR: There’s that point when somebody is running for office, when they are attracting the people who will vote for them based on who they are, and I feel it switches at some point (I believe Hemingway calls that the “pilot fish” – the one swimming ahead of the pack and leading all the other fish to that place). At some point it flips and then the leader becomes the follower of the other fish in his pack, the other fish that supported him to get him to where he is now. You stop becoming a leader and you start becoming a follower, you become part of the mob.
You cannot allow yourself to become that. If you try to shape your music to fill a certain hole, it’s not gonna work that way, it just ends up sounding bland. You have to do your own thing because that’s all that anybody really wants. It’s harder, but at least you don’t feel like you’re a faker. The worst thing I can think of would be writing songs desperately, trying to get a hit.
F/F: It reminds me of the article I read once about Weezer trying to mathematically analyze their hit songs, what made them hits.
JR: Everything I’ve ever seen with music leads me to think that there is no way to know what people are going to like. I think I know, but I don’t have any idea of what happens once it leaves me.
All you can do is do what you do, and hope that the side effect of making music that you yourself love is that other people are going to love it too. And when I die, I’ll leave something behind that I was actually proud of.