Interview: Exploring Josh Ritter's New Album, 'So Runs the World Away'
Josh Ritter / Photo by Sam Kassirer
Listening to Josh Ritter's new album is like reading a satisfying novel. Whether it's a spry tune like "Lark" or the tale of a mummy who falls in love with an archeologist in "The Curse," Ritter's wordplay and melodies reveal new facets upon each listen. That's probably one reason why Stephen King is a fan, and why Paste Magazine included Ritter on their "100 Best Living Songwriters" list.
But the Idaho-born, Brooklyn-based songwriter takes it all in stride and continues to push his own creative boundaries. As such, he's in the process of finishing his first novel, Bright's Passage, which will be released next year.
LAist caught up with Ritter last Sunday, and among other things, the conversation touched on So Runs the World Away, the relationship between science and art, and his gig tonight at the Henry Fonda Music Box.
LAist: Much has been said about the theme of exploration in this album. In addition to that, is there another album-wide thread you'd like to highlight?
Josh Ritter: Most of the story songs on the record are about stuff going awry. That was something I didn't really let happen to characters in my previous songs. When I wrote "The Curse," I started to realize how fun it can be to put your characters in a difficult situation. Real drama makes it feel like a real story.
Josh Ritter - "Change of Time"
Didn't something go awry for you during the recording process? You cut yourself?
Yeah, I cut my hand on a can, which is why I'm not allowed around sharp objects anymore. (laughs)
Did it affect the recording process?
No, although at the time I was afraid it would, because it happened just as things were starting to get rolling. But I got a really great scar from it, and it tends to change color with my mood, so I think that's pretty cool.
A mood scar!
"Curtains" is a great way to start the album. It seems as if you're setting the scene like the opening moments of a film would. Was that your intention?
Definitely. It's also like sitting down to eat at a nice restaurant and having the server light a candle on the table—a moment to regroup and get ready for the experience ahead.
Josh Ritter - "Rattling Locks"
What was the songwriting process like for "Rattling Locks"? How did the percussion elements come together?
"Rattling Locks" started out as a very quiet song, then the experimenting began. The band got together and some ideas started flowing. That was one of the ideas that arose as we sat in the kitchen banging appliances with drumsticks.
And that ended up being on the record, didn't it?
Yes, those are drumsticks hitting the stove.
As you were writing "Another New World," when did you realize that you wanted to name the ship Annabel Lee? Early on?
I wish I could say yes, because that would make me seem smarter. (laughs) The Edgar Allan Poe poem wasn't in my head initially, but I must've had an experience with it a long time ago, because it emerged from the bottom of my brain.
One of the greatest things about art is that it gives us a view into our own subconscious, and that's really amazing. It's active in just about everything we do—working logically, though not necessarily in a form of logic we recognize.
The video for "The Curse" is gorgeous. Were you involved in the creation process with bandmate Liam Hurley?
Liam came up with all the ideas and execution. I knew he was really talented—all the guys in the band are—but to see somebody jump up and create something like that out of nothing was astounding. I'm just very proud that he used my song.
Are you further experimenting with these songs as you're playing them on tour?
Absolutely. You really don't know what you've got until you take it out on stage. Initially, you write songs, you design them, and you record them. You're creating this animal in a laboratory. But you never know what it's really going to do until it's out there for people to hear.
Right now the songs are still unfolding for us. Some of them like "Change of Time" have turned out to be really big and epic. They're all so much fun to play.
I imagine it's nice to keep yourself challenged.
It really is. When you're recording, you never want to limit yourself just to what can be done live, because that would take all the fun out of it. You want to push yourself, then figure out how to play it. So that's what we're doing.
When you went to do the sequencing for this record, were there any songs you had to leave out because they didn't fit?
Oh yeah. There always are, though I personally don't believe in designing a record. I think there's a point when you realize you have enough, then you try and cut from that. I think we ended up with 17 or 18 songs and cut it down to 13.
Josh Ritter / Photo by Marcelo Biglia
That would be fun. I think it's cool to have stuff you don't use. It's always good to leave something on the table.
Is it true that the doomed characters in "Folk Bloodbath" were taken from various old folk songs? Why did you choose those people in particular?
They're the ones I've always liked. For example, Stackalee is in so many songs, and he's always the bad guy. I thought it'd be fun to give him some justice and have Billy Lyons—the character he kills in hundreds of old folk songs—be the judge who sentences him.
The characters in those songs are so living and they have so much to give. From song to song, the characters end up with the same fate—but they get there in different ways depending on the version. For "Folk Bloodbath," I just wanted to crash them all together.
For the record, "Folk Bloodbath" would be a great name for a music festival.
I would love that. Run with it. (laughs)
Your parents are neuroscientists and you nearly went into that field before entering the singer/songwriter realm full time. Do you feel that this background gave you a unique perspective on songwriting? How does science relate to the arts?
When I was growing up, my parents always taught my brother and me that science and art are the same thing. It's all about trying to figure things out and having a healthy sense of curiosity. I feel I owe them my career for teaching me that.
There's this idea that we'll never really know how the human mind thinks, because we don't know what it is to not be the human mind. So much of our understanding of the world is based on our understanding of each other. I now wonder if an understanding of gravity is even possible without understanding the ways we pull together and pull apart as people—and in the end, that affects how we understand the rest of natural law.
Before you wrote this album, you experienced a period of writer's block. Looking back, what's your advice for others who are going through the same thing?
You just keep at it. It takes a lot of work to have those occasional moments that result in something great. Like Hemingway said, "Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can." Just take the pen and be ready to write.
On the days when you're holding the pen and nothing's spilling out of it—that's the drudgery. And it's ridiculous to say this, because it seems to happen every time, but it's important not to feel like a failure if you don't have a great writing day.
The title of your album comes from Hamlet. What led you to pick that quote in particular?
Josh Ritter's new album
Given that this album is all about exploration, what's one favorite exploration memory you've acquired on this tour?
We just had an incredible swing through the Southeast. We were on the way to Baton Rouge, and in the middle of the night, the bus pulled over to the side of the road. In the 500 miles we'd driven, the air had changed. It was charged with sounds and electricity and you could smell everything. It reminded me of that beautiful Joanna Newsom line: "The saltiest sea knows its own way to me..."
Speaking of amazing writing, Stephen King is a huge fan of yours. Have you ever met him?
No, I never have. Hopefully one day…
Which book of his is your favorite?
It's tough to pick just one. I really enjoyed Dolores Claiborne, though my favorite at the moment is probably Under the Dome. It's truly phenomenal and an incredibly timely book. Rather than being preachy, he lets you draw your own conclusions. Just masterful.
What are you reading right now?
Liam turned me on to Neal Stephenson's work. I finished Cryptonomicon and I'm reading Quicksilver right now. I'm also reading a book called New Dreams This Morning by James Blish, which is science fiction about the arts.
I know you're finishing up your first book, which will be released next year. What's one thing you've learned throughout the novel writing process?
It may sound simple, but either the words work or they don't. The story is there—whether it's good or bad ultimately hangs on the story—but one thing about novel writing I've discovered is the potential for words to annoy you. A lot of fixing has to take place once you finish the first draft.
Even though you're not rhyming words or writing verses, does cadence still play a major role in your writing?
It's really important, and it's all about reading it aloud. In my opinion, good writing is easier to read aloud than bad writing.
Does your music writing process differ greatly from your novel writing process?
Not really. The thing I've noticed with songwriting and novel writing is that it squeezes the same sponge in your brain. It's pretty much the same—sitting down without knowing what you're going to do. It's definitely exploration. You're setting out across an empty page and not looking back.
Writing a novel is a very long contemplative act that then becomes really brutal. You write this big first draft, then you go back and it's mayhem. You rearrange, cut and burn everything. It's a process I also apply to songs, but with those it's a much shorter edit!
I enjoyed reading the entries on your blog. Have any songs ever come out of that writing? [Sample line: "I saw a woman in a black dress walking far ahead of me. Against the field of white she looked like a keyhole."]
Yeah, but I don't necessarily take any words straight from the blog. When you're on tour, you can get very isolated. Keeping a blog as you travel can help you remember some pretty wild experiences. Those are the sorts of things I want to remember and pass on. For that reason alone, it forces me out into life and I get ideas that way.
Although you're immersed in the new album, are you already looking to your next one?
Oh definitely. This record was such a long process that I breathed a sigh of relief when it was done. Now that this novel is getting close to done, I'm excited to have the chance to sit down and write some new songs.
You're headed to LA for a gig this week at the Fonda Music Box. What are some of your favorite places to visit when you're in town?
You're constantly drawing inspiration from the places you visit and the people you meet. What's one of your most vivid memories about Los Angeles or California in general that's made its way into a song?
Probably the inspiration behind "California." This truck filled with oranges had overturned on the I-5 freeway, so this long dusty stretch of road was all backed up. I remember the air smelling like oranges. It was everywhere and it was incredible.
When it comes to Los Angeles, I love the names—stuff like the Imperial Valley and the Sunset Strip. It's good to be wowed and affected by a place, however exotic or unexotic it is. And in Los Angeles, there's a lot to be wowed by.
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Josh!