Josh Ritter preaches his "messianic oracular honky tonk": "I don’t feel a huge connection to religion, except as a large accumulation of confusing, confusing stories"

Salon talks to Ritter, whose new album "Sermon on the Rocks" is out today

Published October 16, 2015 6:21PM (EDT)

  (Laura Wilson)
(Laura Wilson)

Having weathered some major life changes since his last album, "Beast In Its Tracks," Josh Ritter is sharper than ever. The 38 year-old from Moscow, ID, has made a name for himself as an astute songwriter, peppering his lyrics with all manner of allusions. In 2006, Paste voted him one of the 100 best living songwriters. But to focus on his songwriting alone neglects the power of his energetic live performances, his commitment to connections with fans, and his conversation style, full of colorful metaphors.

"Sermon on the Rocks," Ritter’s eighth studio album, is full of Ritter’s songwriting at its sharpest. Yet, he takes that songwriting in a new direction, one he describes as “messianic oracular honky-tonk.” The debut single, “Getting Ready to Get Down,” bubbles over with the kind of rapid-fire delivery that made “To the Dogs or Whoever” so infectious. Catchy numbers threaded with Biblical imagery, contemplative ballads, and lyrical narratives comprise the album.

"Sermon on the Rocks" is out today on Pytheas Recordings/Thirty Tigers.

You’ve described "Sermon on the Rocks" as “messianic oracular honky tonk.” What does that mean to you?

One of the things that comes in -- usually it’s at the very end of the session -- the songs are done. They’re in their playlist so you can see how they’re going to work together. And I feel like that’s the first time that any of it really makes sense. You start off a project with a yearning, and you’re not really sure what it’s for. You have a set of examples in art and other things that you like in writing and stuff. You have this want to change things up. But you don’t really know what it is until you’re done. And I think that’s why the title is so much fun to come up with.

That’s when I start to realize, fully, what exactly I was going for. Messianic oracular honky tonk, besides being a party, encapsulates the main personality themes that came out of it. With this kind of a messianic foreboding, but also, like, with these very Biblical, John the Baptist, Moses type, going to the mountain situations. And just [a] wild man side.

The honky-tonk is just because I really wanted it to rock and be a party. I really wanted to be in the room with those guys playing and have the music around me, and just really perform.

Is that why you chose to record in New Orleans?

I chose it because I started to realize, around the time I started to work on the record at all. I started to realize I wanted to move, I wanted to go someplace. And the recording is a party. It should always be a party. It should never be constrained. And I wanted adventure. I wanted to take the band someplace cool, and I wanted us all to have a really good time. I wanted to take my family, and everybody have a good time.

So we went down to New Orleans. It was a place I’ve passed through many times on tour. But you only get to spend a night. And usually, you’re off before morning. I just desperately wanted to do that. So we rented out a big house down there and stuck everybody in it. And it was great. It wasn’t trying to make any kind of musical tribute to New Orleans in any way, or to do that whole kind of music tourism thing. But I really wanted to be in it for a little while, and like, swim around in the water.

I noticed, of course, the messianic themes and Biblical imagery. You’ve used a lot of religious themes in your work elsewhere. I get the sense that you’re using them more as cultural touchstones and their power as stories, rather than being about faith.

I don’t feel a profound connection with spirit as it’s presented to us. In that same way, I don’t feel a huge connection to religion, except as a large accumulation of confusing, confusing stories. They’re beautiful in a chaotic way. They’re a language that we speak in, those symbols. But they’re so fantastic for that because everybody interprets the stories differently. Everybody has heroes and villains in those situations, and there’s so many different ways to look at them. I also don’t use them consciously. Those sorts of things just seem to jump up in my mind a lot. My parents are both neuroscientists. For me, the idea of spirituality is so wrapped up in already this kind of amazing thing that we are.

Like, spirituality exists because we are here to create it?

“Spirituality” is such a nebulous term. When somebody says that they’re a very spiritual person, I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what it means, in the same way as considering ourselves a religious person means only that we’ve had the time to reflect and think about it. I don’t know what I would call myself. Except that I seem to write using those characters, but I don’t personally feel that most of those characters are any kind of moral compass for acceptable human behavior. I prefer to think of them as a number of confusing and colorful stories about the things people do to each other.

Do you have any superstitions?

I consider my superstitions pretty carefully. I try not to walk underneath trains in New York. Because that seems to be a bad situation. I try to stay out from under ladders, but that just seems like common sense. I heard that the most superstitious people are hockey goalies. I feel like the best thing that can happen to you if you’re a hockey goalie is that you catch this thing that’s flying at you. And that seems like bad luck to begin with. But no, I’m not nervous. Being on stage makes me so happy. And I just love it. I never assume that anything bad is going to happen up there. Because if something bad happens, you just take it in stride.

Even with writing, I don’t really think that there’s any one thing that freaks me out about it. I think if it started to feel like work, it would probably be scarier.

We’ve spoken before about the idea that you carry the remnants of one fire onto the next fire. Did you carry "Beast in Its Tracks" forward to the new album, either to continue themes or to work against them?

When I’m working on something and I finish it, I’m anxious to correct the things I did wrong in the last one. When I step back to "Beast in Its Tracks," I’m amazed that that record happened in the midst of what was a very traumatic upheaval. At that time I was married, I got a divorce, I almost died, I had a baby, I moved to nowhere in the middle of New York.

That was in like, two and a half or three years. And so in a way, I was pretty happy to leave that era behind. Although I’m proud of the record and the songs. But the time period was not always comfortable.

I reacted against "Beast" by wanting to turn it up and leave some of the heartache on that record behind. And play something a little bit more ragged, and just a little bit coarser. So I think it was a reaction to that. Every time, though, I react against the last thing. I guess that’s why people keep on making stuff. Like, why writers don’t just write one thing. They write more, because they always figure you can make it better than the last one. And it never works out, but it’s amazing how you can just forget.

When I was listening to “See Me Around,” I was struck at how speaking through a persona helps you reveal things about yourself. Do you feel like you arrive at a lot of truths about yourself through writing fiction?

The self-discovery thing is weird with writing. I guess it’s like, there is great truth. I see mostly strange things that I did without thinking. Strange things that I wrote that really came up as being a real subconscious thing. But I’ve never uncovered anything, except that I would say that there’s a stamina for writing a novel which is astounding to me. And for which I applaud anybody who does. Because you write all day and you feel bad about it, and then you have to tell people what you did all day.

And no one applauds. No one applauds for you at the end of your writing day. So I have a real respect for those folks. My wife is a novelist, so I see it happening, and it’s daunting and inspiring at the same time.

One time in the past few years, I got in my car and I turned on the radio. And I heard a man saying that for him, writing a novel is like taking his dog to the beach, and the dog can just run and run. And I was thought, this must be Josh Ritter. That is totally a metaphor he would use.

It’s true. It’s amazing to be able to fill out a thing that’s in your mind. I always think of the really powerful moments of a show, or when you’re recording a song. It’s really important to not record all the harmony parts. It’s my theory that people like to sing along, and they like to find their own harmony parts. And I don’t like personally to sing another person’s harmony parts. And so I feel that that’s also the way that it is with a song. You write a song, but you don’t write everything.

And you don’t try. Because every little thing you do makes it more specifically about you and less about the person who’s listening to the song. So you can’t write about, I was in a green car, or you were in a green car, or whatever. Because who knows what color it was? But I think that’s something you can do in a novel. And you can create this world that’s full.

We talked before about the nature of autobiography. What is it that makes a memoir compelling for you to read? What can a person say, or how can they say it about their lives that’s going to keep you really interested?

Wow, that’s a really awesome question. I’m reminded instantly of J. Peterman in "Seinfeld," and he hires Elaine to write his biography. But he doesn’t want to talk about any of the awesome stories that he has as J. Peterman. He wants to talk about his daily life. And I think that’s funny. Because with J. Peterman, you want to hear the adventure.

In a lot of cases, that’s true. There’s something weird about – if you’re, say, asked to write a song with somebody or for someone, you assume that they want you to write a song that they would write. When in fact, they want this song that you’re going to write. They want you. They want you to write something. And I think that’s kind of how it works with biography, or autobiography, memoir, whatever. You have to go outside of yourself a little bit. I mean, I like the Bob Dylan biography, because it felt like it was a true representation of a memory.

It felt pretty honest because it doesn’t have to be the truth. You’re inside somebody’s mind. You don’t want a straight up accounting of something from Bob Dylan. You want a little surreal color and strangeness, and some weird hokey metaphors and things.

I read Charlie Chaplain’s autobiography not long ago. I loved the first half. The first half was amazing. It was about this kid, and his father had left. And his mother, who just really couldn’t deal with him and his brother. And they find vaudeville, and they do all this stuff. And they do all these amazing adventures. And he somehow ends up in California. And then he gets so famous that the last half of the book, he’s just meeting other famous people. I thought that there was something beautiful there, because Charlie Chaplain is this guy. He’s like your friend. You want to know about the tramp.

Speaking of memory, I read your Facebook post about “Where the Night Goes.” And the idea of saying, “it doesn’t matter if memory is real, because it’s there. I remember it.” Do your memories have a certain quality to them?

I think memories of a certain time, for me, were so tied up with actual physical hunger. Because I was hungry all the time, like when you’re a kid. For no one is it always easy in junior high or high school, or these times. So a lot of times, the memories are not idyllic.

It’s weird what you get to remember. It’s so weird. Like, I guess we make up memories, because we need some way to condense a whole bunch of things. But it’s weird what you’re allowed to remember. That you can remember the madeleine.

I get to remember driving into Moscow [Idaho] past this little garage. And I remember everything about the garage in this little place, even though it’s not there anymore. And I don’t need to remember it, but it’s funny that I do. I sometimes think that you get one little part of a memory, and everything just kind of accrues around that, and suddenly you have the whole picture, whether it’s true or not. I never care if it’s true.

You touched a little bit on your high school times. Do you feel like when you look back now on your adolescence, do you feel like you could see yourself becoming who you are now?

There’s those few kids who look like they’ve got it figured out. And it takes you until you’re my age to realize they didn’t. But I’ve gone through most of my life assuming that those popular kids had it figured out. I was terrible at basketball, terrible at wrestling and track, and football, I didn’t even make it to the first game. And I wasn’t good at math, and I thought I was going to be good at chemistry and stuff, but I wasn’t.

The only thing I was really actually good at was reading. And it was all I really cared about. I just wasn’t good at anything. When I discovered songs and songwriting, no one knew it. It wasn’t a thing I took around with me until a little while later. It’s my thing, and I found it, and it was significant that I found it on my own. I didn’t find it with a band. I worked on it on my own. It was my refuge. And even when things were bad in other parts of my life, the songs were right there. That was the one language I really understood.

Do you feel like an outsider now? Or is that not something you think about at all?

In the spots where that might be the case, I revel in it. There’s people who are these great, great writers and stuff who I always think of as having been on the fringe. Flannery O’Connor was not on the fringe. She was a major part of the discussion in American writing. So it’s hard to say what an outsider or insider is at a point where you’re just kind of up and going. I’m so lucky I don’t need the recognition of the high school class. When it’s convenient, I like to feel like an outsider.

Over the past few years, it increasingly seems like musicians are expected to do so much more than play music now. They have to promote and use social media and all this other stuff. Is that something that you’ve felt a lot of pressure about?

Until a couple years ago, I used to go out after the show, and I would meet anybody who wanted to shake hands and talk. It was hard for me to let that go. Because I couldn’t just say hi and people would leave. I needed to have conversations with people. And it was just a thing I needed. Until the point when it just got impossible, and we would get kicked out of the venue, it’d be 2:00 in the morning, and I’d have radio at 7:00, and it was just not possible.

So I stopped going out there quite as much. Although I still try to, and I miss it when I don’t. And I feel a real gratitude to people for coming to the show, and if they want to hang out, I want to make it happen. But if I can’t do that all the time, then Twitter, Instagram, Facebook stuff, all those things are super important. And like, I think they’re a little bit like the autobiography stuff.

They’re like, “this is my frame on the world.” Instagram is paltry and just kind of shot out into the universe as it is. This is just something I saw and I thought was cool. And here I’m thinking about my friends and the people that are spending time with my music. So I personally feel like we’re musicians. Most of the time, we’re hanging out. Either writing or noodling away, or backstage waiting for the show. There’s tons of time to do some of that stuff, and really, it has only helped me in my primary art. I’ve heard it said, that the 25 years of waiting around is what constitutes a career. But there’s a lot of time to do some pretty cool stuff inside the lines.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

I’m making a record of cowboy songs with Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead.

I’m just writing songs. I sort of sit and giggle away, and then play them and introduce them to him. And it’s going awesome. We’re having a great time. It’s such a cool thing to write songs with another person in mind. Especially with him. He’s such a lion.

How did that project come about?

My bandmate, Josh Kaufmann was a huge fan of the Dead, and ended up playing in a band that Bob was putting together for some stuff. And Bob and Josh got to talking about the old kind of cowboy songs and what it would sound like. How we would work on some new ones. And Josh wrote me, and we just had a great moment. A moment happened. So that’s been really fun to work with.

By Erin Lyndal Martin

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