Josh Ritter’s first three albums – 1999’s Josh Ritter, 2001’s Golden Age of Radio and Hello Starling in 2003 – showed a talented young balladeer growing exponentially as an artist. During that time, the Moscow, Idaho native was producing stunning turns of phrase – “you look pretty good in that jonquil dress, but your smile is a wooden nickel’s pride,” for one – and viewing the modern world through an increasingly layered historical context. Then came The Animal Years. The album was pertinent, poetic and prophetic – not to mention arguably the one genuine musical masterpiece of 2006.
It certainly didn’t go unnoticed. Ritter gained plenty of attention with cerebral diatribes like “Girl in the War” and the 10-minute epic “Thin Blue Flame,” both elegant and eloquent protests against the Bush Administration and the war in Iraq. “Mysterious, melancholy, melodic,” novelist Stephen King said of The Animal Years. “[‘Thin Blue Flame’] is the most exuberant outburst of imagery since Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ in 1963.” The 30-year-old returned on August 21 with The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, a 14-track suite as improbably plentiful as its predecessor.
The Animal Years was so successful for you. Was it intimidating to follow that up, or more of a challenge to make something as powerful?
It was interesting. It wasn’t a challenge, like a pressure thing. What was really cool about it was that it gave me the opportunity to do the kind of stuff that I wanted to do, that I dreamed about. That was the gratifying part. You always feel pressure, but it’s not externally – there’s always that pressure when you find something that you really enjoy. You can write songs a certain way, but then you should change it up to make sure you’re staying interested in what you’re doing. It was looking around for that thing that’s gonna capture [my] attention.
When we got together in Chicago during the mixing of The Animal Years, we talked about the comparisons you get to Springsteen and Dylan. I know you don’t buy into it, but do you wish the press would just drop it and judge you solely on what you produce?
Actually, it doesn’t bother me. You’d think it would, but it helps sometimes for people who are looking for something to have that label. I don’t believe it, you know – what I do is what I do. I take the long view on that stuff. It’s what you do over the course of your career that makes you into Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. Those guys exist because they’ve worked hard their entire lives, and they’re also the product of that historic time period. Their circumstances are different than mine. I certainly appreciate the compliment – it’s a huge compliment, totally – but I don’t see myself in that light.
What’s the significance of the new album’s title, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter?
I think of like Yosemite Sam singing several of the songs. They’re big, brash songs that are really intended to have a fair amount of humor in them. I like the idea of a title that would be so big that it’d be absurd. I’m hoping that people have enough sense of humor to know that I’m not serious. So far, nobody’s been like, “What an a-hole this guy is.” There was just so much gravity on the last record that I just wanted to go out and throw down a bit with this one.
Talk about the opening track “To the Dogs or Whoever.”
I just had so many ideas kicking around and so many things I was looking into. For instance, there are these three women – Florence Nightingale, Calamity Jane and Joan of Arc, all three of them called by voices, all three of them called dangerous or foolhardy. I thought there was such a similarity between all three. Then there’s Casey Jones and Casey at the Bat – two characters who are huge in American history and folklore. But it seems like no one’s ever talked about them together even though their circumstances are so similar. One was brought down by a curveball, and one was brought down by a curve in the track. I thought that was interesting. The song wasn’t supposed to make a whole lot of sense. It’s more of a collage, and each verse would have some sort of joke in it.
So, it was pieced together like “Thin Blue Flame” on the last record.
Yeah, on “Thin Blue Flame” I kind of touched the nail of what I wanted to do on this record. There was a feeling of spontaneity there that I knew I wanted.
You’ve said that Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits are influences. Songs like “Rumors” and “Next to the Last Romantic” sound like Townes and Waits in a barn with a bottle of whiskey.
Ha! Yeah, yeah. “Next to the Last Romantic” definitely has some Townes there, but that wasn’t really something I was going for. None of these songs have an inspiration in terms of another musician. It’s been a while since that’s the case. I get much more inspiration now from the last book I read or the last train I rode.
I know “Here at the Right Time” was an older song that didn’t find its place until The Animal Years. Have any of these been around for a while or are they all new songs?
I had “Empty Hearts” when I did The Animal Years, and I actually recorded it for that. But I wasn’t happy with the results. It felt a little too delicate, so I just held onto it not knowing that it would work so well on this one. I always like my records to end on a note that has some optimism to it, and “Empty Hearts” really worked for that. The other ones I worked on in the studio or just before then, like “The Temptation of Adam” or “Still Beating.”
What was it like working with Sam [Kassirer, keyboardist in Ritter’s touring band] as the producer this time around?
Sam’s just a genius. He knows me and Zack and the band really well. Sam just has an ear to find and fit just what I was looking for. It was a ball. We went there for three weeks, and it seemed like just a couple days. We were there, you know, working and then hanging out drinking beer and shooting BB guns. It was such a different experience.
You got a lot of attention for the political aspects of songs like “Girl in the War” and “Thin Blue Flame” on the last album. This one’s not as overtly political – was that a conscious decision?
When it comes to art, I think I make a fairly conscious decision to go political or not rather than the other way around. I never want my art to be mistaken for politics. If there’s something especially political that really pushes my art forward, then I’ll do it. But I don’t trust people who come out with a new political record every year. I don’t believe that pushes your art forward. I also think that at some point you’re preaching to the converted.
Are you backing any specific candidate in the 2008 election?
I think basically there’s gonna be a good change. I have been reading a book by Kevin Phillips called American Theocracy, and it’s incredible. It’s about the rise of religiously conservative political movement, which is what we have right now. I don’t know what’s gonna make that shift, but I do know that we have to stop kowtowing to political and religious interests. That’s not doing us any good at all. I’ll make up my mind, and I’ll definitely vote. But I’m not sure – nobody’s really impressed me yet. Maybe I’m just as susceptible as other people to believe the mass marketing. It really bugs me that I have opinions about people already when I don’t even know what they’re all about yet.
Top Photograph by Doug Rice