Josh Ritter interview & photos by Brian D’Ambrosio
High Moments: Josh Ritter’s Rousing Outlook
“Peak experiences” is what Abraham Maslow called them. The high moments of life where we joyfully find ourselves catapulted beyond the confines of the mundane and ordinary.
Josh Ritter’s peak experiences exude every time he performs on the stage. No energy shortage here. The artist in Ritter understands that while even the most beautiful experiences come and go, the more deeply that he is into his art and the moment, the deeper the mutual encounter.
“The stage is one of the few places for strangers to be together and have an experience together,” said Ritter. “That’s very rare today and it is super cool. You have to honor that and love the people that are in front of you.
“It’s an ongoing miracle that people still drag themselves out the door to a show and hang out with strangers to see, hear music. In this age, if people come, there is no reason not to be overcome with some kind of joy that you’re playing as a part of someone’s life for an evening.”
The native Idahoan toured extensively this fall promoting “Spectral Lines,” his eleventh album. Ritter says that the album – another hard, offensive move on the musical chess board defining his career – came forcefully and naturally to him; he said he felt “connected” to both the music and the lyrics and that he was “blown away” by how jagged and abrupt and abnormally inborn it all felt.
“Every single time I finished a thought or an idea, I thought I was on top of the world,” said Ritter, 47. “After eleven records, and as time has passed, I have a larger view of music and the world, and I feel like I can go further and further out on a whim. I don’t want to end up a medley artist. I want to continue to do different things and go in strange directions, do more of the arranging and producing myself. I had some trepidations going in, but I was scared of pulling the reigns back.”
Ritter had many different voices and impulses coming at him, but he burned toward his fate with unflappable command and bold ingenuity. Whether or not others find its content worthy of consideration or resonate is secondary; he has gained strength from it.
“My relationship with the audience and listeners has always been based on trust,” said Ritter. “There is the trust that I’m going to go make the things I’m going to make and that I’m going to show a real effort and that it’s been presented and labored over with the precision I want. It may not be your favorite or you may be confused by it, but sometimes what becomes classic is what at the time was oddball or caused consternation, like Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait.”
Ritter’s back catalogue is unmistakably brined in Idaho. “There is a regional quality to my music still today, I’m sure,” said Ritter. “Regional is a way of behaving, considering, and expressing things. And the West just feels familiar – it feels like the right place. And Idaho is expansive, big sky, windswept and lonesome. You can shout as loud as you want in Idaho.”
In 1994, Ritter left his hometown of Moscow, Idaho, and headed to Oberlin College with the end of studying neuroscience, just like his parents (Bob and Sue Ritter, who are both neuroscience professors at the University of Washington). He’d learned to play guitar in high school and jotted down songs as a hobby. But at Oberlin, he found himself making music and performing live at open mic nights. He quickly earned a following on campus. Ritter’s freshman roommate, Darius Zelkha, became his best friend and longtime manager. He met his Royal City Band bass player, Zack Hickman, at Oberlin, too – they’ve been playing together since.
Eleven albums and a vast array of memorable compositions later, Ritter’s music still defies simple categorization and he adheres to the belief that his sound must be constantly, calculatingly sprouting. “Styles are good as far as bringing you fresh ideas. But, if you try to play a certain style, you’re always contributing to a style, no matter if you are paying homage or trying to develop new material.”
The splendor of touring, of playing for the moment, dazzles him. It is very strong, almost palpable, and others can feel it too.
“Touring requires a certain constitution,” said Ritter, who stays healthy by running marathons. “Touring is like collecting pieces or scraps from all over the world, and you’re taking them home and putting them together. Touring just forces new ideas.”
Ritter’s star continues to rise, in large part because of his undiminished intensity and his willingness to heed to what feels to him like a vortex of artistic energy.
“I am drawn in to following my art,” said Ritter. “Not much else matters nearly as much as just making a living and enjoying your life, and writing. It’s not that I want a car or a new this or that, I just want to continue writing songs – and I want to do it the way I feel I need to do it.”
Diverse cross-creativity represents the essence of his work. Several years ago, his first novel, Bright’s Passage, by the Random House imprint Dial Press, was met with critical acclaim. O, the Oprah Magazine even selected the novel for its summer reading list. While the sacredness of songwriting and performing is “the true experience,” Ritter said that all the things that truly matter – creativity, joy, faith, beauty, inner peace – arise from what is beyond the horizon.
“There is no failure in art,” said Ritter. “Art, to me, is setting realistic goals. It’s about being excited to see what comes next and the excitement for the future.”
Check out his tour dates and more on his website here: https://joshritter.com
Enjoy our previous coverage here: Show Review: Josh Ritter and Amanda Shires Played Standouts on Big Four Lawn in Louisville
Brian D’Ambrosio is a music journalist and author living in and writing from Montana and New Mexico. He may be reached at email@example.com