By Jim Morrison
For Josh Ritter, the journey to his new album began with a family road trip from Brooklyn to his boyhood hometown in Idaho, where his mother was in the final steep decline of ovarian cancer.
It was death in the time of COVID. There was no vaccine. His partner, novelist Haley Tanner, and their daughters, then eight and three, drove a few hours a day and stayed in ghostly hotels, emptied by an unholy virus.
“It was absolutely psychedelic at this time, trying to get out to Idaho,” he recalls.
Though it seems ridiculous now, he wondered why he couldn’t write during those days. Why is nothing coming to me? he thought. Why do I not hear the voices?
“It’s taken so long to realize that was a time when all of us were being attacked,” he says. “And the idea of making art in the middle of being attacked is hard to hard to countenance. It took a little while then I started to realize the enormity of things. ”
The enormity of things was the impending death of his mother seven years after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. He was prepared. He knew from the beginning she would not escape. Returning home also offered a bittersweet window into his childhood for his daughters. They trudged through the snow at the playground. They explored the town. He remembered and then questioned those remembrances.
“I was profoundly lucky for my own personality to have grown up really in the woods, really out there,” he says, remembering the scale of the logging roads and equipment and the nowhere of the woods. “It was wonderful and mythic and giant.”
For his children, it was foreign, expansive in an unaccustomed way. “I wanted them to see this giant place because their giant world is the city,” he adds. “I wanted them to see mine and when we got there, it was mixed with just such tragedy. It was winter and the pandemic had everybody inside. The town felt rundown and tired. And the woods, we couldn’t get back there.”
“It was a funny thing because I was forced to see a whole other side and feel like, okay, what was the place that I grew up? Was it this same place? And how have I changed? Am I the same as this town? You know those crazy deep rabbit holes you go into in your travels? And maybe that’s why they’re such special places for good or bad.”
He wrote the first song for the album, “For Your Soul,” in that hometown, Moscow, Idaho. Like much of the album, it’s more atmospheric, more about feelings, than about the characters and narratives that often appear in Ritter’s albums. “It came to me while I was looking in the mirror,” he says. “I remember a lot of mirror time during that period looking in the mirror and saying ‘Are you worthy of this experience? Are you ready for this experience that’s about to overtake you?”
That experience coupled with a reunion with producer Sam Kassirer, a longtime collaborator, created “Spectral Lines,” an album showcasing Ritter digging deep, revealing a side he’s kept to himself. The sound is often atmospheric, otherworldly.
“I chose songs that feel like they came to me more in a visceral way, then say, well, I’m sitting down to write a longer narrative,” he says. “I wanted them to feel and come across as emotions. And so those ones are spookier.”
The album opens with a spoken-word hymn, “Sawgrass,” followed by “Honey I Do,” where he sings about being broken and “all blues.”
The song stuck with him, even though it appeared in just minutes. “I had a message that I wanted to put out there, which is like, listen, I feel this way, too, sometimes, ” he explains. “I knew I didn’t want to elaborate on it. I didn’t want to mitigate the statement…I thought if I can use this moment when I’m feeling this way and use it for something that’s reaching outwards, maybe that’ll turn it into a positive.”
While the album is not focused on loss, Ritter says his mother’s death pushed him to unveil another side. “With each new stage of life you go through, we all have to kind of reorient ourselves a little bit and with the death of somebody like a mother, I was forced to realize there is a side of my personality that is aw-shucks and happy-go-lucky. But I tend to protect people from the other side. And that other side can be a very, very strange and cold, lonely place,” he explains. “This is not a grief-filled record, but I definitely pay credence to that and pay credence to the idea that I sometimes have longed for communion with people that I can’t spend time with.”
Ritter brings his Royal City Band to the Perry Pavilion’s North Shore Point Downtown series with the Virginia Arts Festival on May 7. Rising songwriter Adeem the Artist opens. Ritter’s show is part of a series that also features Leyla McCalla, Sierra Hull, American Aquarium, Valerie June, and Over the Rhine.
He says growing up in Idaho the only thing he was good at was reading. That led to songs and songwriting, but it was something he did solo, a refuge and a language of his own. Ritter left for Oberlin College, a creative incubator for artists like Rhiannon Giddens, Liz Phair, Ed Helms, Lena Dunham, Bobby McFerrin, and Karen O.
There, he says to graduate he created an independent study program on the confluence of Christianity, industrialization, and narrative folk music. He became fascinated by the sturdiness of a line in a song like “Silver Dagger” that was passed down through the generations and recorded by many, including Joan Baez. He realized that he wanted to write that kind of song, songs with characters and stories that listeners would carry with them over the years.
He recorded his first album, “Josh Ritter,” in a studio on campus. He knew he needed to move to a big city, but he feared New York. So he moved to Providence and worked temp jobs for two weeks at a time, then stopped for two weeks to live on ramen and book shows. Every Tuesday and Wednesday he finished his temp job, usually hospital filing, and drove into Boston to play open mics.
“It was my job,” he says. “You had to get in early to get your name in and all that stuff. But, it was absolutely the most important stage of my artistic life because I went from playing the songs for myself in my bedroom to learning how to play them live, to learn when an audience wouldn’t want to hear something and needed a song that was lighter than the guy that came before me because he had just ruined the vibe.”
He met Glen Hansard of The Frames one night when he came in to sing with a friend. They got to know each other a little, leading to an invitation to open for The Frames in Ireland. It was before 9/11. Flights were cheap. He’d go back and forth between Boston and Ireland, where he still has a devoted fanbase. “Me and Jiggs” from his debut became a hit there.
Jim Olsen of the boutique label, Signature Sounds, remastered and released his debut. “It’s funny at the time, my relationship with that was well, of course, course, this would happen,” he says. “Now, I see how fortunate many capricious things happened and the generosity and trust that was placed in me, at a time when I was basically just an explosion of a human being. I’m so indebted to all those people who gave me my chance.”
A string of critically-acclaimed albums followed including “Golden Age of Radio,” “The Animal Years,” “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter,” “Sermon on the Rocks” and “Fever Breaks,” produced by Jason Isbell. Stephen King raved about Ritter’s songwriting in an essay. Paste magazine named him one of the 100 best-living songwriters. The hit-series, “Billions,” featured “Homecoming” on a show.
Meanwhile, the restless Ritter branched out into painting and writing. He’s published two novels, including the most recent, “The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All,” told from the perspective of a 99-year-old who is among the last of the lumberjacks in an Idaho timber town.
Ritter notes that the wheat fields of Idaho and Washington become depleted after time and need to be recharged with the plantings of legumes and other crops. Songwriting is his wheat field. Novels and paintings are his legumes.
“Writing for me and painting is a perfect way to let my songwriter brain, which is always going, turn off for a little while, just shut up for a little while. I love writing songs, but it gets very tiring. So writing prose and painting are their own art forms. They’re giving me the time I need away from my songs so that I can write better.”
The Virginia Arts Festival with North Shore Point Downtown at the Perry Pavilion
May 7 – Josh Ritter with the Royal City Band
May 10 – Leyla McCalla
May 18 – Sierra Hull
June 1 – American Aquarium
June 7 – Valerie June
June 8 – Over the Rhine
For info at VAfest.org