Josh Ritter (due Saturday, October 11, at the Paramount Theater as part of Swallow Hill's 35th Anniversary) is a gifted songwriter who has earned a bit of an international following for his imaginatively literate lyrics and simple yet sophisticated observational wisdom. In 2001, Ritter got a big break when he met Glen Hansard of the Irish band the Frames while playing an open mike down the street from where Hansard had a gig. Subsequently, Ritter was invited to play a month of shows in Ireland, where, instead of one or two songs at open mikes, he was playing half-hour sets every night. This helped him hone his craft as both a songwriter and a performer. Several albums and EPs later, Ritter has become one of today's most beloved and respected songwriters.
When it comes to songwriting, Ritter says that literature, even more than music, informs his craft.
"I think music creates a form," Ritter says, "but for me, songs are about ideas. I think when I was first getting obsessed with music, Bob Dylan was one of those lights for me. I was always impressed with the way he could say stuff. There was something about a lesson I was getting, and I thought that was really cool. But then you have a book that just kind of sweeps you away and envelops you. It's so fantastic to get carried away in a world for so long."
Like many worthwhile singer-songwriters, Ritter is difficult to categorize in terms of genre or sound, though his music has been called folk because of his roots in the music of Bob Dylan. It's also been dubbed Americana or merely rock. Ritter is typically accepting and philosophical about such considerations.
"I think you're always looking for a way for the words and the music to suddenly click magically into place, and for me, it is the most effective in my music when I'm playing guitar," Ritter says. "I'm totally at peace with what anyone calls it. If it's Americana, that's great. I think it's like rock and roll with lots of words.
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"I think one of the best things about music is that, give it a hundred years and it's all folk music, whether it's Aphex Twin, Radiohead or Katy Perry. It's music created in a time period, and we can look at the culture through that. I think books are certainly a huge part of that, because they influence so much of our present day. In that sense, I think you can go all the way back to the beginning. I'd certain say the Bible and Shakespeare are probably huge ones. When frontier people came and settled, they would only carry a couple of books. One of them might be Virgil and one of them might be the Bible. I love that stuff, and it's fun to see we're coming out of that time period. All of our songs have evolved in that same natural way, even though we have all these crazy technologies now."
Ritter adds that songs, unlike a heavy book, are portable. "You don't have to have anything written down, and it's still the same kind of perceived wisdom," he says. "When I hear a song that I love, there's so many lines that you can take with you and remember them and they're useful. I guess that's what folk music is -- the stuff that you remember, whether it's folk music or not."
For a guy that has made a career out of playing both solo and with his backing outfit, the Royal City Band, Ritter has seen many facets of the world of music as an active and prolific artist.
"I think the main thing that I would tell anybody, and the thing that I have grown to appreciate over time, is that you have to embrace the place where you are," Ritter says. "If you're starting out and you're going to play one song at an open mike or a coffeehouse, embrace that-- that's your job. I was doing open mikes for three or four years. It was two songs, one song. I did temp work, and everything but my job, I thought, were those shows. But over time you should be happy where you are. That and one prosaic thing: Keep a mailing list, and don't write people unless you've got something to say."
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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.