Josh Ritter talks about songwriting in metaphor, likening his practice to that of a courtroom artist, or “trying to describe objects as they’re flying by you.” He compares making a record to writing a novel — both of which he’s done. Over twenty years, the Idaho-born alt-country troubadour has put out nine studio albums and one novel, the latter of which combines hardscrabble history and fantasy.
Frequently considered one of the greatest living songwriters, Ritter writes narrative songs that draw on complex American mythos and an empathetic, romantic imagination.
In conversation, the leader of the Royal City Band is consistently optimistic and gracious: Ritter says he’ll “definitely” publish another novel, and that he can’t wait to play in the “natural frame” of Red Rocks again. From a tour stop in Arkansas, Ritter speaks for the first time about making his new album with Jason Isbell (out next year), as well as fatherhood and his “guiding light,” Joan Baez.
Westword: What can you tell me about the new album?
Josh Ritter: I try not to let the grass grow. I started thinking about what I could do to switch things up for myself, to keep myself on the edge. I thought it would be good to try to work with somebody new just for fun. I’ve always loved Isbell. I love the way he communicates with his band.
Where are you with the new album?
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This is my first time talking about it. It’s been joyful. I had to work hard to keep my mind open. It’s a little like doing a novel, where the first draft is there, and then you go and find the themes and things that stick out and hold the whole enterprise together. That’s the point where we’re at now.
How have you approached this new group of songs?
The record is a product of the time it’s made in, which is a very tumultuous one. The subject matter is tumultuous. But the great part is that it has the feeling of a true musical collaboration. Having [a song] come out of nowhere isn’t as interesting as being able to hear the organisms creating it — the human element of it.
How much distance do you need from personal experience in order to write?
I tend to be very obsessive. Records are usually catalogues of somebody’s obsessions over a period of time. I tend to be pretty immersive when I’m writing; I don’t try to separate myself out from the music. It’s like trying to describe objects as they’re flying by you. Or like we’re seeing all the time right now — those courtroom artists when they don’t allow cameras in and their job is to capture a moment in real time, using a medium that leaves a lot to the imagination. That’s how I feel like writing songs is. As you go on, the record starts to develop; themes start to jump out at you. But if I’m writing well, I’m not thinking about that in the moment.
Earlier this year, you wrote two songs for Joan Baez’s new album, Whistle Down the Wind. Can you talk about your relationship with an icon?
I love Joan. Very early on, she gave me the chance to tour with her, and taught me how to live on the bus and how to just survive. To get to see the world through her lens was an amazing experience. To see her on stage at night, watching her perform songs that she may have performed for years and years, but she made them new every night. She has been a real guiding light in my life, even when we don’t see each other all that often.
Did you compose the songs in Baez’s voice?
I thought about her voice all the time. It was an unbelievable scope to work within. Writing a song like “Silver Blade” was a thrill because one of her earliest masterpieces was “Silver Dagger,” and I got a chance to write a bookend to that. I got to write about a character I’d heard about in high school and that stuck with me and that has been out there in the world for so long, and I got to write the sequel.
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On Facebook, I read your beautiful narrative of meeting your second daughter, Moxie. How did your family come to adoption?
We talked about adoption on our first date, Haley [Tanner] and I, and it was something I hadn’t thought about, though I knew I wanted to have kids. But Haley helped me to imagine it. [Adopting an infant] feels just like meeting my other daughter, who’s five: There’s this little baby right there, and you have to show her the way. To see this little creature in the world for the first time — I’ll never forget it. Words fail when I try to talk about it.
Do you see fatherhood reflected in your music?
I don’t write specifically about my family, but there’s no way that a child can come into your life and not have an effect on everything. Having kids has opened up the scope of my empathy. As an artist, kids have this ability to get you out of the clouds and pull you back down to Earth and say, “What’s really important?” Often I don’t have as much time to write as I used to, but the time that I do have is full and it’s wild, and has its own joy that I could never have predicted.
Thursday, September 6, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, $39.95-$55, redrocksonline.com.