This post has left a very bittersweet taste in my mouth. It’s been nothing but sweet in preparing/creating it, but nothing but bitterly awful in formatting and whatnot. Regardless, its great to finally it share it with everyone and if the title hasn’t given away the surprise, then now would be opportune time to intriguingly raise your eyebrows.
Josh Ritter‘s new album The Animal Years is slated for American release this coming Tuesday (April 11). I made a brief post on his last album some time ago, but didn’t devote the time and excitement to his music like I should’ve. Before my adventures at Bonnaroo last year, I made a point to buy a bunch of CDs from a lot of the acts that I wasn’t familiar with. Luckily, at the time, Josh Ritter was one of those acts. I bought his last album, Hello Starling, and immensely enjoyed a lot of the songs from the record. I was really excited about getting the chance to see him live… But not as excited as he was to perform. His enthusiasm, ear to ear grin, bouncing off the walls stage presence, and audience interaction were enough to attract the attention of any festival passer-byer, and once Mr. Ritter has your attention there is nothing you can do but sit back and let him dazzle you.
Not even a year after my first Josh Ritter encounter, he began working on his latest album The Animal Years. His latest endeavor has already released to a Ritter-crazed fanbase in Europe and with any luck, the crazed fandom is going to start appearing in the States. His latest release is some great great work – easily the best of his career. He worked with famed producer Brian Deck (formerly of Red Red Meat and known for his work on Modest Mouse’s and Iron and Wine’s The Moon & Antarctica and The Creek Drank The Cradle respectively) who was able to take the essence of Josh Ritter’s sound and push it to boundaries never heard before on his previous albums.
The album boasts a musical diversity and raw energy that, when compared to earlier releases, seems superior in sound and style. The first single, Girl In The War, is a politically driven track with a great tune and even better lyrics that lures the audience in with soft spoken vocals and dramatic piano influenced melodies. Other tracks such as Thin Blue Flame and Wolves are delivered with enthusiastic guitar complimented by haunting piano.
Below are a couple tracks from his latest album followed by an interview that I got to conduct with him on Tuesday afternoon, right before he was leaving for Canada! Enjoy the tunes and more importantly some of the interesting things he has to say about the album, diamond commercials, and eating Chinese food before going on stage.
Nathaniel’s iGIF Exclusive Josh Ritter Interview
iGIF: First things first, I am sure a lot people are familiar with Brian Deck of Red Red Meat and his work with Modest Mouse and Iron Wine. How was it working with Deck on your latest album?
Josh Ritter: Man, it was such a treat. He has the type of ability to push you in the right direction without telling you what to do or how to do it. He would challenge us and make us feel like explorers, you know? And that’s a rare talent to have anymore, especially when I was trying to pick a producer. It kept feeling like I was asking them questions, applying for a job with them. When they were the ones who would be working with my music and songs. Deck came in and was like, “These are some weird songs. Let’s give it a shot.” He just managed to open the album up to a whole nother world.
Yeah, it definitely sounds like it is another world. The Animal Years does a great job of capturing the essence of your music, yet emphasizing and utilizing far more instruments and talents than your previous records. One of the songs that really stick out like a sore thumb (in a good way) is Thin Blue Flame. It’s a song of epic proportions, clocking in around 9 and half minutes, how did you go about writing such a tune?
Yeah, it’s definitely a different song than anything I’ve ever recorded. There is a feeling that you get when you write a song, a feeling that you just need to get it out. Usually when you write it out, the feeling passes. With Thin Blue Flame, the feeling would never pass so I just had to keep writing and writing. It was one of those songs that seemed to never end, I’d write lines and then come back a few days later and have more lines to add.
Thin Blue Flame being one of them, I know there are a lot of politically charged songs on this record (Girl in The War). Did this change your writing style at all?
Not a whole lot, I would consistently be writing a lot still but I felt the need to approach some things in a different light on Animal Years. I kept wondering, especially with Thin Blue Flame, am I getting through? I wanted to be able to reach listeners on a different level and not, essentially, make a sound like that of Hello Starling over again. You tend to get bored and then look around for something new, or a new way to go about things. Like, you might get bored of one language and learn a new one.. Change things up a little bit.
Speaking of changing things up, weren’t you majoring in neuroscience?
Haha, yeah! Funny how things tend to change. I remember deciding I didn’t want to go into neuroscience when I was tanking this one chemistry class, and it wasn’t from a lack of trying. I was.. [trails off when I interrupt with a quick question]
You attended Oberlin, right?
Yeah, I did!
Yeah, I was actually on the verge of going there but ended up pulling out at the last minute. I know they have a stellar music conservatory, like Top 5 in the nation; did you ever get your feet wet in it?
Oh man, there are a lot of talented musicians at Oberlin- especially in the conservatory. But yeah, when I changed my major to an independent concentration on music, I took a few classes in the conservatory. They were really neat.
How awesome was it to make your own major in music?
It was great, I basically just got to listen to records all day and play music.
Wow. I’m envious. So, back to the new CD for a bit.. do you have any videos planned? A Girl In The War video to instantaneously turn you into a TRL heartthrob?
Haha. I’m not sure that’s in the works, but it’s funny that you mention a video because we just finished shooting one a little while ago. It wasn’t for Girl In The War, but for Lillian [Egypt]. It was a lot of fun and happened rather spontaneously. Brian Deck actually appears in the video, which was directed by Joshua Tree. He said to me, “We’re gonna make this video and I’m gonna be in it.” It’s filmed in the old 1920’s type of style. Silent movie-ish. It was a lot of fun and a good time. But, I’m actually getting ready to shoot a video for Girl In The War really soon.
That’s great. Now, I first got to see you live last year at Bonnaroo. It was actually the first day of the festival and you were the very first act to go on sometime around noon. You seemed so incredibly enthralled by the turnout and couldn’t stop smiling almost like a kid on Christmas. Is that a genuine reaction from you or were you really shocked?
Man, it was definitely a combo of both. I’m always excited to play and the turnout, no matter where I am playing, is always appreciated. I mean, it shows that people are listening to what you’re making and (even better) are actually enjoying and supporting what you’re doing. Bonnaroo was just so great for a bunch of reasons, really. I had just opened for My Morning Jacket the night before in Knoxville, and that was intense. That same night I had just signed on buying my own house back in Idaho, so that show at Bonnaroo was my first day of home ownership. Really, just the magnitude hit me on stage that people from all over the country were coming to this festival and there were a ton at my stage. It was just an awesome experience.
Definitely, and I walked over to the stage next to yours after the set to see The Frames play. Didn’t you tour with them early on in your career?
Yeah, back when I was playing some coffee shops on the East Coast they were in the same town as me and actually came down to catch a little bit of the show. One thing led to another and I ended up opening for them when they headed back [to their homeland] Ireland.
Is that how you built such a cult following in Ireland?
Yeah, I mean The Frames are huge over there to begin with- so opening for them doesn’t exactly hurt your reputation amongst the Irish.
I noticed on your Live EP you released (that was recorded in Dublin) that the fans sound absolutely insane and even start singing along with you. I mean, why do you think that the Irish so readily got behind you and your music and that the majority of people in the States are just now realizing your greatness with the release of Animal Years?
Ireland is great, and a big factor is the size of it. You have an entire country that could fit inside the state of Montana, so it’s a lot easier to connect with people intimately over there. Plus, the media/press in Ireland is a totally different playing field compared to that in America.
So, you don’t think it has something to do with the link between the potato rich state of Idaho and the potato rich country of Ireland?
You got it! All it is, really, is a complex carbohydrate system.
Haha. Do you tend to write more or the road or at home?
Hmm. That’s kind of tough.. I think I write more at home though. On the road I tend to collect more experiences, situations, knowledge, and whatnot. Kind of like how a bird goes out and collects all the different things to construct a nest with and then brings it back to build something out of it. I do that with songs and build a record out of it.
You’re quite the analogy misfit, eh?
Haha. Hey, whatever works!
I’m sure, like many artists, you never stop writing songs…how do you end up picking which track to keep and discard for albums?
I probably end up using half of what I write, but I never really want to discard a song. Sometimes I’ll write a song that flows out of me, almost too easily and I’ll second-guess myself like, “Wait a second, this just seems too easy.” Other times I’ll be completely psyched about a song and go to bed with it in my head..wake up the next morning like, “What in the world was I thinking?” Sort of like if you got a bright red tux to wear to prom thinking it was the greatest idea ever, then after prom you look back at all the pictures thinking, “Man…What in God’s name was I doing?”
You’ve officially been promoted from analogy misfit to analogy connoisseur.
How does it feel going from this folk singer in Idaho, who got into music because of a Bob Dylan record, to being compared to the next Bob Dylan?
It’s amazing, literally a dream come true. To be able to support yourself and work by means of music, and then have your work acknowledged is amazing. At the same time it can be a little nerve racking. You can hear those types of things and start to believe it, and once you believe it you’re almost pressured to be it. Become the next so and so, or what have you, and then it’s like you’re following the followers. It’s flattering, but kept in perspective.
Have you always been flying solo or did you start in a band?
I don’t like to think I am flying solo, because I love playing with my band on stage and in the studio. But, I’ve never been in any other projects other than what I’ve been doing in the past years. I never played in a band until I got a band to perform with, too.
Speaking of performing, I know firsthand that your live sets are awesome. With downloading and blogging becoming a near mainstream commodity, a lot of artists have to rely on their live shows to be profitable. What is your stance on the new downloading era?
I don’t have a problem with it, really. There are a ton of bands, myself probably included, that wouldn’t be nearly as big as they are without the help of downloads and blogs. I think it’s a whole new wave of technology really, how the radio was for singers when it first came out. It all depends on what the artist wants to make of it, they can capitalize of it or ruin it for themselves. So, it’s really a new path that is reshaping the industry and each artist can tame it how they want.
That’s a really good and open viewpoint to have. It’s good to know you’re no Lars Ulrich.
Yeah! Hahaha! At the same time, I hope I can use the downloading era too. I’ll tell you what, I am a complete failure when it comes to computers. It’s awful.
How about endorsements and whatnot? Would you want your songs to appear in commercials or do you think that’s “selling out”?
I have a lot of mixed feelings about commercials and whatnot. Being a musician, I can understand why other artists let companies use their songs in a commercial. Being on the road for over a year with 6 other guys to feed and pay, if one commercial pays for all of that, I can see why people do it. So, I am not opposed to the idea fully but I would definitely want to know what my song would be used for. See, I don’t want my music to be used in a diamond commercial. Something just seems off with that one.
I don’t know man, I just don’t see diamonds and my music colliding in this commercial cinematography.
Fair enough, then. How was it recording at Bear Creek?
It was great. It’s a really nice and secluded studio.
Yeah, I know the setup isn’t like a lot of traditional studios and they offer an old 1920’s piano and a pump organ to play. Did you do anything different when it came to utilizing your environment at Bear Creek?
Yeah, Bear Creek is unique in that it really challenges musicians to push their songs in different directions. On this album it was neat to watch how well the band members were in tune with the music they were playing. A lot of the sounds on this album are all-natural too, I think we only ended up adding effects to one song on the entire record. We just managed to put mics in different places around the studio to create our own, more natural effects.
Well, I know you’re heading out the door getting ready to go up to Canada to promote the new record, so I’ll just ask a few quickies before you go.
Sounds like fun.
What was your most embarrassing moment on stage?
I passed out in Ireland on stage.
Just rock a little too hard?
Yeah, I guess that would be a good excuse. I think it was the Chinese food I ate earlier. I violated the ancient Rock n’ Roll rule: never by Chinese food from a man named Shana. It was awful, I just passed out and the show ended and I woke up in the hospital in shock.
Hahaha. I know I shouldn’t be laughing at that, but something about watching you fall over with a guitar in your hands just puts an amusing image in my head.
I can see why, haha.
If you could meet/work(ed) with one artist, who would it be?
Leonard Cohen. Hanging with Lenny would be awesome.
Do you like playing live or recording better?
Live, for sure. Definitely live.
What is the thing you miss the most when on the road?
Hmm. (silence) Hm. I’m gonna have to go with making coffee in my own kitchen on Monday mornings.
You’re one of the rare breeds that enjoy Monday mornings?
When I get to spend them at home, yes.
Well, hey man. Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. The new album is amazing, so I’m sure the Irish following you’ve amassed is gonna get Americanized here pretty soon. I look forward to catching you on tour in a couple of weeks.
Anytime, thanks for taking the time to interview me and listening to the music. I hope to see you at the show and thanks for running such a great blog, keep up the great work. Tell all the readers I said, “Hey!”
After he hung up the phone, I was convinced he was one of the most sincere and humble people I have ever met. With that in mind, buy the CD and don’t forget to say “Hi” back to Josh when you see him in concert!