Singer-songwriter/guitarist Josh Ritter is playing Red Butte this Thursday with JJ Grey and Mofro. Recently, Salt Lake Magazine spoke to Ritter by phone to chat about how he defines his music, his transition from scientist to musician, and the real value of Beyonce's "Lemonade."
SLM: I wanted to talk to you first about Salt Lake, cause you’re from Idaho, right? Your shows here always feel like they’ve got a kind of hometown feel. Does that feel true for you?
JR: Oh, absolutely. We’re attached at the hip. I love playing in Salt Lake, and I totally consider it a hometown show.
SLM: Your parents are still in Moscow, Idaho?
JR: Yeah, they’re going to try to come down to the Salt Lake show.
SLM: How do you define your music? Do you consider it folk?
JR: You know, I’ve always felt like sometimes people get up in arms about how music is defined, but I don’t think it’s my job. I feel like my job is to write music and it will fit somewhere. If it helps people to find it by saying it’s folk music or by saying it’s rock 'n' roll with lots of words, I’m totally happy about however it’s described. There’s room enough for everybody.
SLM: So rock 'n' roll with lots of words is an interesting way to describe it, because your lyrics are dense, I mean there’s a lot to dissect. Is there something you credit that songwriting style to?
JR: I guess it’s mostly because a lot of my favorite writers write densely - Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Lucinda Williams. I like that style - I like cramming the words in. I try not to do it all the time, but it’s a joy for me to find that blank sheet of paper and make a pattern out of all those words.
SLM: I saw that you’re working on a record of cowboy songs with Bob Weir? How did that come about?
JR: My guitar player has been playing with Weir for a number of projects for a while. Weir mentioned that he wanted to make a record of cowboy songs that he remembered from being a ranch hand, before the Grateful Dead. I kind of flippantly threw myself out there as the one who would write these cowboy songs, and he really thought they were cool. And being the open-minded, generous, cool guy that he is, he started to record them and we started to work together. I’m really kind of stunned that it actually happened, and it's such a fun project for me to spend time on.
SLM: What is the difference between writing songs and writing the novel that you released in 2011?
JR: There’s really no difference that I can see, except that the novel is longer. And at the end of every day, you may not have something to show like you do with songwriting. I couldn’t get that burst of adrenaline from sharing songs at the end of the day as a novelist. It's one of the loneliest arts that requires such strength, but at the end of the day, the mechanism is the same. You’re just trying to find the perfect word and stick the perfect word next to it. I hope to write another one soon, because I think I learned a lot from it.
SLM: The thing we talk about here at the office is that when words are your trade, sometimes they’re there and they’re plentiful, and sometimes they’re just not, and that results in a tough day. Do you ever have that 'word fatigue'?
JR: Yeah, definitely. When you’re a writer and you can’t write, then what are you? I read once that the price of being an artist is being a of satisfaction hoping, hoping that they come.
SLM: You went to college in Ohio, at Oberlin. You were studying neuroscience like your parents at first, what made you turn to music instead?
JR: I always thought that I would play music and maybe have a career on the weekends. I thought I would do my real work during the week, and then jump on stage Friday-Sunday. I started to realize what I had was a chance to play music all the time, and I decided I would give myself four years of temp-working and playing music. That's kind of how I made the switch from science to music. My parents have always been super supportive. I feel like I have a career like my parents do, where they love what they do and get to explore the world. I get to do that same thing in my own way.
SLM: It’s interesting that both parts of your brain worked well enough for you to be good at science and music.
JR: Actually, they didn't. I had a complete illusion that I would be good at science. I was tremendously bad at organic chemistry and the basics of biology. I think what I really loved were scientists, because they seemed so much like artists. They seemed like wackos who couldn’t live in reality, and I thought that was such an interesting way to live, because I hadn’t really discovered artists yet.
SLM: You did a semester abroad at the University of Edinborough because it has a folk music archive. Even though you don’t define yourself as folk, do you think folk music is still defining the story of America?
JR: I would say that folk music is the thing that tells the story of America, but I think folk music is whatever you think it is, like “Work” or “Lemonade” or any music that tells a story that everyone can relate to. Down the road, we’re going to be able to tell a lot about America at this time by the types of music that are coming out, which is why I don’t think I hold to the idea that folk music is any one thing. It’s just a catch-all for the things that we remember.
SLM: What has been on repeat in your car and on your iTunes?
JR: I’m listening to Kanye West’s new record, which is a huge, beautiful, psychotic mess. It’s just so interesting, and it's unhinged artistic freedom.