Josh Ritter Biography
Ritter doesn’t reinvent himself on The Animal Years; he simply sets aside traditional ideas of what a guitar-toting, folk-based troubadour should do. Looking to select a producer, Ritter chose a smart but decidedly out-of-left-field candidate: Brian Deck, a one-time member of Chicago indie rockers Red Red Meat, best known now for his forward-thinking work with Modest Mouse on The Moon and Antarctica and Iron and Wine on Our Endless Numbered Days.
“It was great working with Deck,” Ritter says. “I was very lucky. He was a guy, I felt, who was as weird as I was. There was stuff that I could bring up, like wanting “Monster Ballads” to sound like Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer,” and he didn’t bat an eye. He was just into the idea. So it was great - he was going to be my collaborator.”
They went to Bear Creek, a big barn of a studio outside of Seattle, isolated enough from the city to make an Idaho native like Ritter feel right at home. According to Ritter, Deck viewed the studio “as another instrument and the person playing that instrument was listening really hard to what was being said and what was being played.” On The Animal Years, the production never calls attention to itself, even though all the tracks were artfully layered, all the sounds carefully considered. It feels as if the songs are just being breathed into life then and there, and they practically demand to be listened to the old-fashioned way, start to finish, as an entire album. Ritter and Deck incorporate subtle electronic elements that gurgle and bleep underneath the conventional instrumentation on “Wolves” and they push piano and Hammond Organ to the forefront of “Monster Ballads,” accompanied by a shuffling, brushed snare rhythm. On the haunting “Idaho,” they just rely on a hint of acoustic guitar, the hum of the room and Ritter’s voice, which leaves words behind to fade out on a note of lonesome falsetto. As he relates, “I was in a huge barn late at night and I was playing the guitar as quietly as I could. ‘Idaho’ was kind of like a mistake, not something I had planned to record. We had been working on a song that was going nowhere and we were all getting frustrated. We took a break and I recorded that off the cuff just so I could feel like I had done something that day. It turned out so great and so bizarre. The two mikes on the vocals were between phases, there were all these things coming from the other mikes in the room that we had left on. I tried to do it over, but I couldn’t.”
Though Ritter places many of his story-songs in intimate settings, he’s not afraid to tackle big ideas and anthemic arrangements. The riveting opener “Girl in the War” and the dramatic “Thin Blue Flame,” perhaps the most audacious track Ritter has ever recorded, recall the genre-busting rock of artists like Bright Eyes and Wilco, but Ritter goes even further conceptually and emotionally. These songs represent perhaps the most eloquent expression to date from any pop artist of the physical, emotional and spiritual consequences of the Iraqi war and the divided state of our nation. “Girl in the War” is as stark and stirring as “Born In the U.S.A.,” and much more immediate. Ritter explores the deepening dread of the Middle East conflict, imagining his words as an epistle to St. Paul: “I’ve got a girl in the war, Paul, her eyes are like champagne/They sparkle, bubble over and in the morning all you’ve got is rain.”
On “Thin Blue Flame” Ritter steps out of the third person to face his audience directly and articulate his vision of a world in which religious calling becomes a battle cry and everything on earth is sacrificed in the name of heaven. His words combine apocalyptic, gospel-like testifying with dreamy, stream-of-consciousness poetry. As Ritter explains, “The word ‘apocalypse’ means unveiling, you know, not just the end of the world. In some of the real apocalyptic literature like The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost, or even Gravity’s Rainbow or Slaughterhouse Five, a person goes through a long series of trials and tribulations, seeing things and coming back with new knowledge and maybe new warnings. In the past year, we didn’t have to go anywhere to see those kinds of things. We all have TV. We all can see what’s going on and there’s no one who can say it’s a good thing. ‘Thin Blue Flame’ is a trip through what everybody can see. I was just writing down the images I saw as they came to me. I worked on it for a long time, my notebook was filled with ‘Thin Blue Flame’ for a year and a half.”
Ritter is comfortable with literary and historical allusions, and is as much in love with words as music, and that really shows in his lean, evocative narratives. He envisions The Animal Years as “an escape from the present,” a look back at an earlier time to make sense of what’s happening now. He likens the album to “a silent film -- a mysterious old movie reel unearthed somewhere - about America today.” For inspiration, Ritter went back to the work of Mark Twain and the letters of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams -- writers deeply concerned with the state of the union -- to study their own escapist impulses at critical times in our nation’s history.
Ritter came to music late in his teenage life, subsisting for many years on his folks’ meager record collection. It wasn’t until the 18 year-old found a copy of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline at a shop in his hometown of Moscow, Idaho and heard the Dylan/Johnny Cash duet of “Girl From the North Country,” that he was inspired to pick up a guitar. As he once told No Depression, “Hearing that record the first time was like meeting that person you know you’re going to marry.” When he moved east to attend Oberlin College in Athens, Ohio, he thought he’d follow his parents into neuroscience, but soon switched to an American Studies curriculum that he more or less devised for himself, with an emphasis on the history of folk music. Once he’d finished college, he migrated to Boston, determined to find a niche as a singer-songwriter.
“There were stories about John Prine, Tracy Chapman, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen,” he says. “All these people started playing at these little coffee shops. I figured that was the way to do it. I was working in Rhode Island at a typically awful temp job and doing open mikes in Boston, three or four of them a week. About a year into that, I met the Frames, a great Irish band, who were playing just down the street at T.T. the Bear’s. They came down to the open mike where I was performing to have a drink. They heard me play one song and then they invited me to come over and open all their shows when For The Birds came out. My first one was at Whelan’s in Dublin, opening for the Frames in front of 400 people. Oh man, it felt like everything was coming to fruition and I was right. I could do it. People maybe would want to hear this stuff. I sold 10 CDs that night and I felt like the richest man in the world.”
His success in Ireland soon built to substantially large audiences, but spreading the word in the United States required even more hard work, and countless days and nights on the road. His tenacity paid off as he built a loyal and ever-larger cult following via word of mouth and some great reviews. The Animal Years refers to the long, grueling time he spent touring behind Hello Starling, a Herculean effort that ultimately yielded him the V2 deal and the chance to kick back -- for a few weeks at least -- at the new house he bought in rural Idaho.
“The title had been in my head for a while and I tried to convince myself it wasn’t the one I should use,” Ritter admits, “but for me it was perfect. I was thinking back on the period of my life leading up to this record and my experience up to that point was, you get up, you start to play music and you tour. It’s such a strange life style. In a lot of ways I felt like I became this thing, half-man, half-animal, out in the middle of the country, playing. It was so bizarre. Everyone else is living their lives and doing things that are bit more normal …Man, after a year and a half on the road, 16 months of touring for Hello Starling, I became the proto-hunter-gatherer, going out wherever and doing stuff and trying to find a way to make sense in a human way. But, really, in the end, you’re just trying to get food in your mouth. I think back on that time and feel definitely, those were my animal years.”
Ritter has decidedly left those days behind. The Animal Years is the sound of a profoundly human future.