Sundance Interview: Josh Ritter talks songwriting, his new novel and 'blood and guts'
PARK CITY—Josh Ritter has been named one of the “100 Greatest Living Songwriters” by Paste Magazine for good reason. As he showed here in his two packed shows at the ASCAP Cafe, his songwriting is literate and beautifully detailed, and often wrapped in shimmering melodies. He put it best himself when he told The New York Times, “I play rock ‘n’ roll with lots of words.” If Bob Dylan, John Prine and Paul Simon had a collective son, he’d sound like Ritter. We spent a few minutes with Ritter after his second performance at Sundance and talked about his disdain for preachy songs, his first novel, and bruised hearts. His song “Change of Time” can also be heard in the trailer for Natalie Portman’s new movie, “The Other Woman.”
This is your second time performing at Sundance. What do you get out of it?
Oh, it’s amazing. For me, any show that’s a little different than normal is always good. I love performing, i love touring and it’s just really great, but when you get a chance to come and see how the other half, the movie community, lives, it puts your own life and what you’re doing in perspective. I love it because it’s out of the ordinary.
You’re playing solo here instead of with your full band. How is that different for you?
You have an enormous amount of freedom. If something’s not going a certain way, you just change it. You don’t have to explain to the drummer later. My band, they cover up most of my mistakes. Most of the time, anything that happens on stage, whether it’s acting or playing music, it’s kind of a metaphor for the rest of my life. You go up on stage to remind yourself that it’s normal to mess up and it’s normal for things to go bad and to go from bad to worse and it’s all about how you handle it. And that is something that certainly shows up more when you’re playing solo. When you fall down, no one is there to pick you up.
One of your songs, “Change of Time” was used in “Parenthood” and in the trailer for Natalie Portman’s new film, “The Other Woman.” What do placements mean to you in terms of financial security and exposure.
My personal feeling on this stuff is we follow our heroes and we look up to them for the choices they make. I’ve always appreciated the high degree of artistic integrity, but I believe that those sorts of perimeters change over time. It’s impossible to sell a million records now unless you’re one of a very few people and, for someone like me, the chance to write more songs is kind of paramount and if [the placement] can introduce people to my music and it can help me pay the bills and bring my band on the road, all that stuff is fantastic. There is stuff I wouldn’t authorize my music to play for, but those decisions are made at the time and it’s always a pleasure when somebody finds a spot for something that is in part of their vision.
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What’s something you wouldn’t do?
Those things change. Obviously I wouldn’t do anything for tobacco. There are things that I find reprehensible. I probably would not feel comfortable with my stuff being used at the Republican National Convention (laughs)...I feel once you record a song, the song is yours, but it’s not really yours anymore. It’s exciting to see where songs go, you know. And it’s a new thing to me. I don’t feel any sadness that they go off and go other stuff. I’m proud if that happens.
An artist once told me that he’ll walk through his room of guitars and one of them will call to him with a new song. Does that ever happen to you?
I wish that would happen to me! If if did, that would be amazing. I always think of someone asked Leonard Cohen, “Where do you go to get all the good songs?” And he said, ‘if I knew, I’d go there more often.” I really think that’s true. The wonder is that it happens at all. If you write and you write and write and it’s all bad and one day something good happens and, like Hemingway says, you get lucky and you write better than you can. Those are the moments you hang on for, but you gotta write through them. I never felt like writing was easy, but it’s never been tortured. It’s a work ethic. I have a thing in my head where i picture an eye, like an iris, and I picture it getting bigger and the stuff kind of coming through it.
In “Troubadours,” a documentary that premiered here, Carole King talks about being a conduit for God, or a higher power, or whatever you want to call it, coming through her when she writes songs.
No way, I’m giving no credit to anybody else (laughs).
What strikes me about your songs is that they are so literate without ever bring pretentious. Is that a struggle?
No. I don’t like to ever get preached to in songs. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like protest songs very much. I don’t like to be taught because I feel like once you have a microphone in front of you, if you have it in front of you enough, your natural inclination is to think that you have actually something to tell people that they don’t know already. And I feel that everybody knows all the big stuff; it’s just saying it in a new way. And that helps me. When I’ve fallen in love with people’s songs and their music, it’s not because they taught me anything new. They just helped me to understand something and see it from a different angle.
Your first novel, “Bright’s Passage,” is coming out this year via a Random House imprint. What is it about?
It’s about a kind of sweet normal guy from West Virginia. He goes to the first World War and he comes back and he has an angel. And it’s about him and this angel escaping this wildfire for five days. It’s sort of this short little comedy, you know.
Valentine’s Day is coming up and you're hosting The Valentine’s Day Brawl, a series of four shows where fans can write dedications for you to read on stage. What’s that all about?
Having gone through my own sort of Valentine’s Day drama over the last little while, I’m excited to have a great party that looks at the Valentine’s Day from all angles. We’re going to have slow dances, we’re going to have song dedications, we’re going to have voodoo dolls. I always thought Valentine’s Day was like New Year’s. The pressure is on you to have fun, but really it’s about the martyrdom of a saint, so we’re going to try to steer more towards the blood and guts than anything else.