Josh Ritter: Virtual Session

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Josh Ritter joins The Current for a virtual session. Hear songs from his new EP, 'See Here, I Have Built You A Mansion,' plus a few older favorites. (MPR)

Jade talked to Josh Ritter about how bringing his family on the road touring for years helped prepare them for the pandemic, his latest EP See Here, I Have Built You A Mansion, and his upcoming second book, The Great Goddamn of It All.

Interview Transcript

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

JADE: Hey it's Jade joining you from The Current headquarters here in downtown Saint Paul and welcoming you to another one of our virtual sessions. Today we are joined by the ever wonderful Josh Ritter. Hello Josh!

JOSH RITTER: Hi, how's it going? How are you doing?

I'm doing really well, how are you doing?

I'm here in my house and it's a strange time, but I'm so happy to see you. It's awesome.

Yeah so nice to see you too, and happy belated birthday!

I saw that you put on a show for your birthday, in your home with your family. I've been curious about this because this is such a strange time and we are doing these performances in such a different way that you're really sort of taking off the veil and inviting people into your home. Your fans are seeing you with your family. Is this a welcome experience? Or is it a a strange experience for you? Can you tell us a little bit about how it's been?

Well I think that, yeah, when you were talking about that, the image that I got, that I felt, was this kind of field that has been paved over. It will eventually get through those cracks and that's what we're on as we're putting out our tendrils. Getting- trying to get our art up through the cracks that have been the stuff that's kind of been laid down on top of all this. You know there's so much art that's underneath us right now that we are all holding in, you know? So getting that out there, which is something that I think we all need to do, is becoming a real experimental thing and it requires I think a fair bit of vulnerability. And vulnerability about saying like this is all that we can do. And this is all that's important in terms of performing and playing music. Somehow there's still a connection being made, and I need that in my life.

That's why doing something on my birthday was so much fun it's like, "What would I want to do on my birthday except play a show?" That's all I really want.

The idea of vulnerability has come up a lot when I've been talking to musicians, and people in general, my friends who aren't musicians. There is this vulnerability and this rawness right now that is allowing people to have conversations that they wouldn't have otherwise. And maybe that has something to do with this collection but I'm curious as to why these songs which are, I should note, it's called See Here, I Have Built You A Mansion. It's a a new EP but it's filled with previously unreleased songs and kind of rarities some live songs some covers. So why these particular songs, and why this collection now?

I'm always afraid of songs kind of getting lost, you know? I don't typically write for a record. A lot of times writing- when you record a record you're sort of dipping a bucket in the river. You're collecting that water but there's a lot of water that flows around the sides. There's all kinds of other stuff that's out there and so to write when you're fishing you can't be choosy about what you catch, you know? You just gotta catch fish. That's sort of how I've approached songwriting. So there are certain songs that I write that don't necessarily fit on the record that I'm working on at the moment. That doesn't mean that I don't like the songs and they have moments that I associate with them, and they were fun to write and I feel good about the ones that don't necessarily make a -- I didn't want them to get lost. It was coming on winter time and I was thinking about these little songs out there and just get a little feeling for him and and I thought I wanted to put it out on a record. It was also, I knew that I wouldn't be touring, you know? I wanted the record to have a little bit of a live element so I put on a couple tracks that were either from a soundcheck or from a show. I just wanted the record to have something that didn't feel like a full studio record but it felt so like a little bit more intimate and kind of curated from a a part of my career. Does that make sense?

Definitely yeah no that it totally comes across that way. There is something about distance from songs too. I love the idea of songs changing and morphing and even to the person who writes them, they start to feel like a different song. Or the song, maybe the meaning behind it, or the person you think of when you think of that song is different. Do you have a particular song where it's changed that for you?

I find that yeah, it's once you write the song you have that...you know, I've written songs or written about feelings that I had never had before. You know that has been varianced and it's easy to write about heartbreak when you have an experience that when you when you actually have experience then you start to see all the subtleties and the shades that go within that kind of like, heartbreak and it becomes more tricky. But I say that like, over time I've had a chance to revisit songs night by night and they do change, they change. And I catch myself thinking about them as people almost, you know? That these faces that are so familiar to me particularly because they're in my day-to-day life every day in this weird intimate way.

I love that thinking about songs as people. So I want us to to get to some music, 'cause I know that's what people want to hear. But I'm curious if if "Miles Away" was a person, who is the person that you would picture for "Miles Away"?

I was looking at this - I'm just thinking of an astronaut, you know? I'm thinking of somebody like impossibly far away who still seems like distant.

Well let's hear it. It is "Miles Away" this is Josh Ritter and it's a live Current virtual session.

All right.

[MUSIC: "Miles Away" by Josh Ritter]

I always feel the urge to clap. We'll get to some more songs, including another song from the new collection that Josh Ritter has released called See Here, I Have Built You A Mansion, and we just heard his version of "Miles Away" which is on that new collection for the Current's virtual session. You write, as you were saying such beautiful stories, and I saw that you have a book that's going to be coming out. You have a novel coming out next year, and do you approach your your writing when you're writing prose as opposed to when you're writing a song, do you approach it differently or does it all come from the same sort of place?

You know I think it all comes from the same place but but over time I've started to realize that there's song-brain and then there's novel-brain. Song-brain can give you the architecture of the house, you know? You can see the the whole story with a song. But to then go inside the house and describe every nook and cranny is really a different - it's a different kind of animal and every time I switch back and forth I have to remind myself what I'm doing because they are- they do start to seem more different than I once gave them credit for. Although it is nice to, I have to say not to always have to rhyme, you know? That's a big thing.

I do have a, a friend of mine just got his PhD in poetry and you are one of his favorite writers because of how you do unusual rhyme schemes. So my poet doctor appreciates your rhyming schemes.

Wow that made my day, thank you.

Well there you go. But I'm curious about this new book a little bit if you don't mind. I know we're talking music but because everybody's doing something a little bit different during the pandemic so I'm quite happy to talk about your book as well.

Thank you. It's so much fun. I had this book for a while and until recently you know I've just been so very busy. Between music and being on the road and then with my little kids it's just, there's only so much time in the day. So I started working on this, picking it up again. It's called The Great Glorious Goddamn Of It All and it's about a a lumberjack. A little kid who is grows up in a little timber town in northern Idaho and it's it's kind of a big tall tale. I'm excited about it.

Well because we're talking about books, I did get a listener question from Catherine who said, "Is there any connection in the new book to Bright's Passage?"

No there's connection.

It's a deep cut question.

Yeah it's like, my last book, I'd say I have about as many trees in each book. You know I seem to like to set my stuff underneath trees for some reason but I'd say those are those are the only recurring characters.

Yeah it seems like you are putting on many different hats right now because you're not touring. You're taking some more time. I see a painting in the corner which I'm guessing is one of yours.

Yeah I'm working on it. [laughs]

You mentioned you're a father, you're dealing with having kids at home during the pandemic and is this- this has to be such a different lifestyle than being on the road all the time and being able to kind of press pause even though it's not exactly ideal for a musician. What have you discovered about yourself in this in this time down?

Well I'd say the the one thing that's been amazing actually was the fact that up until the last year or so when Bea had to be in in school, Bea, my oldest, has been on the road with me for six or seven years. So Bea, and Haley, and Moxie, we got used to living in very tight confines touring all over the place and so we were used to to being really close together.

That part has been really incredible and gratifying and I feel that like it's- I've been in some ways prepared for it. One of the things that I've found that has been really fascinating to me with the time off the road and being at home and for a long time has me thinking about more and more why I do what I'm doing, you know? What is it that drives me if if being off the road doesn't mean I've stopped creating? In fact I think I've created more. So I'm trying to figure out why and I feel that the art of making things, writing and all those things they they actually seem to help me feel like safe, you know? And safe and in control of something, you know? While at the same time giving me a world that I can go to in my head. Which is like sometimes really fantastic if you if you can't go down to the beach you know? Then you can at least- you can go there in your own mind sometimes.

Do you do you find that you're you're writing more now? Maybe it is with the breadth you're giving yourself. The ability and the time and space.

I certainly am. The writing has been something that I've always written a lot but in these latter days it feels like the writing is like a gas that sort of fills up the space, you know? The words kind of fill up whatever space there is for them to go. And some days it's just, you wake up and you have a couplet or something in your head and it just rattles around in there all day until you have a chance to write it down. Other days there's like, Moxie will take- she used to take two naps and she just gave up one. So I've got two hours there where she's asleep where I can sit down and really work on something and I come to it with real joy because whatever the idea is, it's been rattling around in there all day. Thinking, getting weird.

I think we're all getting a little weird at this point and it's only gonna get - you know, the more family time you have, you'll have several children's books that'll be out by the end of this year. I can already see it.

We'll continue to chat and continue to have some more questions here, but let's hear another song off of See Here, I Have Built You A Mansion the new EP which is out now from Josh Ritter on The Current's virtual session.

So I was thinking maybe, can I do "Time Is Wasting"? Is that all right?

Yes please.

[MUSIC: "Time Is Wasting" by Josh Ritter]

What you were talking about earlier with songs having the architecture and going into the nooks and crannies if you're writing a book. Is that kind of what you were thinking about? Like this is the giant mansion, there's all these different rooms. There's all these different songs to go in and investigate?

Oftentimes the way I think about songs is that they're like these beautiful long hallways. You can wander down the hallway that somebody's built for you. But the doors, the doors to either side that you can go through are- once you go through those doors you're on your own. You're out there and so songs can- I feel songs help me oftentimes when I listen to music they help me to wander off into various places. That's a wonderful thing about music. I do think of them kind of architecturally, yeah.

Is there a particular song or a particular artist that you've been listening to in these recent months or is it mainly just focusing in on your own writing?

My listening habits have changed because I've been home and I haven't been on the road. We have music on but I'm a big believer in spontaneously choosing stuff that that you really want to, you know? What I found most recently that I've really discovered just by keeping my ears open was a singer from the from the 20s and 30s named Sophie Tucker who I just- am in love with. An amazing writer, great great performer. I think, like, Sophie Tucker or- there are these people that I will associate with this moment, you know? With this time that we're living in and it's so funny that she was at this a hundred years ago but her work now speaks to me in this moment and that in some ways is is very similar given this pandemic and and etc. That's a long way of saying that.

Yeah it is strange.

I'm listening to kind of all sorts of stuff.

I like that. It's all around about. I should ask a question from Suzanne which is in a similar vein, is there a book that you've read recently or do you listen to audiobooks?

The books that I've been reading recently let's say like, yeah I mean I do, I love audiobooks. I love - I'm deep deep in a period where I'm reading a lot about ancient Egypt right now because I'm working on something and I'm just uh, and it's really fun and I have - you start off every project with these grand idea and stuff and I realized, I really don't know about what I want to work on and so in the in that world I'm of reading about ancient Egypt and and it's, you know, it's absolutely amazing to like read deeply and and like listen to stuff and research and to realize that your only like the tiniest few drops of of this amazing world, you know? It's incredible.

What's been the most interesting or the most recent that you can remember that you were like "What?! That happened in ancient Egypt?!" What's been the mind blower lately?

Okay well there's this interesting thing that the pharaoh would be buried with where he would be holding like a- it looked like a flail, you know it looked like a like a thing with some like beads for actually trailing through roses to capture the pollen and that was then rolled into incense called labdanum. And when they couldn't get it from the roses they would go to the goats who ate the roses and they would comb the labdanum out of the out of the beards of the goats and this little object that the pharaoh was buried with was a ceremonial one of those. So I was wondering what it was and now I know.

Have you been able to smell that smell? Are there incenses today being made from-

There are. Yes, you can get labdanum and you can put it on and if you're working away and you're on your ancient Egypt project you might just put it out there you know and it gets you in the right frame of mind.

So I wanted to ask you about, and this is kind of a one that I've been asking a lot of people because you're a musician you spend a lot of time on the road and going to various venues all over the world and right now a lot of these independent venues are are struggling. Is there an independent venue that you have strong ties to, or that you would love to be on the stage of again right now?

Oh yeah well there's just- there are so many places that you walk into the first time and you walk out and they've been a part of your endeavor experience for a decade. One of those places is definitely the Fitzgerald, which is one of those theaters that's just wonderful to to be at and you know that they're a venue of the the country that you know are involved in the memories that are made there. The place is like a campfire that you got a chance to be with other people around you. It's for those of us who are kind of like a little bit...the feeling that we wish we could get in other places, this feeling of togetherness and family that comes from being at a venue and listening to music. It's a remarkable experience. I have faith that we're gonna have those again but I think it's gonna be a hard road. I mean, I can't wait until we're-

I miss that. I miss sweaty people next to me. I miss the smell of the stale beer smell even. There is-

Oh isn't it the best? That's the best.

I know it's the stuff that you're going to miss the most.

I remember at like, on tour the venue will open usually at noon and and if you've been on the road and you need to take a shower the venue shower as you walk in and it's like the smell of noon after a big night of a show in this venue and if the beer is still there in the room you can still smell it and you can still smell the kind of the lingering notes. It's like an amazing experience. I can't wait.

I'm gonna work on the incense for that as well.

That's a great idea I love it.

We have a listener question from Steve who said that he discovered your music through songs being featured in the movie The Hollers and he wanted to know how that came about and how did you like the use of your music in that movie?

Well that was- my music was used in The Hollers, you know, I think first off that it's really amazing when music gets used in in all kinds of stuff because it's so cool to see the kind of dovetailing of artistic visions between what is happening on the screen versus what's happening on the music and it lines up- it can be just totally a magical experience and bring about something beautiful in the movie and make you realize the music- I think that's just incredible.

I was used there because I had met, through playing music, John Krasinski who was the director and in that movie - really very involved with the making of that and wanted to use my music and had been really working to use my music in in a couple of other projects that he was working on. I was really excited to get to do that. I don't know how I ever thought that stuff actually happened but it really doesn't- it still happens organically. When that moment comes along where there's an interesting cinema and music, there's just- this song works for the scene or not and it's so cool when it does.

Yeah I think those are some of my favorite movie moments are when a song sort of solidifies it, you know? And just it makes that moment so much better. Yeah now I'm thinking about Aimee Mann in Magnolias.

Oh yeah.

You know but there are those just like key moments. And now and you're that for Steve with your music in The Holler.

That's amazing.

Well I want to get one last song in here before we say goodbye because I know you know you've got your life and your family going on in the background there so I want to say again the new album is called See Here, I Have Built You A Mansion and let's get another song from Josh Ritter on the Current's virtual session.

All right I'll do this song, this is an old song and I really wanted to do it so and I hope everybody's voting, and rock and roll.

[MUSIC: "Girl In The Way" by Josh Ritter]

That was just absolutely beautiful.

Thank you.

Yes thank you. This is The Current virtual session and Josh's new album See Here, I Have Built You A Mansion is out now. Josh thank you so much for talking with us and thank you so much for bringing us your beautiful music.

Songs Performed07:56 Miles Away
18:44 Time Is Wasting
32:27 Girl In The Way

CreditsHost - Jade
Producer - Jesse Wiza
Technical Director - Eric Romani

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