Just about a year ago, Josh Ritter released a moving collection of songs called The Beast in its Tracks. It was notably the first time that this favorite of the singer-songwriter scene wrote from a true first-person perspective, collecting a range of thoughts and emotions in the wake of his 2011 divorce and channeling them into songs that were remarkably stirring, beautiful and – on standout track “Joy to You Baby” – even optimistic. The album went on to receive widespread critical acclaim, and Ritter toured in support of it both with his five-piece Royal City Band and by himself.
On Thursday night, he splits the difference, playing at The Keswick Theatre in Glenside acoustically, accompanied by musical collaborators Zack Hickman and Josh Kaufman. It won’t be a full-on rock set, allowing Ritter to touch on the more nuanced moments of his catalog, but he won’t be by himself either, allowing the set to be built around a dynamic rise-and-fall. “It’s something I’ve been jonesing for,” he told me when I caught up with him via phone enroute to a show in Louisville earlier this week. We talked about the differences between playing with a band and playing solo, the unexpected success of Beast and what to do when your opening act gives you an axe.
The Key: Does the opportunity to do solo or more intimate shows like this become more of a rare thing for you the longer you’re a performing musician?
Josh Ritter: I would hope not! I started playing solo, for many years. When I write, I write solo. And there’s so much about that part of it that I find to be the foundational aspect of my songs. I really believe that songs, to be lasting, should be able to played by anybody. It shouldn’t require virtuosic talent and instrumentation – and that’s good for me because I’m no virtuoso when it comes to playing guitar! [laughs] And then I also believe that a song should only need to be delivered by a single voice. I really like the idea of a strand of melody going around in my head and the words kind of dovetailing that. I live for those moments, and I believe in a show those can be really important. You don’t need to have anything else to reach an audience then just voice and guitar or voice and some instrument. You can always add on [in the studio], and that’s great. But it’s best to remind yourself every so often that you can do it on your own.
TK: Yeah, and chasing that a little bit further, can you compare and contrast playing with your full band to playing a more scaled-down version of it like you’re doing on this tour, or even straight up playing solo? What do you like about playing with the guys ,what do you like about playing alone?
JR: Well it all basically comes down to – without sounding too much like a hippie – is there’s a real tangible flow of energy between the performer and the audience. I think when you’re performing, that is a strand or a power that you don’t want to sever or dilute any. When you’re playing on your own it’s just you and the audience and that’s a really incredible thing. With a band, that gets trickier. You’re sharing your energy with the band the band is focusing its energy through you and it can be an ecstatic experience, but it can also be something you can all too easily fold yourself into and get lost in the energy of the band and pay less attention to what’s going on between you and the audience.
TK: So it takes away that element of interactivity with the people who are watching?
JR: If you’re not careful, it certainly can. We really thrive on performance – I’m lucky to have a band that really likes that really likes performing to an audience. We still perform to each other and I think that’s really fun and exciting because there’s times when you forget that there’s anyone in the room except the people you’re playing with. I feel very lucky that I have a band and this trio.
TK: So The Beast in its Tracks came out just about a year ago and, as it was pretty well noted at the time, it was the first album where you’ve gotten explicitly personal and autobiographical in your songwriting. What’s it like performing these songs a year out from that?
JR: I would say that it’s changed only in that the vistas have expanded. It started out as a record that I really didn’t think anyone was really going to listen to and I was really happy to let go and move on to something else. But it turned out to be so far the biggest record of my career, which was really fantastic. But I was surprised by it and gratified by it, and I felt like something that had really knocked me off my stride for a while turned out to be something that made my life better in so many ways. I was able to find music in it and share something that I thought was autobiographical but I suspect is a fairly, fairly widespread experience: getting over a painful broken heart and everything that came after. And that was really amazing. And I feel like suddenly so free about writing, I feel so happy and I feel like there’s so much out there now that seems more possible to write about. It’s a big sky right now and I’m really happy; and I guess that’s all due to this year of touring and the great people I’ve been with and my family.
TK: About a year ago I interviewed Scott McMicken from Dr. Dog and he talked about the transformative aspect of songs. Writing about difficult, tragic events in your life, getting it out through song – and that makes it into not only a positive for him, but the reaction from the audience kind of transforms it in another way. They can find their own meaning, or they can find solace in it in their lives because of it. Do you think that happened with Beast?
JR: Yeah, but I would say I consider the album less cathartic and more like an autopsy. I actually found that it was a little easier to write about than any stuff I’d written before because I didn’t have to make it up. I felt like I had a cadaver on the table and I could see everything and all I had to do was describe it. And in describing it, you’ve already experienced it there’s no way to feel it more when you’re writing. Writing is fun, you know? I do feel even writing about sad stuff is really fun. It’s a puzzle and it’s enjoyable, and when you get it right you know you got it right. But I do feel that there’s something about writing which allows you to get a little cold and little bit more clinical and say “well this is what happened and you did it exactly right” and in doing so you get a little bit of a distance from it. Does that make sense?
TK: Yeah, but I was also thinking of the song “Joy to You Baby.” You wrote that kind of in the wake of everything, and it is a sad song on one level. But it’s also very pretty and melodic, and it’s not like you’re wishing anybody ill will. It’s a very positive song; and so I felt like that had a little bit of that element, taking the situation and transforming it.
JR: Well one thing that I was really hoping for. The thing I had the most trouble unlocking was that I couldn’t figure out why some songs weren’t working and I realized because most the songs that I had been working on I only had one emotion, whether it was anger or love or betrayal or whatever it should be. There’s any one of a hundred feelings you feel at that weird difficult moment but it never works to write a song about one emotion. You have to have an amalgam of something and I think in that way it is transformative because you’re allowing that you’re hurt and this sucks but there are other things in there and you don’t have to disguise them or shelter yourself from them. It doesn’t make your heart hurt any less if you wish someone well, but it doesn’t make it hurt any more, either.
TK: Yeah it’s like human emotions don’t just work at one level they’re complicated things, and songs that represent them that way are the ones that connect the most, maybe.
TK: With the tour and with the set what can people expect is it going to be still pretty heavy on Beast is it going to be across all your albums? Are you going to introduce new stuff?
JR: Right now we are pulling from across all our albums and a couple new songs, a couple covers by folks I’ve been obsessed with lately. And really, these two guys Zack Hickman and Josh Kaufman are the kind of virtuosos that are super generous and fantastic and can fall in love with a song on Monday and play it on Tuesday night. That’s just an exciting, great thing.
TK: What are some of the covers that you’re doing or would you prefer to kind of keep that a surprise?
JR: Yeah yeah we’ll keep that a surprise. That way if we mess up we don’t have to take credit for it.
TK: So I was looking up to see what city you were in and I saw on your Facebook page that epic photo of the Presbyterian Church in Chicago that you played two nights ago. Wow. What was that room like?
JR: Oh man it was just a gigantic, gigantic church in the middle of downtown Chicago, a really ritzy area down there and you walk into this unassuming door of a cathedral. It looks like a cavern, it was amazing. And I think it’s really great to play as many different types of places as possible. People are super quiet in that church, you know, and it was also just such a different experience for everybody – us included, on stage. The sound is so much different, the view is so strange and new and that’s really, really cool. I love to get the chance to play strange places whenever possible.
TK: You’re touring with Gregory Alan Isakov. How did you two connect, and how’s it been sharing a bill with him?
JR: Gregory is an amazing guy, amazing guy. We’ve been crossing paths here and there without ever really meeting for years, and his music is so good and it fits this incarnation of touring so well, and his lyrics are beautiful. As thanks for bringing him on tour ,he brought me an axe. That’s the kind of guy he is. He’s a badass.
Josh Ritter performs with Gregory Alan Isavov at The Keswick Theatre Thursday, February 27, at 8 p.m. Tickets to the all ages show are $25-$35, and can be purchased here.