Josh Ritter Brings His 'Oracular Honky Tonk’ to Portland
A one-time Portland resident and all-American singer-songwriter, Josh Ritter has built a firm fan base over 16 years of solid song crafting and energetic live shows. In advance of his shows at Revolution Hall, we asked the Idaho native why he's so excited about this age of music—and learned what his inner eye has to do with any of it.
You’ve described your latest album, Sermon on the Rocks, as “messianic oracular honky tonk.” What does that mean?
First of all, it sounded like a lotta fun. I’ve always been a big fan of songs that break out a little bit from the normal confines of a love song, or whatever—I love a love song, I love a lullaby, but I wanted something that had a kind of raucous feel, a kind of holy-roller feel about it. A real guy out there, shaking his hands and preaching—I love that! In a white suit with a disco ball, and some drunk guy hammering the piano behind, I really wanted that. When I was in the studio doing my vocal takes, that’s who I was channeling—whoever that dude was.
So you’re channeling the preacher—what’s the message you’re preaching?
I don’t have a specific moral. Religion has so many morals—too many. We have enough morals. We listen to enough about morals and still don’t seem to be able to live with them or anything, so why try and hold people to that kind of high regard? But mostly what I see in the album is a kind of hopefulness and an expectation that people can treat each other as human beings. Without the need for some sort of high intercessor or some god providing us with supposed moral teachings, we can treat each other well. When we treat each other kindly, we should admire that in ourselves, rather than ascribing it to a god.
You’re a pretty prolific songwriter—eight albums since 1999, not including EPs and live albums. Where do the songs come from?
I guess I never really know and I never really remember too often why I wrote any of them—it’s like a fugue that comes over you. Like anything you really love, there’s that moment when you go to sleep in it.
But there are times when I use exercises. The big one for me is when I imagine I have another eye inside my head and I look at the iris and I let the iris dilate until it’s super wide, and then I see images flying through it, and I try and catch those images and write them down, whatever they are. Songs like “Young Moses,” that are image-driven—I really go inside for those.
I do feel there’s an underground part of your mind that throws up odd things all the time, and for me it seems to be images that are tarot kind of images—they’re like an image you would see on a flag. They’re not moving, there’s nothing there, they’re just an image.
You’ve published one novel, Bright’s Passage, which Stephen King said reminded him of Ray Bradbury in his prime. Are there more where that came from?
There are times I go through periods and write a hundred pages, and I read back and it’s like nonsense: I don’t know what came over me. So recently I’ve decided that music is what I’m working on, and that weird beautiful sickness of writing a novel is on the back burner. But I know it’s there, and there’s going to be a period of time when I’m off for a year or so and I’m going to hammer it out. I can’t wait.
You became a dad three years ago. Has parenthood changed your approach to your art?
In one way your old creative life is gone; it’s just smashed. You don’t have 12 hours a day to think deep thoughts. But then what you do get are ideas that you have to roll around in your head for eight hours before you get a chance to write them down. Then you scribble them out furiously between dinner and bath time, and at the end of the day you have this thing that you can put a pin in that you did, and it’s beautiful because it’s been rolling in there getting refined all day.
In the end, I think that’s far richer for me than sitting around the whole day drinking a Coke and watching the dog, or just trying to write all day but not getting anything and feeling terrible about it. I may seem to write less, but the quality is feeling better.
You’ve been compared to singer-storytellers like Bob Dylan, but is there anybody making music right now that inspires or thrills you?
There’s so much good music out there. It’s so hard to make a living, but I think the people that are out there now doing it are so good. I love Joanna Newsom—I think she’s doing awesome, awesome stuff. I’m thrilled to be living in the age of Kanye and Jay Z; I feel like we’re all peers together. And I love Kacey Musgraves—her new record is so good—and Strand of Oaks. There’s great stuff right now—I’m so excited about it all! I love Tune-Yards.
I lived in Portland for a short while, not long enough to be really involved enough in the music scene, but Portland is like Brooklyn: you put on a record and somebody [on the record] is from there!
Josh Ritter plays Revolution Hall on Friday, January 22 and Saturday, January 23.