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Cover Story: Josh Ritter

| April 1, 2013 | 0 Comments

Ask Josh Ritter to gauge his current state of affairs and the once disheveled singer-songwriter with the contagious grin and aw-shucks demeanor fires back without hesitating: “Pretty amazing.” The new father marvels at his good fortune. At home in Brooklyn with daughter Beatrix by his side, he’s gearing up for a tour that will span most of the year to support his seventh release, The Beast In Its Tracks, which debuted at No. 22 on Billboard’s Hot 200 chart. His partner, novelist Haley Tanner, and baby will join the long-running Royal City Band on the road. Oh, and he also narrowly averted a death scare brought on by, of all things, too much exercise.

This level of contentment would seem downright ridiculous or impossible back in November of 2011 when Ritter’s 18-month marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Dawn Landes dissolved, leaving the 36-year-old adrift and feeling “suicidal.” He refrains from divulging exactly who did what to whom, even in the searing autobiographical lyrics of Beast’s 13 songs, but the pain is palpable. Credit goes to a rigorous performance schedule and the support of bandmates and brothers-in-arms Sam Kassirer and Zach Hickman for keeping him semi-sane.

“It was not a time where there was any kind of real thought going on. If it wasn’t for shows, if it wasn’t for the band those two hours a night and then just them watching,” he admits before trailing off. “I was just kind of tightrope walking in the dark. You know what I mean? It was bad and it didn’t last forever, you know, but that stuff happens to everybody. I don’t believe anybody ever is just totally free of that. That was a dangerous time and those guys really helped me through it.”

Appearing: 4/27 at Vic Theatre (3145 N. Sheffield) Chicago.

Time and laser-like focus on completing the album softened the rough edges of the Idaho-bred singer’s broken heart.

“It was a dark period, but that doesn’t mean it was all grim. It wasn’t like that. The funny thing is, and I think a lot of people feel this sometimes, you have moments of clarity and you think you’re getting better and things are great and then all at once you’re back in that. You feel like you’re just being eaten alive and that’s why I gave the record the name I gave it. You just felt pounced on by those things,” Ritter explains.

While The Beast In Its Tracks shares a key word with one of the most famous divorce records of all time – Bob Dylan’s 1975 masterpiece Blood On The Tracks – and stems from similar circumstances, Ritter takes the high road, leaving the wallowing to the bleating emo kids obsessed with reopening every scar. Anyone expecting couplets brimming with bitterness and sucker punches at the former Mrs. Ritter can revisit Dylan for a helping of caustic remarks, because they aren’t here.

Without sugarcoating reality, Ritter delivers gentle jabs, such as in “New Lover” (“I hope you’ve got a lover now, hope you’ve got somebody who/Can give you what you need like I couldn’t seem to do/But if you’re sad and you are lonesome and you’ve got nobody true/I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too”), but the core of his faith lies in the album’s centerpiece, “Joy To You Baby” (“There’s pain in whatever we stumble upon/If I never had met you/You couldn’t have gone/But then I couldn’t have met you/We couldn’t have been/I guess it all adds up to joy in the end”).

“I think part of being a writer or an artist or whatever is deciding what stuff you want to show. I don’t believe it takes bravery to show everything – that’s for exhibitionists. That’s not my thing. I think that there’s a humanity in good and in good songs,” he reveals. “I also don’t think it takes a great deal of talent to write [in a] dark way.”

That’s not to say he’s immune from churning out material pocked with misery. “What I’m proudest of with these songs is that I wrote a bunch of stuff like that . . . and realized how bad it made me feel about myself and how even though maybe details were correct, the whole thing didn’t feel true. And I don’t want to put people through the ringer. My pain was my pain. I want to describe some of it, but I don’t want to make people go through it on my account,” he says charitably.

“What I really believe is like heartbreak is essentially the same whether you’re 6 years old or 36, and if you can describe it right and take time to describe it and look at . . . all the different things about it, then maybe it doesn’t hurt quite as much and maybe other people will be able to share or understand the experience or see themselves in a similar experience without having to, like, go through it over and over again. I also think that autobiographical songwriting is rife with . . . what I think is just torture – that doesn’t appeal to me.”

The Oberlin grad generally refrains from first-person narratives in favor of sprawling tales. 2010’s So Runs The World Away contained his two most epic, well-developed journeys. “The Curse,” with its reanimated ancient Egyptian mummy falling for an archeologist with mortality breathing down her neck, and “Another New World,” with its brave captain sacrificing his beloved ship to that great harbor in the sky, seem ripe for HBO to option for the channel’s marquee Sunday night timeslot. By contrast, the serene gallop of “In Your Arms Again” and the bittersweet, almost whispered lullaby, “Lights,” off Beast seem worthy of a Pixar short.

Scaling back the characters allowed Ritter to sort through the wreckage. “I felt like those barium tests where you take the stuff and then they can see everything inside you on a screen and [you] get a few amazing moments in your life where your emotions and your feelings, [and] who you are is just completely unmixed. You are all one thing at once, and in those moments you can see so much more of yourself. You can see hidden spots in yourself – in your heart or whatever – that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise,” he exclaims. “I really wanted to write that stuff down.”

For the full story, visit the issue through our partners at ShadeTree, or grab a copy available free throughout Chicagoland.

Janine Schaults

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Category: Featured, Features, Monthly

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