Found in the Margins is a defunct web magazine that Chris DePaul founded in 2006. Chris and his co-writers would interview musicians, writers and activists on one question: What books inspire the work you do? The Brothers DePaul will be reposting these archived interviews every Thursday. #tbt
This week's interview: Josh Ritter
Josh Ritter has always created music on his own terms. Ritter’s career began in 1999 with his self-titled debut, which he released independently. In 2002, he released The Golden Age of Radio in the same fashion. Having been compared numerous times to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney, his newest album was given national exposure after Josh was signed to Signature Sounds Recordings. Josh went on to release Hello Starling in 2004 and The Animal Years two years later. His confirmation as an exceptional emerging talent both in his native USA and in Ireland, was cemented with potent lyrics such as on the track “Thin Blue Flame”, where Ritter sings: Now the wolves are howling at our door / Singing bout vengeance like it’s the joy of the Lord / Bringing justice to the enemies not the other way round / They’re guilty when killed and they’re killed where they’re found. In fact, a few months after the 2006 album was released, Paste Magazine included Josh in their list of the top 100 living songwriters.
This August, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter was released to critical acclaim. The album contains a much larger sound than Josh’s previous work, with more complex arrangements and a more varied set of instruments being used throughout. It is being touted by many reviewers as the most ambitious, fun and engaging record of the year.
Currently beginning a tour of the United States, Josh now also writes a regular blog for Paste Magazine about his travels on the road. Needless to say, Josh was eager to speak with foundinthemargins about his literary influences. He is currently reading Debby Applegate’s The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. As Josh explains about the subject of the novel, “He was the son of the last puritan preacher. He was Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s brother, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and basically he was a proto-rock-star revivalist preacher, who didn’t believe in hell. [He was] one of the key figures in talking about slavery.”
When asked about his favourite reads, Josh took a moment and then complied with the following two literary suggestions:
Blue Highways – William Least-Heat Moon
“[Blue Highways] has been an incredible book in my life, mostly because I read it at a time when I was just getting on the road, and just starting to tour. It’s about a circumnavigate of the United States: 13,000 miles, in the 70s, and in a van. And not on the interstates, so all the blue highways: the regional, local highways. That came along at a time when I just started doing what I’m still doing today, which is exactly what he did. It’s a beautiful book.
“[The book] gave me a lens to look through, and a way to approach all the travel that made it less grueling. It showed me the details to look for; little things that I could look at and see. That book has done a lot to me.”
Ghost Writer – Philip Roth
“This is another of my favourites. It’s a really short, really elegant book. It’s about a kid who is a writer, who has just been given a youth literary prize…and he goes to the Berkshires to meet his hero. Basically it’s about a night spent snowed in, talking with his hero. It’s a great book”
Influences on his Songwriting
Josh also shed some light on his goals as a songwriter: “What you struggle to do as a songwriter is say things in the most succinct way that you can...If you can make it concise enough, you can make it memorable enough that you can put it in your head, just like you put something in your pocket. You can take this little nugget of something that’s really true, and keep it and use it in your life. And I think great novelists and great writers do that and you can learn so much, and gain so much of a perspective on life, by finding those nuggets in their writing.” Josh then went on to reveal one of his favourite nuggets, from Leonard Cohen’s song, “Anthem”: ‘there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’. As Josh points out these songs provide, “…amazing phrases that you can just use in your life.”
On the subject of Leonard Cohen, Josh goes on to explain, “above all, I think that a lot of my favourite writers are ones that don’t settle for just one thing. Even if Leonard Cohen is a phenomenal songwriter, he feels he can do this other stuff… and that’s something that I desire as well.”
The new album is rich in historical figures and represents a significant development in Josh’s songwriting. When asked about what influenced this shift, he explained: “I think it’s less self-conscious. With the last several records, it’s been a kind of going over of things. You start off in a certain spot, and you kind of sift. And what comes out is kind of refined. And with this record, it was a lot more rocks and gravel. You throw it all in there. You start out with a lot of stuff in pop culture, and the culture of the States, and the times right now. And then you just leave it. I think that’s why a lot of that stuff has come out. That’s why there’s so much gun fighting, and fairly popular, historical figures. It was just really fun to conflate all those characters together, and put them together. It feels like a comic book to me.
“A lot of times, you don’t know where you’re going in the beginning. And then looking back, you start to see: wow, this was really special. I was trying to just make it a joke, and it really turned into something. I see some stuff in there that I didn’t see before. And that’s one of the things I really like about characters that everyone knows: you can say their names, and everyone has their own associations with the character. Whether it’s Abraham, or Casey at the bat, or Casey Jones…it kind of opens them up to interpretations that you can go back to, and think about a little bit.
“I really enjoy that about some of my favourite writers. I really love Pete Dexter, who wrote this book called Deadwood. Long before they made it into a series, it was just a book, about the characters of the town of Deadwood, right after the death of wild Bill Hickok. It’s fantastic. He just took those characters, he would find a name, and create a character behind the name. And it was really cool - it was like building a character from the eyes back, and I just love that. I just love it, and I hope that I do that [in my work].”
Josh is also passionate about the power of a short piece of art, such as a song: “A lot of times I’ve thought a lot about novels. Could you put a novel into a song? I don’t know if you could. But you could definitely get a novel out of a song. You fold everything up – it’s like you take the pages into this tiny thing, and that becomes a song. And to unfold it all is really an incredible thing.”
Everything else: wolves, Shakespeare and politics
Even a casual listener of Josh’s music will quickly notice the abundance of references to wolves in many of his songs. When asked about this fascination, Josh offered this: “I was always afraid of wolves…they have a mythology that’s all their own. I was always afraid of Peter and the Wolf.
“I think that if we were to be an animal, we would be a wolf before anything else. There are all those stories about people being raised by wolves, and werewolves, and Romulus and Remus. I think what makes wolves such an interesting creature, a close kin to humans, and also terrifying at the same time, is that they are so much like us, and yet they have none of the confusion that we have. They have just total, dead certainty. I think that’s what makes a wolf so scary. That’s what makes a villain in a Shakespeare play so frightening, at the same time. They have no moral uncertainties: Iago is just evil. If he would be played by anybody, he would be played by a wolf.”
Josh elaborated on his many Shakespeare references: “I love Richard the third. And I love Julius Ceasar. And there are other plays that I really love parts and pieces of. I read Troilus and Cressida for the first time last year. It’s a confusing play about the Trojan War and about two sides: The Trojans and the Greeks. A lot of it corresponds to the time we’re living in now. It picks up halfway through the Trojan War, when both sides realize that what they have been fighting for is just silly. But at the same time, they’ve lost so much that neither of them is willing to let go. I mean if that doesn’t have correlation to today, then I don’t know what does. There are always things that come out of those plays that are fantastic.”
One of the themes from The Animal Years was the fragile political landscape at the time of writing. When asked about what he has read recently on the topic, Josh offered this suggestion: “I read Fiasco by Tom Rick. He’s the military correspondent for the Washington Post. And it’s basically just a book about the military misadventure in Iraq. Basically [it deals with] all these generals that came up through the Vietnam War, and learnt all these lessons first hand. It’s a story about American hubris. That was an amazing book.”