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Josh Ritter: Finding His Voice

By Gary Wien

originally published: 11/01/2003

Josh Ritter is getting used to the comparisons to people like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He's heard that stuff many times before - it's the kind of comparisons people make when your melodies flow and your lyrics seem like poetry. He doesn't really care about comparisons, he's just looking to find his own voice.

Hailing from the small town of Moscow, Idaho, Josh Ritter is on tour supporting his latest record, Hello Starling. It's a record so good that people who have never heard of Josh Ritter will most likely be singing along to the chorus of songs like "Kathleen" and "You Don't Make It Easy Babe" much like the sixties crowd who weren't into Dylan but still fell in love with "Like a Rolling Stone."

Over in Ireland, Josh Ritter is already a star. A chance meeting with Glen Hansard, lead singer of The Frames at a open mic night in Boston, led to a series of shows opening for the band in Ireland. When his single, "Me & Jiggs" entered the Irish Top-40, he began selling out headline tours, making appearances on late night television shows and even inspiring his very own cover band in Cork. Success abroad hasn't changed his life yet, but Josh can sense certain changes taking place.

"It makes you think in a different way," said Ritter. "A lot of the things that I never thought about when nobody was really listening are the things that I sort of think about now. Like who am I doing this for?

"I mean, it seems like a simple answer that you'd say, 'well, I'm doing it for myself.' And at times it is totally about what I think and my writing and nothing else matters. But it becomes harder to ignore. Am I writing so that my next record goes to the top of the charts??Or am I writing for anything? Those questions are not as easily dismissable as they seem. They're difficult things and it makes you all the more realize the kind of courage of people like Neil Young and Gillian Welch. Those are the type of people who really take it out on an edge and do things that they're not sure are going to be accepted."

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Part of the reason Josh believes he is still searching for his own voice is because he gets influenced by so many different artists and styles of music. "I love everything," he says.

"The thing about music that gets pushed so much right now is are you gonna make it your first or second record? There's such a demand placed on some sort of musical maturity without knowledge of the fact or really accepting the idea that any musician that has a long career has to be given the opportunity to grow and start from somewhere and just develop from there. You really stand on the shoulders of a lot of people. I think that's a great thing. It's like in Literature or Science, the developments that happen are carried from one person to another. And I think that over the course of thirty records what I really want... I'll develop a style, but the one thing I have to demand is that I be given the time to do that."

That painstaking approach to his career was apparent during the recording of Hello Starling. Josh and his band traveled to rural France to record the record in an old dairy barn. Why there? To stay away from any and all distractions.

"Making a record is hard work," explains Ritter. "And you want to set the stage so you have enough tools to do the job the way you want it done... and no more tools."

The recording took seven days and the mixing took another seven. The daily schedule was working from about noon to six in the morning. At the end of the recording session, Josh was literally handed the tapes through the car window as they were leaving. "It was just down to the wire," said Ritter. "We worked really hard but, at the same time, I had a good idea of what I wanted to do and what I wanted to get out of the recording."

Most of the songs were written before France, but Ritter is always working on bits and pieces of songs and said "Bad Actress" and "You Don't Make It Easy Babe" were actually written during the sessions.

"I'm not always writing full songs in a sitting or anything and some of them have to sit around in my head before I decide whether I really like them or not," said Ritter. "Songs that I don't really like never see the light of day - performed or on record. I think you just have to have a feeling about it. It should be like a shirt or a pair of shoes, in a way. You don't want to feel silly walking out in them. So, I kind of wait around for that feeling."

If you have never heard Josh Ritter's music, you should come out to the Saint in Asbury Park on November 18th or November 20th at the Tin Angel in Philadelphia. His new record debuted at #2 on the Irish charts, and it won't be long before America catches on as well. See him in a small club while you still can.

"I think being on stage is kind of a celebration of what you're doing. All of the writing and things are fun for me personally, but all the other things are hard work, so that hour that you're on stage is a real kind of vacation."

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.



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