For Josh Ritter, creativity takes on many forms

Singer/songwriter brings Gathering tour to Saturn

By Blake Ells

Photo Credit: Laura Wilson

Josh Ritter isn’t just a musician. He’s a novelist and an artist. He’s found many outlets to creatively express himself, though he’s most comfortable in songwriting. While he began painting again during the writing and recording of his latest release, Gathering, it’s not something that he feels self-assured about. Nine studio albums in, expressing himself lyrically isn’t nearly the same challenge.

His art graces the cover of Gathering, a record that he spent much more time allowing outside voices to influence than his previous work, Sermon on the Rocks. He talked about that process and about collaborating with Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead before returning to Birmingham for the first time since his appearance with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at the Alabama Theatre last September.

Birmingham Stages: How did you approach Gathering differently than your previous work?

Josh Ritter: Every record I do is a reaction in some part to the record that came before it. That’s just how it seems to work. That doesn’t mean it’s moving in a positive or negative direction, it’s just how it seems to be for me. With Sermon on the Rocks, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted. I was very sure of the things that I felt needed to go into the record. And I was very un-democratic about it all, in terms of my band and everybody.

So when it came time to make Gathering, I realized that I had in some ways I needed to open up my mind to a much wider set of perspectives. I had been working with Bob Weir on his record, and keeping an open mind for Bob is paramount. It was really cool for me to see how that process worked for Bob. I kind of went into making Gathering with the idea that I was gonna be open minded about the songs. I was gonna record everything I had. And I wasn’t gonna pre-judge songs for the record; I was gonna record everything and then I was gonna really invite the band in to do a ton of the work in helping me move the songs from what I initially envisioned to something that had a little bit more span. Another person that was really important in that process was Trina Shoemaker, who worked with me on this record and the last record as well.

Birmingham Stages: You started painting again while you were going through that process. How long had you been away from it and how did it help guide this record?

JR: With anything artistic, it’s like flipping on a switch. You try it out every so often and things start to catch hold and you keep on going. I find that with songwriting, it works better for me if I don’t approach it like a job every day. I approach it when something comes over me, I work on it. With painting it’s the same; when I feel called to do it, I do it. There’s a very fertile period of time there when I was working on writing and recording where it just wasn’t even enough to satisfy my need to be creating stuff. The paintings were kind of the overflow. For that reason, I thought it was really interesting how the painting felt correspondent to the making of the record.

Birmingham Stages: Have you ever considered making your painting available for purchase?

JR: I’ve considered it. But it’s something that I feel bashful about. I love painting, but I don’t consider myself a real painter. I enjoy it. Id never say never.

Birmingham Stages: Do you know why you feel bashful about that but you seem confident in your songwriting?

JR: I don’t know. I feel that was about writing prose as well. My life’s work is songwriting. It’s the language that I most freely turn to artistically; it’s the one that I feel most comfortable speaking in. In my normal life, that’s my primary way of feeling like I can communicate. And for some reason, I don’t have that same confidence in the other things that I do that are artistic. I find a real comfort in the idea that I find an outlet that doesn’t seem as life or death to me as songwriting sometimes does. Painting or writing a novel is like a trip to the beach compared to songwriting.

Birmingham Stages: Was the cover for Gathering your work?

JR: Yes it is.

Birmingham Stages: There were a lot of songs to choose from when you narrowed it down to this collection. Will we ever hear the ones that didn’t make that cut?

JR: Yes. I’m really proud of all of them. They feel like a record of a very fruitful time. They kind of span all different styles; there’s easily enough in there for a record of outtakes, or perhaps I’ll use them for something else. They’ll just kind of hang out for a while. I believe in writing more than you need, because most of the time, the songs you write aren’t good. Most of the time they’re not that great. And the ones that you really spend your time on, you hope they are your best.

Birmingham Stages: Have you or will you break any of those out live?

JR: Yeah, I’m sure I will. Totally. There’s some fun party numbers in there. There’s a few overtly romantic ones. There’s some good ones in there, I think. They just didn’t work for the record.

Birmingham Stages: How did you hook up with Bob Weir and how did that collaboration come about?

JR: My guitar player and friend, Josh Kaufman, has worked with Bob on a number of different projects. And Bob was talking to Josh about how he wanted to work on a record of cowboy songs; songs that reminded him of when he was working as a ranch hand before the Grateful Dead back in Wyoming. When Josh told me that, I dropped whatever I was eating in the airport and basically begged to be able to write some lyrics. I wrote some lyrics on the plane, initially, on that flight. I sent them off and Bob liked it and we started to pass stuff back and forth a little bit. He was super fun to work with.

Birmingham Stages: Do you maintain a good relationship with Bob? Do you talk often?

JR: Yeah, totally!

Birmingham Stages: You’ve told me before that you are heavily inspired by hip-hop artists. Whose songwriting is inspiring you right now?

JR: The Courtney Barnett stuff is great. I’m a really big fan of the new War on Drugs record. The lyrics I find in The National are very interesting and timely and seem very relevant for some reason; I really love those guys. The new Jay Z record, 4:44, is insane. It’s so good. It’s so confessional and vulnerable and badass. It’s so great, so great. There’s so much good music going on right now.

Birmingham Stages: You can definitely hear how much you enjoy hip-hop in your own music. You can hear it in your cadence. I don’t know if that’s intentional or just a natural reflection of what you absorb…

JR: I think it’s – there’s so much stuff to latch onto these days. The musical world is so rich. I try to spend time on a record a time; really listen. It all seeps in.

Josh Ritter & the Royal City Band will perform at Saturn on Monday, October 23. Good Old War opens. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $27.50.