On stage, singer-songwriter Josh Ritter—whose performance persona requires a suit and quite often a matching tie—is an engaging showman. Plucking his guitar almost absent-mindedly between songs, he elicits laughs by quipping about local TV and radio personalities, and regales audiences with tales of rotary festival performances in his hometown, joking that Idaho beauty pageant contestants are "something fierce." On stage is the place where he's master of his own universe—one part poet, one part musician, sensitive pieces of him exposed under the guise of art—reaching into the ether for each of his songs, personally turning them on end, and drawing a room of squirming admirers singing along into each melodic microcosm.
One on one, without the guitar and forced by the necessity of self-promotion to wax philosophical to a stranger about his growing musical universe, the Moscow born and raised musician (whose once infamous mess of curls has recently been clipped in favor of a closely-shorn do) stumbles. He never gets the sentence quite right the first time. Rather, he verbally follows his thoughts through brambles and down stray paths until the roughshod passage smooths out into finessed patches. It's the same sort of intellectual walkabout he undertakes to write.
"I usually go through about five days when I sit down to start collecting all my ideas to write and about five days happen when nothing goes," says Ritter. "They're dark days, and I'm not fun to be around and I'm pretty fretful of everything, and then after that, everything starts to fall into place." He's nonchalant about the process (saying if a song doesn't work out, it's no big deal, the world has enough songs), but immediately counters that thought triumphantly, admitting that when a song does work out, "it's the best feeling in the world."
It takes Ritter a full pause to commit to being more of a songwriter than a musician. He says that, for now, music is his chosen medium, but were it not for his guitar, he'd certainly still be a writer (and is, in fact, now working on a novel, albeit very slowly). And as part of the legend-making among his fans, rumors circulate about his songwriting habits. Some say he never shaves his face while recording an album, and others say he never writes on the road.
The latter was once true, confirms Ritter, but it's a habit he's recently changed. "Leonard Cohen calls it 'blackening the pages,'" says Ritter. "I think that's partially true for me, but I also think that most of what happens in writing is the observing." The writer waits for the bucket to fill, he says, and then once the bucket runneth over, that's the actual writing part of the process. Ritter admits that he's not a very studious writer, preferring not to pen lyrics until he has something worthwhile to say. However, he says, he's realigned what he thought about writing, and for him, three quarters of the process is now about having his notebook at all times.
"If it's in the books you read or a movie you see, or something that's just a feeling," he says, "you have to be able to catch it and remember it so that when it comes time to throw all those things together it's more like a collision than a thought out process.
"I write down lots of stuff and some things are the little bits of sand, a little idea, that I form a pearl around, but other times it's like something will come all at once. And then other times I have something at night and I'll think that's the best song ever and then I wake up in the morning and it's just the worst song ever."
Those bits of sand around which he spins a pearl, judging from his assemblage of tunes ranging from forlorn love songs to political commentary, are carefully plucked granules cultured in Ritter's capable hands until a string of beauties is sent into orbit. Each song is its own world, complete with geographical references and colorful characters. For the artist, his songs are a way for him to pass himself off incognito.
"You can say everything that's in your head, and if it is in your head, you can at least hide behind the idea that maybe it's not you," he says. "It gives you the chance to be who you want to be for a few minutes."
As for what his fans glean from his often dense lyrics, Ritter jokes that from time to time, he's not sure he gets his own songs, saying that song interpretation is not only subjective but at the mercy of ever-changing variables like time and life experience.
"I think there are times when I've listened to songs by other people and I've understood them a deeper way than I ever did before," he says. "But it's almost like a window, and it closes at a certain point."
Five albums into his career, it's his skill with words that repeatedly pins him up with Bob Dylan (whose "Everybody Must Get Stoned" Ritter sang in a Mr. Moscow High School competition and is, to date, his only public performance with a harmonica) and Bruce Springsteen, for whom he recently performed in a tribute concert to The Boss at Carnegie Hall. In particular, last year's release, Animal Years, rife with songs of war and sacrifice, furthered the lyrical comparisons of Ritter to two of modern music's most legendary songwriters.
However, 2007's The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter is a very different star in the Northern sky than its predecessor. Of Animal Years, Ritter says he was interested in addressing larger questions at the time—like the war in Iraq—but that he's a different person now. Historical Conquests, says Ritter, is all about rocking.
"I decided I didn't want to write another scrupulously political record, even if it was one that I felt wasn't just a blunt instrument," explains Ritter. With Historical Conquests, he says, "I just wanted to have fun and rock a little. I've never really done that, and so far, they've been some of the most fun shows of my life."
Sat., Oct. 20, 1:30 p.m., FREE, Record Exchange, 1105 W. Idaho St.; Sat., Oct. 20,7 p.m., $20 advance/$23 door, Egyptian Theatre, 700 W. Main St., 208-345-0454. Tickets available at the box office.