Josh Ritter's Conquests

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By: Chris Campbell

Josh Ritter
When I first heard Josh Ritter's new record The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (released August 21 by Sony) I was left nearly speechless. It was the first record in probably a decade that nailed me at the core. It was part Bob Dylan circa Highway 61 Revisited, part Brian Wilson and part Nick Drake, yet it was completely fresh and original - sprawling, loud, angry, despondent, depressing, uplifting, heartfelt and just about every other emotion. I had the same feeling in my gut the first time I heard Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run and Richard Buckner's Devotion & Doubt.

After a few months of absorbing this masterpiece, nothing has changed. Every time I listen, I find something new - an outstanding line, a startling musical progression. One song proves impossible not to sing while walking down the street, while another causes me to pause and ponder something existential. I can't remember the last time I experienced a piece of art – be it music, literature or film - that elicited so much in me. I fully realize this may sound like hyperbole but after months of letting this record seep into me I can say with certainty that this feeling isn't going away anytime soon.

On a beautiful San Francisco day in late October, JamBase had the opportunity to sit down with Ritter prior to his performance at Bimbo's 365 Club. As the band got ready inside, Ritter and I sat on his tour bus to talk. His demeanor immediately put me at ease, and his sense of humor and appreciation for his fans only enhanced my appreciation for his art.

JamBase: Let's hear your thoughts on the new record.

Josh Ritter: I had it in my head that when I made The Animal Years that I'd want to make a totally different record after that. That was partially because a record you make that has a specific motive in your own mind you can't really do it over again. You don't want to make that same record by mistake. So, when it came time to make Conquest I had to take my hands off the wheel and make a record that was fun. It wasn't about explaining anything to myself. As it turns out, I [usually] look back and say, "This is something that I could've held onto a little harder." Like I didn't hold onto the idea hard enough. This was the first record where I felt like everything was set up - from working with Sam [Kassirer, producer and keyboardist on Conquest], to the place we recorded, to the situation I was in at the time - to make a record that was my own idea. It was all mine.

JamBase: And you were in-between labels at the time, right?

Josh Ritter: I was in-between labels. I felt like I had nothing to prove. I had written as complex as I wanted to do on The Animal Years. I felt like I could just go and write.

JamBase: Would you call this a concept album?

Josh Ritter: I try and stay away from concept albums. In a lot of ways, they harness a song to an idea rather than an idea to a song. I feel like, well, this is my country record, but maybe it would've been something else if you hadn't forced it into that situation. On each record, themes pop up that surprise me. Each record has images that come to the front. On Hello Starling, it was all windows. The last record [The Animal Years] was Southern Illinois. This record, I think about those pictures of the fool on tarot cards. He's kind of walking along the edge of a cliff. He's reaching for something. You don't know if he's at the edge of the cliff, if he's walking along it or if he's just going to careen. I think a lot of the stuff on this record is that moment [where] a fight's about to start, you're about to fall in love, you're about to press the button. It's the immediacy that I really wanted to have. It's not so much a concept [as] some symbols that came out, like a political record. Records don't have to be political consciously to be about the politics of the time. We write about what we see, what's happening around us.

I read that you mentioned writers such as Paul Auster and Raymond Carver, as well as Christopher Hitchens and Thomas Ricks as influences. How do writers of fiction versus writers of current events influence you?

Josh Ritter by Doug Rice
Every idea we put in our head influences us. I don't think I've picked up a book in ten years without hoping that it wouldn't push me towards a song. If you're pouring in ingredients you're going to make something. Sitting down and writing a song about [Thomas E.] Ricks' Fiasco [The American Military Adventure in Iraq] would be kind of backwards for me. You have to pour it out and mix that in with whatever else. It works best if you don't lend yourself into a specific style or genre. You move all over and all those things mix up.

Switching gears, I saw you on YouTube at the Springsteen tribute. I then read that you met Springsteen that night. Was this the first time that you met?

Yeah. It was right as I was about to go on and someone put their hand on my shoulder. I was freaking because Patti Smith was about to go on. And Carnegie Hall was amazing. It was just a pleasure to meet him. I really don't feel like I have to meet any of the people I love like that. How do you like the new Springsteen record?

I'm mixed. I love "Terry's Song" but I need to listen to the album more.

He's certainly never made himself into a coffee table gig.

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