Why He Wanted His Record To Be Wild And Strange

14 October 2015 | 10:00 am | Steve Bell

"I've had this realisation over the last couple of years that our time is fleeting - we don't know how long we're going to be here."

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Talk about picking up the pieces. American singer-songwriter Josh Ritter's last album, The Beast In Its Tracks (2013), chronicled the horrible period post-divorce (or after the dissolution of any major relationship) where you desperately try to work out what went wrong. It was an exceedingly personal and presumably cathartic release of emotion, Ritter using his art to glean something positive out of the experience.

But here we are two years later and that album's follow-up - Ritter's eighth album, Sermon On The Rocks - is another beast altogether. It's a far more upbeat and (for the most part) joyous collection that seems completely lacking in artifice or introspection, a celebration of being alive filtered through an offhand examination of religious tropes and secular myths. Self-described by Ritter as "messianic oracular honky tonk", it's an affirming and infectious batch of songs that manages to be thought-provoking while making you want to hit the nearest bar.

"I'm in a far different place and some of that stuff is farther behind me, and I'm just really like having a great time."

"I'm so happy, just so happy about it," Ritter enthuses. "I feel really happy - I was really happy with the band, with the songs, the whole experience was just such a great time. I'm really psyched. I think I wanted a record that kinda jumped a bit. I wanted the sound to be brash and shred-y, it felt really good, and those sorts of songs are really fun to play. I wanted them to be exciting songs to play live as well, so in general I ended up with a pretty bouncy record which was really great - I'm really excited about that part."

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The record's entirely different tone to The Beast In Its Tracks suggests that it's indeed a reaction to its predecessor, and Ritter concurs that there's often such a relationship between a new album and the one that came before it.

"I think mostly, or at least often times, that's how it works," he explains. "There's a reaction from one record to the next - you're not exactly sure what path it's going to take, but you do know that the record's going to be different in some major way. I think this record is night and day compared to Beast. I'm in a far different place and some of that stuff is farther behind me, and I'm just really like having a great time. I think that definitely came out, and I'm happy that it's expressed in music."

Not only did Ritter surround himself with the bulk of his touring band The Royal City Band - Zacharia Hickman (bass), Joshua Kaufman (guitar) and Sam Kassirer (piano), augmented by The Walkmen's drummer Matt Barrick - but they all decamped to New Orleans to record Sermon On The Rocks, and it's hard not to assume that some of that city's famous joie de vivre seeped into the album.

"When you're touring you just get to spend a night wherever you are - sometimes even less than a night - and we've gone to New Orleans several times, and when I determined that I was going to make the record the way that I wanted to - I was going to make the record of my dreams - I really wanted to go to New Orleans," Ritter tells excitedly. "I really wanted to take the band down, I really wanted to take my family down and really have a good time. There's something about New Orleans that seems to really revel or glory in the stuff that's homemade: stuff like the food and the music. Just walking down the street you can hear some incredible, incredible bar band rocking out - you might never see them again or they might never have played together before - and I wasn't trying to make a tribute to New Orleans or anything like that but I really did want to swim in that blood stream a while. It's such a great town."

"There's something about New Orleans that seems to really revel or glory in the stuff that's homemade."

One always assumes that any artist is trying to make their best statement to date with any given project, but Ritter's reference to chasing the "record of his dreams" seems to imply some higher ambition than usual for Sermon On The Rocks. Why was he keen to make this one so special?

"I think that I've had this realisation over the last couple of years that our time is fleeting, we don't know how long we're going to be here, and there's no reason to hold back anything," the singer reflects. "There's just no reason for it, because it doesn't matter. I think that's what's really infused the determination on this record - I wanted it to be right, and I wanted it to be wild and strange and I think I wanted it for that reason. Otherwise anything could happen and I could lose my chance at making a record like that."

Usually that realisation that we're getting closer to the end of the ride ushers negative reactions, but Ritter seems to have put a positive spin on his impending mortality.

"I guess it just feels as if, 'What else do you deal with in songs every day except love and death and God?'" he smiles. "It's all right there, but the chance to work on something just for the pure joy of working on it is so great, that you realise that it's something you can't take for granted."

Ritter further tells that the secular thread running through the album was unintentional, and something that he only picked up after the event himself.

"I never work from a theme when I'm writing, and it's only when the songs are assembled do I start to realise what the preoccupations were in the songs," he explains. "So going back here I noticed how much there was about the Beatitudes - about the Sermon On The Mount and the Golden Rule - and I think these ideas have been so fetishised by thousands of years of use that we forget that they're real and human. They're ways that we humans can be good to one another, and I think I was struggling to put some warm blood back into those ideas without writing anything that was religious."

He managed to base Sermon On The Rocks around such reflections without becoming preachy - no mean feat - but what about Ritter's own relationship with religion? Does he consider himself to be spiritual?

"You know, I'm not sure - I've never known what 'spiritual' is," he ponders after a lengthy pause. "I know what 'religious' is, and I don't feel religious, but with spiritual I'm not sure. I guess that maybe I feel free to have wonder at whatever I want, and that feels great - I feel free to be generous in my judgments - but I don't chalk anything up to a God or an inner soul. I'm afraid of those things because I feel like they take our agency away from us because we can blame our choices on things that are external to us, when we can just reach out and help somebody who's crossing the street. So I guess I'm not religious, and I'm not sure I'm spiritual either, but I do believe in the capacity of humans to do good just as often as they do evil."

"I think I was struggling to put some warm blood back into those ideas without writing anything that was religious."

Taking a simplistic overview, it could indeed be argued that most religions at their core were developed all those centuries ago to facilitate that very stance in others.

"I was definitely raised religious and all of those stories are incredibly moving as symbols - as a common language in our culture that stuff is super important," Ritter concurs. "Certainly everything that anybody can do to any other human being is not in the Bible, so in that way I guess it could be a primer."

Ruminating on such matters in popular culture can be polarising, but that's no barrier because Ritter actually enjoys when people are critical about his songs.

"I think that's part of my job, and I really don't feel ever like someone who's a teacher through music - I hate it when people write instructive songs; those are the worst, they're just the worst," he rails. "And I don't like the people who do it, but I think that the job of writing is to face stuff to say what you're thinking. I've always been really impressed with the people I've met after shows or just in dialogue who are really not excited about the songs - they're usually still people who are decent and kind people, who just have a bone to pick. But I really feel that's part of my job. Plus that stuff is what interests me the most - if I was a writer of pure love songs I'd probably pay more attention to the other details that I don't notice now."

It's a canny knack to be thought-provoking without shoving your views down other people's throats.

"No, nobody likes that," Ritter agrees. "Especially in music - it's supposed to be entertainment. I certainly listen to my favourite artists because I like to be entertained, I never go to them for wisdom."

Ritter's adroit songwriting makes the process seem elegant and almost effortless, but he explains that in actuality it's more akin to receiving a gift from above.

"God only sneezes once in a while so you gotta be ready."

"I heard this Italian writer once - her name is Oriana Fallaci, she's a journalist who was in Lebanon - and she said that 'Poems are God sneezing,' and I think that's kinda how it feels," he chuckles. "You have your equipment - you have your guitar or piano or whatever, and you have your pen and paper - and you can sit there forever, but God only sneezes once in a while so you gotta be ready.

"So most of the time when you're working you're just sitting there just strumming through stuff that you already know, or little bits and pieces of things, but then once in a while there's that sneeze from God - or whatever it is that you call God - and you get the song. That's how it goes, and it's an amazing feeling - it's the best feeling in the world when you finish a song and grab a beer, it's great.

"There's a flow and an editing and a creative process to writing a song, and for me writing the lyrics is super fast and kinda unconscious - it's not like I can call anything 'work' but I certainly wouldn't call the music side of it work, except I think that I think about it a little bit more. There are specific objects that I want to try - like I want to write a bridge - and that's something I don't think about when I'm writing lyrics. So I'd say that I spend a little bit more time on the music, because the lyrics tend to come of their own volition."

A few years ago Ritter joined the literary ranks with the release of his debut novel, Bright's Passage (2011), which further highlighted his way with words. Does he enjoy playing around with language?

"Always," he offers without hesitation. "You just have to know when to stop - it's not right until it's right, you know? With both of those mediums I think in that way it's really similar - there's a right way which is the way that makes you happy, and then there's a wrong way which is the way that makes you satisfied. It's funny, some days it's completely feverish and then others I just look at the dog all day."

And now that the new album is out it's time to think about the touring part of the cycle. Last time Ritter toured Down Under was back in 2012 alongside Simone Felice - given how great the Sermon On The Rocks tracks should come across in the live realm, can we expect him to return any time soon?

"Absolutely, I know they're working on it, wherever they are," he laughs. "Someone out there is working on it. I'm really excited to come back, our visits have been totally great. It's a beautiful place to visit and so much fun - I'm particularly looking forward to going back to Adelaide to check out those enormous blue-tongue lizards walking down the street, I was amazed the first time then really happy they were still there the next. I've had a great time in Australia - I loved it - and I can't wait to come back."

Check out theMusic.com.au's video premiere of The Stone (Acoustic) here.