Photo courtesy of Tough Love
Indie singer Josh Ritter talks about writing, composing, and performing. [27:58]
Josh Ritter reading from Bright's Passage:
Henry's mother taught him how to take care of the rabbits and chickens that they kept in a hutch near the chestnut tree. In the late summer, the two of them would eat apples and then push the cores through the fencing and sit watching as the two species shared the remainders decorously with one another. In the morning, the hens liked to lay their eggs in the warmth of the rabbits who had been sleeping, and they would squabble and squawk the rabbits out of their beds. This always made his mother laugh no matter how many times she saw it, and when he heard her laugh, it would make Henry laugh too. The garden patch would be thick with vegetables and when she gave him-- The garden patch would be thick with vegetables, and when she gave him haircuts, she would keep the hair and show him how to tie it up into little bundles, which they would hang from the fence posts around the garden to keep the deer away from the vegetables. He would pick runner beans and bring them to her, and she would put them in jars and boil the jars, and then put them on the shelf for the winter. When they would get to the tomatoes before the birds did, they would preserve those too, but not before they ate some with eggs and bread.
Jo Reed: That's singer/songwriter Josh Ritter, reading from novel, Bright's Passage.
Girl in the War up and hot
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how Art Works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
Singer/ songwriter Josh Ritter is an indy favorite with six albums under his belt. His last cd is the powerful and evocative, So Runs the World Away. Because, he is a musical story-teller with songs that sing like short stories it was perhaps only a question of time before he would turn to writing novels himself. But the premise of his first novelBright's Passage was not nearly as predictable. Henry Bright was raised in a West Virginia cabin by a mother who scratches out a meager living. Sent to the senseless carnage of the First World War, he returns home followed by an angel. Now this angel had saved Henry's life a few times during the war, but once Henry returns to these shores, the angel's advice is often less than stellar. The angel has led Henry to antagonize an unstable relative and his sadistic sons who are now out for revenge. Henry sets out to escape the wrath of his kin depending upon the often dubious advice of his angel to guide him to safety. This is a story about memory, luck, and the war that soldiers often carry home with them. And it's written with the lyricism we've come to expect from Josh Ritter. Whether he's composing songs or novels. I spoke with him in New York City and asked him to tell me what inspired Bright's Passage.
Josh Ritter: Well, I think the two things that really inspired it were the look in the eye that I couldn't get out of my head of a man almost-- the kind of look in the eye that someone would have if they were sitting at a kitchen table putting together a jigsaw puzzle late at night. And whether they solved it or whether they didn't, no one would be there to notice. And the other thing that inspired it was kind of a long going and an ambivalent relationship with the idea of angels.
Jo Reed: Well, I was going to bring that up later, but as long as you brought it up now, let's go with it. Yes. You're a wonderful, wonderful songwriter and performer, and angels are woven through many of your songs.
Josh Ritter: Yeah. Yeah, they are. And I did not realize that. I never really thought about it until I was close to finishing this book. And usually I think that's good, the themes and your preoccupations and obsessions come out only later, which is I think how it should be. You should never write-- I feel you got to-- to be fully immersed in it, you have to just write and then figure out later what's going on. And angels are something I've been thinking about for a while, and I think what almost fascinates me about them, whether it's real or not is not so important to me as the idea that when they show up, they tell you not to be afraid, but their advent into your situation is always the marker of something about to go terribly awry. For instance, Mary, they're minding her own business, this young girl, and then an angel comes and says, "Fear not, but you're also going to have a baby out of wedlock and it's going to be the future King of Heaven, and generations will call you blessed." And that would be something probably a little bit unsettling for a young girl to hear. You know, the Angel of Death. All these different angels that come and speak with absolute conviction about everything, but at the same time the consequences of their commandments are always fairly dubious.
Jo Reed: I have to say, I am not religious at all, but I have a real fondness for Michael the Archangel, or is sort of keeper of the wind. That's his element. And whenever there's a hurricane, I always think of him.
Josh Ritter: Uh-huh. Yeah. There's something really beautiful about-- and I feel somewhat the same way. I'd say that whatever it is, there seems to be a special and lasting place in our minds for angels. And I love that. For instance, there's Gabriel, who would come, and is traditionally given the role of talking to Mary, is also the one who talked to Mohammad and related the Koran to him and told him to start to write. That's an amazing kind of confluence of traditions. They're really amazing creatures. And in Henry Bright's life, whether Henry Bright is a truly religious person or not, or whether he's just a guy-- whether the angel is real, the angel that has home and inhabited his horse, is talking to him, whether that angel is real or whether it's just his mind trying to put the world back together is something that I was really, really amazed and excited to write about.
Jo Reed: It's interesting, because this is exactly what I wrote. I wrote, "It's interesting because I didn't know if this angel was magical realism, that device, or a symptom of Henry's breaking down, or if the angel existed," and it simply didn't matter to me.
Josh Ritter: Thank you. The main thing I wanted to ever stay away from was trying to clarify who the angel was. And I believe that most books that I read, most stories that I love, most songs that I really love, always leaves some room for the person that's taking part in it. Not every question should be answered. There's a great book that I love called by Stephen King called The Colorado Kid, which is just a beautiful mystery, and I won't spoil it, but the questions are more important than the answers in the same way that when you're writing a song or singing a song or recording music, leaving out some harmonies so that other people can sing. Everybody likes to sing along, so don't fill in all the harmonies and don't give all the answers. So whether the angel is real or not is one of the central parts of this, this book, and maybe best not answered.
Jo Reed: You're a storyteller. Your songs tell stories. What did it mean to move from the short form of a song, the music is telling the story as well-- to telling a story just with words, but in a longer form?
Josh Ritter: Right. Well, the essential, the rhythm of something is there, and the language, and the rhythm of a voice is there in prose as well. I found it be less of an enormous switch than I think people would assume. It was, it felt very natural to me. I've always felt that songs a thin partition holding back a lot of water, and they bulge outwards with that, with a story behind them. And the secret and the beauty of a good song is that it gives you a little bit of the idea of the weight of the world behind, but that the world back there is for each of us to imagine in our own minds. Something like "Famous Blue Raincoat," by Leonard Cohen, it's like a novel by moonlight. You see touches of the details, but the rest is there for you to imagine. So writing-- going from a song to writing this novel was basically trying to add more detail, more skin, more blood onto the bones of what was already there. And it was really a lot of fun. But it was an act of imagination, which is always just really exciting and an adventure to be a part of, you know, to do.
Jo Reed: Was this ever going to be a song?
Josh Ritter: It started as a song, in fact, and it started as a song about a guy that gets fickle and usually unimportant commandments from an angel. "Go wash your car." And he doesn't know whether that's an angel talking or what, and he doesn't know why the angel's telling him to wash his car. He asks for an answer and he doesn't get it, and he's not sure if he's being fit into a divine plan or just hearing a voice. And I thought, "Wow, I have no place for this song right now." I just finished my record, So Runs the World Away, I was thinking, "Well, it's going to be a while before I record again," and who knows if it will even fit then? And I was just sitting there wondering what to do with this song. And so I started to write. I'd been thinking for a while, "Man, "The River" by Bruce Springsteen is a song that is a novel. It's all there." And I said it several times in interviews, like I was an expert. And then I started to write, and I looked at the song and I thought, "Well, I'm just going to turn this into a novel. I'm going to go for it. I'm really going to go for it. I'm going to give it the time it really deserves."
Jo Reed: Well, Henry has such an interesting relationship with his angel. It's kind of cantankerous. I don't want to say he always does what the angel wants him to do, though he often does, but he fights back a lot, and yells at the angel, like, "What do you want me to do this for? How does this make sense?"
Josh Ritter: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. I sort of thought of the angel and of Henry as a kind of a Laurel and Hardy in the woods. These two basically clueless people who mean well, but very rarely get anything done, and if they get something done, it's by mistake, and I like that. And I think that these two, Henry Bright and the angel, represent confusion-- absolute confusion. The angel thinks that he knows everything, and Bright basically admits that he knows nothing, and is often is willing to be led, even though he knows that things may not work out quite right. Does that make sense?
Jo Reed: Yeah, it does make sense. Tell me why World Word I. One could argue you could put Henry in any war, because that's what war is-- it really is madness. Why that period most particularly?
Josh Ritter: It started actually on the road. I've always thought if you're a reader and a writer, you have the chance to read whatever you want and just follow whatever interests you have for no reason, and that's just the most—it was a great freedom. But my band and I started this thing-- we're all readers in the band, real rock-and-roll types, and I started reading this book called The Proud Tower, by Barbara Tuchman. And it's about the 25 years leading up to the eve of the First World War. She leaves the book off on the eve of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. And it blew my mind. I realized how little I knew about the First World War. What an amazing moment it was when suddenly, during these 25 years, we had decided as a human species, we had figured out time, we'd figured out science, we'd figured out health and religion and a theory of the races and class, and all these things that were figured out and nailed to the wall and done. And then the First World War happened, and we were suddenly cast adrift in a nightmarish new place that no one had ever been in before. We started the First World War with horses and we ended with planes and poison gas and whole new ideas of what a nation could be. And I began to read more and more. And then I started to read the autobiographies of soldiers who came back British, Canadian, American soldiers who came back and talked about their experiences. It was one of the first times that normal lower middle-class or lower-class people were writing, were writing about stuff. And they had a lot of things to say that were not in military history books. And it was just a fascinating and incredible time of reading. And as I was reading, Henry Bright's character started to fall into place a little bit.
Jo Reed: It's not a linear story. Or perhaps it is, but there's a lot of going back. It's almost there are three trajectories. There's Henry as a child; there's Henry in France; and then there's present-day Henry.
Josh Ritter: Yeah. I was dissatisfied with a straight-through narrative, because when is our life ever like that? Henry's memories are real scenes in this book, and they don't always add up to anything but a memory, but they're still important for who he is, and that he's not just some kind of rube.
Jo Reed: But what I liked about it as well because of course our memories are always with us. I mean, there they are. You might not see it, but there it is sort of like the angel.
Josh Ritter: Yeah, right. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
Jo Reed: Henry's remembering the war it reminded me of Wilfred Owens' poetry.
Josh Ritter: Oh, yeah.
Jo Reed: Just so visceral.
Josh Ritter: One of the things that I was really, really touched by and impressed by was the beauty with which people wrote about these experiences. There was a book by a man named William Orpen. He wrote a book called An Onlooker in France, and he was a sketch artist, a British sketch artist, who was given free rein to walk and travel through the war, and sketch people. And he was in trenches, and he was a beautiful artist, but his writing was just so gorgeous, and he'd notice the little things, the things you can't read about in textbooks about the war. These things were not about leaders or generals; they were about the way the dirt clotted, or the way the bunkers were built, or just being able to look up in the sky and see nothing, and how important that was to people. And I just thought that those moments are so poetic that the only thing you can do is just put them down, put down-- and hope that the poetry comes out of the thing itself and not the description.
Jo Reed: There's also a scene in which a particularly horrific thing happens at a farmhouse that you allude to, other soldiers talk about it, we see somebody looking at it, and we see Henry's response to it, but you never tell us what it is, which I liked. Because, A, obviously it engages our imagination as well, and then there's a way in which you can only imagine, in the midst of all this horror that they take for granted, how horrible something must be for them to see it as horrible.
Josh Ritter: Yes. Yeah, in a war. Yeah. I've always loved writing that gives me credit for my own imagination, and I think that one of the-- there's a few places where that's really, really great. I think writing about sex, for instance, is way better when you can imagine some of it yourself, and the same with most violence, or anything that is truly, truly, stupendously horrifying is much better if it leaves me room for the horror to be what I imagine to be the scariest thing.
Jo Reed: It's almost as though what you want to do is describe the shadow of it.
Josh Ritter: Yes. Yeah.
Jo Reed: And leave the details to the reader.
Josh Ritter: Yes. And I tried writing things that-- and a lot of this book-- this first novel was such a-- it was such a learning process, and a lot of it was realizing how often that the extra detail is the thing that can tear down the rest of it, and leaving out that extra thing can be just so exciting.
Jo Reed: Is that true too for writing songs?
Josh Ritter: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: Drawing it in a little bit.
Josh Ritter: Definitely. Concision I just think that concision in songs or in almost any writing that I can think of concision is the key. There's so much that can be said, but really letting other people have room to fill in….For instance, not going into great detail about describing a character so that you can give somebody the ability to imagine their own character. I definitely imagine what Henry Bright looks like, but I never wanted to describe who he looked at, and I just think to me, that makes sense. But songs and novel, in my limited experience with novel writing and my larger experience with writing songs, is no matter how long or short a song is, every single word matters, and that's where the fun and the frustration sometimes comes in, you know?
Jo Reed: Well, let me ask you, since you've written Bright's Passage, do you find that you read differently?
Josh Ritter: Absolutely. I always figured that I was a fairly omnivorous reader, everything from Harlequin to the Bible, whatever is in front of you: Who knows what will come out of it? I've always felt like reading is the only way that I get ideas, one of the most major ways for me to get ideas for writing songs and otherwise. And I've always picked up books hoping that something will come out of it. But yeah, writing this book has made me realize that there is some stuff that is just so bad that it's not going to help me to put it in my mind. Just like there is some food that is delicious and you don't mind eating it sometimes, but if you try to survive on a diet of it, you'd pass out eventually.
Jo Reed: I think of some books as are being like beer, which is. I'm on an airplane, I'm waiting for something, I'm at the dentist's office, and I pick it up, I like it, and I will never think about it again. And that's what I mean, it's like beer. It tastes real good going down; it goes right through you.
Josh Ritter: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Jo Reed: Does not stay at all.
Josh Ritter: Yeah. It's fine. I would never be one of those people to say, "This book is bad. This"-- that there's some sort of hierarchy of literature. There's just stuff <inaudible>.
Jo Reed: No, because sometimes you just want a beer.
Josh Ritter: Yeah exactly. And sometimes you just-- sometimes you love a book just because you were able to finish it. You know what I mean? It was that you somehow conquered the book. There are books like that for me. Or what makes you want to go back and read a book over and over.
Jo Reed: Do you reread?
Josh Ritter: Absolutely. Yeah.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I do too. I'm always rereading.
Josh Ritter: Master and Margarita, The Shining, The Paperboy by Pete Dexter, those are all books that I'm really excited to read over and over again. Why they come back in your mind is such an interesting thing.
Jo Reed: Now, when you first went off to college, you were like the science guy.
Josh Ritter: Yes.
Jo Reed: What happened? What was the pop?
Josh Ritter: The big pop…There was a spiritual gnawing, but then the large break came with organic chemistry, and I realized that even if I had wanted to be a scientist, that it was not going to happen. <laughs>
Jo Reed: I've been there.
Josh Ritter: Yeah. Maybe if I'd really wanted to, I would have been able to pass organic chemistry. But I really made my peace with it. I mean, science and art and religion. I think they're just engines for asking questions, and the beauty and the joy of what we're here on earth trying to do is ask questions. Even science will admit that if we were to ask Science right now that 99 percent of the time is still not all the time, and so no question can always be answered definitively, and that's a beautiful thing to relax into, to give up all your totally strongly held convictions and just learn a little bit while you're around.
Jo Reed: You grew up in Moscow, Idaho, and the city's motto is "Heart of the Arts." Is it?
Josh Ritter: Well, yeah, I would like to think of us as the Paris of America, but there's other people that wouldn't agree. But I do think it is the heart of the arts in our area. I grew up in an amazing place. It's the origins of the Appaloosa horse and chickpeas and lentils and wheat, and forestry and fishing and all this amazing landscape there. And I was really lucky to grow up there. It's a beautiful place.
Jo Reed: And lots of arts?
Josh Ritter: Yes. Yeah. And the great thing about that type of art where you're in the middle of farmland and mountains, and there's a long ways to a big city, is that you have to make your own. And my brother and I are both very lucky that we lived way out of town, and we only had two TV channels, one that came on at eight in the morning and the other that went off at twelve at night, and we had to make up our own entertainment, and that's where that stuff gets really great. I mean, I've seen some really pretty astounding theater by people in my hometown who just love doing it. And I think that it's incredible, if you really want to entertain yourself, to do it yourself. And that's why I think I'm a writer.
Jo Reed: Your last CD, So Runs the World Away, you said it took it took you almost two years, and that it was a really difficult work. What was going on?
Josh Ritter: Well, I'd moved from Idaho to New York, which was one thing, it was a painful move in some ways, and difficult. Just the amount of garbage trucks going outside my house at three in the morning. It was like they had parades out there---just that alone. I'm used to hearing nothing out there. And so that was one thing, but then there was also-- after five records, I'd gotten to this point when I thought-- it was almost a crisis of confidence. I thought, "Well, I feel like I've written about most things that-- and where's my new thing to say? Where it is?" And I was getting really worried about it, and I was writing a lot, but none of it felt good. And it wasn't writer's block so much as a crisis of confidence in what I was writing about and was saying, and how was it different and how was it important to me in any way. And then I hit on the idea that while I've been writing a lot of stories, I've never allowed something truly terrible to happen to any of my characters in these songs. Things happened but-- and sometimes they were bad-- but something not terrible. And so I started writing songs like "Folk Bloodbath," where I killed everybody off.
Folk Bloodbath up and hot
Josh Ritter: All these different characters from folk songs-- I brought them all together, and each one of them killed each other. And it was fun to write that stuff, and then-- or a mummy that falls in love with an archeologist and they become cursed. Or a guy that loves his ship and has to burn it down in the Arctic to stay alive. And that was when it kind of clicked in for me that all these-- that's when this novel came out-- was that I realized things have to happen, to go awry, for there to be a real story, and I have to be as happy killing my characters as I am having them alive. And I've had some good days killing off characters. I've been chipper afterwards, so.
Jo Reed: New York does that people.
Josh Ritter: Totally. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Jo Reed: Now, Bright's Passage. Were you writing this simultaneously with working on the CD?
Josh Ritter: It was in my mind, but I had started it just as I'd finished the CD. But the tap was still on and I was still writing, so I just sort of switched over the medium. And I was on the road. I went on the road at this time, and I was with my band, and would get up in the morning on the bus; I would put on my headphones; I would listen to Radiohead, and I would write for an hour and a half a day or so.
Jo Reed: So Radiohead was your personal soundtrack that you wrote to?
Josh Ritter: Kid A, yeah. Kid A. Yeah. Great record. So good.
Jo Reed: There are obvious differences between performing and writing---solitary, public. But can you talk about moving from one to the other?
Josh Ritter: Sure, yeah. Well, I think that a lot of times I think the little adrenaline shot I get that keeps me going is the chance to kind of whip the sheet off the statue, and that's what performance is, playing shows every day. And the show whoever's coming to your show in whatever town you're in, what you've been doing with your time since the last time you saw them, and what you've been doing with the money they paid to come to a show, or the money they paid to buy a record. And that's the trust you have, and it is performance that's very real every day to day. With a book, it's different. It's related. It's still performance, it's just performance that you're working really hard on for one show. It's all coming down to this one show. And somebody sits down, they take the book to the beach, they read the book in an afternoon or a couple afternoons, and that was the show. And you have to hope that you're spending their time really, really making it good, because you can't necessarily go back and give them the same story with improvements.
Jo Reed: Well, that's the thing that's so interesting, I would think, because, okay, so I have the book, and you're not there when I go and I've heard you perform, and I love watching you perform. You look like you're having a blast up there, which is great to see. But when I have the book, you have no idea what my response is, whereas as a performer of course you know how to read an audience.
Josh Ritter: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And you can change up your set list, you can do-- you can stop in the middle of the song if you feel like you need to. But, yeah, with a book it's far different. And I guess that one of the things that really propelled me into doing this for the first time was a feeling of I wanted to take some more chances in my writing, and no matter what, I feel that if you get too comfortable doing one thing, if you cleave to it too much, it can stunt you as a person. I always think that it's interesting with outlaws, like Wild West outlaws, there's always one thing that they're good at. I like those-- the outlaw gangs, the robber guys. There's always one guy that's only really good at doing the safe. And then there's the British guy, and he's really good at talking and gambling. And then there's the guy who's the sharpshooter, or the guy who's the drinker, or one guy's good with his fists. But they're always only good at one thing. To me, that's when you start to make the wrong decisions in your life, when you start to cleave yourself to one thing. And that to me is why I really wanted to write. I really wanted to be nervous about something-- really nervous about something. And I was really nervous about it.
Jo Reed: Josh Ritter, thank you so much for giving me your time.
Josh Ritter: Thank you so much for having me here. This was awesome.
Jo Reed: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was singer/songwriter Josh Ritter, we were talking about his novelBright's Passage, which recently came out in paperback.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from “Girl in the War” by Josh Ritter from his cd Animal Years.
Excerpts from “Folk Bloodbath” by Josh Ritter from his cd
Excerpts from “Come and Find Me” by Josh Ritter from his cd The Golden Age of Radio
Excerpts from “Folk Bloodbath” from his cd, SO RUNS THE WORLD AWAY.
All used courtesy of Pytheas Recordings.
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Next week, we talk about Edgar Allan Poe with mystery writer, Laura Lippman.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.