Josh Ritter – American songwriter, novelist, near-neuroscientist – likes to run. “It’s the perfect exercise for me,” he says. For one thing, it’s portable: all you need is a pair of sneakers and you can run anywhere; especially to get away from the confines of a tour bus. There’s also a little bit of pain involved, which he doesn’t mind: he’s run three marathons. That was until the time running almost killed him a few years ago.
One morning, after a slightly over-exuberant workout, he woke up sore. Soon he was having trouble getting dressed; a few days later, he noticed his muscles beginning to swell, literally like the Incredible Hulk. His alarmed partner Haley [Tanner, a novelist] rushed him to hospital – “notwithstanding I was looking pretty damn good,” Ritter wrote, tongue in cheek, in a blog post from 2012.
It was, if you’ll pardon the pun, a close-run thing: Ritter’s kidneys couldn’t cope with what was, in effect, a meltdown of muscle fibre into his bloodstream. He spent days in hospital on a saline drip, paying the price for his driven nature. “Running keeps me alert and excited and kind of hungry,” he says, “[But] I think I realised I had a bit of a problem. I really paid the price.”
Ritter, 38, doesn’t do things by halves. His albums and songs, though not excessively long, are epic in scope. So are his ambitions. For his eighth album, Sermon On The Rocks, he wrote: “I wanted to make something grand. I wanted it to swing hard. I wanted to peek through death’s keyhole. I wanted my monster to run. I wanted to sing songs that I had written in stretches of frenzy.” (There’s more, but you get the idea.)
Did he get there? “I think I got it on this one. Everything was there; the wildness … The songs were high adventure; how I felt was big romance, and I wanted the whole thing to have that. Sometimes the most pristine playing is not the stuff that gives you chills, so I wanted that messiness. My goals were really high, but I felt that they were achievable if I opened the door and let all the crazy out.”
Ritter is a songwriter in the grand American folk tradition: a student of Dylan and Springsteen and Leonard Cohen, as well as contemporaries like Nick Cave. He writes “rock & roll with a lot of words”, tumbling over with metaphors. “I like a good rich set of symbols, those are really important to me,” he says. “Somehow a good story is either about God or love or death, and the best ones kind of have all of that.”
He was born in Moscow, Idaho, a small college town of less than 20,000 people in desert country. He says he grew up “way out of town, on the edge of a mountain”, where he had to learn to entertain himself. He got lost, both in the surrounding countryside and in books about dragons, as well as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. “I had a pretty rich fantasy life when I was that age.”
His was no backwoods upbringing, though. Ritter’s parents were neuroscientists who taught at Washington State University, across the border. “I grew up thinking that being a scientist was the best thing in the world. It was such a beautiful and noble quest to throw yourself up against things that are unknown, and slowly and methodically pull on the thread of that tapestry until it all comes apart.”
Ritter initially wanted to follow them, moving to Oberlin, Ohio to study neuroscience himself, until the songs he was writing began to pull him away. In some respects, he realised, his job was the same: songs are like a riddle to be solved. He ended up completing a self-styled major, “American history through narrative folk music”, and made his first, self-titled album at a recording studio on campus in 1997.
Later, he moved to Scotland for six months. “There was so much music that came to the States from Scotland and Ireland and England, and I wanted to get closer to the American music that I loved.” Tellingly, one of his early musical loves was the Pogues. “Their records are like a wolfhound ripping a rabbit, they’re ferocious. Even the slow songs – Fairytale In New York is just brutal.”
He soon found himself a solid audience in Ireland, going from playing to 20 people at open-mic nights to halls of 600 after being spotted by Glen Hansard, of Irish band the Frames (as well as the Commitments). “Their verbal technology is 10 years ahead of us. They have the best jokes, and they have the best words for things, and they’re the harshest [critics], they’re going to keep you real.”
Since then, Ritter has released a further seven albums, and while his sales are relatively modest, his prolific output, devoted fan base and heavy touring have seen him build a sustainable and growing career. He’s also had good success licensing his songs, both to commercial chains such as Starbucks, and to advertising and TV shows.
He considers himself a songwriter ahead of a storyteller, but nonetheless he is compelled by narrative. “I really do move towards stories. I feel like I need their little twists, for a lot of songs. When I hear a song like [Leonard Cohen’s] Famous Blue Raincoat or Where The Wild Roses Grow [Nick Cave], it makes me antsy and jealous.”
Often, his songs are tinged with fantasy elements, a throwback to his early life, where he made up stories to keep himself amused: The Curse (from his 2010 album, So Runs The World Away), is the story of a mummy who falls in love with an archaeologist. Another song from the same album, Another New World, sees an Arctic expeditioner chop up his own ship for firewood to keep warm.
Eventually, inevitably, one of his songs couldn’t be contained. It spilled into a novel, Bright’s Passage, the story of a Great War veteran who hears voices. Reviewing the novel in the New York Times, Stephen King – an avowed fan of Ritter’s music – asks himself whether he would have recommended publishing the book, were its author unknown. He concludes: “It’s a question I’m glad I never had to answer.”
To be fair, King also praises Ritter’s gift, saying that at its best, the novel recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime, and urges a follow-up (which Ritter is working on). But he knows that there is a greater power in compressing his big ideas into smaller spaces, and Sermon On The Rocks sees him paring his songcraft back into simpler, more digestible shapes. “Make it portable,” he says – that word again. “Any saying or epigram, those things that we remember are the smallest, most concise things.”
Writing Bright’s Passage renewed Ritter’s belief in his craft, which he clearly took into the making of Sermon On The Rocks. “I didn’t need permission to be a writer, I was writing all the time, but for some reason that was something that I took out of it, that I wasn’t expecting, and it made me feel really good about writing songs. … Also, I became better at killing off characters.”
Ritter has also become the father of a daughter, Beatrix. It’s forced him to change his work habits for the better, writing in shorter bursts. “It used to be I could moon around for about 12 hours and feel like I hadn’t got anything done. Now at the end of the day I’ve written something and I can put a pin in it, even if it’s just a few lines.”
He’s also started running again – but not in the way that he used to, a reflection of a more relaxed approach to his work. “The marathon isn’t interesting any more,” he says. “There’s no magnum opus for me. If I have a time in my writing when I feel like, this is it – that I will do no better or nothing will come of this, I guess that means I’ve achieved my goal, my marathon.
“But I don’t want that. I want every day to be different, and I want every day to have the potential of doing something great. Haley said the other day, it’s easy to give yourself the goal of running a marathon, but it’s harder to make yourself run four miles every day. So that’s my new goal. I don’t need to run any more marathons.”
First published in Spectrum (The Age/The Sydney Morning Herald), 24 October 2015