Josh Ritter's Heartbreak Hotel

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Josh Ritter’s New Album Chronicles His Recent Emotional Travails. By Brian Wise. 

Last year, 36-year-old American singer-songwriter Ritter was part of a terrific double bill with Simon Felice at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne. Later voted by Off The Record listeners as their club gig of the year, it was a joyous occasion with Ritter joining Felice’s encore on a brace of cover songs.

“I love that venue,” he recalls. “It was great. I remember I had the flu so bad I was hallucinating but I think that always makes for a better show.”

What I didn’t realise at the time was, that despite the onstage bonhomie, Ritter had just gone through a divorce and had recorded an album based on the experience.

The Beast In Its Tracks chronicles Ritter’s emotional travails but it is not necessarily entirely autobiographical.

“One of the big problems about autobiographical writing and one of the lines you walk,” he explains, “is how far do you let people into your own room and how far you let them imagine the thing for themselves. All heartbreak feels fairly similar and if you describe it right people can relate to it.”

I mention that I have been recently reading Sylvie Simmons biography of Leonard Cohen, a songwriter who not only wrote about his relationships but also did not even bother to disguise the names of his lovers.

“I can certainly relate to the Leonard Cohen thing,” says Ritter. “Songs like ‘Alexandra Leaving’ or ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ have a real powerful resonance with me, even though they are songs with names in it that are his – he can do that. I personally think that getting in relationships and breaking up with people and then publicising that as just another song doesn’t feel right.”

“This is an album about a really intense experience but I don’t want it to just be an album about me,” he adds. “These are songs that are about heartbreak and about your heart getting put back together again. That’s something that I want everybody to be able to experience in one way or another and I hope that they relate to this album through that and not by thinking about me.”

“I’m happy for the first time in a long time,” sings Ritter on ‘A Certain Light’ and it certainly sounds like when I recently spoke to him on the phone from his home in New York.

Ritter sound remarkably happy and relaxed, as if the latest album’s concerns are now a world away. He has lived in Brooklyn for the past four years and says he has just learned how to order coffee, recalling what a great ‘coffee town’ Melbourne has become. He laughs when I tell him some of our terms. “I’ll try that out next time I order,” he says when I suggest that he asks for a flat white.

Ritter talks easily about the personal turmoil he has gone through and says, “I was married and then divorced within about a year and a half. It was pretty rough.”

“It was the inspiration for the album,” he says of the experience but adds, “I don’t like writing autobiographical stuff – I don’t trust the motives often. I also find that it isn’t as interesting as just casting a wider net and writing about the world that you see. It sounds like glancing in a mirror.

“But that experience was such a profound one that it affected me at the time so completely that I felt like I had to write about it. That was the only thing that was concerning me at the time. To not write about it about would have been to miss the chance to write about this most important moment.”

Despite the fact that there is a song called ‘Hopeful’ on the new album, it is not necessarily reflective of the title.

“I thought it sounded like super spiky and fun but the words in it go from real intense bitterness to happiness. There is another song called ‘Nightmares’ that is almost cheerful sounding but the words are terrifying – which I love. Writing those songs was the only thing that was really fun for me.”

One of the key songs on The Beast is ‘Evil Eye’ and the Fine Art edition of the album includes an evil eye chart, inspired by a visit to a Voodoo shop in New Orleans.

“It felt like much more power than I felt like I had at the time,” he explains. “That I had this spell that I could do this. I don’t believe in that stuff but I do believe that I didn’t have any power at that moment, that I had been robbed of it and didn’t know how to get it back. That is one of the worst things about heartbreak: you find out that you don’t have the superpowers that you thought you had.”

I mention that this is similar to Richard Thompson’s approach to many of his so-called love songs. “Yes,” agrees Ritter. “There’s always a sting in the tail.”

Though the album is titled The Beast In Its Tracks, Ritter says that titles always come to him at the end of his recording projects. He says that the latest title sounds like Milton or Dryden and has some sort of mystical connotation to him.

Along with being an acclaimed songwriter Ritter is also a published author with his last novel, Bright’s Passage now an audio book for which he has done the reading.

“There’s another one I’m working really hard on right now,” he replies when I ask if another novel is on the way. “So far it feels really good.”

The Beast In Its Tracks is available now through Warner Music.

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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