Josh Ritter on Storytelling, Fiction Writing and Autobiography

Photo by Laura Wilson

Although Josh Ritter has spent nearly 15 years telling stories in song, he’s never been particularly interested in telling his story. That changed on Ritter’s latest release, “The Beast in Its Tracks,” a collection of songs more autobiographical than any he had released before as the singer and songwriter works through a wrenching divorce, meeting someone new and falling in love again.

“It started in a tough time and carried through to a really great time,” Ritter tells Listen, Dammit, on his way to Northampton for a performance Thursday, May 9, at the Calvin Theatre.

It’s just one of many facts we learned about Ritter, who revealed a new one last week after an interview, when he called out Messiah College on Facebook for an anti-gay stance. Ritter had been booked to play the Pennsylvania school before he knew that students there are required to sign a pledge asserting, among other things, that they won’t engage in “sinful practices” like homosexuality. Instead of canceling the gig, Ritter used it as an opportunity to talk about why he views Messiah’s policy as wrong. “I hope to have made the best of a difficult situation,” Ritter wrote, promising not to play at Messiah again while their anti-gay policy remains in place. “I’m donating the fee I received from Messiah College tonight in its entirety to The Trevor Project (thetrevorproject.org), the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.”

Here are three more facts about Ritter:

1. Ritter felt compelled to write personal songs for “The Beast in Its Tracks.” When his marriage to singer Dawn Landes fell apart in November 2010, writing about it seemed the a way for Ritter to be true to himself. “This was an important moment for me, it was a big moment in my life, and I felt like if I didn’t write about this I was betraying what it was to be a writer,” he says. “To get to this point in my career and not write about that, felt foolish.” He also tried not to censor what he was writing, which led to some raw moments.

“It was important to me to get all the different emotions, there was some anger and some spite and bitterness, and I wanted that in there,” he says. “It was important to have, but I also wanted to make sure there was stuff that was happy, because divorce can happen, and it can certainly come out and be for the best. It was in my case.”

2. Writing prose requires different headspace than writing songs. Ritter in 2011 published his first novel, “Bright’s Passage,” and he says writing the book occupied a different part of his mind. ” I consider them to be two different fields, and one is fallow while the other is kind of growing,” Ritter says. “I need to be able to empty out my head, you know? Like anybody else, I think, I need to be able to put it out in the street and let people take it away, and the book was certainly a new way to feel like I was doing that. I could go to sleep at night with an empty head.”

Although writing songs and writing books have a “performative aspect” in common, there’s a difference in terms of the immediacy with which audiences absorb them. “With a song, people are sitting or standing, you can see everybody’s faces, and you can see them change in the moment,” Ritter says. “With a book, the audience is sitting a long ways away, at the other end of the room. You can’t see them, but they’re there. . . . I’m really excited about this next one for that very reason: I feel like I know where the audience is now, I know where they’re sitting.”

3. Writing isn’t magic. Although he acknowledges the importance of inspiration, Ritter tries not to be ritualistic about how he writes. Instead, he focuses on the discipline required of the craft, whether he’s writing songs or fiction. “It’s a mistake to get too precious about where you write or when you write,” he says. “Unless you sit down every day and write, nothing happens. There’s so much more geography to cross.”

Josh Ritter performs with the Felice Brothers on Thursday, May 9, at the Calvin Theatre, 19 King St., Northampton. Tickets are  $38.50 and $28.50.

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