Josh Ritter with David McMillin
May 15, 8:30 p.m.
$15 advance; $17 day of show
In the following interview, NUVO’s Greg Locke talks with Josh Ritter about reinventing his stage show, his Irish fanbase (and similarities between Indiana and Ireland), Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, the 9:30 Club and Modest Mouse. The interview goes swimmingly until they’re briefly but totally interrupted by a woman’s voice.
NUVO: Hi, Josh.
Josh Ritter: Totally. Hi.
NUVO: A friend of mine who sings in an indie-rock band tells me that you've been playing a Modest Mouse song at your shows. He's curious to know if you listen to very much indie-rock music, or if you stick mostly to roots music.
JR: Yeah, I slip "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" into my set. I don't really see that there's a different between indie rock and other stuff — it's just an aesthetic. Everybody is indie rock when they start out. I listen to a lot of stuff; I'm a Joanna Newsom fan, I'm a big fan of what Spoon does. I have increasingly more friends who are traveling and touring who make music that I like. That sort of thing with "roots" and "indie" and stuff, well, I think it's sort of, you know, just sort of categories. I love Isaac Brock, though, his lyrics are just amazing.
NUVO: You mentioned Joanna Newsom. I'm a big fan of hers as well, but even more so a fan of her boyfriend, Bill Callahan, who writes songs in the same sub-sub-sub-genre as you. Do you know his music at all?
JR: Yeah, I know it a little bit. I have some Smog records. I like a lot of it. I'm also a huge Will Oldham fan and stuff like that — I really like what he does. It all seems positive, you know, they're great musicians. It's cool to have peers who are doing exciting things.
NUVO: Is this current tour a solo tour or with a band … or maybe with Hilary Hahn?
JR: Full band. Yeah, I'm touring with the full band right now.
NUVO: So are you still out supporting your latest record, “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter,” or are you touring in support of the live album? Road-testing new songs?
JR: This tour is all about playing the places I haven't played that much. I've played Indianapolis a couple of times but, you know. I've been touring a long time now and, really, I'm just happy to be touring. I love the Music Mill and I love the town. It's gonna be a big, loud, happy rock ’n' roll show.
NUVO: Yeah, I was just going to say that it seems like you've been working really hard on the road. I have to wonder if you're getting bored with playing the new songs or if you're mixing in new songs or …
JR: You find the things that matter to you every night on stage. It sounds like a cheesy thing to say, but you can't make it a good show if you don't believe what you're saying in the moment you're saying it. You always have to find what it is that matters to you — why you're doing this. If you can't do that then you do get bored and start to feel like it doesn't matter. But it does matter; it matters to me every night. Switching our set up every night keeps the blood flowing. It's also about remembering that somebody took the time out of their day, you know, they took the time out of their busy life and put some money on the table to come see you play. That's such an amazing thing. Also, realizing that you're pretty lucky to be doing what you're doing. If you get bored playing your own music then that's your own fault; that means that you're not really putting the effort into making it interesting. It's a relationship, it demands time and effort, you know — and you have to love it.
NUVO: That's good stuff …
JR: Really? That makes sense? You get it?
NUVO: Yeah, totally. Makes perfect sense. I just picked up your first very album, which was just reissued …
JR: Which one?
NUVO: It's just called “Josh Ritter” …
JR: Yeah, that's it. That's the first one.
NUVO: Before buying it I knew that it was on file-sharing programs but I don't mess with those. Truthfully, since it was never released I just kind of figured that there was a reason for that, you know, being a first album recorded with no budget and all. It was just finally given a wide release, right? I have to say, though, that I really love …
JR: [Laughing] Thanks man!
NUVO: Sure. I'm curious …
JR: Really, thank you very much.
NUVO: Sure. I've been wondering — from the standpoint of an artist — what has changed for you from that album to the new one.
JR: I've never spent a lot of time in the studio. I've done a lot of touring and I've done a lot of writing, but the studio has never been the place where the great revelations come for me, you know. That's not the place where I'm turned on the most. Because of that I've had to learn slowly how to be comfortable in the studio. I've had to learn how to go for it, you know, with people looking through the glass at you. It's kind of like being photographed — it's a self conscious thing. That's the biggest thing that's changed for me from album to album, learning how to get comfortable enough to take chances. Getting more comfortable is something I've been really proud of. In terms of writing, each album has been different.
NUVO: This upcoming Indianapolis show will be my first time seeing you play, but I've definitely heard good things from my friends. I've also — same as most who know who you are — read a lot about the reaction you get in Ireland and how your songs are actually played on the radio, which is a big difference than here in the U.S. — not even specific to you, but in general, you know, just the music that gets played on commercial radio. I'm sure every interviewer asks you about the differences between playing in the U.S. and Ireland, but I have to ask: Are there Irish people in the U.S. that come out to your U.S. shows with the same fervor that you see in Ireland? Or even non-Irish people, really — do you see that excitement in the States?
JR: Ha. Yeah, uh … I really got started in Ireland. I learned how to perform over in Ireland, thanks to the good graces of The Frames. A tremendous band. Really, though, since I got started playing there I've learned that a good night in the world, anywhere in the world — be it the U.S. or Ireland — is the same. There could be more people or less people, but when it's really on you know it, and everything really kind of compresses itself. It becomes this kind of, you know, small room. You don't notice the size of the crowd, you're just noticing the connection you're having. It's a really great feeling. I play places in the States now that are as big as the places I play in Ireland, and I've noticed that on a good night anywhere in the world, no matter where I am, it kind of feels like I'm in Ireland — you know, because that's kind of where I first got a taste for performing. Irish people are everywhere, though, everywhere …
NUVO: On that note, and only really as an aside, Indiana has a similar landmass to Ireland and a large Irish population …
JR: Oh man, really? Do you mind if I bring that up at the show?
NUVO: Sure …
JR: Oh, man, that great. That's really a hit.
NUVO: Irish everywhere … The first time I ever really started paying attention to you was when I heard you mention Townes Van Zandt — who I'm a huge fan of — in one of your songs. From there I started to see press about you where people would say the joke-y stuff about you being the "New New Dylan." I've always been a fan of the original "New Dylans" like Loudon Wainwright III and John Prine. I don't know if all that "New" stuff is just something funny to bring up for writers or what, but it makes me wonder how you feel about hearing that kind of thing. Are Dylan and Townes the kind of artists you were listening to back in college or even before that?
JR: Dylan and Johnny Cash were the first two things that blew my mind. From there you can branch out in any direction and find everybody. Cash is the kind of guy who has this big black box full of things, you know, and he just pulls out song after song — and seemingly without any regard between his own and others. He was just one of the most generous singers, he wanted you to see cool stuff, you know, and I think that's an amazing thing. I get that same feeling when I listen to Jim James of My Morning Jacket; I get a generous feeling coming off of him. I think a lot of times there's just a spirit to that stuff, there's a spirit to somebody like Johnny Cash that you can see in other people. I always just believed that Johnny was an uncle that I never met, you know, he just gave me that feeling. I think people like Cash or Dylan or Townes or Prine or Springsteen are people who are still around because they invested their entire lives in their career. They became those people, you know, it took a long time. The idea of being the new Dylan or something is usually a compliment, but I don't think it's very aptly applied. The idea of that, though, is only applicable in the short term because Dylan is still around and writing new songs and redefining who he is. I just hope that in the course of a 40-year career I can become Josh Ritter. I always take that stuff as a compliment, but I don't believe it.
NUVO: There's a live CD/DVD combo that I've been seeing around, as well as a live CD. Is there anything coming up or that you're working on that you want to make note of?
JR: “Live at the 9:30 Club” was recently released at all independent record stores. It's eight live songs from a show at the 9:30 Club. Just like 1,200 people in this big, loud room — just really, really fun. Sometimes you just want to record a live record to just kind of catch flies and amber, you know, just a snapshot of some songs being played not how they are on the record, but how they are when you're out there throwing everything at them. That just came out last week actually, and I'm just very proud of that as a live album. This one is really special, I think. I'm really proud of it.
[Woman's voice interrupts briefly]
JR: Sorry about that.
NUVO: Do you have another interview you need to get to?
JR: Yeah … well, actually I've got a sound check to get to.
NUVO: OK. That's about all I had for you. Thanks for taking the time to do this …
JR: Sure. Totally. Thank you.