Gravity & Magic: Josh Ritter Interviewed (2010)
“The Prime Minister of Canada once asked Leonard Cohen where he went to get all his good songs, and he said, ‘well, if I knew, I’d go there more often,’” Josh Ritter relates.
As if he is a stranger to such a place. Voted one of the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters by Paste Magazine in 2006, Ritter is known for masterpieces ranging from perky love songs like “Kathleen” to “Thin Blue Flame,” a nine minute tour-de-force about faith in wartime. About to release his sixth studio album, So Runs the World Away (with his first novel, Bright’s Passage, arriving in 2011) Ritter still can’t say from whence his songs come: “All you can do is feed your monster and something will come back. You have no idea what, though. That’s the exciting part of writing, though. It can’t be formulized. There’s no recipe. All you know is you’re writing and you’re working hard on something and there’s no way to know what’s going to come out of it.”
It isn’t so much that Ritter has a process, he says, but “more of that I’ve come to learn, especially with this record, what to expect. The challenge with writing for anybody is to stay open. I mean that in a non-hippie-dippie way. You have to stay open to all the experiences that are out there and be willing to follow your interests wherever they take you. I do and I feel like at some points in time that’s really easy and at some times you have to step back and remind yourself what you’re doing and what your job is. Your job is to write and you better stay open to the things that are going to inspire you and to the experiences that might shape that. That means everything from turning off the tv and not letting your brain get fragmented into a million pieces by reality tv to being willing to just set the pencil down and take a walk and help somebody move a sofa. For me there’s so many different ways the songs come that it’s just a matter of staying open to the experience and writing that one thing down when it comes to you. An evening spent doing something totally unrelated is an evening where you get a lot done if one little phrase comes to you, one little idea,” Ritter affirms.
And there are plenty of big ideas on So Runs the World Away, an album wrestling with themes like gravity, migration, journeys into nowhere, and the orbital decay of stars. If it sounds too heavy, fear not, there are also mummies in love and extended locksmith metaphors. In short, just another opus for Ritter.
It is not, however, a repetition of what came before, especially not for Ritter himself: “Each record, for me to feel good about it, has to feel different, whether the differences are smaller than I think they are or larger. I have to feel like it’s a jump whether it’s my first record or second or whatever. And the hard part of recording a record this time around was waiting until I felt like there was something new, that I really did have something to offer that wasn’t like my earlier stuff.” This is no easy task, even — nay, especially — for a seasoned songwriter like Ritter who has already tipped his hand on so many songs. “You do develop a style no matter what you do to keep that from happening. You do develop a style and a set of preoccupations that people will start to attribute to you. That’s a little scary, but it’s also a byproduct of putting out five or six records. So Runs the World Away has elements of both of those records The Animal Years and The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter and why it took so long was I wanted it to have those elements but be something new. I wanted to stay away from politics. I wanted to get into the narrative, the fiction of things. I wanted to talk about science because I haven’t, really.”
Narratives and science come alive on this album in ways only alluded to on previous Ritter works. While he’s no stranger to the story-song (“The Temptation of Adam,” a song from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritterbeing a classic) So Runs the World Away brings tales that are fleshier and fuller than anything that came before. While “The Temptation of Adam” and So Runs the World Away‘s “The Curse” both detail love occurring under strange circumstances, “The Curse” is more engrossed in poetically chronicling the events of the song — in this case, a mummy waking to fall in love with a beautiful archaeologist. “He holds back a sigh as she touches his arm / She dusts off the bed where ’til now he’s been sleeping / And under miles of stone, the dried fig of his heart / Under scarab and bone starts back to its beating.”
Or take the story of the album’s first vocal track, “Change of Time” (recently featured on NBC’s “Parenthood”). “I had a dream last night” begins every stanza, most of which describe desolate moments lost at sea with the creatures of myth surrounding our lonely narrator. Are such epics the stuff of Ritter’s own dreams? He laughs at this question: “I have anxiety dreams where I can’t find my guitar capo and I have to play. That’s a terrible one. I have no pants on and I tell myself I can get by with no pants, but I can’t play without my capo.”
Just as quickly as Ritter details such dreams, he shifts into gravity lessons by way of describing “Orbital,” a song that asks “Who do you circle round /Who is it circles round you / Is it circles round you?” Ritter nonchalantly explains the science involved in writing this song: ” Orbital was one that I was working really hard on because it incorporated so many images on one hand. I got the idea because I was reading about the orbital decay of stars. So you have two stars. Gravity works in our lives everywhere, everything we do. Every single object has a gravitational field. We know what it does. We can’t measure it. We can’t see it. It emits nothing. But it’s just a thing that exists and it holds us down and holds everything together. So the only way to look at the force of gravity as a wave is to look at immense objects like two stars and they interact in such a way that their gravitational force is so huge that they emit a field of gravity, a wave of gravity that you can actually measure.
“Looking at it, it’s this wavering thing that these two stars sort of circle around each other and pull together and pull apart. I looked at that and thought, ‘Man, if ever there were a metaphor for love, that is it.’ That undefinable force there is something that pulls people together and pulls people apart and holds us together and can’t be measured but can see the effects, that’s it. And it got me thinking about things that orbit round each other and circle around each other, whether it’s a hawk circling around a rabbit or a hornet circling around it’s nest. They’re not always lovey-dovey images. Wave particle theory. Angels trying to find a spot on a pin. It’s one of those songs that’s really fun to write and really fun to sing because it’s an optimistic song and one about love and long-lasting love. But there’s no theory behind that. It just made sense. It felt right.”
Intuition — or “feeling right” — is important to Ritter’s work ethic and part of why he shuns the idea of an overtly conceptual record. “It’s not a concept record. I don’t like the idea of trying to write a song to fit something. I don’t trust the idea of getting pulled along to a song rather than you’re pulling a song along with you. I just like the idea of you get done with a record and whatever you’re obsessing about at that period of time, whether you know it or not, it’s there.”
He doesn’t deny that certain themes and fixations define each of his releases. “You record the record and only at the end do you see the preoccupations. They’re invisible to me before I get to the end, and I think that’s really good. I only understand what it’s about afterwards. With Hello Starling it was birds and windows they seemed to be everywhere. With Golden Age of Radio, it seemed to be about musicians who had died. With The Animal Years it was about God and politics and the war and a lot of violence. With this one, it’s about exploration and science and magic and how they work together and gravity and how close it is to love, you know. And how close migration is to the things we understand as humans. The migration of all kinds of animals. There’s a lot of the lonesome valley. There’s all kinds of things, the way they inter-work.”
The songs all inter-work under the album’s title, a phrase from Hamlet’s couplet “For some must watch while some must sleep / So runs the world away.” Ritter explains its significance: “That phrase is such a beautiful one and it describes so much, how you can watch the world go by at one point and then take part in it at another point and how you can kind of watch the stories happen and stand in the midst of them. And it also feels like something, it’s like watching a show. It’s such a perfect description of watching a play or watching a concert. There’s a tension in the scene which I really like. So much of the record has to do with natural laws as they were perceived at the times, whether it’s relativity or the golden ratio or exploration — it just feels like trying to make sense of the world with science that is not understood or feels like magic. It’s hard to explain but it all feels right with that title. It felt like it summed it up really well, as Shakespeare usually does. He’s got a career if he wants one.”
And so does Josh Ritter.