Josh Ritter – The New Album, The Current Tour and An Interview

On the heels of his latest album, Josh Ritter gave a superb performance at The Belly Up. Ritter has just released Gathering, his 9th studio album, and it further solidifies his prominence in the potentially elusive Americana genre. In addition to a clutch of live collections, Ritter has also released a handful of EPs.

A couple of the tracks from the new album were highlights at the Belly Up: “Showboat” and “Friendamine” showed up early in his setlist, as they do on the new album. Also well assayed were older tracks, with “Joy” a particular standout.

Josh Ritter, flanked by drummer Ray Rizzo and bassist Zack Hickman at the Belly Up. (photo by Brad Auerbach)

Josh Ritter flanked by guitarist Josh Kaufmand and keyboardist Sam Kassirer at the Belly Up. (photo by Brad Auerbach)

On the eve of Ritter’s departure for the next part of a lengthy tour we had a chance to discuss the genesis of the new album, his take on the evolving music business and his delight in the idea of a digital tip jar.

Josh Ritter

“The catalyst for each new album is a consistently a reaction to the one that came before,” explained Ritter. His prior release Sermon on the Rocks was Ritter’s very specific vision. The New York Times aptly namechecked Springsteen, Dylan and Knopfler as sonic touchpoints.

With Gathering Ritter told me he wanted “to keep working with my incredible band. There was a euphoric feel to the sessions. We shared lots of ideas. I wrote with the band’s contributions in mind, it was a collective effort.” Specifically, The Royal City Band is Zachariah Hickman (bass, acoustic guitar, Wurlitzer), Sam Kassirer (piano, organ, synthesizers, percussion), Josh Kaufman (guitar, synthesizer) and Ray Rizzo (drums, percussion). The band emanates from Ritter’s 2006 song “Thin Blue Flame.”

Ritter grew up in Idaho and credits his parents’ taste in music to opening doors for him beyond the narrow radio programming available to him. Dylan’s Nashville Skyline was a dam buster for Ritter. He nonetheless started his studies at Oberlin in neuroscience, but shifted gears rapidly. His self-created major was “American History Through Narrative Folk Music,” and he recorded his first album on campus. He began attending open mic gigs in Boston, where he “met a ton of musicians. I learned how to play in front of an audience.” Ritter also met Glen Hansard (he of the sorely underrated Irish band The Frames, who also found fame acting in “The Commitments” and co-creating the shimmering “Once”).

Hansard invited Ritter to Ireland as an opener. Of that time Ritter admits it was “A real love affair. I was able to play all kinds of places, whether with Glen or on my own. I made a real connection. It was an amazing time.”

Ritter later spent time living in Woodstock, an area which he called “mythic country.” Ritter wrote his prior album in Woodstock. I reminded him that the album cover to Nashville Skyline was shot in Woodstock, by Elliott Landy. Ritter was ecstatic about the connection.

Bob Dylan outside his Byrdcliffe home in Woodstock; the image became the cover of his monumental Nashville Skyline album.

I mentioned to Ritter I was particular enamored of the new album’s opening track, a short piece called “Shaker Love Song (Leah).”

That melody has been in my head for years, it is based on a Shaker hymn. I finally decided to record it exactly as it had been swimming in my head. A one minute scene-setter can be complete in itself. I think of ‘Her Majesty’ as a great example of that.”

Ritter’s reference to the cheeky Abbey Road album closer was the prefect segue to get his view on the evolving nature of the record business. Once Steve Jobs decoupled the album, allowing folks to buy all songs at 99 cents, it meant “Her Majesty” cost the same as “Stairway to Heaven.”

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.